Monday, November 26, 2007

Paraguay, parte cuatro

On to the main event, the reason I ended up in Paraguay to begin with: Iguazu falls. The largest system of waterfalls in the world, it is rivaled only by Victoria Falls in South Africa, which, while smaller in all around area, still has the largest single curtain of water in the world. Niagara, by comparison to either, is just a trickle. Much thanks to Wikipedia for today's trivia!

Anyway, the Falls are actually on the border of Brazil and Argentina, and can be viewed from either country. There's some debate as to which country has the best view, but from what I'd heard, Brazil had the best. So that was where I would go. There was, however, the pesky little problem of the Brazilian visa, which costs $150 and takes a week or so to obtain. But I was informed by those in the know (er, Kati) that from Ciudad del Este in Paraguay you can enter into Brazil freely and not a soul will bother to stop you at the border. Frightening as that sounded to me, I was prepared to take the risk.

And it was fine. We hopped a bus, drove over the bridge, and suddenly everything was Portuguese and samba. So I was in Brazil, though (shhhhh!) not officially. This lax security would come up later to bite me in the ass (foreshadowing again!), but for the moment I was much relieved at not having to pay $150 for a couple hours at a big waterfall.

But honestly, it might have been worth it. The Falls were absolutely amazing, something no digital camera could actually capture. Not that we didn't try.

I could sit here and try and explain what it was like, but that would be pointless. Looks like you'll just have to go there and see for yourself.

And while you're there, don't forget to see the Itaipu dam, our next stop on the Ciudad del Este tourist train. Again, Wikipedia is there for all our quick-but-not-necessarily-accurate information needs: Itaipu, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World (who knew?), is the largest dam in the world, and every day gives off the hydroelectric energy of 434,000 barrels of petroleum, providing 93% of Paraguay's energy and 20% of Brazil's. That's pretty cool. Also cool: watching them as they illuminate it at night to very loud, very dramatic music. Let me just say that it is way, way bigger than I imagined. Unfortunately you can't tell from the pictures, so you'll just have to take my word for it.
Finally, after an evening of ka'u rapo and karaoke (pictures available upon request), I was ready to head back to Argentina. This, much to my dismay, was easier said than done.

The trip, a nice little 18-hour bus trip, started off well. My big mistake was to take the bus through Paraguay (my nemesis!) and exit from Encarnacion instead of through Ciudad el Este. Thus we arrived at the border in the middle of the night, and I was awoken from a rather pleasant and well-earned sleep to hand my passport to the official who had boarded the bus, who informed me that I did not possess an entry stamp into Paraguay. Um, oops. Surely they had stamped it? I had stopped through customs on the way out of Argentina; isn't, receive an exit and an entrance stamp at the same time? Apparently not. I bid you return to my little Brazil adventure. So he was right. I didn't have it. I made a "silly me" gesture and smiled, and was told I'd have to get off the bus and yes, "come into the office." Mild jangling of the nerves. Okay then.

I was desperately trying to wake up and remember my Spanish, and he brought me into this little room, where I was interrogated by a very formidable woman in a ponytail that somehow, inexplicably, added to my fear. She informed me that I was in (indecipherable Spanish), and that there was a fine of 300,000-odd Gaurani (that's Paraguayan money), about $100, which I did not have. I explained this to her, very calmly, adding that I never actually saw any customs officials when I entered Paraguay and was thus prevented from obtaining the necessary stamp. So it wasn't my fault, obviously. She seemed much affronted by this and proceeded to give me a brief history of Paraguayan international border control, and reminded me coldly that there were many customs officials at the border (thousands! she said) and it was my responsibility to find them. I then informed her that the bus I was on didn't stop, and she rolled her eyes up into her brain and said that I had to ASK the driver to stop. Obviously!

Finally I asked her what was to be done. It was the middle of the night and I had no money anyway, couldn't she just let me pass? Because honestly, I was trying to LEAVE the godforsaken place, what difference could it possibly make? At this she hardened--if further hardening on her part was even possible--and said that I'd have to get off the bus, turn around, and go back to Ciudad del Este. Now I was getting panicked. I would not--could not!--go back. I asked for an ATM. She said there was one in the city center, but the bus driver wouldn't wait for me. Essentially, she said every possible thing she could say to make me feel helpless, hopeless, and alone. And it worked marvelously. I started crying like a little girl, my Spanish reduced to incoherent pleas. How on earth was I in a room with the only two people in Paraguay who didn't know who I was?

