Here is Chapter Twelve of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We're publishing each chapter here on the blog (Track down previous chapters here). You can order the entire book at Amazon.com, at BN.com, or direct from EarthPhotos Publishing. Here's the Kindle version (just $6.99). Click these photos to make them bigger. More photos and additional commentary are available at A Common Sense and Whiskey Companion. And here's the Paraguay Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.
The farthest back water washes to a national capital must be Asuncion, Paraguay. It’s as if its residents didn’t ask for the honor, but the capital had to be somewhere so they amiably accommodated.
Maybe parts of Africa are less vital. Think Ouagadougou, maybe, or Bangui. Even somnambulant Vientiane, which is in Laos, shows more vitality than here, smack in the middle of South America.
They’d rolled up the streets by the time we installed ourselves in the Sabe Hotel. The front desk spoke not so much as “hello.” No English. Here in the national capital.
The TV wouldn’t work until tomorrow because it was New Years Day and they couldn’t get anybody out to fix it, but it was a nice enough place. A picture hung partly over the window in the hallway. That was a little strange.
I was out early in the morning, through the business district and down to the Paraguay River. It wasn’t very big, downtown Asuncion, and it wasn’t very busy.
There was the main Plaza de los Heroes, down a few blocks, and Asuncion had a building modeled after the Pantheon. Sales ladies’ tables along Avenue Palma offered up the usual languid market fare: watches and underwear and (allegedly) Nike clothes and plastic toys. Birds were loud and it was hot hot hot by 8:45.
Down at the river, General Francisco Solana Lopez’s white-washed mansion, started in 1860, stood shuttered. Beyond it, children pumped water at a clutter of squatter shacks. A sand spit stretched out to two rusting shipwrecks, resting over on their sides, just on the edge of the water. Here in the national capital.
The breathtaking Asuncion waterfront.
But let’s start at the beginning, which was a few days earlier.
The Girl from Ipanema and her ilk played from speakers in the stone-floored breakfast room at the Triple Borders, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, a place that keenly interested the U.S. after September 11th, because the government was convinced terrorists operated, or at least laundered money there.
As Kelly Hearn told the story in the Christian Science Monitor in 2005, a motorcycle taxi driver in Cuidad del Este shouted “from inside his helmet: ‘They want to control all this. They think terrorists are here.’
‘They’ means the US military.”
Hearn wrote, “Before and immediately after 9/11, US officials suspected that Al Qaeda was active in the so-called Triple Border area where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet. Those fears have dwindled to allegations that Arab businessmen in Ciudad del Este use profits from pirated goods to fund Middle East terrorist groups. The Brazilian government has estimated that $6 billion of illegal funds are wired out of Ciudad del Este annually.”•••••
On the Argentina side of the border at Iguazu Falls, it was so bloody hot every day, how could you smuggle? We just watched the wildlife. We only ever saw a fraction, but there were tons: Escorpiones and coleopterous beetles that grew to tablespoon size – they stood an inch high. Scary, but turn ‘em over and they just wiggle.
There were aranas, tarantulas, and eighty billion mosquitoes. Monkeys and sloths and the tamandua lived in trees. The tamandua ate honey. The carpincho, I think it wasn’t sure if it was a beaver or an anteater. And the lobo gargantilla didn’t know if it was a beaver or an eel, with fat swimmers’ feet and an ugly tube of a body, four feet long with its tail.
The tiny deerlike corzuela enana had no chance against a six foot alligator called nombre vulgar. There was the tegu lizard – Mirja saw one – and porcupines, little cats and orange-billed toucans and toucans both verde and amarillo. The most famous big cats, pumas and yaguaretes, were nowhere to be found. Must have been way back in the jungle. There was a little museum where a yaguarete was chomping down on a tapir.
Armadillos were the most unfortunate. Everybody ate them, even big lizards. On the other hand, anteaters must taste awful. Nobody ate them but the big cats. And there was tree-sized bamboo thick as the top of your arm, everywhere you looked.
