Sunday, 26 December 2010

Fundamental Errors and the Run Out of Ciudad del Este

I’ve made the unpardonable traveller’s mistake. I’ve created a prior image of Paraguay, based on a few chance comments and the topography that we passed through to the east. I don’t think I’ve ever been so ignorant a place before. Could I have named the capital? Possibly. Did I know any history? I was vaguely aware that it had had it’s fair share of unsavory rulers, beyond that: nada. I had read and enjoyed John Gimlette’s book “The Tomb of the Inflatable Pig”, but with no personal reference points, it had simply been a travellers tale. To the east, in Misiones it had been heavy commercial forestry, subsistence farming of tobacco and manioc or small pockets of original growth jungle. Little Indio towns had been mentioned, so I had created a mental picture, one we had seen one afternoon. The wooden grass thatched shacks, a family of children with a monkey trying to pose for photo opportunities alongside roadside stalls selling woven baskets and jungle fruits bromeliads and orchids.

Of course the reality was almost diametrically opposed to this imagined picture.

Coming out of the urban sprawl of Ciudad del Este: the youthful upstart that has only just made it’s half century, heading due west for Asuncion: who likes to style itself “The Mother of the Americas”. At over five centuries it does have age on it’s side. We’ve left the downtown, wild west clutter of cut price emporia. The spurious named tee-shirts, the pirated CDs, the fake DVDs, the sham Reeboks, the bootlegged Nikes. Now comes a ribbon development of small brightly painted businesses selling intelligent batteries or religious statuary, moto tyres or rolled barbed wire, cerveza Budwieser or combine harvesters, frutas & verduras and gridlocked cars. interspersed within this brick and mortar jungle are the smoked glass and chromed steel edifices of the German euro car importers, the complete agro supplies industry and a full pack of financial services. All primary indicators of where the agri-industrial money lies.

Instead of forested jungle closing in around the road, the country side opens up soya and wheat, corn and dairy fields stretch away to a rolling horizon. All the mega agri giants are in attendance: the Cargills, the ADMs and the Parmalats. It’s a broad picture of extended intensive agriculture. Slowly though, other images start to appear. The small roadside tables of mixed herbs, chopped and pounded in a mortar with a wooden pestle for the national drink, terere. An iced yerba mate. The preponderance of Canadian Holstein cattle blood lines, opposed to the Hereford and Brahmins of Argentina; a legacy of the German speaking Canadians who came here in 1929. The rows of small stalls all selling identical stock. The twelve in Mingua Guasu that sold only Cantaloupe melons, the ten in Estigarriba that only sold gourds and oranges. The rows of small sheds in Caaguazu that sold hand made wooden hobby horses or the rows of second hand plastic drums in Luque. The chipa sellers, baskets balanced on their heads, jumping from moving bus to accelerating collectivo. Then there are those motels, the love hotels that post and precede, bracket each and every town. All start to give a distinctive Paraguayan feel, rather than the broad brush South American one.

It’s pleasant to have your preconceptions challenged, your prejudices punctured, on this occasion they have been utterly deflated. Crossing Paraguay had been a short cut to the west of Argentina, so I suspect we had been a bit apprehensive; born of ignorance and the “them over there” tales. I know for a fact that we were disrespectful and that we didn’t give enough time to the place. Yet sometimes you need short tastes to act as appetisers, confidence boosters.

As we cross the Rio Paraguay, one of the river steamers is ploughing it’s way up river, passing underneath us. It could be at that point that another possible journey was born: Colombia, Brazil, even French Guiana have roused our interest before, but to add in a major upriver trip that’s not the Amazon and come down through the Mennonite communities of the arboreal Chaco and camp out in the Jesuit ruins of San Trinidad.
Sometimes it’s fun to speculate, however it’s as well to remember to base it on a degree of fact and not on uninformed preconceptions, ignorant speculation, for otherwise bias and bigotry follow close behind.