Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Drain of the Amazon

In 2012, I was in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina working for a theater company. The cast had the evening off and my coworker and I were strolling around the town looking for a place to eat. We eventually found one of the pay-by-weight places so ubiquitous in southern Latin America and settled into a wobbly table and with our plates of tepid spaghetti and marinara. While we were eating, the proprietor of the place approached us. As were weren’t in a part of town that seemed to get a lot of foreign traffic, he seemed interested to know our business. We explained, between mouthfuls of spaghetti, that we were in town for work and that we had come out to see a little before the beginning of our busy schedule the next day.

“Ahh,” he replied, “I see, and when are you going to see the Falls?”

I felt embarrassed by the man’s question as one always does when speaking a foreign language and failing to convey the basic meaning of an utterance.

“No,” I responded, trying to talk in a clearer way, “we’re working all day tomorrow and then leaving. We won’t have any time to see the Falls.”

“No,” the man responded, correcting me, “this can’t be. Foreigners do not come to this place and leave without seeing Las Cataratas de Iguazu.

I could tell he was serious by the way his mouth seemed to open wider with incredulity when I told him that’s exactly what we were doing.

When I moved away from Argentina and left my old job, I had no regrets about my time in Latin America. I had seen many places and had proven that I could move on my own to a country with no friends, no job prospects, no apartment and eventually procure all these things. When my flight took off, the Iguazu Falls were the last thing I was thinking about.

Unexpectedly, a few years later, I was offered a job in Paraguay. Until the moment I got the e-mail, I had given no thought to returning to Latin America. My time in front of the world map on my wall had been spent mostly on Asia and Africa, but I had previously seen very little of Paraguay. For a night, I had stayed in the capital and once I had looked across the Parana River at the lights of Encarnacion, imagining some kind of dim and swampy town.

I took the job and returned to the capital I had seen for a single night, years before. For my first few months in the country, I felt like I was chasing my own ghost around the town. I’d stand at an intersection and suddenly remember having stood there before. I’d walk by a supermarket and remember the purchase I had made there years earlier. Time and distance had rendered the memories vague but with a sharp edge of familiarity, like the pictures in a once familiar children’s book as seen by an adult.

My work was mostly in the capital, but on occasion, I travelled to Paraguay’s secondary cities. I visited Encarnacion and found that it had nothing in common with the dank, jungle tangled town I had imagined from the opposite bank of the Parana River years before. I visited the town of Pilar and the smuggler’s haven of Pedro Juan Cabellero in the north, but most frequently, I visited Ciudad del Este.

Ciudad del Este is Paraguay’s second city, but having only been founded in 1957, is still a very recent creation. Ciudad del Este sits on the tri-boarder confluence of the Parana and Iguazu rivers where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. The Brazilian and Argentina cities of Foz de Iguacu and Puerto Iguazu (respectively) mainly cater to tourism. Every year some 50,000 tourists visit the Falls which lies between the border of the two largest and (probably) most well-known South American countries.

Paraguay and Ciudad del Este are just up river from the action. Because Paraguay does not border on the Falls, the tourism in Ciudad del Este is of a very different kind, but like Puerto and Foz, it is the city’s raison d'être. While Brazil and Argentina bask in the splendor of one of the New 7 Wonders of the (Natural) World, nearby Paraguay provides the shopping opportunities. Ciudad del Este (CDE) is like a giant open air market. Sure, many of the shops are ensconced in indoor shopping malls, but in such a crowded way that they still resemble stalls in a middle-eastern souk. In the malls in CDE, there are shops packed into the stairwells and kiosks crowd out every corridor. Clerks sit on stools with an excessively familiar air, not like people at work, but like people at home: they watch soccer matches; they yell to each other and eat next to the cash registers. In the streets, venders hawk merchandise from rickety stalls that line the road just past the border crossing. Men stand on the other side of the border, like family and friends awaiting your arrival at the airport. Within a few seconds of your arrival, they’ve gone through the repertoire: They’ve got everything from toasters to marijuana.

