Para que?? ParaGUAY!!

Trip Start Aug 09, 2006
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Flag of Paraguay  ,
Sunday, April 20, 2008

[In advance, sorry about the no pix.  Will hope to upload some soon, but the truth is I didn`t take a whole lot.  Pretty much relying on whatever friends have emailed me.]
 
I`m in Argentina now, but this entry wont have anything to do with Argentina.  So am cheating and predating this, putting it in the Paraguay spot.  So last time I wrote I was about to enter Paraguay.  Border was a piece of cake, although they were interested in every page of my passport for some reason.  Lots of guns on the Paraguayan side.  Bus got searched for a while and the driver got in some trouble for some reason.  Paraguay has some pretty easy import tariffs and laws, so stuff is constantly being run across the border into Argentina or Brazil where its sold at much higher prices.  Which pisses off the merchants there, so just recently they`ve started cracking down a bit.  But just a bit.  The border towns are full of contraband.  Ciudad del Este is the most well known place in South America for contraband.  Whole city is one big market it seems like.  But that's later...
 
One thing cool about crossing the Paranà River into Paraguay is the 2 hour time gain!  So you be in Argentina, travel east into Paraguay, and gain two hours.  Strange.  Later on (couple days ago), crossing back into Argentina, only was a one hour difference so something must have happened.  One thing about the time is that since the country has a reputation as a bit shady, you don`t want to be out alone when its dark.  But it gets dark so early that's not realistic.  Good thing is the sun gets you up at 5:30am no problem.  As I would see in other places, the bus stations are a little less official looking here.  Everybody hawking everything under the sun.  The money in Paraguay is ridiculous.  The smaller bills are in the worst shape you`ve ever seen, taped together in all kinds of places, you think they`ll disintegrate in your pocket. 
 
Went to a boring Chaco War museum, then off to more Jesuit ruins!  First Paraguayan bus experience.  ¨Comun¨ buses are super old, look like death, lost the shock pads 30 years ago, and are full of smells and things that squawk.  And unless you`re a woman over 60, you must be prepared to make a running-boarding.  I think they`re afraid it`ll die if it stops.  Few big differences between these sites and those in Argentina.  First off, there is no information whatsoever about the sites.  Just an overhead map (not to take, of course).  Good luck researching on your own.  Next is, these ruins were more recently made (in some cases, only started) than the ones in Argentina - just a few years before the Jesuits got the boot.  And restored quite a bit.  They are in much MUCH better condition than in Argentina.  Over here requires a little less imagination to picture the place, but I like the atmosphere over there better.  But since a lot of the structures are up, you can climb on them, which is fun.  First site was the Trinidad site.  Then was walking to the Jesus site (not far away) when a guy flagged me down, happened to be an off duty bus driver, and I headed in with him.  Strangest bus I`ve ever been in.  Colors, curtains, lawn chair driver`s seat, and caused a racket.  Guy got it just two weeks ago.  It's a ´71.  His old bus was a ´61.  Geez.  Both sites had the same layout as all the ones in Argentina.  After seeing what there was to see, headed back to Encarnacion, the Paraguayan border town.  Haha, I have to read my travel journal to get reminded of stuff that happened and I just read, ¨You ever stare at your bed, see black things jumping around & other things crawling out from under the sheets, say screw it & crawl in anyway?  I have.  I`m in Paraguay!¨
 
