The Heart of South America

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South America » Paraguay
October 2nd 2019
Published: December 23rd 2019
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The plane took off without Bev as her vacation time had come to an end. She was heading home while I would be continuing on to my next destination; Asuncion Paraguay. The two hour flight took me high over the beautiful Andean mountains. I knew nothing about Paraguay but figured that it was off the beaten path and that I would be set up nicely to visit Iguazu Falls later on. It was a balmy 36 degrees as the plane landed. Geographically speaking, this region is called the heart of South America because it's smack in the middle of the continent. I had to buy a visa with American dollars, an immaculate ones at that. In fact half of the bills that I put forward were rejected because they had a tiny dot on them or something equally as stupid. Ultimately I got through and booked an Uber ride to take me into town. Carlos the Uber driver was awesome, and I tried my best to communicate with him in my limited Spanish. He pointed out some areas of interest, as he drank Terere, the
popular Paraguayan drink consisting of ice water poured into a cup full of various herbs. I arrived at El Farol hostel and met Fidel, one of the young owners. The place was fairly new but already I felt as though it was home. I quickly met Adam, an English travel writer who spent loads of time in Paraguay and was in the process of writing a travel guide, offered me to partake in a bottle of Frenet that we all began passing around. Ultimately we stayed up pretty late drinking and talking the night away.

The next morning I met the other young owner Rodri, and after a good breakfast of Dulce Leche and toast, went for a walk with Fidel and Rodri. They showed me around this historic part of downtown and then went to pick up some laundry. I had heard that they had a good friend who lived on a family farm around an hour and a half north from Asuncion along the Paraguayan river and offered kayaking and a taste of rural life. I was totally ready to head up there and luckily things aligned enough that that afternoon Arturo, the patriarch of the farm picked me up and we first went to collect his son's girlfriend and kids as they were coming up to for the weekend. We conversed as we made our way up and turned onto a dirt road with a multitude of gates that had to be opened. Eventually we reached the farm, called Estacion Puerto Olivares, the main house was built to look like a train station. The grounds were beautiful, and they even had a small replica steam train. I met Arturo Junior, or Turi, around my age and I really cool guy that spoke English quite well. He set me up in the Mennonite Cart that they had near the house. The Mennonites are a religious and hard working people that have migrated to various parts of the world typically with German ancestry. It sounded to me as though they acquired the cart through dealings with the Mennonites at some point. The sun was beginning to set so Turi asked if I wanted to jump in the truck and head to the nearby riverfront to see the sunset. One of his dogs, Betun, joined us. The sunset was gorgeous and then we retreated back to the farm as hordes of ravenous mosquitoes began to persue us. Then we started a fire to cook on. While grilling some burgers I felt an insect on my neck so I instinctively swatted it away. Turned out to be a bad move because next thing I knew I had a sharp burning sensation. I grimaced in pain as I tried to assess the situation. It seemed like I was stung by whatever insect that was. Turi's girlfriend seemed to think it was most probably a bee or a wasp. I had never been stung by anything like that in my life (surprisingly) so I had some bad thoughts of me going into anaphalactic shock or something. Luckily I was fine after after a short while. I had brought up a case of Polar Beer and Turi had some cannabis so we just hung around the fire for the rest of the night.

After breakfast Turi rounded up the kayaks and we headed down to the riverfront. It was a hot day already and I knew the clear sky would provide hours and hours of undisturbed UV attention so I slathered as much sunscreen as possible. The plan was to go out and kayak along two rivers along the Paraguayan river that served as tributaries. The water levels weren't too high, and was to be expected after about three months of drought. Many parts of Paraguay were burning due to forest and bush fires.
Betun came along with us and hitched rides on our kayaks, which amused me as I'd never seen a dog do something quite like that. The black flies were bothersome but it was really the horse flies that were pissing us off, I'd stop often and kill whatever was stalking me. Turi was trying to grow his ecotourism business and he cared deeply for the environment. This was really avant garde for an area that doesn't seem to have a population versed very well in environmental conservation. We found a river bank littered with plastic bottles and bags. It seemed that a group of fisherman had made camp here and had left all their waste. Turi beached his kayak and immediately began to gather the plastic debris. I joined him and together we had built up a small plastic mound. Turi lamented that although he realized that burning the waste wasn't great for the planet either, he would rather do that then see the plastic all end up in the river. Since we couldn't bring that amount of garbage back with us in our small kayaks, Turi isolated the pile and lit it up. And so we took off again as the plastic mound smouldered. Along the way we would collect whatever floating debris we saw. Turi was a true caretaker of this section of river. We passed small villages along the way and stopped often for refreshing Terere. At one point we portaged the kayaks across a small sandbar to continue. By early afternoon it was sweltering bad so I took a swim in the river. We effectively were making a loop through the waterways back to the Turi's territory. We returned by mid afternoon. We loaded the kayaks and went back to the farm for a bit. For sunset I joined Turi and his family at the riverfront. We had chicken wings cooked over the fire for dinner.

