Entry 50 -Paraguay: international rejects, toilet city, more meat, a town called Jesus

fat chance

A few days at Iguazu falls gives you a feel for the average waterfall tourist. And, unless you are an average waterfall tourist yourself, you're unlikely to unlikely to enjoy their company overmuch. The AWT is oldish, North American (or North American Aspirant) and seems determined to videotape their every waking waterfall moment. They are also, to a tourist, in varying stages of terminal chubbiness; my heart went out their hearts, pumping away beneath all those pounds. Their heft is reflected in the signeage around the waterfall. Warnings such as "This path involves 39 steps - are you sure that won't kill you?" predominate. Indeed, on one side of the waterfall there was an elevator to spare the truly obese the indignity of waddling up the rather less than hundred metre climb from the top to the bottom. Sadly, it was closed due to a landslide, meaning that, as we watched, some fatties were no discovering the extreme sport of walking uphill.

All this rather leaves you in the mood to get away from it all. Luckily away from it all is not far. For the third country at the triple border zone is Paraguay. Yes, that's right - for anyone who thought Uruguay was, well, a bit of a mainstream destination, here's Paraguay. Sort of like Uruguay. Without beaches. Or money. Out of the South American countries of any size (i.e. not the three tiny ones atop Brazil nobody can remember) Paraguay scores lowest on tourism receipts. Interestingly Bolivia is a very close second, which is rather peculiar as Bolivia makes Peru look rubbish. Obviously Peru has better marketing people.

Paraguay not?

In fact, a lot of tourists do go to Paraguay. Or rather, they go to one very small bit of it, the bit directly opposite Foz do Iguazu on the Parana river, Ciudad del Este, or City of the East. This is something of a shame because to enter Paraguay though Ciudad del Este is to enter the country through its arsehole. CDE was built in the late 1950s to house those working on the Itapu dam. As a result, it has some fine stack-a-prole socialist housing, most of which has mildewed delightfully in the tropical heat. Later, when the dam had been built, the city's raison d'
e effectively disappeared; unfortunately, the place itself did not. So the Paraguayan government decided to turn CDE into the duty free centre of the continent. As a result, CDE is a great place to get a cheap car stereo and a truly awful place to do anything else.

If you want to go to Paraguay, pretty much every hotel in Foz will run a tour where you are driven across the bridge, you get dropped off, you buy your car sterero (participating briefly in Paraguay's "infomal economy") then you are driven back. If you want to do this independently, well, you can hire a car (in Brazil), drive across the bridge, buy your stereo, then drive back. But, if you want to leave CDE....well, everyone looks at you like "What the hell is wrong - are cheap car stereos not good enough for you?"

People in developing countries love to diss their neighbours: "Oooh...that Paraguay...it ain't arf awful, I could tell you some stories...you don't wanna go there..." By the time we'd got to the international bridge we had been assured that we'd be mugged, raped, robbed and shot while we were crossing the bridge. And the other side the corrupt police would arrest us and stomp us senseless. But, although bridge is pretty grotty and there's a lot of nasty traffic, nobody mugged us. I suspect they were all far to busy carrying back cheap stereos.

international rejects

So, thus far, no big deal. But then we went to immigration and were told we couldn't come in. I was hurt, stung. Eighteen countries and no problems and then we'd been rejected. Rejected by Paraguay! Rejected by a country that really should be crying out for tourists like me! We were, we subsequently discovered rejected because we didn't have argie exit visas. And the reason we didn't have these is because Argentine immigration officials do whatever they happen to feel like doing on the day. Presumably several days ago, they had not felt like issuing exit stamps.

Still, where there's a wallet, there's a way and $20 later and we had a spanking pair of Paraguayan transit visas, valid for 72 hours. We headed out into the pissing rain and tropical squalor of Ciudad del Este. I have to hand it to CDE: if you're going to be a shithole, you've really got to be the best damn dump you can be. And CDE could give some Indonesian cities a run for their money. Traffic, dirt, poverty, pollution - wow, I was right back in the skankiest parts of South East Asia. I would like to say this masks the real CDE, a place of considerable charm, but alas, it is simply South America's biggest toilet and we left as soon as we had some Paraguayan money.

Out of the East

Predictably enough, the second you are out of CDE, you hit the real Paraguay. And, on its western flank, at least, Paraguay is one great big farm. Indeed, the main road, for a good 20km from CDE is lined with all sorts of exciting tractor shops. It is like being in the American Midwest without the commercial roadside garbarge. This illusion is furthered by the appearance of blonde people, which is as surprising as seeing black people after the racial homogeneity of Argentina.