Things change on this side of the border, but the biggest surprise?  The presidential election is in a month!  April 20!  And I could be here for it!  (Which means you have to read about Paraguayan politics and history - sorry!)  Feel free to skip wayyy ahead...to the ***.  That would be Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, where I`ve witnessed presidential elections.  And as it would turn out, Paraguay`s would be the one I was most interested in.   Theres a lot that goes into that...first off is the corruption that happens here is unreal.  Only rivaled by Africa.  Theres so many mind boggling facts and stats about Paraguay that you don`t know where to start.  We`ll start with the fact that the Colorado Party has ruled for 61 years straight, including the 35 year Stroessner dictatorship (second in America`s history behind Castro).  After the dictatorship?  Hey lets keep on voting in the same party!  And 90% of the budget goes to salaries.  The Colorado Party basically owns government workers.  Anyway, you know Paraguay held a special place with me already, but when I learned the candidates stories, it became an election just as intriguing to follow as the American one.  So right now, the prez is Nicanor Duarte Frutos.  You can serve only one term and its for 5 years.  As every corrupt leader does, once they`re in power, they try to change the rules to stay in power longer (see Mugabe, Zimbabwe).  But he was denied, by congress I suppose.  So he basically hand picked who would be ¨his¨ next Colorado Party candidate.  A woman named Blanca.  Problem was, in the primaries, people voted for the other guy.  Everybody knows it was a fixed election, they rant about it, but theres nothing to be done.  The opponent, Castiglioni, was/is furious, refused to honor the results and says he will always declare himself the winner.  Blanca was declared the official winner.  So there were three major candidates, Blanca being one.  Largely thought of as just a puppet for Nicanor, the current prez.  Giving you the paradox, that if you wanted change (no more Colorados), you could not vote for the first woman president.
 
Candidate number 2:  Lugo, a Catholic bishop.  All the liberal parties decided to band together to form the Alliance for Change Party in order to unseat the Colorados.  Their candidate is Lugo.  But you can`t be a bishop and hold public office at the same time.  So he quit being a bishop.  What?  You can`t do that, just ¨quit¨ being bishop!  So he said oh well, I`m running anyway.  Which brought ire from the gov, and threats of ex-communication from the church.  But he stuck to it and decided to run for prez.  Mainly on a platform of helping the poor and of renegotiating the contract with Brazil over Itaipu.  (May remember that huge dam I went to last trip?  Between Brazil and Paraguay, near Iguaçu falls, and the Binational corporation running it is called Itaipu, as is the dam.  The contract made in 73 and valid for fifty years states that all of Paraguay`s excess energy must be sold to Brazil.  Obviously with only one suitor, its sold well below market value, which is the problem Paraguay has with the contract.  But Itaipu and Brazil have stated they were not willing to renegotiate.  Lugo has threatened to go to world court).  All the posters against him say stuff like ¨He lied to the Church, he`ll lie to you!¨ or ¨The pope doesn`t accept him, neither should you!¨.
 
Last but not least:  Lino Oviedo.  The most bizarre of them all.  Just spent a few years in prison for a coup attempt.  Was supposed to be 10 but was let out on parole for good behavior.  Was army chief in 1996 when threatened to take over the government.  But didn`t actually do it because was promised a position in the Ministry.  But that was reneged.  Decided to run for prez in 98, got the support of the Colorado party, but was sentenced, mid-race, for the 96 stuff.  His VP mate, Cubas, ran instead, won, then freed Oviedo from jail.  Supreme Court ruled you can`t do that and right before getting impeached, Cubas resigned.  Nobody`s left in line for prez!  Wrong, Cubas` VP was a guy named Argaña (who had lost the primary to Oviedo), who because of all the craziness had risen to the ranks of president.  But Argaña was a big rival of Oviedo, and before he could take office, was assassinated with Oviedo putting the hit out.  At this point, everything is madness and Oviedo and Cubas are exiled to Brazil and Argentina.  The guy who actually DID take over the presidency was later arrested on fraud and embezellment charges.  Oviedo came back in 2004, was arrested, and here we are.  Complete scumbag, but the smoothest talker of the current candidates and very convincing.  Running under some other party he invented.
 
And nobody in Argentina or Brazil has any idea that all this is going on right now.  This was a super interesting election to follow, if you ask me.  As I write this, we have a winner, and I was lucky enough to come back to Asuncion for it.  There were maybe 2 televised debates.  I don`t remember about Brazil, but in Argentina, Cristina Kirchner refused to debate her candidates because she was gonna coast to victory anyways.
 