The ad hoc nature of CDE, the influx of businessmen from all over the world (mostly from Taiwan and Lebanon), the emphasis on grey and black market economies has given the city a bad reputation in the past. Further away from the border, it has a slightly quieter side, but the Brazilian economy has had its impact and the tranquility familiar in other Paraguayan towns no longer exists here. Buses scoot down the streets with boys hanging out the doors, encouraging passengers to get on. Traffic rips around the city, bass booms from the cars and the sidewalks are crowded with people trying to get home from their jobs downtown.

The Puente de la Amistad which connects Paraguay and Brazil over the Parana River is, effectively a border corssing, but because it’s in the interest of both countries to keep trade flourishing, there is very little formality at the border. When you walk across, there are no passport checks. This allows members of all nationalities to pass back and forth freely between the countries. In many cases, people live in Paraguay and work or go to school in Brazil and tourists shop in CDE and return to their hotels in Foz. It has been claimed that this open border leads to far greater problems than the smuggling of mercantile goods, such as human trafficking or international terrorism.        

As a result of this unsavory reputation, numerous guidebooks claim CDE to be unsafe. Many advise caution even in the day and others suggest avoiding it altogether. This has always seemed like sensationalism to me. I’ve been to CDE dozens of times and can vouch for the fact that there’s nothing happening there to disturb the comfort of the casual traveler. If there’s anything shady happening, it’s far down in an underworld that a tourist would have a difficult time even locating, let alone becoming involved with in any way.

Despite the security of CDE, after I’d been travelling there for work for about a year, I began to feel a certain anxiety when visiting the city. The words of the man I had met, years before, in Puerto Iguazu echoed back to me every time I visited CDE. “Yes, but when are you seeing the Falls?” This man had found it absurd that as a foreigner I had come to the area even once and not made arrangements to visit the Falls, now I was working in the area on a monthly basis and I still hadn’t made an effort to see it.

A few times during my visits, I had crossed into Brazil, mainly to see what they were selling in the grocery stores on the other side of the river. My efforts were frustrated by the fact that the Brazilian side of the border looks a lot like the Paraguayan side, not as hectic, but still mostly markets and wholesale stores. The city was a farther walk and without Brazilian reales, I couldn’t take a bus.

Evidence of Iguazu was everywhere: Hotel Yguazu (as it’s spelled in Paraguay), Yguazu heladeria and local buses with Yguazu written on them. Once again, I was at the cusp of this incredible natural formation, but I never had enough time to see it. Significantly, the border crossing also posed a problem. I’d crossed into Brazil before, but I hadn’t gone very far. Everyone told me that it was possible to get to Iguazu without passing any checkpoints, but I was still a little nervous about going further into a country that I had no visa for. Gradually, I began to dismiss the idea of going to Iguazu as a hassle. I’ve never been really crazy about waterfalls or anything so I figured it was something I could afford to miss, again.

I was in Paraguay for two years and at the end of my time in the country, I found myself going to CDE every weekend for a skateboarding class I had created. With my departure looming, I began to think about the Falls again. My last class, I would be bringing my girlfriend Gina down to help me take pictures of the graduation ceremony. We could visit the Falls together as one of the last things we did in Paraguay.

Of course, the Falls weren’t in Paraguay and the visa issue was further complicated by the fact that Gina’s Paraguayan visa had long expired. If something were to happen at the border, she wouldn’t have legal status in either county. I had no idea what this would mean, and no desire to find out. It’s one thing to take a risk yourself, but imposing a risk on someone else, just to see a waterfall, even a very impressive one, was a dubious venture. I imagined being escorted back to Paraguay (I still had a valid visa) while they took Gina to some kind of international interrogation room.  Each of us yelling the other’s name, arms flung out across the bridge.

Despite this fear, eventually I was persuaded to visit the Falls by many people telling me that the border conditions were consistently lax. We woke up early on a grey Sunday morning and made from our hotel after a quiet ‘continental’ breakfast of sugared pineapple juice, toast, watermelon and suspicious-tasting coffee.

It was beginning to drizzle as we walked through Ciudad del Este to the bridge into Brazil. The Sunday morning markets were all quiet; the rickety kiosks standing empty, like crude imitations of bus shelters, the rain dripping down between the plywood roofs and pocking the hard-packed dirt ground. Scattered vendors called half-heartedly to us. We walked on with our heads down past Paraguayan immigrations offices and onto the bridge.

