Day 210, (continued). There were hundreds of people lining the bridge pushing carts and carrying bags fully laden with goods, a really weird sight. At the Brazilian border the queue was immense and to make it worse there was a massive group of children who had just got off a coach. This all took a while to the great annoyance of my taxi driver. I eventually managed to fill in the entrance visa card as shown by an example taped to a window, I had to follow the example as the card itself was only written in Portuguese. The example text was clearly filled in using English so I did the same. Sadly, Mr Border man with his big shiny gun sticking out of his trousers in a Starsky and Hutch kind of way and dressed undercover, took offence at my card and shouted at me for filling it in with English. I pointed out to him that the example on the window was in English to which he asked me why I couldn’t speak Portuguese. I could think of so many answers to this but thought better of it mainly because of the gun tucked into his belt. I was hoping it would accidentally go off and shoot him in his ‘man bits’ but luckily before I could say anything he decided to let me pass saying, next time make sure it’s in Portuguese. Yeah, as if I’m ever going to come this way again, I like wasting four hours of my life stuck in no man’s land! I suppose to be fair to him, this border must be a very stressful place to work and I’m pretty convinced the two guys with drugs loaded in their rucksacks would have come this way a couple of days ago making it quite a dangerous border crossing. Still, in the seventeen countries I’ve visited I’ve come into contact with at least twenty eight languages so did he expect me to learn them all? I’ve learnt how to point in all of them though!
After over four hours for what was a measly mile journey I was at the bus station in Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil. I accidentally tried to fiddle the taxi driver out of cash but we sorted it out in the end, I’d done him out of one dollar which he seemed to take offence at. Surprisingly the youth hostel bloke was still in his office at the bus station, all the guidebooks said that he should have buggered off by now. I booked a place in the hostel closest to the Foz do Iguaçu waterfall and got a taxi here. I’m amazed how much cleaner and developed Brazil looks, I still find it amazing how within a relatively short distance of a border things change so dramatically. It’s while in the taxi that I discovered a bizarre Brazilian ‘fact’ but I’m not sure that this is true. I was told by the driver that currently they don’t have traffic police in Brazil which basically means that although there are speed limits, no one is here to enforce them. I discovered this while my driver did about 200km/h in a dodgy old fiat. I also discovered the way in which the police deal with the problem, they put speed bumps on major roads so my driver was doing 200km/h one minute and then 50km/h the next and then going back up again, a bit like horizontal Bungy jumping. All motorists here also seem to think that they were racing drivers a fact not helped by the use of race track type starting lights at traffic junctions. The hostel is nice and it’s good to relax here in what is the last country of my long journey.
Everyone knows that Brazil is famous for its national Football team and Ronnie Biggs although the latter had actually left Brazil and flown back to the UK just as I started out on my world trip. I also know that Brazil is the only new world colony to serve as a seat for a European monarch, Rio de Janeiro being the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. According to my guidebook, Brazil was ‘happened’ across by the Portuguese Pedro Cabal in 1500. He was meant to be heading for India so it just goes to show you how bad the Portuguese are at navigating as he went in completely the opposite direction, Portuguese explorers my arse, they were lost! The first settlers arrived in 1531 and soon found that the climate was great for growing sugarcane but needed the native Indian slave labour to make it profitable. To find the ‘labour’ the mercenaries fanned out into the interior and so defined the extensive borders of Brazil, and ignoring the odd interruption from Dutch occupation, created the largest country in South America. Later African slaves were imported as the Portuguese deemed these to be better workers than the Indians, this influx leading to the unique mix of people Brazil is known for.