*** 
 
After leaving Encarnacion, went to San Ignacio Guazu, just to see what there was to see.  A pretty normal non-descript town.  On the weekend apparently there are cool folk/rodeo/dance festivals.  Most interesting thing I did was go to a ¨Memory¨ gallery dedicated to all those tortured and murdered during Stroessner`s regime.  Stroessner, Pinochet, and the Argentina Dirty War, all happened in the same time period.  Real crappy time to be a South American.  Was something called Operation Condor and all the countrys cooperated clandestinely with each other in repression.  Anyway, kid and mom who ran the gallery, which was full of old newspaper articles, was stoked that I was interested in learning about it.  His grandpa and uncle were gone.  The whole thing is just really interesting, depressing, and personal.  Mind you, Stroessner was in power until 1989!  Then peacefully retired in Brasilia until he died of old age a couple years ago!  I think you have to learn about this stuff to understand part of why Americans aren't loved down here.  All these regimes were backed up by the U.S.  Stability over Communism...
 
Next, went to Asuncion, the capital.  Got bored of being the history-traveller (go through stages...) at this point.  Heat was crazy here.  Checked out some of the city sites..Pantheon de los Heroes.  One of those heros, Francisco Solano Lopez, led the country into annilhation in the Triple Alliance War.  Another ¨hero¨ was the first ruler, and dictator, who, when he died (naturally), was so well loved by the people that they chopped him into pieces and fed him to alligators.  True story.  Both appear on the money.  Why?  Stroessner rewrote history to portray them as heroes and patriots.  There are examples of the economic gap all throughout South America, but the extremeness really comes out in Asuncion.  The huge nice legislature building with nice windows and pillar, is right across the street from cardboard-home-garbage-bag-roofed slums.  And a lot of them.  I mean, the congressmen could play soccer with these people.  Its startling to see right in front of you.  Mercedes next to horse drawn carts.  Shirtless kids and sickly dogs hanging out on the capital lawn.  Yet year after year, Paraguay ranks among the worst in poverty.
 
Did a few other things....flamenco show...Manzana de Casas...Recoleta...The tourist office in town just recommended me places where NOT to go.  Saw a movie and the theater was so old, the sound static so loud, I had to read the Spanish subtitles to follow along.  I had all these plans to go to surrounding areas of historical significance, but like I said, got bored of history during this stretch, and scrapped all those plans.  In the early 1900s there was a war in the north of Paraguay.  Area is called the Chaco.  Extremely inhospitable.  But petrol was supposedly there, so Bolivia and Paraguay fought over it, with Exxon(? - I forget) and Shell backing up the two countries.  Paraguay won, and no oil was ever found.  Point is, they used guinea pigs as passenger pigeons, and Guaranì like we used the Navaho Code back home.  Guaranì is a pretty cool language to listen too.  I learned some words, but not much else.  Yellow Fever has struck Paraguay for the first time in a long time.  Right at the bus station are free vaccinations.  And I wanted to go into the Chaco, but it was rainy season through March and they say not to go because transport gets tricky.  Understatement.  The torrential pours were so bad for 40 days, making the sandy-dirt roads impassable.  Which kept food from arriving to the people that lived there.  25 died of starvation. 
 
To get away from the whole history thing, decided to go to a National Park.  In Ybycuì.  One rickety bus after another.  The time schedule for buses to/from the park from town make it difficult to organize a trip for yourself.  One of the billion times I thought how nice it would be to travel Paraguay by bike & tent, or with your own car.  In the park is the continent`s first iron foundry - they actually had to make their own coal from the wood in the forest.  Throughout history, the country actually shows sparks of potential (The first Lopez, mid-1800s was great.  And the land is super rich and fertile in the south), but atrocious leaders ruin it all.  Anway, the foundry ruins are there, place got demolished during the Triple Alliance War.  The area is beautiful, part of the extended ancient Atlantic Rain Forest coming all the way from the coast in Brazil.  Gorgeous blue butterflies, massive spiderwebs with gigantic scary looking killer spiders.  I walked into 4 or so.  Later asked a park ranger, who said the spiders are no joke.  He said nobody really walks the trails which is why I found so many webs.  Park is full of waterfalls, lots of fun, and nice relaxing.  Rangers also had no idea where I was from.  A running theme for the whole South American trip.  Nobody ever guesses correctly where I`m from.  First I have a Brazilian Spanish accent.  Then, its Argentine.  Then they go on the tall-gringo looks and say Germany or France.  Thought about spending the night in the park, the Ranger`s have a spot where I could sleep, but I had no food and there is none to be found there.  Made it back to town.  Where I found out that, because of Semana Santa (Easter Week, roughly) everything is shut down, even buses.  So I stayed in Ybycuì like 3 more days.  Made it out to the park again.  Of course, NOW, it was super overcrowded.  Big holiday.  And I got poured on.  And lost when I wandered off the trail.
 
