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kpetunia.com -> road stories -> south america = orcas!

¨I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superhuman abundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.¨ -Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness

In February 2004 I flew to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and travelled overland by bus, foot and boat to Cartagena, Columbia. The trip lasted 8 months.

These are the newsletters I wrote along the way.

Starting from The End of the World...
I overdosed on orcas...
...travelled up the Rio Paraguay
only to land in a hammock with a cowboy in Brasil...
then tripped out on Bolivia...
and marvelled at market savvy Peru...
until I got to gorgeous Columbia, and left too soon.

 

__________________________

Iguazu Falls straddles the triple border of Brasil, Argentina and Paraguay. From Argentina, you can get up close and personal with the hundreds of beautiful powerful waterfalls, ride right up to them in an inflatable zodiac and walk over and around them on extremely well put together safety ramps, and visit the Sheraton Hotel swimming pool, which looks out to the falls. From Brasil, you can see all of the hundreds of waterfalls at once, find cheaper lodging than in Argentina, charter a helicopter to fly you over the falls, and do the samba. From Paraguay you can visit a big manmade dam. Yep, that's the big tourist attractions in Paraguay. A big huge dam.

 

I hate it when i am walking across a bridge between two dodgy cities in two super sketchy countries and a hijacking happens on the bridge.

And I hate it when sullen barely pubescent border guards don't pay attention to where they are pointing their guns and they're pointing them right at me while I am in the middle of having my mugshot taken just so that I can get in somewhere new.

Yep, and I realized one bridge hijacking too late that that cheapskate know-it-all Israeli career army officer would have been the perfect travelling companion today as I crossed from Foz Iguacu in Brazil to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay. A military life in Israel must give you some sort of sixth sense for when and where trouble is about to ensue. Or maybe it just gives you a lingering paranoia and deep uneasiness about everything no matter what because even when we were in some kind of nice meat and pasta joint, he would case the place like he was in the middle of some dangerous SWAT team shakedown. Most Israelis abroad travel in big ruckussy gangs but he was between tribes at the time and was eager to join me but I was tired of talking religion, talking him down from the next high level super impressive military move, and tired of talking in general. I was also very much in the mood for pork and was really craving a non-fleabag hotel and so i gave him the slip in Brasil. It took two tries to shake him loose.

So maybe karma bit me in the ass. Again.

Ciudad del Este, Paraguay is the definition of dodgy. I was crossing over from Foz Iguacu to Ciudad del Este on foot by way of the Amistad Bridge. That's the Friendship Bridge for all you non-Spanish speakers out there. The buses weren't stopping and my cheapskate Israeli stalker had rubbed off on me enough to make me temporarily scorn taxis and so I humped my backpack up onto my back and figured I'd just hoof it across into Ciudad del Este. I stood halfway behind a concrete post and watched the pedestrians crossing over to see if it looked safe. There were at least plenty of people skedaddling back and forth across the bridge with their arms loaded full of electronics, live despondent looking chickens being carried upside down by their feet headed for the cookpot, and barefoot ladies hunched over under the weight of giant blankets stuffed full of mystery products twice their size. There were no other white people on the bridge that day. I went for it. The traffic was at a standstill all the way across the bridge and I loped along towards the Ciudad del Este and the border control office at the other side trying to pretend that this exercise wasn't that much different than a stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge. My heart was pounding and all of the hairs on my arms were standing at attention but I just chalked that up to being somewhere unfamiliar. As soon as I reached the otherside, I found myself surrounded by money changers waving big wads of Reals, Pesos and Guaranis in my face for sale. I shook them off and dove into the border control office. The border control officers looked surprised to see this sweaty gringa show up in their office and when I pulled out my passport and visa for an entry stamp, they noticed that I didn't have an exit stamp from the border control office on the other side of the bridge and so I was sent back to the other side again. They let me leave my pack in their office, which I was happy to do, as it made me more of a moving target than I already was. I zoomed back across the bridge to the Brazilian side and an officer gave me an exit stamp and told me not to walk over the bridge. When I asked him why, he said that the bridge was being hijacked at the moment and that the hijackers were looking for a rich white person to kidnap and holding the traffic at a standstill until they found someone suitable. That explained the instincts clanging in alarm as I had crossed, although I hadn't seen any suspicious looking people as I had crossed. But my observational skills aren't always what they could be, so there I was stuck in no man's land with my heart in my throat looking for a taxi or some other way to get ferried across. I walked back to Foz Iguacu and found a taxi drier who was willing to take me across from there as long as I agreed to lie down in the backseat so that the hijackers wouldn't see me. I paid him extra to wait outside on the other side as I scuttled into the customs office and grabbed my backpack and asked him to take me to a decent hotel. And so we rolled through Ciudad del Este, the electronics shopping capital of South America to an air conditioned hotel maxed out with a busload of geriatric Danes where I got a room, flopped down on the bed and settled into a long night of watching television in Arabic. I can only assume that the Danes were there to see the dam.

