A Travellerspoint blog

A Class Divided

semi-overcast 27 °C
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Saturday 01.09.07

Marité and Juan Carlos woke me up a lot earlier than i would have hoped; i had only returned from the previous night's drinking foray a few hours before. As we headed in the car to the rowing club, I realised what misconceptions i had had of Paraguay before arriving. My expectations were of a country like Guatemala, given I'd heard the chief language was Guaraní - the native tongue of the indigenous groups, but in fact Spanish is now spoken far wider throughout the country. The capital's full name is Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción, and official nickname is the 'Mother of Cities', having been the primary city in the area from which expeditions left to found other cities, such as Buenos Aires.

There is a significant German influence in the country. A substantial population of German-speaking Mennonites live in the country's northwest, while following the Second World War, Paraguay became a haven for Nazis. German people have continued to flock to the country in peaceful times ever since, while Alfredo Stroessner, the infamous dictator of Paraguay from 1954-1989 had a German father. Government officials (and their well-off cronies) drive around in flashy Mercedes Benz's, while the taxis of Asunción are antique models from the same maker.


There also exists a serious class divide between whites and those with more indigenous blood. The two groups do share common ground in their almost unanimous mistrust of the government, well known as being one of the most corrupt in the world. Despite the class divide and that not as many people fluently speak Guaraní (the most incredibly nasal language i have ever heard) as in times past, the people of Paraguay still have strong ties to the language and folklore of the indigenous groups. Paraguay remains a strongly religious country, but worship is divided between Catholicism, the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and various other interpretations of essentially the same thing.

I've been fortunate with my timing and choice of Spanish school. My family, living only three doors down from where i study and a ten minute walk from the centre of town, is a perfect example of what I have been discussing. My surrogate parents are retired, own a large house and a Mercedes (though an ancient model), and employ an girl to cook and clean for six days a week. Every day, she makes my bed for me and amongst many other things, mops the patio which hardly gets used. She earns about ₲350,000 per month, which is around AUS$80. My surrogate father, Juan Carlos is a strong-willed, likeable chap whose grandfather founded the first football team in Paraguay as well as the rowing club - Club Deportivo de Puerto Sajonia, which has now become a huge, multi-sport complex on the Rio Paraguay.


Five of us crossed in a boat to a large island owned by the club in the middle of the river to cook a Parilla (barbecue) for several hours during the day. The Rio Paraguay, one of the major transport thoroughfares in the country is unfortunately not the cleanest river in the world. Its banks are lined with rubbish at the high-water mark and old rusted hulks sit high and dry on the shores in front of Asunción. Much to the surprise of all of us on the boat, the captain decided it was indeed drinkable, and he scooped some up into his cup as we crossed back. Paraguay is a considerably laid-back country, a place to sit and watch the world go by while sharing Tereré. It has to be said that this is perhaps the national pastime, people carry around their jugs and cups with them to social occasions and work; the park benches are reclined as to induce some find of pleasant slumber, and there is even a type of plant which grows as it floats lazily down the river.


One of the greatest differences between Latin America and western countries is that of the lowest-class worker. In the various countries of this region it presents itself differently, but often involves back-breaking and thankless labour. In Guatemala, it is not uncommon to see men, aged from very young to very old, doubled over hauling large quantities of wood on their backs. In São Paulo, men drag gigantic carts laden with cardboard and other recyclables they have collected along the traffic lanes, and in Rio I observed others sifting through trash for discarded copper wire to re-coil for use again.

Begging also is an activity seen less in developed countries, and it seems to be always worse in the touristy places. It is almost non-existent in Asunicón, a place that sees fewer tourists than most capital cities in the region. This rings especially true for Salvador in Brasil - a city that revived itself through tourism, and one has to wonder whether some of the beggars in a place like that are just too lazy to work, as they often were on the Caribbean coast of Central America. One of the most heart-wrenching situations is refusing to give money to a mother with a child on the premise that it possibly was the tourist dollar that put them there together in the first place.