Anyway, walking back to town, got picked up by a couple in a pickup.  Saved tons of time.  And I wanted to go to Asuncion so they offered to take me as far as they could (actually, didn`t want to go there, but if your destination doesn`t lie on a main road, you constantly have to go back to a hub city where there are connections everywhere.  Really annoying).  Was a big help, and they were really nice.  Area near Asuncion is really pretty, with a huge lake (Lago Ypacarì) where people go in the summer, etc...They took me around and we went to another natural water park place, Chololò.  On the drive through a town, saw somebody sprawled on the pavement, dead as a doornail.  I would see major 3 accidents in Paraguay in limited time.  The drivers suck.  Reminds me about the news there.  They´ll show almost anything on TV.  Gross victims still laying in the car, crumpled, while family scream nearby...its crazy, you gotta change the channel.  And if theres a rape victim, kid, informant, or somebody who needs their face blurred, the blur is the crappiest blur, you can see right through it.  And worse, when the person moves their head, the blur stays in the same spot!  Its almost comical!  Anyway, the couple was about my age, and spoke Spanish, Guaranì, German, English, and Portuguese.  It was getting late and eventually, they just asked me if I wanted to stay at their farm that night.  So I did.
 
The guy`s family has a dairy farm in Altos.  The father was immediately suspect of me when I showed up, especially when the kid told him ¨We found him on the road¨.  He warmed up to me in a bit though.  The fact that grandpa has a dairy farm and comes from a German background sealed the deal.  The guy has been robbed blind by recent workers at the farm and is on the verge of losing it all.  A very calm, almost empty farm, not too many cows.  Big difference is all the business is done outdoors, but still under a roof.  No milking parlor like back home.  Everything is done under one huge roof.  The next day the guy would actually ask me if grandpa would be interested in doing business with him.  I`m not sure exactly what kind of deal he had in mind, and I explained grandpa`s situation now, but if he wants back in it for some reason, he`s got a friend in Paraguay.  Difference between this farm and the ones in Brazil, if the robberies happened on the fazendas in Brazil, people would have been hunted and killed.  Anyway, the whole extended family was there as tomorrow was Easter, and I was the excitement of the place.  They`re big fans of The Amazing Race and were really interested to see what was in my backpack.  Easter morning a calf was born and they named it Christopher.  They fed me super well, and the 20somethings kept drilling me on American culture, they couldn`t get enough.  I got the vibe that the family was really important back in the day.  They knew ambassadors, helped found the main town nearby, and have family owning lots of property.  I still have problems with the way of life of farm owners in South America, though.  Helpers living on the land, job and home go hand in hand.  Basically servants, not really working towards anything but the present.  And the family lamenting they can`t afford a housekeeper anymore...Can`t see that I`ll get used to that view on things, but it is strange how many good, kind people have people serving them who live like dirt.  The people drove me all the way back to Asuncion where I would catch my next bus.
 
Next was a couple of dud trips which expedited my way out of the country.  Wanted to see Vapor Cuè.  Its not on this online map, because I only pin places I sleep at.  But its on a real map.  More history stuff, where a bunch of old warships are.  Very bla.  And a bit funny since the remains of the wodden ships are nill.  Theres an old metal piece of machinery, half a wheel, and old slabs of blown up wood in a pile, displaying the remains, and its called historic.  And they just leave it all outside!  Back to Asuncion to catch new bus next day to Villarrica.  Nearby is old German settlement called Colonia Independencia.  Double dud.  Villarrica is nothing extraordinary, and Colonia Independencia I`m not sure exists.  Not really a town per se, just one old bumpy dirt country road after another with farms.  These must make up the German colony.  I never got off the bus because there was no point.  I couldn`t tell that I was arriving anywhere.  But then we went 4 hours into the middle of nowhere, not on a loop route, and there was no way to get back.  Dude`s like...last stop.  So he ended up driving me to some other cutoff point where I caught another bus back to town.  Big waste of a day and all around crap time.  And then in town I saw an old greasy up woman wearing a ¨South is gonna rise again¨ Tshirt.  The only gringo I meet in Paraguay.
 
