I am writing from San Lorenzo, Paraguay. It is just outside of Asuncion, the capital. It is our last day here. We’re about to walk to some markets and stock up on food supplies for our 26 hour bus ride tonight from Asuncion to Santa Cruz. I’ve read the few blogs (few because not many people stop in Paraguay) on the bus journey to Bolivia and it does not sound good. We’ve been warned – whatever you do fly! Don’t take the bus. From what I’ve read the 26 hour journey will more likely take about 30 hours to allow time for breakdowns, buses are often ridiculously full and uncomfortable and if I want to exit the country and enter Bolivia legally chances are I will have to bang on immigration’s door to stamp me out. Worse than that is the toilet situation. Banheiro? If we’re lucky.
We got the bus from Foz do Iguacu to Asuncion arriving at 6 am and stepped out into a raging thunderstorm. As soon as we got off the bus it was obvious we were no longer in Brazil and had arrived in a much poorer country. Everyone stared at us. We could hear the local Guarani language being spoken everywhere and knew we had a problem when we couldn’t even remember how to say hello – mba’eichapa (plus a whole lot of accents). Thankfully 92% of the population also speak Spanish. Horse and cart passed us by as we tried to find a hole in the wall that would accept our cards. A few blocks later, almost drenched we were millionaires. Literally. On the way back to the bus station we had to dodge giant holes in the roads and jump over streams of rushing water. But the scariest part were the piles of dirt and sand blocking our way at every corner. Before coming to Paraguay we thought we ought to read up a little on this country most people seemed to avoid. We learnt a bit about the history, the Guarani people and the geography. We also came across a frightening fact. In Paraguay a certain type of bug liked to lurk amongst the dirt and sand and to be careful because these bugs could get into your feet and lay eggs and if this happened to you, you would be sure to know due to excessive pain and to go to a hospital immediately. We survived the bugs and jumped on a bus to Cami’s casa, our new couch surfer host. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There was a lot of aimlessly walking around to find our bus, then once on the bus we had to avoid dying due to their crazy driving. At one point the bus zoomed over a small speed bump it hadn’t seen. I think everyone’s bums left their seats. I was standing and both feet left the ground. If my pack hadn’t been weighing me down I think I would have gone flying. Over here people jump on buses and try to sell various items – umbrellas, food, lollies, newspapers, hats, you name it! After shouting at the whole bus trying to make a sale sometimes being successful they jump off the bus while it’s still moving and wait for the next. Our next obstacle was getting off the bus. There are no bus stops here you just pull the string to notify the driver you want to get off and you hope that it will come to a complete stop. Especially when you’re laden with luggage. Thankfully it did. The next problem was that there was a river of water running right outside the door. Paraguay doesn’t have a working drainage system. There was no way I could jump it with all my luggage so I just had to step right in it. We did eventually get to Cami’s one short taxi ride later.
(We later asked Cami about the bugs and if that really does happen. It does but not in Asuncion. The sand on the roads here are clean so it’s okay. It is further out in poor villages in the countryside where it happens quite often because the people walk everywhere barefoot because they can’t afford shoes.)
Cami lives with her parents and their cute dog Sansa. She is an English teacher and studies environmental studies at uni. Her parents are so nice and her mum has gone out of her way to make sure I have gluten free food to eat. The first day they took us to a lake where we swam while it rained. It was warmer in the lake than out. One day we went to a cemetery for rich people. Instead of having a gravestone they have an entire room. From the outside it looks like a small house. It felt like we were walking through an abandoned village. Inside the rooms you can see the coffins. One room had been smashed and the coffins were breaking apart.
It’s fascinating walking around the streets here. People walking past balancing huge trays of food on their heads, on all the streets there are people selling things, little barbeques on street corners selling kebabs. I picked some limes the other day, there were lime trees everywhere and mango trees all the way down the street. Unfortunately the mangoes from the trees aren’t ripe enough to eat yet. We went to a huge food market yesterday. I think we were the most fascinating thing there. Everyone thought it was very funny seeing two blonde, white girls. They kept calling out, ‘allemand, allemand?’ In Paraguay there are many German communities. Asuncion has one of the biggest and so everyone thinks we are German. There was so much fruit at the markets. Piles and piles of watermelons stacked up in huge pyramids everywhere you looked. Thousands and thousands of oranges, bananas, tomatoes, everything!
Barbecues are very popular in Paraguay. A lot of meat is consumed and mate. Mate is a traditional tea here in Paraguay and in many other countries in South America. It taste like a mix of green and peppermint tea. The cup is full of the tea which you then add cold water to and you drink it through a straw. After finishing it you refill the cup and pass it to the next person. When you are done and don’t want anymore you then say, gracias. Everyone drinks this here. No one leaves the house without their thermos of mate.
We went to some of the parliament buildings in the city centre which was a bizarre sight. A huge very grand looking building surrounded by slums. The slums are made up of random bits of wood, rubbish and whatever the people can find. There was some sort of protest going on when we were there. Apparently they occur quite often.
The people here in Paraguay are so friendly. Everyone wants to help. We weren’t sure where to get off the bus after being in the city and soon the whole bus was involved trying to help us out. We were rushing to get home because Cami’s friend was getting married and the wedding was that evening. The bus took hours due to traffic and after getting off the bus too early we gave up on getting back in time. I was also dying to find a bathroom as my bladder was about to explode and the things that happen when you need to pee! We walked into an outdoor restaurant and asked to use the bathroom and hours later we were still there, hanging out with the locals enjoying a bbq and cervezas. We made some friends who paid for our dinner and drinks and then got a ride home as it was now about midnight and we were told, ‘peligroso, peligroso’ (dangerous).
After traveling around South America for two months and exploring various countries I can say that Paraguay is very different from the rest. Seeing horse and cart pass you by and the older generation adorned in their traditional dress is like stepping back in time. It is much poorer than neighbouring countries and the modern world seems to have left this beautiful country behind.
During my one week stay in the capital, Asuncion, I felt very safe. Although most backpackers bypass this intriguing country, I am so grateful I got to see it through the eyes of a local, staying with the most generous and hospitable family.