There’s no tax on anything in Ciudad del Este, kind of like at an airport, which is why it is such an attractive shopping destination for South Americans who can afford to buy a computer or digital camera but don't care to pay the extra taxes and so on that buying it anywhere else would cost them. Ciudad del Este boasts more than one mosque and gangs of money changers and black market electronics hustlers who set up their wares on the streets, in stalls, in stores and just carry them around in front of all of the street stands, stalls and stores in case you didn't find what you were looking for in the more established places. Skyrises rise and tilt around towards each other vertiginously. It is a magnet for the People of the Fast Buck and has the kind of bleak corruption to it that most major port and border cities seem to inspire. It is not a relaxing place. Unlike a mall or a casino, there are plenty of clocks and no mood music or artifical scent being pumped out to make you hungry for this or that kind of junk food or to forget how much time has gone by since you started your consumer experience. Everything has been stripped down to its lowest common denominator. You go there to buy, sell and then you split.

I got out of there fast and empty handed and went straight to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. The city was abandoned because it was holy week and all of the residents had split for the countryside. It was eery to hang out in a beautiful old colonial city with noone in it. I went to the zoo a lot. Third world zoos are a lot more interactive than american zoos. If you spend more than an hour in them, you'll very likely get the opportunity to feed the elephants, tease the monkeys and pat the manatee, all with the encouragement of the zookeeper. There was a big old elephant I kept visiting day after day who would caress me with its trunk and there was a big pie shaped cat enclosure just beyond it with a different couple of cats in each slice. They didn't have any toys to play with except some old rotten looking pieces of meat so they just fucked all day long out of boredom. The chimpanzees just sat there gripping the bars of their cages, playing with themselves and staring out into space counting down the minutes until they could finally die and get out of that hellhole. I also frequented the convention center more than once, which had on permanent display big huge 3D cut outs of the famous dam of Paraguay. They also sold handmade lace and empanadas and had high speed internet access on offer to me, the only tourist at the convention that week. There is a beautiful old palace that sits above the Rio Paraguay in Asuncion, where the ruler of the country holds court and an army of guards stand outside preventing you from photographing the beautiful palace, in case you had any thoughts of doing so. Behind it, right on the water is a shanty town of locals pulling fish from the river and cooking them over oil barrels full of fire. I thought about going down closer to investigate but was aware enough of my surroundings at that point to notice the guys on one side of the square and the other signalling to each other and pointing to me, and aborted that plan. I couldn't get a handle on how safe or dangerous it was in Paraguay and there wasn't anyone around to ask, or make friends with or explore the city with, and so I caught the first boat that I could to the next town north, and only other major town in Paraguay that I could see on the map.

In Concepcion, Paraguay, the proportion of horsedrawn carriages to cars was just about equal. It was still holy week, and nothing was moving much, so I hung around for several days waiting for the next ferry that would take me up the Rio Paraguay. The internet café in Concepcion lacked a backpacker scene. Usually  internet cafes are chock full of hunched over white people sucking messages of love and care out of the flickering blue screen in front of them and punching back in descriptions of the sights they have seen and people they have met and stomach ailments they have faced along the way. This internet café had porn sites unapologetically bookmarked as the home pages and a couple of gum chewing teenagers running the place, as much for the unrestricted access to porn as the air conditioning running full blast. There was nowhere else in town that boasted such comfort. I would tuck in there to burn up a couple of hours, then stand up and get steady on my feet and stumble back out onto the one dirt road and get discombobulated by the contrast of horse drawn buggies and ladies carrying huge piles of fruit on their heads to the porn sites and flickering screens inside.

