Saturday, December 27

Grasp 3

The bus came a few minutes early, and after bargaining with the driver over the price (their reflex is to try to charge foreigners as much as possible, and since the driver could again barely speak Spanish, working out a fair price took a bit of time) and convincing him that, unlike Americans, Canadians don't need visas to enter Bolivia (since Canada and the U.S. are not the same country, something that he had a hard time grasping), I was on my way.

I only spent a few hours in Bolivia, but from what I could gather, there is a very strong anti-American (hence the visa requirements) and as a consequence, anti-any-foreigner-that-seems-American sentiment as well among the officials. All of the offices of immigration had giant paintings of Evo Morales, the current president, and the first aboriginal to hold the position. He's very outspokenly anti-American. I don't know if this acts as throwing gas on the fire, or if Americans are always treated so badly there.

Overall, I didn't have any major problems, except for being yelled at by the officials a bit, for instance to stand here, or sit there, not to move, not to talk back, as they wanted to show me who was in charge. Yet after a few minutes wait, they stamped my passport and I was on my way.

In the southeastern part of the country at least, there is absolutely no organization in terms of public transport. The other lady who had been on the bus with me (there were only two of us making the trip, which was hopefully just a slow day for the bus company...) asked me where I was going, and I answered the border with Argentina. She said that she was going the same way, but that we had to get a cab there, and so it would be best to look for three other people to fill up the car. The border was 100 k.m. away, and with 5 people, she said the cost would be $2 each, much more affordable than the $5 it would have been with just the two of us. It only took a few minutes to find others who were interested in making the trip, and we were quickly on our way.

Two things that I was very thankful for during this whole escapade were being able to speak Spanish and having thought of picking up twenty one-dollar American bills before starting the trip. It made life much easier, as I could pay people easily without requiring change. Yet I get the feeling that someone who isn't able to communicate in Spanish would be in for a rough ride. I tended to get a bit more respect for being able to talk to them, but in the end, I still had to argue with many people I met in order to get information or a fair price. As far as money goes, it's not so much about the amount in and of itself, as much as a matter of general principal. If you don't stand up for yourself, you won't get any respect at all. It's no fun traveling through an area where you're treated like a joke.

Crossing the border into Argentina was a hassle, as on top of the usual bureaucracy, there's a long (but completely inefficient) process of checking people at the border for drugs. Apparently, most drugs in Argentina come in through the border with Bolivia. The process is basically that they make you wait for a few hours, then ram their hands around in your bag, and send you on your way.

More strange was that apparently, some very stupid tourists cross here as well. I was approached both before and after crossing the border, by local people with ridiculously obvious scams. The first, before the border, told me that he could get me across in a fraction of the time if I gave him my passport. In return, he would give me an Argentine I.D. and meet me on the other side to trade back.

The other, who was walking around on the other side of the border, had a strange uniform and was yelling at foreigners that they had to show him their passports. When he started hassling me, I told him that I had already shown my passport, and wasn't going to do so again. If you use an aggressive enough tone, they don't persist very long, and move on to look for tourists that are a bit more clueless.

Once moving again in Argentina, I caught a bus to Salta, the capital of the one of the mountainous northern provinces. The bus was extremely slow, due both to stopping in every collection of houses that passed for a village, and because the provincial government has set up a series of 'check points' along the highway, which are just like borders. Here the provincial police hassle anyone looking suspicious and ask to see documents.

Seeing as it took 14 hours to make it from the border to 500 kilometers inside the province, I started to appreciate the anything-goes style of Paraguay and Bolivia. There, if you can get the hang of things, it's possible to make very good time. I covered the 600 kilometers from the Paraguayan village where I started to the border between Bolivia and Argentina in 7 hours. I wouldn't complain if it seemed that the bureaucracy that I went through on the way to Salta was achieving something, but the customs officials or provincial police really weren't doing anything. Just sitting around and then briefly poking through bags. At the very least they could have kicked the con-artists out of the area around the border crossing.

Salta is a very beautiful area, where the landscapes change very quickly. Dry plains dotted with cacti give way to fields and mountains in the space of a few hundred meters.