After a while, the countryside starts to roll agreeably and Paraguay looks like England, with the odd palm tree and virtually no people, the only real difference being that huge, strange looking grain elevators dot the landscape. Really, were it not for these peculiar metal tanks - which look incongrous, like newly landed spaceships - you could be at any point in the last 500 years. Paraguay also smells great - damp, steamy and tropical. You can practically smell the stuff growing. Few countries smell this good - the Philippines is one and the rural parts of Indonesia come close. Indeed, the olfactory sense is reckoned to the most evocative one and, I have often thought that countries should make more of the fact that they smell good: 'Come to Nepal - it smells better than India' and so on.

Eventually, after an unnecessarily interminable bus ride through a country which is about as bucolic as it is possible to get, we stopped at a place called Trinidad. From the importance this was afforded on maps, I had expected some sort of minor metropolis; it was more like two dozen houses. Thanks to the bus, we were late for lunch but found a man who sold empanadas. His name was Hermin and his extraordinary roundness attested to a deep and abiding love of his own product.

meat the locals

After Brazil, it was a relief to be back in a Spanish speaking country, so we shot the breeze for a while with Hermin who warned us about the evils of vegetarianism. His wife, he said, was a veggie and, while she may not have been evil, she was certainly pretty surly. Then Hermin focused his attentions on Jane. She, he said, clearly didn't eat enough meat. He described her as "Flacca" which roughly translates into scrawny. Hermin patted his paunch again and smiled broadly: clearly there was no dearth of meat in his diet.

We had come to Trinidad, itself a religious sounding town to check out the town of Jesus. Jesus may not be as amusingly named as the town of Mianus in Massachusetts, but it's certainly worth a 600km round trip to see. The reason for all this God is that Paraguay was settled largely by Jesuit missionaries. Indeed, Paraguay is one of the very few places in the world where missionaries are still actively proselytising. I always think it must be pretty tough being a missionary these days: there just aren't that many savages who haven't heard the word. Equally it must being pretty awful being a heathen: at any given time, there are probably twenty missionaries trying to bore you into Christianity.

Hard by where the bus had dropped us off there was a taxi rank. Well there was a sign that said taxi rank and a single taxi by it. What luck! And the driver was willing to take us the 20km to Jesus for 2, as long as we didn't mind sharing the cab with five other people. His car was spectacular: entirely lacking any sort of ignition, it had to be push started each and every time; it had no plates; no apparent suspension; and its petrol tank was a plastic bottle. The car would probably have been very dangerous, had it been able to move any faster than 40km/h. Luckily Paraguayan roads, most of which are made in a fashion the Romans would recognise ensure that most car crashes are soporific affairs that all involved can walk away from.

welcome to Jesus

Jesus itself is no great shakes. But it does show you how underdeveloped Paraguay is. Like everyone lives in a house that would be considered hick in South East Asia. I mean, it's cute and everything, but it looks like a place almost entirely untouched by the 21st century. Or, for that matter, the 20th.

At Jesus (as well as taking plenty of pictures of road signs) we also looked around a ruined mission. Ex Peru, South America doesn't have much in the way of ruins and, I have to say, this wasn't at all bad. Built out of red sandstone, strong and foursquare, it reminded me of the ruined abbeys in the north of England, although the palm trees rather gave the lie to this. After this came another, rather better mission which had five (!) other tourists in it: an American couple who, I suspect, may have been Jesuits themselves, a pair of Swiss girls and a strange (and possibly angry) loner. Again, but for the heat, we could have been in Northumbria.

your best mate

Interestingly, also like the English, the Paraguayans love their tea. My God, do they love it; they make us look like part timers when it comes to drinking the stuff. Well, strictly speaking it's not tea, but something called Mate. Basically Mate looks like marijuana or oregano and tastes a little like green tea. You fill a vessel (traditionally a gourd or horn) with the stuff and pour on water. You then sip your mate though a silver straw. The whole ensemble looks a bit like opium smoking equipment This is a sociable drink (though one with no narcotic effect) and it is often passed around, with people pouring more hot water one as they go. There is enough mate in one cup to ensure that the taste stays strong for a session. What is extraordinary, though is the ubiquity of the stuff. People walk down the street drinking mate, they drive motorbikes drinking mate; they sit on the beach drinking mate. Every Paraguayan will own a gourd, a straw and a thermos to carry hot water around in. As the crappy pun goes, in Paraguay you really are never without your mate.

para gone

And then it was time to go. Paraguay para una dia. Of course unless you are talking about a country like Monaco, you get little sense of a country in a day and I felt rather bad, having not done the place any sort of justice. Shame. It really was rather pleasant and I'd missed all the good bits. The endless thorn forest of the Gran Chaco, the wildlife of the Panatal, the river journeys and the faded, tatty 19th Century idealism of the capital, Asuncion. There is also often a rather charming sort of innocence about countries which receive as few tourists as this one. I would like to say that I'll be back. But let's face it, that's not very likely is it?

March 3 , 2003