There was a big compound down by the river which had several swimming pools with waterslides and other funland pasttimes to partake in. But apparently the population of Asuncion and Concepcion had all left for the countryside for the week and so the pools were unused and hotel was as empty as the one in Asuncion had been.

I went down to the docks every day and looked at the ferries, wondering which one would eventually be heading north with me on it. No one offered me a boat ride in their canoes, although I provoked acute curiousity in all of the local bystanders and the more professionally gregarious ones in the bunch took on the task of extracting my information to share with the less extroverted ones in the bunch. They would come up to me, ask where I was from, what was I doing here, how much money do I make in the states and am I married, then transport the information back to the waiting crowd, deliver it as faithfully as possible while I stood in the distance watching the crowd look over at me and nod and amtch up this new information with the picture of me. The ferry appeared one night and I boarded it along with countless crates of stuff including dry goods, mattresses, corrugated tin, mountains of egs, watermelons, miles of garlic strands,some dogs, about 250 people and all of their luggage. I kept my eyes averted from men and smiled from under my eyelids at the women and children. Everyone was very shy towards me. I arrived 3 hours early in hopes that there had been a bed cancellation but no such luck, so I took my hammock and tried to figure out where the stinky toilet and the noisy engine were so that I could sleep far away from both. There were already many hammocks hanging all over the boat. I found an okay spot, although it might be heavily trafficked, and as I ineptly tied it up, an old man came up and helped me. Midknot, he asked if the crew had said it was okay for me to hang my hammock there, which they had not. So we pulled it down, found another spot, hung it, and decided to be friends. Unfortunately, by then, the only spot to hang a hammock was right next to the engine and above the toilet. Still, it beat the floor, which was destined to be covered with 3 days worth of dinner, toilet overflow and worse. The old man had been travelling with his grandson for a day and a night already. I was happy to have someone to watch my stuff and save my seat and so on, and he was happy to have the novelty of me around to converse with. Two women sat on the other side of the old man and everytime someone asked me a question, they would lean forward and listen with great interest to my reply but they never asked me anything directly. The drinking water came straight from the river we were shitting and throwing out dinner scraps and other garbage into, so I got pretty possessive of my two bottles of mineral water. The old man liked my mineral water a lot, too, and figured once we finished it off, there was still plenty of river water. I let him have one bottle and didn't tell him about the other one I had hidden away in my bag. Every hour someone would offer me a sip of their tererre (cold yerba mate, which is what everyone is drinking constantly in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, also in Chile, Peru,Bolivia and Brasil) and I would say no, explaining that I had a cold. Despite my dripping nose and husky voice, I think they all knew that I was just being a gringo and was afraid of the water. Having seen the ship bathroom, I was afraid of spending two days in it after drinking the water, so I guess they were right. That bathroom was the nastiest stinkiest squathole that I had seen in a long long time. All privacy is lost on a ship like this. You sleep where you can sleep when you can sleep. Night after night the engine roared, babies cried and moaned all around me, people bumped up and down the hall knocking me and my hammock around, and as the person sleeping on the floor directly under my hammock would shift and knee me in the back, I would shove my earplugs in deeper and glare into the darkness sulkily. Everyone was up at first light drinking more and more terrere, talking, laughing, hanging out. Darkness came and the people who had been leaning in on my public conversations with the old started firing away. The conversations with people in South America are as follows:

1) Am I alone? If so, why. Or if I am with anyone who is within 25 years of my age, if I am their girlfriend/spouse. And if not, why not.

2) Something about George Bush and what I think about the war on Iraq. (You know how I feel about Bush. So do they now) For the record, I have not met anyone who likes George Bush or the war one bit with the exception a few Iraelis, who are pretty stoked about it.

3) How much money I make, how much money other people make in the states. (All they do is work in the states. It is very sad and boring and expensive there compared to their country.)

4) Do I like their country. (Yes!) Why. (It is so beautiful! The people are so nice!) Where have I been in their country. (Name 3 national monuments) Which country do I like best that I have visited (Theirs!)

5. Where am I from. (USA) Where am I from in the states. (California) To which they usually drop their voices a few octaves and say, "Hasta la vista, Baby." Jeez. It used to be cool to come from California. It was a kind of get out of jail free card for political conversations since everyone knows that California is where all the right on people come live. And the movies stars. Not anymore.

