Thursday, August 4, 2011

The road to Asunción

In order to get to Asuncion in Paraguay we first needed to get to a bus station, in Paraguay from Brazil.  It was therefore necessary to cross to the Brazilian/ Paraguayan border to Ciudad Del Este, a dodgy crossing and a bit of a bandit town in order to get a taxi to the bus terminal.  We waited at the bus stop, dreading negotiating the buses with our heavy rucksacks as bus after bus packed full of commuters went past.  I got chatting in Spanish to a man called Francisco, a large black Brazilian who said that he did this trip and back again every working day of the week in order to teach in a primary school in Paraguay, apparently the wages were better and it wasn’t uncommon for many Brazilians to do this.  Just as our bus came in, stuffed to the windows full of people we made a decision to share a taxi with Francisco as it would only be marginally more expensive and what the hell, we still had Brazilian Real currency we wouldn’t need.  Francisco negotiated a taxi for the three of us, the driver said that he would only go to the border where he would drop us off (the original plan was to get a ride over the notoriously dangerous bridge in the comfort and safety of a bus or taxi) owing to the level of traffic at that time.  Our guards were suitably raised, we didn’t really know our new guide let alone what to expect of this border crossing. 

Even though the ride was only about ten minutes from where we were staying, the town around the bridge was mayhem in comparison to where we had been staying.  There were cars and motorbikes snaking round each other everywhere we looked.  There were shady money changers galore and plenty of people approaching you for this and that, usually to sell snacks or drinks but sometimes it wasn’t clear.  It was apparent that the three of us would be walking over the bridge due to the level of traffic barely crawling forward which unless these vehicles had air conditioning, really wouldn’t have been much fun on a scorching day like this.  Provided we didn’t get mugged or worse it was looking like we had made the right decision not to take the bus.  Although it would have been easier to leave the country illegally, we found the Brazilian passport office where we got our necessary Brazilian exit stamp and we seemed to be in the minority as most of the human traffic were either Brazilian or Paraguayan and didn’t appear to need to stop to get anything checked. 

Continuing towards Paraguay we crossed the bridge where there was a path barely wide enough for two where people were walking in opposite directions and there was a large drop to the river below.  It was easy to see how a mugging would be easy to orchestrate, it was all a bit of a jungle and I was glad we had our new volunteer guide with us who now felt like more of a bodyguard.  I think we got a couple of looks off some shady characters but nothing more, we just kept going and chatted to Francisco to the extent where we almost missed getting our entry stamps to Paraguay but Kate spotted it just in time and we walked back into no man’s land to get our passports stamped.  We had no problems in the passport office and we were soon we were in the Wild West (or east) of Ciudad del Este.   

This place was a bit of a traveller's nightmare to arrive with all your belongings but would have been pretty cool travelling light.  It was like being back in a South East Asian capital city, with people, especially kids, coming up to you trying to hustle you for anything, in our case a taxi for which Francisco was adamant to pay no more that twelve Brazilian Real (you could still use it here after all) when everyone wanted fifteen out of us, the difference being about one pound fifty.  It was hot and there were people all over the place touting and hawking all sorts of things.  The city is often called the ‘shop’ as they sell all manner of pirated goods.  We had initially thought about staying here but we made a snap decision to get a taxi to the bus station and head straight to the capital.  Francisco found a driver that would take us to the station for the right price, he even paid towards the fair as we were a little short on Brazilian currency and didn’t have any Paraguayan yet.  We said our appreciative goodbyes and got our guide’s email address.  Francisco really had been our saint that day.   

The driver had only one working arm and his kid sat in the front seat, it must have been school holidays here too and the kid was elated to receive the rest of our chocolate bar as we got out at the bus station, the driver seemed very happy that his son got a treat too.  The only bus company heading to Asunción today was leaving that minute and they wouldn’t accept any currency other than local Paraguayan Guaraní of which we had none.  It was looking like we would have to stay in Ciudad del Este after all, until we saw a money changer by the entrance to the terminal and by money changer I mean shady bloke with a calculator and bag of cash.  We didn’t really have a choice so we ran up to him to get what we needed in order to pay for the bus that was about to leave.  It was a long trip so we needed to pay the equivalent of about ten dollars each and I waved a twenty dollar note in front of him along with some Chilean pesos which were all we had to hand at the time.  We just wanted to leave so I tried to thrust a few notes at him but he wouldn’t take them, he was the most honest shady money changer in the whole of South America.  He steadily punched a few numbers into his calculator and in Spanish said ‘only two’, referring to the Chilean notes I was waving at him.  We paid him and ran round the corner with the bus operator, loaded our bags and jumped on the bus to Asunción.

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