Posted by Jeremy T 09:45 Archived in Paraguay Tagged educational Comments (0)

A taste of things to come...

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Tuesday 28.08.07

There was something instantly likeable about this place, beyond the classic Latin American grid-patterned streets. Asunción, i quickly discovered, has a small-town feel, a closeness which one wouldn't expect to find in a country's capital. Despite a metropolitan area containing 1.6 million people, policemen still whistle and gesture traffic through intersections surrounding the Plaza de los Heroes in the centre of town, while gardeners water the grass in the parks from hoses. I made my first million today (albeit in Guaranís out of the ATM), signed up for a Spanish course to start the following day, and even found a local family to live with, three doors down from the school.


The thought struck me at night that i hadn't seen any homeless people yet in the city, but while investigating an old tram permanently marooned on a median strip, I saw little campfires in Plaza Uruguaya, across from my hotel. Had these people been here the whole time and I had never noticed? Who were they? It wouldn't be long before I found out....

Once I had checked out of the hotel on Wednesday morning, I set off to investigate the plaza. There appeared to be a camp set up semi-permanently in the park, mostly black plastic sheets stretched over ropes tied between trees. Around little campfires, obscured by the smoky haze, sat indigenous people, while their children and skinny dogs ran about. I soon found out, whilst sharing Tereré, that the indigenous people had been there for 5-6 months. Apparently the government had kicked them off their homeland and failed to live up to a promise of allotting them a new place and teaching them farming skills. Now they subsist in the middle of the city, around 200 here and more in another park, living off handouts from outreach groups, with no end to the problem in sight.


I began studying Spanish in class for four hours a day and moved in to my new house with my surrogate family. Mis padres Marité and Juan Carlos are both retired, while mi hermano Enrique is studying at University. Eating traditional meals every day has been great for the most part. Dulce de Leche, a favourite dessert in Latin America, was as delicious to try as Mondongo was not. The latter, served in a kind of stew at lunchtime on Friday smelled horrible, and the taste was barely better. As I worked out ways of telling Marité, while slowly digesting piece after piece of what was obviously cow stomach, she confessed to me both her and Enrique didn't particularly like it either. Later that night after class was finished, I had a chance to go out with my new local friends, and with free alcohol on offer, who was i to refuse?



Posted by Jeremy T 08:38 Archived in Paraguay Tagged educational Comments (0)

Fresh Meat

Reality bites on the corner of three nations

rain 18 °C
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Saturday 25.08.07

On Thursday night sometime during sleep, my left foot had been bitten by an insect, and for the last couple of days had been swelling slowly and causing a bit of discomfort. The creature, named Mbarigüí in Guaraní, the language of the indigenous group of the same name, is a sandfly that lives in the region, and a known vector of the disease Leishmaniasis. Sharing a dormitory with some Irish lads, i awoke at the sound of them returning at 6am a little south of sobriety and discovered (after hopping to the bathroom) that my foot now resembled a blown-up pink rubber glove. Time for an anti-histamine injection, I found out once daylight hit, and once the un-pleasantries were over and done with, said foot began to deflate again. At night, a group of us went out for a Parrillada, the Argentinean equivalent of a mixed grill, and on offer aside from the usual meats were Latin American specialities Morcilla, a type of black pudding, and cow's tongue.


It was a very cold and wet day on Sunday as i left for Paraguay, just over the river actually, to a town called Ciudad del Este. Unable to share the title of having the grandest waterfall in the world, Ciudad del Este nevertheless receives several consolation prizes, such as: "Biggest power output out of any hydroelectric project in the world" (Itaipu Dam); "The grandest waterfalls in the world that no longer exist" (Siete Quedas - drowned by Itaipu); and my personal favourite, "Biggest Black Market in South America".

