We knew we were not over with Argentina yet as we were going to come back to Iguazu Falls before finally going to Brazil, but we still felt a bit of heart ache when we crossed the border into Paraguay. We had mixed feelings: excited to get to know a new country while nostalgic for leaving the one that had been our home for almost 2 months now.
We didn’t have much time to be melancholic though, as the minute we crossed into Paraguay (after a 20 hrs bus ride from Salta to Clorinda, the closest town to the border) all our senses were brutally awakened – what a stark difference between the two countries!! We knew Paraguay was the second poorest country in South America, but we didn’t expect to land on another continent.
The border crossing was already a fun experience in itself, with the 5-6 people crammed in that little office and only two of them effectively doing something. The others were flipping through the newspaper while sipping mate, chatting to each other or simply gazing out at the (very few) foreigners who intended on crossing into their country. Everyone moved very slowly at all times, like there was no reason in this world anybody should ever be in a hurry. Ever.
We had read that backpackers were rarer than pumas in Paraguay. Well, once we got on the local bus (which transported me back to India in an instant) from the border to Asuncion we indeed felt that rare – most people looked at us as if we were from the circus, with our big back & front packs and the dumb smiles we were probably exhibiting. They were super nice though and a couple even tried to strike up a conversation… all in all, we felt welcomed :).
Once we got to the main bus station we had to figure out which bus would take us closest to the hostel we had heard about from a fellow traveler. We found out quite easily it was no 8, but when we asked where we can take it from and were told by the bored lady at the small information office “Just here in front” we ended up waiting endlessly in the wrong spot. Thank God we saw an 8 passing on a nearby street so we in the end changed to the right location. Later we would learn that ambiguous, random or plain wrong directions were the norm here in Paraguay, and you can never really know whether the answer you get from a passer by is going to take you home or get you even more lost.
Another thing we learned quickly was that bus stops are mere suggestions, but buses generally stop wherever they are passengers waiting to get in. That seemed brilliant to us, if you can’t reach the bus stop in time all you need to do is put our your hand and it will stop anywhere for you… The truth is it’s very convenient if you’re the one getting in, but not so convenient if you’re already on the bus because that automatically means a longer journey.
When we finally got on the bus we were met by another cultural shock: the vehicle was not only a bus, but an ambulatory supermarket. People who were selling things were getting on and off all the time, and you could find anything from food and drinks to batteries, scissors, socks, flashlights and dvds. We felt like the Paraguayans never really need to go shopping, as shopping comes to them wherever they are. Surely saves them quite some time and effort!
We knew that just a few years ago the unemployment rate was ridiculously high in Paraguay (18%) so this seemed to be one of the ways people have adjusted to the lack of “proper” jobs. We had all the respect for these people because they were out there still offering a service to society, as opposed to throwing their hands up in despair and doing nothing but beg and expect others to take care of them (with no effort required on their part except for the extending of their hand). We thought back at the past few months and remembered we had very seldom seen beggars in South America. We thought of a combination of culture, pride and strong belonging to groups or close family ties (it’s more likely to become a begger when you are single, and especially alone). I do believe this would make an extremely interesting study…
We checked in the hostel and were shocked to see it was USD12 a night – much more expensive than we had expected, even though to our knowledge it was the cheapest in town. We had thought everything would be very cheap in Paraguay, but that turned out not to be the case for accommodation as the scarcity of backpackers obviously also meant scarcity of hostels. We were only aware of about 3-4 in the whole Asuncion, and this was the capital! The place we stayed in was just perfect for us, it was this huge house owned by a lady whose husband had passed away and children moved to Europe, so she felt lonely enough to want to have guests all the time and make an extra penny in the process. She appeared to be helpful and kind, while at the same time keeping a strict and professional air about her. She adviced us not to be out after dark in Asuncion. Darn, if we could only listen…:p.
The day we got there was a Saturday and we walked around forever trying to find something to eat – just as in Argentina, everything was closed for siesta 2-6pm, plus we were told during the weekend it was even more difficult to find anything open. At some point we came across this local restaurant where they agreed to prepare something vegetarian for us and we were delighted to experience our first local food – lots of corn and beans, we loved it!
The next day we planned to go to a nearby village, Aregua , where supposedly Sunday was a great day to have a feel of the local life and chillaxness. We had to go back to the bus terminal for that and take another bus from there. There were two people at the information desk this time, and when they started arguing with each other about where we should take our bus from we knew we were in trouble. They had agreed on the number though, 243, so we just went out and started waiting at the same stop as the previous day (that was what they ended up advising us). We knew buses on Sundays were not as frequent so we waited for more than half an hour… but still no 243.
We had some chipa (local bread) and asked the guy selling it if he knew anything about our bus. He said he’d never heard of a 243 bus… but we could get to the village by getting the 44 from across the street. We listened to him and crossed, but just to double check we asked somebody else. Obviously we were told that 243 didn’t exist and also that the 44 not only doesn’t go to the village, but it doesn’t even pass by there. So we’d have to go to another stop and wait for another bus. Splendid!
While trying to make something out of all this confusion we saw a 242 passing by and stopping somewhere near… we had a hunch that might be what we were looking for, so just as we decided to go check that stop out we saw the chipa guy running towards us across the busy road ‘I’m sorry, i’m sorry. I just remembered, the bus you need is 242 and it stops over there’, said he while pointing to the place we were headed to. We were so touched by his gesture that we forgave him for misinforming us in the first place. And learned that even triple checking your information is not good enough in Paraguay. Oh dear…
The bus ride reminded me much of India again, but with way less people. We passed by many little villages and lovely countryside, and everything seemed extremely relaxed and also preserved in time. When we got to Aregua we understood why it was recommended as a destination – it had a lovely feel about it, very artistic, with galleries and little houses that appeared to be from fairy tales. The place is mostly known for its ceramics, so we spent a long time admiring all the smurfs, frogs and different story characters designed for people to decorate their houses and gardens with. We then stumbled upon a lady selling most delicious strawberry juice and pudding, and found ourselves in Paradise…
It was past lunch time already, so we were delighted when we found Don Pablo’s Panaderia and Restaurat – it looked like a very popular place, as we saw more people in that yard than we had seen during the entire walk through the village. We figured out immediately why people went there: the lunch buffet! We thought that was the place people from Asuncion went to for their Sunday lunches :). It was a pay per kilo (USD10) type of place and it was perfect for us as we could taste all the different Paraguayan dishes and only pay the equivalent of one. It was a true feast and we strongly recommend this place if you’re in the area!
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