A man named Walter drove us over to the Brazilian side of the falls across the River Paraná. On the strength of Walter vouching for us that we’d be back in Argentina later that same day, that didn’t require a border stop.
But we were going on through Brazil for Paraguay. Walter said we’d need a visa and tomorrow was a holiday, consulate was closed, so we went to the Brazilian consulate in Argentina right then. It took just twenty minutes, even typing on a manual typewriter, because no one was there but us. That amazed Walter. He said it usually takes at least an hour.
Walter Foerster’s folks moved to Argentina as kids just about the time their parents would have been fleeing Germany in the wake of World War Two. That was pretty common in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The president of Paraguay for thirty years was the son of an immigrant brewer, a man named Alfredo Stroessner.
In the Iguaçu National Park, in Brazil, black-fringed yellow butterflies threw themselves by the thousands at Walter’s Peugeot. Nandus, cousin to ostriches, stood in a preserve. Anteaters pilfered tourists’ ice cream cones along a walkway skirting the hammering torrents of Iguazu Falls.
It was good not to speak the language.
The kids whined, “Papa I’ve got to pee” and the adults were sniping like the wife of Kurt down in Patagonia, but if you couldn’t understand them, you could pretend they were comparing impressions of the aesthetics of such a volume of moving water.
Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil was a city of 300,000, with orange- drink hawkers at every traffic light, and these lights were cool, too, not just one red and one green, but a whole scheme-full of reds and greens, five apiece in columns. When the color changed the top one was lit, and the less time left, the lower the light slid toward the bottom until the color changed again.
Foz boasted a couple of mid-rise buildings, the Itabon sushi bar, billboards for cell phones advertising “100 minutas gratis,” and an Avenue Schimmelpfing. There were residential towers that had never been finished, and the TV Cataratas tower stood back from the road, inside Agriculture Ministry property.
Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil.
There were the Oklahoma Texaco and the Antarctica Restaurant, and across the street, Bar Mania. They had a thing for Mona Lisa around here: A Mona Lisa Hotel in Foz, and signs advertising duty free shopping at Mona Lisa shopping center across the border in Paraguay.
We checked the bus schedules to Paraguay and they didn’t really suit us: three times a day, at 00:05, 7:00 and 18:05. The 18:05 wasn’t A/C, and it would put us at the bus station in Asuncion after midnight with hotel reservations at a hotel that (we didn’t know yet) didn’t exist.
Walter told me how much most people paid for a private car to Asuncion while we stood there in the bus station, and when I said okay, he drove us back to Argentina and he was quiet and stroked his chin and I thought he might want to make that money for himself. And sure enough he did.
Walter and his Peugeot were ready the next afternoon at 1:30 and whisked us out of Iguazu. We stopped for border stamps at Argentina and Brazil and motored straight on to Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s second city.
•••••Walter warned that we might lose our film if we took pictures of the border, but eating chicken out of a box interested the border police more than we did. There was an advantage to traveling on the New Years Day holiday. We were the only people trying to get in and Walter was ecstatic, because it can take an hour or two there, but this only took about three minutes.
Disappointing, predictable Cuidad del Este, Paraguay’s East City, squatted in the sun, poor and dusty and ramshackle, low buildings crumbling into lumps along the highway, traffic lights out and money changers in leather money belts glowering on the side of the road. Walter stopped, didn’t like the rate, then did a deal at the Esso for fifty Argentina pesos worth of Guarani. And we were off for Asuncion.
Walter was a big man. He had to open the Peugeot’s door and stick his leg out to get the money out of his pocket. I thought it was unlikely he could spend those pesos unless it was for gas.
In Cuidad del Este you longed to be out in the country again. A John Deere heavy equipment store, red dirt, no landscape and litter. You’d think there was a competition to see how foul they could make the roadside. Men with guns sat on stools. On the other side of town they’d torn up the road and didn’t appear to have plans to fix it.