In 1807 Napoleon entered Lisbon making the Royal Family flee to Rio de Janeiro from where they continued to reign. When Portugal regained freedom after the defeat of the French the King went back to Portugal leaving his son in Brazil as regent. In 1822 Portugal tried to remove Brazil from the United Kingdom and again make it a colony at which point the Kings son, ‘Dom Pedro I’ is meant to have shouted “Independencia ou morte”, “independence or death” and so with that Brazil became an independent country with its own king without having a single battle. But as usual in South America a military coup was not too far away and in 1889 a republic was declared. Everything was going quite well until the ‘liberal nationalists’ who thought they’d taken advantage of the ill feeling after the 1929 stock market crash were defeated in the 1930 election. Sadly they thought they would take power anyway in another coup! After fifteen years democracy started to slowly come back until in 1964 the military again seized power in a coup and directly governed Brazil until 1985. During this time thousands of Brazilians were deported, imprisoned, tortured or murdered. Since this time it’s been relatively stable although Brazil has one of the worst poverty gaps in the world.
Day 209. Hotel Hispania has clearly seen better days, but you can see that in its prime it must have been an amazing place. The glamorous young lady on reception clearly thought the place was still prestigious but I guess a lot of things have happened here and decay is clearly subjective. Even though run down, I had a fantastically long and infinitely comfortable sleep compared to the previous couple of nights. I just took a short and slow walk around town on what has been a really hot day. The firemen were on strike today and were driving around town in convoys blowing their horns and waving their flags. While sat watching this in the Plaza Juan de Salazar, just across from the Palacio Legislativo, I started to feel my legs being bitten, I noticed that I was slowly becoming covered in red ants which had huge green abdomens. I figured the green bits were probably not a good sign and that they were pretty pissed off with my presence so I decided to leave.
After taking in the sight of the Palacio de Gobierno, Government Palace, and taking a picture which is something I could have been arrested for a little over ten years ago and shot during El Supremo’s tenure I headed to the Casa de la Independencia. This is the oldest building in Asuncion (1772) and is where Independence was declared although this is hard to believe looking at it as it doesn’t seem particularly well looked after. It’s meant to be a museum but it looked pretty much closed. Just up the road from here is the Plaza de los Heroes and the Panteon de los Heroes with its armed guard of honour. I find this quite ironically named as along with others it contains the mortal remains of Francisco Solano Lopez who basically brought the country to its knees, not someone I would call a hero.
It’s a bizarre city really, it seems completely full of prostitutes waiting on street corners and people sitting on picnic chairs eating in the back of pickup trucks while been driven around, freaky! Every now and again a pickup will go past with a machine gun welded to the back with three soldiers sat around it pointing it at people as they drive by. This does not fill me with confidence, how long ago was the last military coup?!?!
Day 210. I left the hotel early at about 8am and got a taxi to the bus station. Although I’d only been in Paraguay for three days, or four if you include the illegal bit, I had to leave as I’ve lost three days and have to get to Rio for my final flight back home in six days time. I wanted to get a ticket to the bus station on the Brazilian side of the border called Foz do Iguaçu however, I could only get a ticket to the Paraguayan border town of Ciudad del Este. The journey was quite quick and we had no problems with the police but I guess that was because the coach didn’t have Bolivian plates! As I didn’t know how to get to the border I decided to take a taxi across it. I didn’t barter too well but I couldn’t really be bothered with the hassle, I just wanted to get across and to a hostel before it got too late.
Crossing the border took hours and I suppose looking back I could have walked it in about fifty minutes to one hour. But the traffic was absolutely amazing in this busy, noisy, dirty, black market border town. Due to some tax thing electrical and other goods on the Paraguayan side are really cheap so the border has thousands of people trying to cross carrying loads of goods. It’s a complete nightmare and was frustrating sat in the taxi on an extremely hot day moving barely inches at a time. In the street there was the sight of market workers rushing about their business in the extreme heat, it was hectic and maddening especially with the constant sound of car horns. This place has to be seen to be believed, the best way to describe it is it’s mad, hedonistic, drugged up lawlessness with bloodshot eyes and a hangover sleeping in it’s own pool of vomit! It took over three hours, but by now I was at the Paraguay side of the border. I was a bit apprehensive about leaving my bag in the taxi but I had to leg it to the passport control office. I figured that at the speed of the traffic I would be done before the car could drive off. After a relatively short time queuing I was back in the taxi and making my way across the bridge.