She sent me out of the room with a look that said "Don't worry, something can be arranged," seamlessly transitioning from bad cop to good cop in an instant. I stood outside, shaking and exhausted and feeling like the poorest, saddest person in the whole world, when the original official--the man, who by the way also had extremely bad hair, it must be an intimidation tactic--came up to me. "Crying isn't going to help you," he said. "You'll get no sympathy from us." Of course I started to howl at that, but desperately tried to stop. It wasn't going to happen.

He cocked his head. "How much can you afford to pay?" I stopped crying immediately. Hope! Yes, this was South America! I'd forgotten! I told him that I had only 120 Argentine pesos, the truth (dammit, should have said less), and he said he'd talk to his partner, scary ponytail lady. Next she came out, and very kindly asked me to come into the office. "We wouldn't want you to have to go back," she said. "Let me talk to my partner, see if we can work something out." They disappeared, came back a few minutes later and said if I gave them what I had, they'd let me go. I nearly fell to the ground to kiss their feet, so relieved was I to be leaving Paraguay. "But remember, we're doing you a favor, so not a word!" They admonished. Of course not! I would say nothing and be grateful to the end of my days!

I rushed back to the bus to get my money, and the other passengers, who had been waiting for me, were all concern and pity (these ones knew me, of course). "Why are you crying? What did they do to you?" I grabbed the money, muttered "I'm fine," and ran like the wind back to the office, where I paid them, got back my passport, and fled at long last from the Country of Multiple Miseries, mouth firmly shut.

That lasted until we crossed the border, when the Argentine official, a very pretty (and I'm not even making that up) girl with NO PONYTAIL, commented that I didn't have a stamp from Paraguay, at which point I lost it again. I think I whined something like "They wouldn't give me one!", and she shook her head. "How much did they make you pay?" I told her, and she smiled sweetly and actually said "Well it's over now. You're in Argentina, and you won't have any problems here." I could have kissed her.

We got off the bus to go through customs, and word of my shakedown had spread to everyone else. People squeezed my hand and apologized, a grandmotherly type tsk-tsked and said "And after what happened to you in Asuncion!", and my general bad luck was discussed freely among the crowd. Some of the Argentine officials asked me how much I had to pay, and when I told them, they nodded. "Barrato," they said. Cheap. Well that's one good thing anyway. Could have been worse.

Then we got back on the bus, and I breathed in the air of Argentina, a country that in that moment was as dear to my heart as my own, and settled in for a nice long bout of self pity. I was crying, and it was one of those indulgent, wonderful cries. Poor, poor me! Attacked! Robbed! Alone! Tired! Forced to speak nothing but Spanish for an endless week! Forced to bribe mean, ugly people with bad hair! Woe is me, sufferer of great misfortune!

And then, somewhere in the middle of all that wallowing, something began to needle me. Never one to overlook an emotion, however faint, I decided to investigate. And to my surprise I found that what I felt, underneath all of my whining, was shame. I was back in Argentina, yes, and on vacation. In a few short weeks I would be heading back to the states, back to a family so happy they would make Norman Rockwell blush, to celebrate a holiday that would no doubt involve lots of food and embarrassing quantities of presents, in a big, lovely house in a big, lovely suburb. And after that I'm off to Scotland, where (I hope) I'm awaited with tenderness, and after that...whatever I want, really.

I forget, sometimes, that I used to be a missionary. That I used to live my life for something other than myself. And unless I remind myself, I forget that those kids, who I have been so busy hating, will probably never go anywhere. For them there will never be Christmas, or feasting, or travel or college or education or even parents. Nothing excuses what they did to me of course, but then, what excuse do I have for all this whining? What on earth do I have, really, to be so sad about?

Do I sound preachy? You can take the girl out of the mission field, as they say... But honestly, I am ashamed of myself sometimes. I am singularly blessed. I know this. I would go on and wax poetic on the realizations that overtook me on the long trip back to Buenos Aires, but some things are just better left off the Internet.

So that's my Paraguay adventure. Hope it wasn't too long-winded. Sometimes I just can't help myself!

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