The caballeros barracks was the nicest building in Cuidad del Este. Mirja imagined that if you were a young man living in the dirt, it might make you want to join.
It was as humid as it gets, just sopping drippy. We and others double-passed some of the slower cars on the two lane road which, if nothing else superlative can be said, was in tolerably good shape all the way to Asuncion. Good enough to speed.
Somewhere a road wandered off to the left. A sign with an arrow read “Novotel 247K.”
New Year picnics had the rural population of eastern Paraguay out in their front yards just like they might be anywhere in the rural U.S. south – guys in their undershirts, everybody in flip flops. They sat in twos and fives in lawn chairs under trees.
To move was to sweat, but still some played the odd volleyball game. A funeral procession moved slowly alongside the road on foot, a cluster of men carrying a simple wooden coffin on their shoulders.
Here was a girl with a bag on her head as big as she was, there was a stickball game. Red dirt and dust everywhere, and people at every water hole. Tethered cattle. Roosters. Hippodromos. And Gomerias (tire repair shops).
There were so many Gomerias that I got cross at seeing them. I mean, really, every kilometer or so for five hours, a tire sat out at the road painted with the word “Gomeria.” You either don’t need anything to set up a Gomeria or maybe there was a government subsidy if you did. That’s it, the government must pay people to own Gomerias so they can be in the record book as “Proud Paraguay – home of the world’s most Gomerias.”
Paraguayans didn’t honk their horns. Well, okay, there’s not much traffic, but that doesn’t stop the rest of the third world’s drivers. Here in Paraguay, it was quiet.
Out in the country we’d occasionally roll past carts with chest-high wagon wheels, and pigs, granaries, geese and people in the open backs of trucks. Lots of the old original Volkswagen beetles. There weren’t too many potholes and I was surprised.
Roofs were terra cotta or tin, wells built of brick. Grafitti: “Ricardo y Fatty C.” A car sped by us with the license plate: “Georgia Bulldogs.”
Colinas (hills) sprang up two hundred kilometers out of Asuncion. A horse wandered too close to the road. The highway stretched ten kilometers ahead, flat and straight, and cumulus appeared on the horizon. The first clouds of the day.
Towns now, not dirty outposts like Cuidad del Este, but proper little villages with centers and trees. 86 K from Asuncion, one town was open for business, stores, shops, kids on motorbikes and police on patrol. They put short, three-cornered stools – like in Rangoon – out by the roadside. White cloth on top kept chipas, cheese buns, warm.
Nearer Asuncion wealth was more manifest, cattle and sheep, and farms well tended with well-maintained roads. For a while there was a passing lane.
It remained unrelentingly hot, with grassy-topped palms and wild cactus. Vendors sold bananas or garlic. Toward the big city, you could buy baseball caps and underwear by the roadside, and one sign advertised “Sex Toys.” Signs supplied by advertisers like Bremen beer lit a few shops, and always there were Gomerias.
More colinas. 48 kilometers out the highway divided and the river Paraguay came into view. You could sail to the Atlantic from here, the Paraguay River to the Paraná to the Plata (I guess you’d have to put out and walk around Iguazu Falls), so that you’d finally sail into the ocean between Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
Two names I enjoyed: The Juan O’Leary bus l
ine, and in the town of Loranzo, the clinic of Dr. Jose Rosenbaum.
The race was on to get to town before dark. I started out thinking that was a lock but Walter was ever the courteous driver, even timid, after a lifetime of driving in the small towns around Iguazu, and as the tempo picked up toward Asuncion, he hung back. And there was the little matter of him not knowing his way. We cruised cheesy neighborhoods on the outskirts, Walter showing manly reluctance to ask directions.
After he’d asked once, though, he’d stop every four minutes to ask again. I don’t know how he handled his Spanish conversations, but when he talked with us, Walter would typically start in his best stab at English and invariably end in Spanish, mumbling.
