Thursday, August 2, 2012

In which I go to Ciudad del Este

The glamour of Asunción couldn’t hold me. I boarded the city bus for the bus terminal and tried to fit myself and my backpack through the turnstile behind the driver. The Paraguayans mean it when they tell you to board in front and exit in back. With the pack on my back, I couldn’t fit. I had to take the pack off, throw it over the turnstile, then join it. The bus was crammed full of people returning home for lunch and no one was eager to give me any room, including a young girl who was hogging a seat obviously meant for paying passengers like me. I tried to convince her of the error of her ways, telling her that it is considered polite to offer one’s seat to an older person, but she was unswayed. Brat.

The long-distance bus was far more comfortable, with reclining seats and air conditioning and the added advantage that no more tickets than seats were sold. My destination was Ciudad del Este, at the Brazilian and Argentine border. It is only a few miles from Ciudad del Este to Iguassú Falls, my ultimate destination. The road was good and the scenery interesting. I saw more volleyball nets and hammocks strung up next to the houses along the highway than I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. The Paraguayans are a very laid back people.

Two hours into the trip, we stopped at a roadside stand and picked up three young women wearing red gingham blouses, white aprons and short skirts. While the bus continued driving, the women worked their way through the aisles, selling bread. I asked if they had sopa Paraguaya, which is a delicious cornbread made with cheese, peppers, and onions. They did not, but tried to sell me some dry-looking bread twists. I declined, although I regretted my decision later when I got to Ciudad del Este and couldn’t find anywhere to eat. Fifteen minutes after they’d boarded, the women got off the bus, crossed the highway, and boarded the next bus going west. They spend the day shuttling back and forth on the same stretch of highway selling bread.

When my seatmate Sandra learned I was traveling alone and had not made reservations at a hotel in Ciudad del Este, she was horrified.

“You can’t wander around this city,” she gasped. “They’ll cut your throat!” She told me firmly that her friend who was picking her up would drop me off at a place. “He’s the chief of detectives,” she confided. “He’ll find you a good deal.”

We arrived in Ciudad del Este at 6:30 p.m. It was already dark. Simon, Sandra’s friend, drove me to the hotel that I picked out of my trusty South American Handbook. According to the book, this place cost only seven dollars. The book was wrong. They wanted twenty-five. I asked Simon if we could try somewhere else. We went to four different hotels; none were in my price range. Simon used his influence as chief of detectives and got me a room for fifteen, which I still thought was way too expensive but I wasn’t in a position to argue.

I went up to my room, which overlooked the noisy street. Fortunately, the street sound was drowned out by the rattle of the air conditioner, which worked, but only at icy cold level. I was hungry, but there was no restaurant in the hotel and we didn’t seem to be in the kind of neighborhood where one could walk around alone at night. Thoroughly depressed and convinced I was going to run out of money before the month was out, I washed my dress in the sink, took a sleeping pill, stuffed earplugs in my ears, and went to bed.

I was almost asleep when I heard someone knocking at my door. “Goldie!” I heard someone calling. I was confused: I knew no one in this godforsaken city. I tried to ignore the sound, figuring someone was mistaken, but the knocking persisted. I pulled the plugs out of my ears and put my ear to the door.

“Who is it?” I asked suspiciously.

“It’s Sandra!” I opened the door and there were Sandra and Simon, holding a bag exuding a tantalizing aroma.

“We thought you might be hungry so we brought you a sandwich,” they explained. I was so hungry that I broke my rule against eating meat in Latin America. While I tried to tug my nightshirt a little further down my thighs, Sandra chatted and Simon inspected my room, checking in the wardrobe and behind the drapes, for smugglers or thieves or something. Every now and then, he whispered something into his walkie-talky. Finally satisfied, he stopped searching and made me write down his phone number, where, he assured me, I could reach him day or night.

“He never sleeps!” Sandra chimed merrily.

The next morning, I awoke at the crack of dawn and set out in search of another hostel. By 7:30 a.m., I’d been to every so-called budget hostel in my Handbook and found all of them to be expensive. I finally found a place for ten dollars. (Finding places to stay consumed an enormous amount of my time until I figured out how to use the telephone and make reservations. This practice worked fine until I got to Central America, when the Handbook’s and my standards diverged widely. What the Handbook called “modest and clean” I called “a grimy, flea-ridden, mildewed hellhole.”)

Most of my energies were spent dodging vendors. Ciudad del Este is the Sam’s Wholesale of Latin America. Paraguayans told me that it was second only to Hong Kong in some kind of rating (black market, I think). Whatever it is, almost everyone goes there to sell and the rest go there to buy. By 7:00 a.m., the sidewalks are packed so thick you have to walk in the street. Some of the items to be found: clothes, shoes, tools, storage racks, toys, yogurt, barbecue, soda, beer (Labatt Blue and Iron City were particularly popular), Pringles Potato chips (go figure), Swiss Mill beauty products, watches, puppies, electronics -- whatever.

I saw more black people in two minutes in Paraguay than I did in two years in Chile. Ciudad del Este is right across the bridge from Iguassú, Brazil, so the Brazilians walk over to shop. The rumors about the way Brazilian women dress are true. (The accompanying rumors about the level of perfection of their bodies are not.) There must be a phrase to describe the state between “naked” and “scantily-clad.” Whatever it is, that’s what they were. Understandable, though -- it was 98 underwater degrees.

I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. I’d been hoping to run across a bakery selling sopa Paraguaya, but hadn’t seen any. But lining the sidewalk before the bridge were vendors with big ice chests in front of them. I stopped at one and bought a big container of yogurt. I come from a country where we eat yogurt with a spoon, but I noticed everyone else sticking straws into their cartons. When in Rome. I followed suit and discovered that the yogurt was almost liquid and impossibly sweet. But it was that or starve later and I was learning I didn’t like to be hungry, so prophylactic eating was important.

I pushed through the masses -- all coming toward me (did they know something I didn’t? Why wasn’t anyone else going to Brazil?) -- across the bridge to Brazil and tried to find my way to the bus station. But I couldn’t understand anyone! How can a language that looks so much like Spanish not sound a thing like it? I would ask a question and the listener would nod thoughtfully, obviously understanding me, then rattle off a reply that would leave me mystified. I followed the directions they pointed and after consulting a dozen people and pointing at my map, got to the bus for the Falls.