Ready for Brazil now.  Went to Ciudad del Este, opposite the border of Foz do Iguaçu.  Stayed for a night just to see what I`d been hearing about for 2 years, with everything under the sun for sale.  True, but didn`t feel as unsafe as I had heard it to be.  Next day crossed the border on foot.  Pretty big culture shock.  Over everything else, the language.  And the price.  A place to stay in Paraguay, maybe 3-4 dollars.  In Brazil, 18 or so.  Really happy I constantly had friends to stay with in Brazil.  Truly felt the crunch here of how far the US dollar has fallen.  Would later be telling friends that I can`t return unless its for work.  And its true.  Can`t pass through like I did before.  Wont go through the list of everything else that's different.  But it was a coming-home feeling of sorts.  Can`t believe it`d been over a year!  Lots of things I missed, lots more that I forgot I missed.
 
Took the bus straight to Rio de Janeiro.  Dengue fever has struck Rio with a vengeance.  Worst outbreak there ever.  Thousands and thousands of cases, don`t remember how many deaths.  People selling electrified tennis rackets to kill them.  Shoulda bought one just for the novelty.  Was really crazy..these couple days.  Stumbling through Portuguese again.  When I left, it was near flawless.  Not so much now.  Anyway, I arrive to the old stomping grounds and, fittingly, see three of my old friends sitting there sharing some beers.  I hadn`t warned them of  my arrival and they showered me with love for a good while before we got settled down and caught up.  On the spot, one of them got on the cell phone, calling folks and organized a party right then and there.  So, I`m worn out from a 30 hour bus ride, haven't even done anything in Rio or to get to a bed, and hours later I`m in the same position.  Good times.  Lots new though.  Half the people are gone, the other half are on the way out.  As awesome as Rio is, a lot of people don`t like it because of the constant safety concerns.  City also seems empty, but I was reminded that last time I was here was high season and around Carnaval.  I had a full stomach the whole next day, not from eating but from constantly filling up on all the fruit juices I missed.
 
Spent about a week in Rio and pretty much just used to time to meet up with old friends.  An old friend I met in Uruguay happens to be pretty well connected here, she used to be in radio, and we went to some awesome samba show of a well-known (but not by me) people.  Bumping shoulders with soap stars all night.  Haha...  Also, the old crew from Chapada dos Veadeiros was good to see.  Birthday partys, etc...all around Rio-fun.  Fernanda was getting married in Presidente Prudente so had little time before had to be there.  So left Rio, to basically do the same thing all over again in Sao Paulo.  Seeing old friends, etc...Great catching up.  Explored the city a bit, since last time never really got the chance.  Its alright, but theres no real draw to the city.  Just if you already have people there or a job...Otherwise, normal huge city.  Had a horrible rush hour experience.  Only a few train lines for that many people is a mistake.  Waited like 15 trains (stopped counting after 10), was mob mentality, like a rock concert, people getting pushed everywhere, women getting trampled on and screaming, door opening and people exploding into the train.  I have no idea how people didn`t die.  Had a friend who lives near the airport (where I had to meet Maria Elisa and Amy, arriving from NYC, to take me into PP) so stayed with his family.   More samba at night.  More good times.
 
So, Maria Elisa had rented a car to PP so I hitched a ride there.  The ride was the most English I´d spoken in a long time.  PP was more of the same, catching up with Amy, and catching up with all the Brazilians still in PP.  Lots of good times and a bit too much craziness.  So crazy, in fact, Fer`s wedding ended with her puking all over her dress and the hotel sofa while the guy working pretended not to notice.  Haha...And this is new mom-Fer.  And her dad got into a fistfight with his nephew the day befote.  Had to rent a suit because obviously, I don't have anything like that with me.  Wedding was nice, the reception too.  Outside.  The Coimbras were great as always, and I love eating at their place.  The whole time was a bit crazy, and I was ready to go when the time came.  The body needs its rest. 
 
