The best and worst of the omnibus

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South America » Paraguay » Encarnacion
July 14th 2009
Published: July 19th 2009
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The good, the bad and the downright ugly of Latin American buses:

Bus 1: Sunday night’s departure from Buenos Aires was easily the most luxurious bus trip ever: “Cama suite” is Argentina’s road-bound equivalent of long-haul first class on the airlines: a private screen, meal service, a glorious view, comfy huge seat, legroom galore and - oh, joy of joys - a Laz-y-Boy style seat that actually unfolds flat into a bed with “walls” front and back so that, provided with blanket and pillow, one can while away a 12-hour trip with actual sound sleep. The bus station in BA is an enormous affair, with 60 or so platforms, shops and restaurants, and crowds to match. Our bus didn’t come up on screen as promised, but we managed with our pigeon Spanish to find the right platform and the right bus and were soon ensconced in luxury on the top deck, watching a movie (in English with Spanish subtitles) and our own steward bringing us a hot meal on a lap tray (cupholders provided) as we sped along a dark highway. At about 11 we drew the curtains and bedded down, to waken at 7:15 as breakfast arrived. By 8:30 we were at Posadas, on Argentina’s northern border, refreshed and delighted.

Bus 2: The Third World hits. We boarded a local bus for Encarnacion on the Paraguay side, which rapidly filled as we proceeded through the city. At the border, we got off to get our exit stamp; then waited through three more buses, with much pushing and shoving to get back on, to continue to the Paraguay side of the bridge across the Parana River and the immigration check, where more pushing and shoving was necessary to get on once again and proceed into town. The concept of a queue has definitely not caught on here.

Bus 3: After arriving at the central bus station, we found the Hotel Germana exactly as Lonely Planet described it - basic but clean (also dark and tiled, in the tropical fashion) with a genial Japanese-Paraguayan hostess, Gloria, who managed with a well-rehearsed spiel in Spanish and a little self-annotated map to acquaint us with everything we’d need - the location of a cambio, supermarket, several good restaurants, and the bus route to the Jesuit ruins. After changing $60 to Guaranis (300,000!) and stopping by the supermercado for a couple of (delicious) empanadas, some packaged drinks and a fresh liquado from the juice bar (so modern), we were off on a rattly local bus to the first of the missions and the best preserved of the 60 or so Christian Guarani communities created in the 18th century in southern Paraguay, northern Argentina and southwest Brazil before the Spanish government decided to boot the Jesuits out of the colonies. (Pesky priests were resisting the powerful interests who wanted to enslave the natives - see "The Mission".) Forty minutes later, we were dropped at the bottom of a road paved - as all the secondary roads here are - in flat stones and red dirt, something like cobblestones or flagstones but sharper edged. (How many horribly skinned knees would you endure as a child here, I wondered.) We trooped ourselves up the hill and found the ruins of the Jesuit reduccion, quite impressive except for the utter lack of information available about what we were looking at. (There was one big map with bland descriptions - church, Indian houses, garden - in Spanish, English and German, with directions that weren’t at all helpful.) We were left to wonder about the amazing carvings forming a frieze high on the ruined church’s walls, mostly of angels playing various instruments - trumpets, flutes, guitars, keyboards: a tribute both to the skill of the Guarani carvers and to their joyous incorporation of European choral music into their own traditions. (Again, familiar to anyone who has seen the film.) Whatever restoration had been going on there, with international funding, obviously stopped some time ago, though there’s still a little sign indicating an overgrown archeological dig on site. Sad there doesn’t seem to be any money to protect what has been named a UNESCO world heritage site. Perhaps two other people visited the afternoon we were there, if you don’t count the local child who amused himself bounding along the top of a crumbling wall that, elsewhere in the world, would have been protected from even a touch.

Bus 4: And here’s where it gets downright ugly. We figured we had time to visit the neighbouring mission, Jesus de Tanquare, which was only 11 km away down a quiet road. The book mentioned buses every hour, so we waited 20 minutes, and were relieved to see a rattletrap van-bus with a sign saying "de Jesus" (the name of the adjacent village) in the window from the direction of the village. The driver, a young man in his 20s, proceeded to wave us in the general direction of where he thought we should wait, then crossed the main road and sat over by a chipas stand for half an hour before finally turning around the bus and picking us up, whereupon he sat for another HOUR waiting for more passengers! Argh. Finally, he had a busload of people who'd been dropped off by other buses travelling the main road, and off we went, roaring and rattling, the bus's battery sitting exposed on the floor next to the driver's seat, threatening to slide onto Jeff's foot on every hill. The suspension was so far gone, and the road so rocky, that I held my cheeks to keep them from flapping around so much. The young lad riding shotgun with our driver (and waiting uncomplainingly through what must have been as tedious an afternoon for him as it was for us) continuously filled his yerba mate cup with hot water from a big brightly decorated thermos. Sip, sip, refill ... At last, after about 20 minutes of this, with frequent stops to drop off or pick up more passengers on a wave from the roadside, we reached Ciudad de Jesus, a poor but nicely laid out little village all of brick the same colour as the dust, with the ruins of the old church -- a little more restored than Trinidad's but still roofless -- at the end of the road. We paid our little fee and went in, again pretty much alone with the ruins and clueless as to what was what, though our book had advertised the presence of expert guides in three languages. But this spot, at the top of the hill, was so lovely, surrounded by rolling green fields and spotted with palms, the view alone was worth the trouble. And the church, again, was a fantastic example of native art. An hour later, we waited for a return bus in the village, not hopeful about our chances of one arriving before dark (by now it was 5:30 and this is winter!). We watched as a man arrived to collect his cows and calves, tethered on common grass alongside the road, and snuck peeks at the local teenagers in streaked hair and bandanas playing volleyball on a red dust court, the ball stained as red as a basketball. Not much for kids with obvious ambitions beyond the village to do here, I thought ...

Finally, another bus arrived, driven by a genial old man who, when he failed to converse with us in spanish, tried out his few words of German - neither of us equal to a conversation in that tongue! He waited for about 10 minutes for signs of another passenger, sighed and carried us the rest of the way without a stop, probably the last run of the day. The battery, thankfully, was tucked away where it should be. But this bus, against all odds, was an even worse example of rust bucketude than the other, the rattle deafening, its pistons screaming and pounding on the slightest hill. An 11-kilometre miracle, making it back to the main road. After that, the gaily painted bus on the paved highway, with its mate'-mainlining driver (are they all addicted?), seemed downright luxurious.

Random observations:

Rich & poor: The distinction between Argentina (one of S.A.'s most prosperous countries) and Paraguay (perhaps the poorest) isn’t quite as stark as the one seen at San Diego/Tijuana, but it comes close. Our first impressions of the country were of a rough and tumble marketplace in an area apparently condemned to be flooded someday by a dam, and therefore left to molder and peel. Child labour, not much to be seen in Buenos Aires, is everywhere here - children as young as 5 or 6 carrying buckets of snacks to sell at bus stands; wiping windshields at red lights; riding shotgun on local transport. Southern Paraguay has soil as red as any in Georgia or PEI, and the stuff seems to settle on everything, making the place look even sadder and more desperate. But there are beauties here, too -- Poinsettias blooming in great bushes in a garden in July! Orange trees dripping with fruit. Happy dogs making their rounds, unleashed and free. Young men, some even with helmets, roaring down those horrible rock roads on motorcycles. Dreamy-eyed milk cows munching contentedly by the side of the road.


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