The bridge was under construction and we crossed over the muddied water, taking care not to step on any stray bolts and fencing that had been laid down in the pedestrian path. At the Brazilian end of the bridge, we walked through a labyrinth of fences and checkpoints, past bored-looking guards and corrugated metal panels. Emerging from the border zone, there was a whole-sale store, its name soaring over the façade in tall, black letters, Bismillah. ‘In the name of God,’ it was called.

Now into Brazil, I wasn’t too clear on which was to go, so we walked vaguely in the direction of the main bus station for a while, hoping to see something that would indicate what we should do.

The stores were all shuttered for Sunday and the misty rain had beaded over all the display windows, reflecting the dull light of the sky in millions of tiny soapy grey baubles. We saw a few people waiting for a bus, I asked if they spoke any Spanish and asked for directions. The couple we asked were from Sao Paulo and were also on their way to the Falls. They were very friendly and said that we should just follow them.

The bus came and took us to the station. From the station we caught another bus. We went down into the city. There was a farmer’s market in the middle of a closed-off street, but the rest of the city looked as empty, grey and shuttered as the area near the bridge had. As the bus continued past the city, I kept thinking how we were in his country with no documentation, but yet we were riding the bus with the same bored expressions as the Brazilians who were born there.

After a detour to the airport, we jumped off in front of the visitor’s entrance to the Falls. Even on a Sunday, the place seemed packed full of people in contrast to the rainy, empty town. I got in line and nervously presented my passport to the man at the ticket window, but, as I had anticipated, he didn’t check for a visa, but only glanced at the photo page and tossed it back, telling me the total for two adult tickets.

The entrance is far from the Falls, so we had to take one of those touristy double decker buses with the top floor open on the sides. It had begun to rain, but we took a place on the top, trying to avoid the squalls of rain that would occasionally lash against the bus. Despite the wind and the cold rain, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was one of those rare moments when a crowd of strangers are brought together by a unique experience that has been made even rarer by unexpected weather. Like the crowds of spinning and sliding hippies in the rain at Woodstock, we too enjoyed the sudden novelty of the rain and under the awning of the bus, we grinned out from bedewed ponchos and misty eyelashes.

By the time we disembarked, it was raining hard. Gina and I dove off the bus and under the roof of a nearby shelter, but it was useless. The rain was coming down steadily and the sky was a deep purple-grey to the horizon in all directions. We hunched over a little and ducked into the rain, as if our raised shoulders could somehow keep us from getting wet. We seemed to be the only ones who hadn’t had the foresight to buy rain ponchos.

The path to the Falls wove through a forested area, but it was no use, even the generous tropical leaves couldn’t keep the rain from soaking us through. Within a few minutes, we looked like we’d emerged from the raging torrent of water that everyone had come to see.  

The path clings to a hillside underneath which is the Falls. Every few hundred feet, the foliage opens onto some panorama of multiple cascades, some narrow, some wide, all of them dumping out of a dense green mass of trees and vines, like the drain for all of the Amazon jungle. We stopped at each opening, took a few quick pictures in the rain and watched the recycling motion of the water broken open by gravity into individual drops before being forged together again, battering down on a bed of large rocks.

For the afternoon, we skulked from under the trees to brave the cold exposure of the Falls and the rain before wrapping our arms around our bodies again and fleeing into the cover of a tree. By the time we’d reached the park’s terminus, we were past caring and, half-hypothermic, we stood on a grated platform over the great waters, thoroughly soaked with great chattering grins peeled out of our faces.

Later in the afternoon, we made it back to the bridge on the border. Still wet and cold, we bought a coffee from a vendor and passed the sugary hot brew back and forth as we crossed back to Paraguay. I waited until we were well past the immigrations office before I said anything. “Well,” I said, finishing the coffee, “we made it.”

Gina looked at me. “I knew we would,” she said and we walked back up the street, past the forlorn Sunday vendors, the billowing blue tarps and the rain still rattling in the downspouts.      

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