A German man staying at the same hostel offered to rent a car if a few other people would pitch in to split the costs, thereby allowing us to explore the parks and villages around the main city. It was nice to see the local landscapes, as they are indeed very beautiful, but in the end I didn't have a good time. It started to feel more like a high school field trip. It was me, the German driver, an Australian guy and his Korean girlfriend, who had only met a few days before and were extremely affectionate, and a very strong-willed teenage Dutch girl.

I didn't really have much in common with the rest of the group, as they stopped every 5 kilometers to take pictures of the mountains, but were not at all interested in exploring the villages or trying to get an idea of what life is like in the area. It was a pity, because I was very curious. It's a very isolated area, with service only by dirt road. There are hardly any houses, and the people are all of aboriginal origin. The houses are made of a strange pink clay, the same color as the soil.

Grasp 2

Paraguay has been described as an improvised country, which seems to be pretty accurate. After a long string of dictators, they tend to be quite suspicious of authority in any form. Though currently, their democratically elected president is a former priest and overall nice guy, so hopefully things will improve.

Another example of their difficult past is that, a bit more than 100 years ago, 90% of the population was killed or executed after losing a war with Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. They also lost 75% of their territory, and obviously ceased to be a major regional power.

Today, the language of the middle and upper class is Spanish, but everyone speaks Guarani, a native language which is the mother tongue of the lower class. Many people that I met could barely speak Spanish.

Taking a bus to Asuncion, the capital city, was another example of how chaotic things can be. At every stop, some people would come on the bus selling everything from pastries to balloons for children. Many people make a living by roaming the streets, selling whatever they can. You buy what comes your way, as the prices are lower than in shops.

In Asuncion, things can be even crazier. The markets are something to behold, as they stretch for many blocks, and have no order to them at all. The shopkeepers are very aggressive, and the girls who work there come up to when you walk by, rubbing your arm and asking you (in a very suggestive tone) what you're looking for. To find something in particular, you either need someone with you who knows that particular market, or you need enough luck to find it by chance.

Also, it would be a very difficult place to get around not speaking Spanish, as hardly anyone speaks English, and prices are hardly ever marked. Meaning that no matter who you are, you have to have an idea of what things are worth before going shopping, or you'll end up having your pants pulled down over the price. Particularly if you're a foreigner.

One of the most interesting parts of Asuncion is the trade fairs, which are much smaller than the markets, and specialize in crafts and other traditional hand-made decorations. It's amazing how intricate some of the designs are, and how little they cost. A piece of cloth that took someone a month to weave might sell for as little as $10.

Luckily, I had people to show me around the whole time I was there. I stayed with Malvi, who lives just outside of Asuncion in San Lorenzo. She was very kind and showed me around the whole region, from hectic Asuncion to the quieter villages a few kilometers away, such as Altos and San Bernadino. I also met Rocio, who studies history at the local university, and explained a great deal of what happened over the last couple of centuries in Paraguay.

After leaving the Asuncion area, I headed to the extremely isolated west of the country. There are hardly any tourists, and only a few villages, most of which settled by German Mennonites a few generations ago. The contrast of day-to-day life was quite striking. The Germans have maintained their language and their trademark efficiency, having built a community in one of the least hospitable regions of a relatively poor country up to a point where their towns have a similar standard of living to certain areas of Europe. At the same time, you can tell that they are used to isolation, as although some are very friendly, many can be rather rude, ignoring you when you talk to them or just answering you with a grunt.

The heat in the region is absolutely incredible. It topped 45 degrees at one point. It's hard to describe. Like a warm globe enveloping your whole body. When you have to walk anywhere, it's important to go slowly, or you may pass out. Plus, it's necessary to carry water on you at all times. There's a certain sort of insect indigenous to the area that's something like a cricket, but much louder, and which chirps incessantly at all times. They're everywhere. You can really get the feeling that you're in a different world.