Still wanted to see northern Paraguay, but first Cerro Cora National Park right across the border from Brazil, near Pedro Juan Caballero.  Worst border organization I`ve come across yet.  Each border town`s bus stations are far, and the respective immigration places are far as well, so to hit all four places, you gotta take a taxi.  No choice.  The park was cool, but I may have been expecting more.  Lots of war nostalgia going on there.  Site where Francisco Solano Lopez died at the end of the war.  Area is real pretty.  All the Paraguay that I know has nice colors.  Red/orange dirt, super green foliage, blue skies...  But this was another park that would`ve been nicer to visit via bike or own car.  Left, and flagged a bus (no bus station - you`re more or less hitch hiking for buses.  Works like that across the country) to Concepcion.  Nice, quaint town, on the Paraguay River.  Not really a whole lot going on.  Ditched the thoughts of going north because of various Paraguay buzzkills, boredom of the Chaco War, and can`t cross into Bolivia anyway (no visa).  So a couple days break was good enough before going back to PP for 3 more parties.  No, it never ends in that town.  Madness.  We`ll leave it at that.
 
But I had to leave in time to be in Paraguay for the election!  April 20!  Was definitely caught up in the whole thing.  Because everybody knows the primaries were rigged, the opposition was afraid the general election would be rigged for Blanca as well.  Most people I talked to preferred Lugo as ¨the lesser of three evils¨.  Didn`t want more Colorados or the crazy Lino, which left Lugo.  And indeed, he had been leading the polls.  But before all that, I had to cross the border.  A border that is so open, you have to get off yourself on each side of the bridge because it wont stop because locals don't have to.  And that's how I went back and forth 3 times in like 10 minutes.  Forgot to get off.  If they catch you, you can bet a bribe is coming, but I walked back right away to get the exit stamp.  Anyway, arrived in Asuncion and met up with my old friends that picked me up a month ago.  And then the polls closed, silence for an hour, and then while everybody`s hudled around the TV, the election results.  And Lugo won!  The first opposition win in 61 years!  It will be interesting to keep an eye out and see what changes come forth.  The gov had threatened gov workers with loss of jobs by voting non-Colorado, and had used fear tactics, said if Blanca didn`t win, Venezuelan and Ecuadoran rebels were hiding and poised to riot.  Right now, it looks like he will be a liberal president, but not extreme like that.  In any case, it is good that theres a change of regime with no violence.  The Colorados accepted the loss with dignity.  And in Asuncion....people went nuts.  Military was everywhere, afraid of violence, but it was all peaceful.  Fire crackers, car horns all night long.  80,000 in the main square.  Wandered around downtown.  The guys selling Paraguayan flags must have made a fortune.
 
Left the next day for San Ignacio to give a quick hello to folks there and to visit possibly my favorite lodging in South America.  Crazy family still lots of fun.  The girls only go to school until 11:45!  Crap schools and they know it.  Then in the afternoon, go back to school to clean it.  Crazy.  Met a college girl on the bus who wants to study chemical engineering, but now is stuck taking a whole bunch of math before, because her math didn`t go far at all in secondary school.  Off topic, one thing I miss about Brazil is the per kilo restaurants.  Pay by the kilo and its so good.  Anyway, then I took the bus, last night, to Buenos Aires where I am now.  Again, same tune, just in town to meet up with old friends before flying to Costa Rica.  Huh?  Yep!  Me and Mike have been talking about it for awhile, but I never consider it done until the ticket is bought (you can imagine how many friends said they were pumped to visit Brazil then never did, while I was there the last trip).  We`re doing a bike trip through Costa Rica!  He has the month of May off, between school and work.  So that's gonna be a cool adventure!  I know nothing about Costa Rica, will have to learn.  Also, biking is gonna be super different.  But its gonna be rad!  So long South America!
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