He was a perfectly nice fellow, maybe a little small-town slack-jawed, and it was a pleasure having him drive us into Paraguay, although I didn’t envy his turning around and driving back down that five hour highway in the dark. Finally, with the sun behind some of the downtown buildings, we found the hotel.
Just the tiniest problem: it was out of business. The Guarani, the best in town in the “Official Hotel Guide,” had its windows shuttered, no sign and a police guard. This had happened just recently, obviously, because there was a Christmas tree in the lobby, and we were never made to know what was really up. It was a twinge disconcerting when we drove up to see the man who tried to help us look so pitifully sorry for us.
Whatever had happened, we asked for the best hotel in town and they showed us to it, and that was the Hotel Sabo, just around a couple of corners, and it must’ve had a half dozen guests on fourteen floors, so there was really no problem.
Asuncion may be the world’s least interesting capital city, but that’s not to say it’s mean. It’s really just a simple place filled with agreeable, unassuming people. It’s set on gentle hills, and I remember ten years before, I knew a man who had gone to adopt a baby in Asuncion. He was the only person I’d ever known who’d been to Paraguay and I asked him what it was like.
“Beautiful,” he’d told me, and I wondered what Paraguay he’d been to. It’s not beautiful, but it’s not ugly either. Really, it’s just a simple place with agreeably unassuming people, none of whom speak any English.
At a place called Itaugua down the road from Asuncion, known for it’s spider-web style lace, Mirja had a manicure/pedicure for two bucks while I walked through the dust and watched the horsemen and brightly painted buses until I found Bar Himalaya and had a couple beers. The temperature gauge hit 41 degrees (105.7F) on the way into town. It was so flippin’ hot that they served half litre beers iced in champagne buckets, with a glass. Elegance, Paraguayan style.
The Itaugua bus enters the Pan-American highway.
On Saturdays in Asuncion, most of the shops just simply didn’t reopen after siesta. Restaurant Bolsi was a good choice for dinner in large part because it was open. Walking down to the Plaza de los Heroes, where Restaurant Bolsi is, loud music streamed from all the shops that were open. Saturday night.
Saturday night or not, dogs lay about in the middle of the street. Street vendors sat at their carts with no customers. Those who were open were liable to be watching a tiny black and white TV propped inside their carts.
The feeling on the dark streets was the approximate opposite of danger. Our most risqué moment was walking past a knot of six girl prostitutes in tight pants, smoking and talking on a street corner. Never, even in the fading light that first night where the police had shut down our hotel, did we ever feel anything but welcome.
At Restaurant Bolsi they sat us down and set us up with our champagne bucket of beer and brought out cups of chicken bouillon. We were only the third table in the place, but that changed. Paraguayans do the Latin late dining thing.
Corn meal biscuits, not exactly cornbread, were delicious.
Now you’re right, when you visit a place and one of the things you remark on is the corn meal biscuits, it’s possible it’s not be the world’s hottest spot. Asuncion may not be very interesting, but its citizens are carefree. Maybe you needn’t visit. But if you lived there, you’d be happy.
A Fokker 100 took us home, operated by TAM, which is an acronym for something like Transportes Aereos del Mercosur, Mercosur being the economic union down here like NAFTA and the EU.
Felices Fiestas. Over the badlands (I don’t know if they’re called that but they ought to be, exactly the monotonous same from above like the Australian outback) they came up the aisle and handed out Papa Noel Christmas ornaments.
Six Catholic sisters, who obviously didn’t fly much, joined us on this TAM flight. Grim at takeoff, they loosened up and they were all smiles and camera flashes by the end. The pilots showed kids (and sisters) the cockpit.
They asked, in English, “Would you like another beer, sir?” – a sentence never spoken in U.S. air space.
There was some prize raffle. We didn’t understand it in Spanish, but they would call out seat numbers and people would clap and someone would run up to the front to claim their prize. One of the sisters even won. And when we landed in Chile everybody in the plane clapped.