The Mennonites of the region feel a very strong connection to Canada. Their history in a nutshell is that they were originally expelled from Germany over 300 years ago, and found refuge for several centuries in Russia. Yet when Stalin came to power, they were again forced to flee, and the original destination was Canada. Unfortunately, immigration laws had recently been tightened due to the Great Depression, and only the fit and able-bodied were accepted by the Canadian government. So although many still settled in various regions of Canada, others had to look for another answer. Paraguay was chosen, as it was one of the few countries offering them both land and the possibility to bring whoever they liked, in particular the sick and elderly. As a consequence, many of the Paraguayan Mennonites have family in Canada, and in some cases, even have Canadian citizenship.

A darker side of their history is that it was also a destination of choice for Nazis fleeing prosecution in Europe. I wasn't able to find out exactly how much influence they had over the community, as it's not the sort of thing you can safely bring up in conversation with a local person. One thing that I did find rather shocking was some of the material for sale in a local bookshop. Some comics for children dealt with religious matter in a very disturbing way, equating Catholics, Nazis, and members of the KKK. Apparently, the last Pope will be the Antichrist. I wish that I'd had more time to dig around the shop, but the shop keeper was giving me strange looks, so it seemed better to quietly exit. Getting on their bad side, considering that it really is the middle of nowhere, would have been a bad idea.

Getting from western Paraguay back to Argentina was also a bit of a challenge. There are no direct roads to the northwestern region of Argentina. There are buses that cover the route through Bolivia, but they only go at 2 in the morning. As a consequence, I had a 6 hour stop-over in a small, mostly aboriginal village after catching a local bus from the regional capital, Filidelfia. There really wasn't much to do, but I found a small canteen where a few of the locals had gathered, drinking beer and playing volleyball on a court to the side. It was all somehow a bit surreal, as the idea of watching a group of aboriginal Paraguayan men, joined by an local ethnic German girl, all speaking Guarani, playing volleyball in the dark, was not exactly how I expected to spend the evening. They spoke a bit of Spanish, and so we were able to communicate somewhat, but the conversation couldn't get much beyond where I was from and how in the hell I had found my way to their part of the world. Several of them tried to talk me into staying, and offered to let me sleep at their houses.

Something that I find fascinating is that they have only been sedentary for a few generations. As recently as 1975, many were still hunters/gatherers, roaming the land dressed in hides. Yet as they say, 'Once you've tasted bread, you can never go back to the bush'.

There was no bus station per se, and as most people never go to Bolivia, none of the locals could agree on the best place to catch it. Since customs for the border is located in the town (though the border is a few hundred kilometers away), it seemed as good of a place as any to wait for it. Apparently Bolivia and Paraguay are still on bad terms due to a territorial war 80 years ago, of which Paraguay mostly won. As a consequence there isn't much traffic to speak of on the (dirt) road connecting them, and so figuring out how to go from one country to the other is a bit difficult.

Friday, December 26

Grasp 1

A few hours after finishing my classes for the year here in Argentina, I caught a bus to the north of the country, which I've been eager to explore for quite some time.

My first stop was Posadas, the capital city of the province called Misiones.

Posadas is a quiet town, but large enough to have everything you could need. I stayed with Fabricio, an Argentine who, although not from Posadas, has lived there for several years.

He was kind enough to show me around the town, and give me all the information I needed to explore the region farther.

One of the main attractions were some of the Jesuit ruins about 50 k.m. outside the city. Although they were mostly a collection of stones piled up to form walls, it was interesting to learn more about their cultures. Apparently, the Jesuits were a group of Catholic missionaries (which is perhaps where the name Misiones came from) who arrived to 'do the work of Christ'. They built up villages from scratch, forging their way through the jungle. Perhaps their most important contribution was protecting the local aboriginal tribes from the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. As a consequence, Guarani, the aboriginal language, is still the official language of Paraguay, whereas aboriginals in the rest of Argentina were either assimilated or exterminated.

After leaving Posadas, I continued north to the IguazĂș waterfalls, which border with Brazil. They are very impressive, but at the same time very developed, to the point where it can lose it's charm a bit. Still, some of the hikes through the rain forest and away from the waterfalls were very lovely. The variety of insects that you meet along the trail is amazing. There are also many interesting animals, but they tend to be a bit shyer. I saw a sign saying don't feed the monkeys, but unfortunately no monkeys came by to say hello, so it didn't really matter.