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Pottering into Paraguay

My journey to Asuncion began six weeks before I got there. Starting in Buenos Aires, I bussed down Argentina’s Atlantic coast, and then back up the other way – along its border with Chile. I stuck, mostly, to the towns I wanted to sleep in and the sights I wanted to marvel at. I sojourned into Uruguay and Chile, and pondered the politics of going to the Falkland Islands or the explorer’s tenacity of rounding Cape Horn; but Paraguay seemed difficult.
My guidebook had little information on it, and I didn’t find any travellers who had been there or were interested in going. I knew both why I wanted to go (a desire to experience as much of the world as possible), and why few others did (it paled in comparison with Rio, Buenos Aires, and Cuzco). As I travelled I carried this relatively small, landlocked country with me.

I only added knowledge to my aim once I got to Salta, northwest Argentina. There, I found a company that went in the right direction; but their buses only travelled as far as Clorinda, a worryingly isolated town on the Argentine/Paraguayan border. The ticket office in Salta claimed taxis would be there for me to continue my journey.

The bus was only half-full. Few went the whole 18-hour distance, most just jumped-on or hopped-off in their towns and villages, often over large puddles. The bus persevered along a bumpy, straight road in a downpour that lashed us from all sides but couldn’t extinguish a small forest fire caused by lightning. The early hours brought the condensation dripping down my neck.

The promised people were loitering around the bus stop. There was one taxi driver, an organiser, and a car between them; a money changer waved currency in my face. Through my pidgin Spanish I understood that ten pesos (at the time, a dollar was worth three pesos) would get me to the border. From there, I could get another taxi to Asuncion. I duly swapped five dollars for some guaranis oiled through passage between many hands, and shoved my backpack into the waiting car. I spent the ten minutes of the journey extracting as much information about the border controls as possible.

Lorries lined the entry to the checkpoint. I gave my driver a 100% tip for not ripping-me-off (an annoying tendency among Argentine taxis) and tried to understand as he pointed-out the windows (one Argentine, one Paraguayan) under which I needed to stick my passport. I got both stamps, but only after a long inspection from the Paraguayans.

The drivers for my next journey were already buzzing around me. After negotiation, I took the seventy-peso price, and used the urinals. The begging toilet attendant who came rushing out after me was incredulous, but amused, when I only proffered a quarter of a peso.

My driver was around fifty, grey-haired, and portly. His car was patched-up and gloomy inside. As he hardly spoke, I concentrated on observation. The earth was red and the foliage an amalgam of lush, bright green leaves and dark brown wood interspersed by ramshackle huts and nibbling animals. The car continued to drift along the long, quiet road until we got to Asuncion’s ramshackle, traffic-ridden, outskirts.

I reacted to Asuncion with paranoia. I was unsure of where not to go, and wary of displaying my camera. This only passed through contact with others – experience of a place is often defined by the relationships that one does, or does not, have.

I was smiled at by a lady who sold me a ball of maize and spicy chicken, endowed with knowledge of the best bars and told where to find a recommended Korean market. By the river I was pulled aside by a navy officer who chatted about the land-locked Paraguayan navy. This contact removed my timidity. It allowed me to feel safe wandering around the bumpy streets and pleasant squares while imagining the heyday of the colonial architecture and what had passed for government in the white, colonnaded presidential palace.  Asuncion is quaint, run-down, and moist. Its emaciated economy, however, meant that I became a business opportunity on my way out.

I had been let in without any requirements, but on the way back to the border a roadside cop invented some. His associate stopped my taxi, inspected my bags, and pointed to a small building. Once inside, the imaginative policeman produced a folder with photocopied documents and picked one about vaccinations. He said I needed it and would have to go back to Asuncion to get it. I protested. He flicked through my passport, pressured me some more, and offered a solution in a language I easily understood: dollars.  My greenbacks thus got me back to comparatively un-green Argentina. 

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