I noticed that the most popular tattoo was an anchor, and it took me another 24 hours to put it together that there is no sea nearby to be inspired to ink a tattoo of an anchor onto yourself in honor of- Paraguay is landlocked. So why the anchors? It turns out the boat was full of Paraguayan marines. When they told me proudly that they were marines, I burst out laughing and said, "Where's the Mar?" and they said, "We're Rioneros!"meaning riverines. From there we bantered for hours. Someone had a harp. The harp is the national instrument of Paraguay so I appealed to their national pride and cajoled a concert out of them. We had breathholding contests, armwrestling and thumbwrestling contests, discussed various methods of alligator wrestling. I won the breathholding contests for the most part, even though they were supposedly good swimmers, being riverines and all. They won the armwrestling every time. Thumbwrestling was about 50/50.

We arrived at Puerto Casado, which is a city of 20,000 entirely owned by Moonies. I didn't see any Moonies but the locals are pretty pissed that the Reverend Moon bought their town and all of the surrounding land. I got off the boat to look at it. By this point,  was a virtual floating city of dirty hammocks, old bicycles, vegetables and funk. I realized we had crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and I was that much closer to home, a red ant bit me on the big toe. I had been hoping to ride all the way to Bolivia on the Rio Negro but we were already 20 hours behind, and after 3 days on the boat, I was happy to split.

I had been sitting next to two guarani women for the past 3 days after the old man got off. It took them two days to offer me some terrere fresh from the river and another to look me in the eye. We passed some capybaras in the river and they pointed them out to each other and seemed to be discussing them. (They spoke guarani, so I didn’t understand the finer points.) But it turned out that they were talking about capybara recipes. I perked right up, since I’m always a sucker for some new culinary experience. When we got off the boat that night, some little Paraguayan chica asked me if I wanted to go have a bite to eat in a bar nearby before the boat took off. I was with the Indian ladies at the time and said thanks but no, because I was in the process of helping them fill up their water jugs for the next leg of the trip. It seemed a smart investment of my time to support the project of getting some non-river water into their containers should my water run out and the boat run slower than even before, which seemed likely since we’d now taken on a backhoe and were pushing that up in front of us as well, slowing us down a great deal. As I trudged up the hill with the two ladies, one of them turned to me and looked me in the eye for the first time. She said, “I’m an Indian, you know.” And I supposed she meant that maybe I didn’t know that and otherwise wouldn’t think to consort with the likes of her. I said, “Yes. I know. I’d love to taste that capybara recipe of  yours sometime.” And so an invitation to her house followed. We had it stewed for an interminable number of hours in a mole sauce of sorts, which was probably a good thing because it was very stringy and gamey and dark from what I could tell of it under all that sauce.

The only thing I knew about the Guaranis was from the 1980s movie, The Mission. The Jesuits came from Portugal several hundred years ago to convert them. The Guaranis were not that impressed by tame versions of Jesus dying on the cross and so on, but the colorful visions from the Book of Revelations, all that Brimstone and Treacle did have quite an impact on them. Already a musical bunch, when the Jesuits introduced their classical instruments from Europe, primarily the violin and harp, they took to it quite easily and together the Jesuits and the Guaranis built some gorgeous sandstone missions all around southern Paraguay and northern Argentina and lived in relative peace for quite some time. Sadly, Catholic Spain didn't dig what was going down so much and stepped in

The rio Paraguay divides Paraguay from brasil. After I had my fill of capybara and guarani Indians, I crossed over to brasil. Every the conscientious traveler, I went in search of a customs official to stamp my passport denoting an exit from Paraguay and entry into Brasil. In that vein, I hired a river taxi driver to take me back and forth across the river for the better part of a day looking for someone on either border town with the appropriate stamp. I had chosen to leave Paraguay at this point along the river specifically because the town was marked on a map and so I supposed there might be such an official type person around. No man with a stamp in either town, so I left Paraguay without an exit stamp and entered Brasil without and entry stamp. The Brasilian cop who had no stamp took me to lunch and gave me his business card and told me to call him if I had problems.

Okay, dear darling reader, where do you want to go now?

Hmm, let's see...I want to...

Play with orcas...
Float up the Rio Paraguay...
Dance the Forro...
Learn 10 reasons why Bolivians are the weirdest people in the world...
Float through the jungle...
Find a tropical island paradise...

None of the above. I am too busy for that crap. And I think it is time for you to get a real job, Katherina.

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