Saturday, 8 March 2014

Tales of the Unexpected

Literally 2 minutes after leaving the city of Posadas and ‘easy street’, Argentina to me and you, we crossed the bridge over the Rio Parana and entered the unknown world of Paraguay. We hadn’t done any research whatsoever about the country as we hadn’t expected to come here until after our visit to Brazil, but things change and we decided to mix it up a little. So our tales of the unexpected began as soon as crossed that bridge and our first impressions were founded upon the dusty streets, the rundown buildings and the trash – basically we already missed Argentina.
The thing is you should never make judgements based on your first impressions but as I was still drunk from the night before I couldn’t help it. The city of Encarnacion seemed like a bit of a crap-hole and we didn’t have high hopes for country number 16 of this trip.
Arriving at the bus terminal 10 minutes later we looked around at the scantily dressed homeless guys strewn about the floor, checked out 2 rough looking hotels and decided to just move on to the capital city ASAP.
The thing about first impressions is that they mean nothing, we returned to Encarnacion later in the week and absolutely loved it as a city; we had just seen the bad side of town on that first day.

The journey to the capital city of Asuncion gave us our first views of geography of Paraguay and the words that spring to mind are flat, land and green. Paraguay’s population is about 7 million but 4 million of these people live in the capital city meaning that there is a lot of empty space. For miles and miles we drove looking at nothing more than fields.
The bus to the capital took longer than expected so we broke our only steadfast rule of travel when arriving into a new city, especially a capital which is always known for having more scammers and thieves ie. do not arrive after dark. Things are always safer and better during the day plus you are not held to ransom regarding transport and the bums are still asleep and not wandering around as high as kites!!

We arrived at the bus terminal in Asuncion at 9pm and we didn’t even try to get into the centre of town, instead we just went to the nearest hotel and used that as a base for 2 days. The centre was at least 5km away and we would be leaving from the same place soon enough so it just made sense to stay within easy access of the station.
The area around the station was very ropey indeed but it definitely gave us a good introduction to Paraguayan life. That first night we sat out on the humid and busy street and ate from a street vendor as we took in this altogether new environment which was much more in context with how I imagined South America to be, that is, frantic and a little rough around the edges.

I am pretty sure that my opinion of Delhi being the worst capital city in the world will always be unrivalled but for completely different reasons Asuncion is my number 2 for no other reason than that there is absolutely nothing worth seeing apart from The Pantheon, a building dedicated to the ‘unknown soldier’ and the memories of those lost in Paraguay’s apparently disastrous wars. It is fronted by 2 guards and every day you can watch the changing of the guard but given how relaxed and easy these lads looked as they had a chat it didn’t seem worth hanging around the watch the actual formalities.
We wandered around the city for 90 minutes and saw everything on offer; there was just nothing to do and nothing to see.
The most interesting part of the city was that directly behind the main Government building was a huge slum sat on the river’s edge before the land stretched away into the wilderness.  It is very rare to see these three things in such close proximity, major buildings, slums and wilderness – but as interesting as I find slums they aren’t really a tour highlight are they? Unless we are talking about Mumbai.

It was now Monday and we had decided that we would stay in Paraguay until at least the next weekend so that we could attend the festivities of Carnival in Encarnacion, after all, it was featured in the Daily Mail (not that I read it, it was on Google) and is now viewed as the second best Carnival celebration after Rio!!
Our problem was how to kill a few days in what frankly is a nice enough country but with not a lot going on for the backpacker.
We decided to take a short trip out to San Bernadhino, a lakeside town labelled as the weekend escape for the rich of Asuncion.
Actually that is one thing to mention about Paraguay – the rich and the poor. There are a lot of poor people in Paraguay and by equal measure some ridiculously rich ones too and it was not uncommon for us to be walking through what I would deem to be a ‘dodgy’ neighbourhood with people sleeping under makeshift shelters but see people driving by in brand new Mercedes and Porsches.
We never quite got to the bottom of where this money came from though.

To get to San Bernadhino we had to take a local bus out into the countryside and there was no air-conditioning and Paraguay is South America’s hottest country. Needless to say that Betty Swollocks came along for the ride with us; the journey was so hot and sticky.
As eluded to, San Bernadhino is a weekend retreat and it meant just that. We arrived on a Tuesday morning and it was a ghost town and to boot there were 2 hotels, 1 of which was shut. The other hotel wanted $120 per night which is another confusing aspect of this country. It may be the second poorest country in the continent but the prices of transport (for crap buses) and accommodation are completely out of sync with its general profile.
Fortunately the friendly guy behind reception who was a big fan of Australia and therefore Arancha told us about a hostel that was located a couple of kilometres away and would be more suited to our budget. Being too hot to walk and this being a ghost town we found the only taxi driver fast asleep on a park bench and seemingly still p*ssed from either the night before or his liquid breakfast.
We loaded ourselves into his rusty death trap – the sort of vehicle where there are no door handles and only he knows the little tricks of how to open them and he proceeded to drive us to the hostel in what must’ve been the world’s most expensive taxi ride by kilometre.

Fortunately we really liked the hostel come campsite where we ended up which was for the best because there really were no other alternatives. We had a small cabana by the lake’s edge and with only 4 other people staying on the other side of the site we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
Our cabin and patio looked out over the water and was surrounded by sand, palms and wildlife which meant we could sit there and watch dozens of different types of birds fly about and hunt the hundreds of different types of insects that buzzed about, most of the time in our faces.
The hostel’s best feature was it swimming pool – it had a waterslide.
The only downside was its proximity to town and the fact that we had no food. In the middle of the day we walked into town and with the sun being so hot 2 kilometres felt like 10, so we made sure to load up on enough supplies so that we wouldn’t need to leave the comforts of our cabin again.