I was delighted to find that about ₲4500 (Guaranís) were equal to AUS$1, and so armed with a wad of currency that would make Pablo Escobar proud, i was ready for Paraguay. My hotel room, situated near to the bus station in case of a required quick exit, was as much of a disappointment in looks as it was in price. I left again as soon as I could to explore the centre of town.

Ciudad del Este on a raining and cold Sunday afternoon was almost completely deserted. As I waited for the bus, a stray dog wandered by me, to stop and tear at a full plastic bag amid a pile of rubbish. When my transport arrived, I leaped a full metre over a puddle from curb to lowest step. I was bemused upon noticing the floor was made out of wood palings, as if someone had encased their back patio in metal, stuck some wheels on and taken it for a drive. It was so bleak outside i failed to recognise the centre of the city, and upon querying the driver, he let me out so i could catch one back in the other direction. I could have been forgiven. The centre of town was boarded and shut up as if the day didn't exist. People gathered in tiny pockets here and there, and occasionally a car passed, but otherwise all was strangely silent. Wandering through an open door covered in Korean writing, I discovered an empty Korean restaurant. Apparently it, like the rest of the city, was closed but thankfully they decided to feed me.

I wandered my neighbourhood some more, watching poor families crowded under awnings or around open fires on bare concrete. Stray animals - dogs, cats and chickens nosed about in relative harmony while drawn plastic sheets over fences and against walls amidst piles of rubbish suggested their use for habitation. Eventually, i chanced upon the stadium for the local football team, 3 de Febrero, and i paid ₲10,000 for a place on the concrete bleachers. The stadium was in a poor, dilapidated state, rusted through and crumbling and the carpark littered with refuse and the large shells of hundreds of expended fireworks. Under the stadium lights I had finally found life in Ciudad del Este, albeit less than 100 souls, as the local team played Guaraní, a team from Asunción. Although i saw no goals scored, it became apparent the locals were to pull off a victory, though i was far too busy hunched and over trying to stay warm and comfortable on the cold concrete to care.


As the weather slowly but surely improved on Monday morning, i caught public transport in the direction of Itaipu Dam. The whole city, passing by through the grimy windows of the bus, seems to be covered completely in red soil. It was all over the floors of the buses, up the sides of cars and piled up in heaps on the sides of the roads. I knew we were getting close to the dam when legions of high-tension towers appeared everywhere, like menacing steel robots marching over the horizon. I learned in the free guided tour that the project, shared by Brasil and Paraguay, generates the most power out of any hydroelectric plant in the world, though it is no longer the largest. The spillway alone, used only to regulate the water level, can pump out water equal to 40 Iguazu Falls. Its eighteen turbines located deep in the bowels of the structure, generate such a surplus for Paraguay that it sells most of its power to its partner. Brasil - one of the world's biggest countries in size, population and economic output, gets 25% of its energy needs from this source alone.



This time, the centre of Ciudad del Este was teeming with life, and stalls set up on every flat surface that wasn't a vehicle thoroughfare. The goods for sale were not so much duty free as they were dirt cheap; not so much bargain basement as they were clever fakes; and not so much cheap imitations as they were stolen. It was a consumer assault. Fake football shirts towered above mobile phone accessories; pirated DVDs made bedfellows of butterfly knives and knuckle dusters; while the power tools and watches leered at the rugs and apparel. Malls filled with electronics goods opened out to the streets, people desperately attempted to sell socks by the handful, while the cologne salesmen hinted at the purchase of animals down in a place i dared not tread. The beckoning, the pushing, the haggling, the poverty and the struggle rushed and fell and changed hands in a flurry and a whisper, and most consumers would cross back into Brasil by day's end.

Only a short time passed before i caught the bus to Asunción, the nation's capital. My ₲40,000, six hour ride turned out more comfortable than expected, and the doughnut-shaped crusty pastries and hot, ultra-sweet tea sold en route for only ₲1000 each were a bonus. I settled into my new hotel overlooking a park, Plaza Uruguaya, and relished the fact I was completely alone in this place.