By late morning several people had arrived. There was a Sunday gathering at the farm on this afternoon with several family members and friends. Everyone brought meat and grills and before we knew it there was a giant Paraguayan BBQ happening. I also tried Chipa Guazu a Paraguayan dish made of corn grains. I had eaten quite a bit of meat while at the farm. I tried my best to communicate with many people in Spanish. Some of the younger guests could speak English decently. In the afternoon we went over to the river and broke out the kayaks and went for some swims. By the evening, mostly everyone was on their way from the farm and alas it was my time to leave as well. I bid Turi and his family farewell, and thanked them for giving me and impromptu, albeit brief view, of some laid back Paraguayan rural life. Gonzalo, who is one of Turi's younger cousins and his brother gave me a lift back to Asuncion. Once back in the confines of the city Gonzalo invited me to come out with him and his girlfriend, and some other friends to a popular outdoor food court in the richer part of town. I spent some time with them before departing with an Uber back to El Farol hostel. There I met Rodri and his good friend Rata on the rooftop with some other friends making empanadas.

The next day was to be really, really hot out. I was up early as I had a few errands to run. I first went over to a laundromat to get some clothes washed, then walked over to a nearby bus terminal to buy an onward ticket for the next leg of my trip. That afternoon I signed up for a free walking tour of the downtown area of Asuncion. It was run by Mattias, a young local with expert knowledge about his country and people. We walked through several neighborhoods, saw some historic buildings and museums. After the tour I went to Lido, a famous restaurant smack in the center of old town and ordered some Paraguayan Sopa. For anyone expecting an actual soup dish, this was most certainly not it despite its name. In the evening I was hanging out in the hostel again. Things were quiet there so I went for an evening stroll to a grocery store with Fidel and Rodri, and then we bought a few beers and sat in a park for a while. That would be the first of several beer runs that night mainly to the nearby 24 hour grocery store. Fidel, his girlfriend, and some other friends were making homemade pizzas in the kitchen. I tended to stay in the attached common room with Adam, another Spanish guy and two Dutch girls. By 2300h two more people arrived at the hostel, a 38 year old Hungarian, and his companion, a 19 year old Kazhak. They seemed like an odd pairing but they joined us in the common room for about 20 minutes and then Fidel showed them to their dorm. Incidentally this would be the same 4 person dorm I was staying in. Up until that point, only Rodri and me were staying there. The two newcomers went downstairs and mentioned that they needed to go to the corner store. About an hour later and I decided to turn in for the night. I made my way up and noticed that the two new guys had really small backpacks, almost seemingly feminine style. Before getting into bed, I went into my dayback and realized I couldn't feel my camera. This is a check I perform often, so this lack of familiar tactile sensation was disconcerting. I dug around a little and realized that indeed there was no camera to be found. Instinctively I then went under my dorm mattress and luckily saw that my money belt was still there. But when I went to open it I realized that I was missing my credit card and about 200$ worth of American currency. Quickly realizing that this was deliberate, I went downstairs and told Rodri that I had some missing valuables. Let's back up just a bit, because most of you reading this might be wondering why the hell I had left any valuables unattended in a dorm room. I wondered this myself to be honest. Truth is I'm usually very careful with my valuables, making constant checks and keeping an eye on things in crowded places. The one inherent problem I noticed immediately upon checking into the hostel was that there were NO lockers to be found. This is a rarity in today's backpacking world, but this hostel was still quite new and I guess they didn't make it a priority off the bat. In fact it was almost enough to make me change hostels. But I got a good vibe from the staff and other guests, and it felt like family. I left my money belt in the room when I was going out in the night to the store thinking it would be a safer option. The same thinking applied to the camera. Hindsight is always 20/20 and I obviously made a real lapse in judgment. Sadly it's often that one time that you let your guard down that things begin to fall apart. Rodri quickly woke Fidel up and I got on the phone with my bank and immediately cancelled my stolen cards. The police were called and arrived soon after. Since the crime occurred only about an hour before, it was quite possible that these assholes were still in the vicinity, although my friends warned me that the local police could not be counted on. Rodri ran to the nearby grocery store and then a taxi stand and then the casino to see if he could catch the trail. He did a great job considering because it always seemed as though they had recently been wherever he arrived. Sadly the scent dried up. Fidel drove us to the police station and I made a police report with some lazy desk bound officer. I knew immediately once my items were missing that the chances of getting them back were slim to none as is usually the case in these situations. It was about four in the morning when we got back and I tried to get some sleep.