The next couple of days passed us by with little of note apart from a massive electrical storm over the lake and Arancha’s visit to the toilet! All I heard was a loud scream and her yelling at me to come in quickly. I thought that maybe she had done a special poo in the shape of a word or something but alas that was not to be and instead on the wall facing her was a frog the size of my hand as well as a baby one about the size of my thumbnail and for the next 2 days we had Mr Frog and Frog Jnr as flatmates.   
However, because Mr Frog was quite big we always entered the bathroom with a little trepidation in case he got scared and jumped at us to attack!

It was now getting close to Carnival time so we sucked up the heat and spent a day traveling via taxi (the same expensive rust bucket), bus, taxi and bus to Encarncion via Asuncion. At Asuncion there was a super-duper modern bus with tv and WIFI dedicated to taking revellers to Encarnacion for Carnival and everyone even got a free t-shirt but somehow we missed this company and ended up on the local bus that you kept yourself cool by opening the windows at high speed and because it was local it stopped everywhere and took 2 hours longer.
Back to where we started we again decided to keep it simple and stay by the bus terminal and found a really nice hostel in which to stay with a great owner.
I have to say that I think that the Paraguayan people are the friendliest and most helpful we have met so far on this trip and they are always keen to offer assistance with a big smile.

This time we actually got to experience Encarnacion from another viewpoint than just the bus terminal and what a fun and vibrant city it is. It is full of bright young entrepreneurs who seem to be opening up lots of quirky and modern restaurants, cafes and juice bars and every evening after work the man-made beach and promenade along the river (looking over to Argentina) is packed full of families and teenagers having a good time and cooling off in the clear and clean water with either some popcorn or a beer.
We stayed here for 3 days but could’ve easily stayed for a couple more as it was a really nice place and deserving of the title of Paraguay’s prettiest city.

Every weekend throughout the month of February Encarnacion plays host to Paraguay’s Carnival celebrations and we arrived in time for the final and therefore biggest weekend. As I mentioned in my post about attending the start of Carnival month in Uruguay, it is not just all about Rio. Yes Rio is the most famous but it is a continent wide celebration, although as I now write this post from Brazil having just lived through THE Carnival weekend, nothing actually compares to the real thing and I hindsight we should’ve just paid up and gone to Rio in style.
As previously stated Encarnacion is now getting international notoriety as a place where you can let loose and enjoy Carnival without it costing you a fortune. Plus the party is said to be much more debaucherous and the parade much more ‘fleshy’.
When we first looked at going to the Sambodrome to watch the Rio Carnival we were going to buy good tickets in the middle stand that would have set us back about £120 each but here we got tickets for Encarnacion’s own Sambodrome (we are talking about a 200 metre long permanent concrete structure purely for Carnival purposes, that’s how serious this stuff is) for £1.30!
We had actually heard about a section where we could get unlimited food and alcohol for £30 each but as hard as we tried just couldn’t get hold these tickets, so instead we sat with the general populous and had a brilliant night.
The parade didn’t actually start until 10pm and the general order of things was to sneak your own booze in via a disguised soft drinks bottle and make sure not to forget 2 important things:
1)      A can of snow spray
2)      Sunglasses – to protect your eyes from a face full of snow spray

We got into the Sambodrome by 9pm and by about 9:20pm a full-scale snow spray war had broken out and it didn’t cease for 4 hours. My particular enemies were a granny and a young boy (not related) and we all gave as good as we got; it was so much fun.
Arancha on the other hand took it to another level. At the beginning of the parade the local policeforce demonstrated their new bicycles and electric scooters in their battle to combat street crime and in these countries you do not f*ck about with the cops – unless you are Arancha Joulian.
Standing at the front of the stand overlooking the parade Aranhca produced a series of open mouths and shocked faces by snow spraying a copper over his sparkling, new uniform because he got too close to her.
He looked around to try and find the perpetrator but to no avail and I was left one very happy and proud boyfriend. F*ck you Rozzers!!

The actual parade itself was pretty good and as the reviews said it was all about the flesh – tits and arse from the women and pecs and abs from the blokes, but after 4 hours of the same thing and the same songs being sung by the bands we decided to call it a night at about 2:30am.
When I say call it a night I mean the parade. I was still wide awake and whereas AJ went back to the hostel I decided to head down to the beach to see what was going on. Fortunately on my way down there I ran into a couple of westerners that I had met earlier in the day so along with them and a Paraguayan politician, who plans to soon run as the leader of the opposition, we spent the night partying in a beach bar until the sun came up and I got to bed by about 7am.
Obviously the next day was a write off and we declined the offer to head back out that night to another beach party as we had decided to now make our way to Brazil, which of course would be celebrating its Carnival weekend that coming Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday!

With little fanfare we left Encarnacion for the border city of Ciudad Del Este (City of the East) and from here we took another local bus over yet another bridge and were human-trafficked into Brazil to a world of beaches, Caipirinhas and Samba; but these stories can wait for next time.
Yes we only spent 1 week in Paraguay but we saw enough. It is an ok country but if it wasn’t for the impromptu Carnival celebrations and the people themselves I wouldn’t really have a lot to talk about. Needless to say, I don’t think we will be going back but that is not to say that we didn’t have a fun time.
After all, where else can you get away with snow spraying a policeman or have a poo with a frog watching you?

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