We didnít have that much time in Paraguay. For the first time since we started the trip we are actually on a time schedule now. The next ship back to the States leaves the end of July. We could get another at the end of August but we canít really afford to stay another month and itís probably time we get back to reality anyway. So we crossed the border from Argentina into Asuncion and everything went fine, they didnít even ask for Francieís paperwork. The border reminded us of the borders in Central America and was the first time in South America we had guys looking to be paid to help us out with the paperwork. I have to say we were fairly nervous going into Paraguay as we had heard and read all sorts of stories. Apparently it has the highest amount of stolen cars in South America. Paraguay doesnít have the huge import taxes like the rest of the countries and also if a car is stolen, there is absolutely no problem claiming ownership or getting documents for it. So even though it is the third poorest South American country with 37% living below the poverty line and some 800,000 unemployed, the amount of souped up Mercedes driving around was astonishing. It is also the most bribe-hungry country outside of Africa. It is saturated with corruption and the politicians are not much example as they drive around in stolen BMWís. In the 50ís it became a safe haven for Nazis and other international criminals. We also heard from other travelers that the cops were awful and would be stopping us for everything and anything just to get a bribe. Nevertheless we still decided to go there and form our own opinion of the country.
Asuncion is an alright city. Like most cities it has a nice downtown area with lovely plazas and old buildings. We arrived on a Sunday so it was pretty quiet and we felt safe enough to park right in the main plaza as there were armed cops everywhere patrolling the streets. They were really friendly to us and a few of them came over to take pictures of Francie on their mobile phones! We walked around for the day and were both pleased and appalled by what we saw. The plazas were really nice and the government palace is a fabulous building. Although when Francia was in charge apparently you were to be shot if you were caught looking at the palace. Luckily we just got a whistle blown at us and asked to move along. But then, right off one of the main plazas it was complete shanty town with people living in awful poverty. They just had one room little shacks and were hooking their electricity up to the street lights. Some kids came running up to pet Francie and it was a shame to see how poor looking they were. I know most cities have their shanty towns on the outskirts but we couldnít believe that this one was just a block from the palace and right in the center of the downtown area. Then we walked to another one of the plazas and were even more appalled by what we saw. The entire plaza was full of people actually living there. They just had make shift tents made from tarps, skimpy blankets to sleep on the grass, not even a mattress or anything and kids were running around half naked covered in dirt and mud. Some mothers were sitting on the grass going through their kidís hair for nits. But what really made our stomach turn was to see definite signs of malnutrition in the kids. Most of them had the huge swollen stomachs like what you would see on a Trocaire box or some ad campaign for the starving kids in Africa. I had tears in my eyes looking at this but everybody else seemed to be oblivious and just went on walking by. Itís times like this I wish my Spanish was better so we could find out what the hell was going with these people and why there were clearly been ignored by the city. They did have signs around the plaza and from what I could understand it seems they were forced to leave their villages for some reason and are protesting and living here in the plaza until the government gives them back their homes. I googled it later and found out that they are native Paraguayans from the Chaco region and are on protest for better homes, jobs and life from the government but are just been ignored. Whatever the reason is, it is disgraceful to see people stuffing their faces in nearby restaurants while a couple of feet away from them, is a child suffering malnutrition.
We drove then to the Botanical Gardens and zoo, a few kilometers from the city center, where we heard there was camping. The staff couldnít be nicer and told us to go ahead and park wherever we wanted. A few hours later though the security guards came over and told us to come and park right in front of their station where they could keep an eye on us. They were armed not just with handguns but with double barrel shotguns so we felt really safe there. They even let us use their hot showers and were all curious to see the van and hear about our travels. We only spent two days in Asuncion as there is not that much to see. We got laundry done and gave Francie a haircut. His hair had got ridiculously long and matted but we couldnít find anyone to do it for us. So we got the scissors and did it ourselves, try not to laugh when you see the photos, it was the best we could do. It was fairly warm and humid in Asuncion and the mosquitoes were huge, the worst we have some across in a long time.