I didn't sleep well considering the previous nights event. Upon waking up I did an inventory of things. Luckily my two small bags weren't taken and I hadn't lost anything else. Interestingly my passport and one bank card was left behind (which never seemed to work here anyway). Not sure if there was any sense of morality with these guys, but taking my passport would have fucked me completely so I was grateful for that. I went down and joined the others at the communal breakfast table and we discussed what had happened. Our theory began to formulate. Apparently Adam remembers the older man having stayed at the hostel a week earlier. He didn't get a good feeling from this guy. In fact when we hung out with them for a short time yesterday, I also remember getting a bad vibe from his too. Perhaps he had stayed here and realized that, hey there's no lockers anywhere and everyone basically has their valuables strewn about. Also the older dude spoke Spanish remarkably well, meaning he probably spent some time in the region or at least abroad, possibly doing sketchy stuff. In the end it seemed as though they were con artists who posed as travelers and robbed people at hostels? We had their passport information because they had checked in the previous night and had sent it to the authorities (doubt they would do much with it). Also Rodri and Fidel made sure to send them to all the other hostels in the city as a warning. They also told me that they would be buying lockers for the guests. I would be pretty pissed off about this for a while, but I knew that I couldn't let it ruin the rest of my trip. I would learn from this, but it's unfortunate that you could lose your faith in people for a while. Now I have been robbed many times before; got a cheap laptop stolen on a bus in China, had my locker broken into at the gym, got a backpack stolen out of my car, and so on. Luckily I had always prepared for the possibility of this happening and up until that point I had routinely backed up my photos so at least my priceless shots were saved. The camera could be replaced but not the photos. All I know is my OCD about my item checks will sadly be increasing after this. At the end of the day it was simply an unlucky culmination of events that led to this situation. The boys felt bad about the situation and told me I could stay as long as I wanted. Fidel even gave me some currency since I hardly had much left by this point.

One of Fidel and Rodri's friends, Bruno came by to hang out at the hostel. We got to talking in the common room with the two Swiss girls Debra and Elina. Then Bruno suggested we go visit the Marcado Cuatro. He drove us over in his car and we explored the market, eventually reaching a large cafeteria where various cooks tried enticing customers to sit at their tables and sample their cuisine. We sat at one and tried some Paraguayan dishes. It was October 1st so we ate a dish called Jopara, consisting of beans and vegetables mixed together. The legend goes that eating this dish will keep "Karai Octubre" away, a mythical rural man in a straw hat that brings misery and despair to those he visits. We made our way back to the hostel. I went out on my own for a bit and went for a walk despite the heat. In the late afternoon, I went back out with Bruno and the girls and we took a drive to a hip neighborhood called Loma San Jeronimo. We walked up to a rooftop cafe which had great views of Asuncion and the impending sunset. We had some drinks and snacks while listening to some good classic rock that was being played on the speakers. On the drive back Bruno played us some awesome music from one of his playlists. This guy knew good music. Late at night after hanging out with a bunch of the guys in the common room and going for a walk with Rata to the store, it was time to be moving on. Despite the previous days unfortunate event, I really loved the hostel and the friends I made there. It really felt like home. If I had more time I would have definitely hung around for a while longer. Rodri and Rata drove me across town to the bus station. There I bid them farewell and boarded my bus that would take me six hours east, the border town of Ciudad de l'Este.