Posted by Jeremy T 04:19 Archived in Paraguay Tagged backpacking Comments (0)


Static for the Senses at Iguazu Falls

sunny 33 °C
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Monday 20.08.07

While trying to get a visa sorted to visit Paraguay, i discovered that this was the final day i was allowed to stay in Brasil. Facing a fine somewhere around AUS$900 if the visa lapsed, i quickly extended my Brasilian visa for AUS$40 with about fifteen minutes to spare before the Federal Police closed for the day. Finding myself once again donating money to bureaucracy in South America, I'll take this opportunity to tell the tale of this country's currency.

Brasil's currency story reminds us that big does not always mean better, less is more and perhaps, the original is often the best. When the long-standing Real, the country's official currency from 1690 to 1942 was hit by inflation severely toward the end of its lifespan, the Cruzeiro - Brasil's new currency was issued at a rate of 1000 Réis to 1 Cruzeiro. Following a brief flirtation with aluminium coins, the value of the Cruzeiro plummeted, and the Cruzeiro Novo started in 1967. This in turn fell to the ill-fated Cruzado in 1986 which was closely followed by the Cruzado Novo in 1989, all valued at a ratio of 1:1000 units of the former. The currency was renamed the Cruzeiro again in 1990, but with inflation at a runaway rate and perhaps a bad choice of name, it was succeeded by the Cruzeiro Real in 1993. This monetary unit lasted just one year and by mid-1994, the original unit of currency - the Real, was implemented and exchanged at a rate of 1 Real to 2750 Cruzeiro Reais. The Real has stayed relatively stable since. Bringing up the subject in Brasil brings forth all kinds of personal stories. People recount the day the President decided that the Brasilian government needed money, and emptied the citizens' bank accounts into their coffers, and tell tales of supermarket prices changing every day to keep up with the devaluation.

Foz do Iguaçu is the largest of the three towns that make up the tri-border area, serving the mighty Iguazu Falls, the second greatest waterfall by volume in the world. The falls are shared by Brasil and Argentina, and by early afternoon on Tuesday, i had arrived at the Brasilian park. My first encounter with the local wildlife was to see a few Coatis rummaging through bins. So much for unspoiled wilderness.


My first sight of the falls at Iguazu was the secondary set, a nevertheless grand set of falls centred around Isla San Martin in the middle. As the track progressed, more waterfalls came into view, dropping in one or two steps from the relative calm of the plateau above into a raging torrent below. The climax of the journey was soon upon me - the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), an incredible horseshoe-shaped crevice with unfathomable volumes of water pouring down from all angles. It is one of the Earth's great natural wonders, and when a Brasilian man exclaimed to me "Look at what God gave us!", despite not being a religious man, i could hardly disagree.



I spent the next hour exploring the Parque dos Aves next door to the national park. Seeing majestic birds in cages really isn't the best way to appreciate them, but it is probably the only chance i will get to observe (and interact with) creatures such as the endangered Harpy Eagle and Hyacinith Macaw.



I crossed the border to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina the next morning, and checked in at a youth hostel recommended by several people I had bumped into. What i didn't expect was it to have the appearance of a grand country club, even sporting a swimming pool out the front. Tourism took a turn for the bizarre at night when i looked up and saw in excess of one hundred people sitting at tables eating, as if they had all been recruited into Backpackers Boot Camp, ready to invade, photograph and drink everything that was in their path. It got stranger still when a Carnaval Samba show began, featuring Brasilian dancers and possibly the world's biggest Caipirinha in a giant plastic tub. The dancing and debauchery continued in a fashion only gap-year tourists can keep up, and i slunk off to the corner to play pool with the remainder of the over-19s.

