Dispatches from the Road One: From São Paulo, Brazil to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay
“Yellow fever,” says the bus baggage man looking at my passport.
“ Paraguay just restricted entry for people who don’t have the vaccine. You can’t get in.”
I look around helplessly but the bus driver was already coming to my aid, he spoke a few terse sentences in Portuguese to the effect that if the American wants to try to get into Paraguay then the Bus Company has no business trying to stop him. The baggage man listens and hoists my stuff on board. There’s no arguing with the profit motive…
A few good friends, a shattered relationship, and some emotional debts are all that I had left in São Paulo. Time to go. Why not Paraguay? It’s close, cheap; so I hopped a bus…
After finding my seat, in the rear row, and right above the engine, and with negligible air conditioning, I took stock of my bus mates. There were two general categories of passenger on this bus to Asunción 1) Euro-twenty-something tourists (French and German primarily) and 2) Paraguayans/Brazilians returning from some hard-partying in Rio for the New Year. The Europeans were very quiet. The young French couple next to me spoke in whispers, slept a great deal, and were flabbergasted that I could actually speak Spanish. And the South Americans were too tired to even care. So we all settled in for the scheduled twenty-two hour ride.
I slept a bit, but my dreams were haunted by what might happen at the border. Visions of Alfredo Stroessner former dictator of Paraguay and the poor man’s Hitler, kept appearing in my head. Between naps I practiced my excuses the best I could in Spanish—I had the vaccination—I lost the documents—I’m not sick. I also recalled that culture in Latin America is polite, courteous—and my temper has made already disastrous situations positively catastrophic—politically and personally. So…stay calm, explain yourself, eye contact. And with each passing mile, the border loomed.
Morning. The sun roared out of the Eastern sky and the bus skimmed past full horizons of soy, stevia, and corn. At the final stop in Brazil, Foz do Iguaçu, all the Eurokids packed their shit and exited. Evidently there’s some excellent rafting on the cataracts of the Parana River and they had taken this hellish trip in exchange for a few hours of floating. This left me, a handful of Brazilians and Paraguayans on the almost empty bus.
The boundary between Brazil and Paraguay in that area follows the River Parana, and the two countries are joined by a single suspension bridge, which connects Ciudad del Este and Foz do Iguaçu. The name of the structure, incongruously, is The Bridge of Friendship, between two countries that have fought at least three bloody wars in the past 150 years. So, we approached the Brazilian passport control office, the bus stopped and the driver went to go speak to the bureaucrats. Stepping back aboard after what seemed like centuries he said,” Brasilieros, somente,” (Only the Brasilians).
Okay, half way through. The Brasilians marched off, were gone for about twenty minutes and then trooped back on. One guy had forgotten his passport in Rio, and they even let him pass. On the Paraguayan side two very bored uniformed men behind computer screens met us. When my turn came I approached the Border Guard, handed over my passport and prepared for the worst. He looked at it, checked my visa, checked the chip in the reader, and then waved me on. Not. One. Word. On top of that, the guy with the lost passport got passed through, again, when I thought that he’d be hitchhiking back to Rio to see if he could find his document on Ipanema beach. It was insane.
As I sat down a pretty TG woman settled in next to me and started to ask questions, her English was excellent and I think she wanted to practice a bit…
“So where are you from?”
“The US, Colorado—Denver,” I responded.
“Mmm, don’t know it. On vacation?”
“Sort of. You?”
“Yes, in Rio. Had a great time. Still hungover though.”
“ I bet. Look, can I ask you a question.”
“Yes, of course.”
“At the crossing, how did no one get questioned about the Yellow Fever vaccination, and how does a guy without a passport get across a frontier like that?”
“Oh, easy, Ciudad del Este. That’s how.”
And she was right. Behind Miami and Hong Kong, Ciudad del Este (pop. 320,000) is the third busiest free trade zone in the world. Goods, primarily electronics, pour in from Asia, India, and a host of other countries. No commodities are taxed, tolled or tariffed. It’s a free-for-all, and the Asian connection isn’t some loose reference. Taiwan built the city hall for the municipality, and its flag flies in tandem over the city with the Paraguayan flag. But that’s all surface, what really sets the stage for Ciudad del Este is smuggling, boatloads of smuggling. As it turns out the city is perfectly located for the illicit transshipment of cocaine from Bolivia and Peru, goods from the Far East, and just about any other saleable item into the enormous Brazilian markets. It is estimated that a significant proportion of the population of Ciudad del Este are somehow involved in smuggling. And we’re not talking about some tourist walking through customs with three extra wrist watches, one conservative analyst insists that the goods that flow across the Parana River at all times of day and night yearly represent five times the GDP of the Paraguayan economy. So as my traveling companion made clear, a lax passport control system at Ciudad del Este is just part of doing business.
With the tension of the border crossing gone, I sat and stared out the window at my first glimpse of Paraguay and Ciudad del Este. A medium sized town, a bit run down by Latin American standards, nothing surprising. As we drew near the bus terminal, however, things changed. In all of the Americas bus terminals are usually located in the tougher parts of town, and this proved to be no exception. My attention was drawn to the children, thin, dirty faces, torn clothing, shoeless in some cases. I watched a group of five or six play at football and was stunned at how wan they looked. Like a cold or flu could prove fatal. And then a thought occurred to me that I had never had before and never want again,” Some of these little guys may not see adolescence.”
In that it also came to me that a man could do a great deal of good, or harm—towards the same goal, in a place like this.