I snoozed for most of the bus ride when we pulled into the station at around 0500. I disembarked and then quickly found a local bus to get me to the border station. I had heard a few things about Ciudad de l'Este, with some saying you will never find a greater hive of scum and villainy. In any case I wouldn't be sticking around to find out. The local bus driver was awesome, directing me where to go and even helping me exchange my few remaining Paraguayan Guaranis to Brazilian Rials. Yes I was on my way overland to Brazil. I first got stamped out of Paraguay and then had to walk a long bridge crossing the Parana River. From there I absentmindedly walked into Brazil, missing the customs station entirely, much like what I had done going from Peru to Bolivia. So I walked back to the station where I had my passport stamped by an agent who didn't seem like she had a care in the world. Now the sun was rising higher, it was getting warmer, and I was taking my first steps through the town of Foz Do Iguacu. I walked for about an hour casually checking out the town, and looking at the subtle differences. I was now surrounded not by Spanish, as I had for the previous 5 weeks, but by Portuguese. Albeit I could understand certain similar words but this was a different ballgame language wise now. I reached the Che Lagarto hostel, and went to talk to someone at reception. Soon after, my brother came down to meet me! Shawn had arrived the previous day, knowing I was on my way there. He had just finished breakfast, and I was starving so I made my way down to the breakfast area and partook in the generous buffet at hand. Then we checked into our room for the night. We split on a pretty nice private room for a very reasonable price. Then we walked to the nearby grocery store which had some ATM's and attempted to pull out cash. Or rather Shawn did since I didn't have my cards anymore. The one I did have left didn't seem to work anywhere anyway. Unfortunately his cards didn't seem to work either, but luckily I had a small amount of Rials and he still had a credit card for bigger purchases, of which I would just email him money back for whatever he spent on me. We walked over to the bus station and got on a bus to our purpose and destination for the day...Iguazu Falls! Obviously. It was hot as fuck, and we were sweating buckets on the hour long bus ride. Then we entered the Park and bought our tickets, before boarding a shorter bus to the main attraction. As expected we did not have the place to ourselves, there were plenty of tourists strewn about and many bottlenecks along the walk. But the falls were breathtaking as we approached. I had visited Niagra Falls as a kid but these falls were taller and about twice as wide. The most impressive part was named the Devil's Throat, and had rushing water crashing down from three sides. Along our walk we met coatis, cat sized mammals with long snouts. These ones were obviously very accustomed to people and some tried to climb up my leg while I was eating my sandwich. We spent a few hours here and although at times I was pissed off that I didn't have my camera to capture the scenes, I realized that my Samsung phone was still far superior to any camera I may have owned a decade earlier for my travels and I was still able to capture some decent shots. We spent a few hours here and then made our way back to town, arriving by late afternoon. Then we went to the grocery store, and bought some items for dinner as well as some beer. We went back to the common area and drank a few. For dinner we cooked up some fish and rice. Some of the staff were giving out free Caipirinha cocktails. It's made with sugarcane hard liquor, sugar and lime and it's considered Brazil's national cocktail. The one I sampled was far too sweet for me though and I wasn't a fan. I would stick to the beer.

We were up early the next morning, packed up and ate quickly before grabbing an Uber to the nearby airport. Sadly Shawn and I would be splitting up to get to our next destination; Rio de Janeiro. Usually Shawn is able to take me with him on passes with partner airlines to Air Canada, since he is a flight attendant and gets great travel benefits. However, this part of the world didn't seem to have any airlines within the same alliance. So although he could still get cheap Z fares for flights on these airliners, I could not. So I'd have to fork out the full bill like everyone else does. Trust me on this, it is totally worth having a family member or partner who works for an airline, you will probably visit places you never would have otherwise and save a ton in the process. But unfortunately it can make you into an entitled asshole if you let it. I was fine paying out of my own pocket though, but I obviously would find the cheapest way to get there, which in my case would not be direct. So while Shawn boarded his flight directly, I instead took a flight to Sao Paulo, then had a five hour layover, then had a further 2 hour delay for my Latam flight before the plane finally took off as the sun was coming down. But it would be all totally worth it.

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