From Asuncion, we could have travelled to the north or south of the country but honestly did not have the time so we just headed directly east towards Brazil. Towns were frequent and there didnít seem to be too much poverty. We saw a couple more of the same camps that we saw in the plaza in Asuncion with the same signs so there must be a nationwide problem with these people who have been displaced from their homes. The landscape looked really fertile with plenty of fruit and vegetables growing and cattle farming. We passed police checkpoints every twenty minutes and held our breath every time. The majority of the time we were just lucky because they were already after pulling someone in and we whizzed on by. We also tried to hide behind the big trucks as we approached the checkpoints and ended up only been stopped twice going across the country. The first cop asked for every document possible for us, the van and even Francie. He kept asking for ďcedulaĒ which I didnít understand so I gave him the dictionary to look it up but he couldnít find it. We just kept pretending we had no Spanish and hadnít a clue what he was saying. He started looking for dollars then and we kept our blank faces up until he got so fed up he told us to go on. I looked up ďcedulaĒ afterwards and it means identification card. Apparently our passports were not good enough identification! The second cop who stopped us didnít really care about what documents we had. He was explaining to us that gas was very expensive and could we give him money to fill up his car! He even made Jimmy open the storage box and wanted to check that our spare gas canisters were empty. Again, even though we knew exactly what he was saying we just kept smiling and said we didnít speak Spanish and he eventually let us go too. I think itís the best tactic to use because they get so frustrated when they canít communicate and end up giving up. If we started speaking Spanish and try to argue our case he would probably keep us there all day trying to get something out of us. So after all our worrying about the cops, it wasnít that bad at all. In fact, that night it was getting dark and we werenít able to find a decent gas station to pull into for the night. So we pulled into what we thought was a gas station to discover it was a police station and checkpoint. It was dark at this stage and we had just seen lights and thought it was a gas station. Before they had a chance to start asking us for stuff, I explained that it was getting late and we couldnít find anywhere to park and would it be possible for us to stay the night at their station. Thankfully they said no problem. They were over like a swarm of flies then wanting to see the inside of the van, take pictures of Francie and ask us all sorts of questions about our travels. We were afraid once they heard me speaking Spanish that they would start looking for a bribe then but they actually couldnít be nicer and we slept soundly knowing there were ten armed cops outside. The following morning they wished us luck on our travels and we went on our way.
We arrived into Ciudad Del Este, the border town with Brazil and Argentina. It was really chaotic. Itís noted for its cheap electronics, money launderers and smugglers bringing goods across the borders. We were hounded with guys waving us into spaces to park but there was no way we were parking up and leaving the van there. We drove out a little bit and found a quieter place to buy a new house battery for the van, not that much cheaper than the last battery we got in Panama. We then headed out of the town to do a tour of the Itaipu dam. The Itaipu Hydroelectric Power Plant, the largest in the world and one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, is a binational joint venture between Brazil and Paraguay. They have eighteen generators which provide 80% of Paraguayís electricity and 25% of Brazilís entire demand. The tour was free and really good. The road actually goes right across the walls of the reservoir which is 8km wide! Both countries went halves with the ownership and cost but with the right to sell whatever power they didnít use to the other country. Paraguay only uses about five of its generators so they must be making all right money selling the rest to Brazil. The tour guide didnít tell us but we read in our guidebook that the reservoir, 220m deep, drowned Sete Quedas, a set of waterfalls more impressive than Iguazu Falls. Weíll be going to the Iguazu falls soon so youíll be able to see the pictures. After the tour we didnít want to go back into the town for the night so we asked at the reception if we could spend the night in their parking lot. She called security and asked a few other guys and they all said no problem. An hour later another campervan pulled in with a Swiss guy and his Mexican wife. I told him we had permission to park but he insisted on going in and asking himself. We went for a walk with Francie and when we were returned we saw them parked on the side of the road outside the entrance. Then the security told us we couldnít stay there. The stupid Swiss idiot got them to call the main boss who said no. At this stage it was dark and we had to go look for alternative parking which was not going to be on the side of the road. We went to an Esso station up the street which had a 24hour armed security guard and they said we could stay no problem. The next day we crossed the border into Brazil. Although Paraguay would not be our favorite country, I hate to bash any country. I am sure if we had spent longer travelling around we would have got a better feel for the place. Either way the people were really friendly to us and thatís the one thing that always counts.