Once inside the Argentinean side of the national park on Thursday, we jumped aboard an old army truck to reach the Rio Iguazu about six kilometres downstream from the falls. Once there, we transferred into a motorboat powered by two 250hp outboards, and made a beeline for the falls. The river, seemingly benign in these reaches, soon showed signs of turbulence, and within minutes were were lurching through rapids. Once at the foot of the secondary set of falls, the driver applied the throttle, driving us toward the deluge and drenching us in the blinding spray, then spinning the boat around and going back for more.


We soon got a chance to dry off and explore the Argentinean side on foot, along trails that afforded us all possible views of the many separate waterfalls around. Rainbows sprouted out of everywhere, while two opposite symbols of nature - the raw potential of flowing water and the fragile flutter of tiny butterflies were seen together in abundance. All around was fresh and beautiful and full of life.


The experience on the Argentinean side culminates once again at the Garganta del Diablo, this time observed from much closer and from above, and to a roar of pure white noise. The water flowing over the precipice at the top seems to keep its cohesion for some metres before gravity tears at its bonds. There in this region, the flow shatters utterly into droplets and mist, while the reflected colour, originally blue-green, turns to white in the free-fall. The falling water, many hundreds of tonnes per second, then completely vanishes from view into a great white unknown - a turbulent realm of mystery at the foot of the falls where air and water become one, pierced delicately by that most transient of sights - a rainbow.


Posted by Jeremy T 04:56 Archived in Brazil Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

overcast 15 °C
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Thursday 16.08.07

On the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley having left the earth, me and a Brasilian friend Raquel celebrated at night (without pharmaceuticals) at a bar playing his greatest hits and, when we tired of that, at another playing bad 80's ballad clips on Rua Augosta, a famous 'nightlife' strip in São Paulo. Walking down the hill, away from its intersection with proud Avenida Paulista, Rua Augosta gradually takes on a more seedy atmosphere. Eventually the reputable bars and restaurants give way to pink neon lit strip clubs and brothels. A couple of kids, with faces far more weathered than their height would suggest, were chroming on the footpath in front of one such place. The two security guards standing by the entrance did only that as the kids took another hit and pressed their grubby faces to the neon-framed front window. Further along, prostitutes in various states of disrepair walked the streets, and finally, in the Republica area, both club and street walker wavered in gender until it all became a blur of fake breasts, platform heels, deep voices and heavy jawlines. I heard stories of men, so desperate to become more feminine they give themselves D.I.Y cheek implants using a glass plate held against the face and a syringe full of industrial silicone. Naturally, this risky process sometimes results in permanent disfigurement.



Saturday morning the two of us went around the corner to Praça Republica, a nice-looking park (during daylight hours) dotted with rubber trees. A small street market is here, featuring crafts made by hippies locked in somewhat of a turf war for rug space. We made the long trip back to Kyle's apartment to gather my belongings, and then headed with him to Barra Funda, in the west end of the city to help paint a wall that several artists had been working on all day. From there, i said goodbye to my friends old and new and boarded a bus heading to Foz do Iguaçu, on the border of Argentina and Paraguay.


Waking up still aboard the bus on Sunday, I looked through the window and the scenery outside was changing. The landscape now was dead flat, and abound were farms and farming equipment, rodeos and ranches, sugar cane and corn, punctuated all over by monkey-puzzle trees. After lunch, I finally arrived in a cold and clouded-over Foz do Iguaçu, a phenomenon I wasn't entirely equipped for.


Out of town, in the middle of farming land stands the hostel I stayed in. The land a far cry from everywhere else i have visited in Brasil, and a fresh (if somewhat chilly) change to almost tree-less São Paulo. The first thing was to go for a walk amongst the nature, along red dirt roads, splitting fields of green-grey grass, with cows and sheep grazing amongst lichen-covered and leafless trees, yet to embrace the approach of spring. As night fell, an incredible chill settled over the area, and I equipped myself with several layers of winter clothes I had so far not needed during my travels. It appeared winter had finally caught up with me a few hundred metres from the edge of Brasil.

Posted by Jeremy T 04:39 Archived in Brazil Tagged foot Comments (0)

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