Tuesday, May 31, 2011

San Bernardino and Bi-centennial celebrations.

Our first day in Paraguay and we stay at our lakeside retreat and get acquainted with our hosts, Silvia and Geraldo. Their campgrounds and cabinas are in a breath-takingly beautiful lakeside setting. The lake being Lake Ypacarai (Ee-pa-car-eye). Located about 35 miles from Asunción it is a popular retreat for wealthy Paraguayans from the capital who maintain second homes here or visit on the weekends. It is not a large lake, measuring about 3 by 5 miles but very idyllic surrounded by tropical vegetation. Only one small problem. If we go swimming, explained Silvia, be sure to splash your feet on the bottom. There are stingrays. Hmm, that did it for me. No swimming for this girl! We find out that everything is closed from Friday through Monday for the national holiday, so after we learn that San Bernardino will have its own parade and celebrations we decide to stay here. The festivities were initially planned for Saturday but the day started dark and gloomy and quickly became a huge deluge. A true storm with high winds, rain sheeting down, thunder and lightning. Everyone quickly dispersed and all was postponed until Monday. After shopping at the local supermarket, we hunkered down in the motor home and spent the rest of Saturday and Sunday, reading, playing backgammon and taking short, poncho-wearing walks to the lake with Winston. Sunday showed some improvement in the weather and Monday was clear and sunny. When we arrived at the town center at 9am, people were already gathered and the stage and speaker system at the ready. First were the speeches by the mayor and local officials, interspersed with school bands playing the national anthem and other patriotic tunes accompanied with cries of Viva la Patria and Viva Paraguay. Like our July 4th music, it is very military, marching sounding, very Sousa-like. Then there was a play given by the high school students, re-enacting the revolution and history of Paraguay. It followed not only the events leading to the break from Spain but also the role that the indigenous Guarani and the Jesuit priests played in Paraguayan history. It was very entertaining and both Tom and I were able to follow the story. After it was over, we followed the crowd to the main street in town stopping to photograph a little girl dressed in a long, frilled, patriotic red, white and blue dress with matching ribbons in her hair and a group of the play-starring, high school students. The girls were in long, traditional dresses and the boys dressed in various garb ranging from colonists to colonial soldiers to Jesuit priests. All the children were charming and polite. Of course, as in the past, we always ask before taking pictures. If the children are young, we ask their parents. Most say yes and all are gracious even if they decline. There were chairs set out along the parade route but we elected to stay close to the end of the procession. Tom stood on a high curb so he could take photographs, whilst I stood with a small crowd of moms whose children were taking part in the parade. All the local schools were represented with bands and students clad in costumes of the revolution. All showed their school colors and emblems and proudly marched to the beating of drums and the clash of cymbals. We could not sing along to the tunes as did most of the crowd but we enthusiastically clapped as the children passed by. By early afternoon it was over and to the sounds of fireworks, music and cries of Viva Paraguay we walked down main street and went to eat lunch. Silvia had told us about a restaurant owned by a French couple that serves good food. Le Café Frances was excellent. Madame et Monsieur who are in their seventies, and not only own but actively participate in the running of the establishment welcomed us and gave us a table by the window. The food was delicious and as we ate we listened to the music of pre-world war Europe. Edith Piaf was the only singer I knew but the music was hauntingly beautiful. After dessert we indulged with some coffee and cognac, served by the elderly monsieur in warmed snifters. We sat and sipped and listened to the music. Tom turned to me. “This is beautiful,” he said, “I am so glad we are doing this trip together”. Like so much of the trip, this day was completely unplanned. Paraguay was unplanned. And yet here we are. I could only smile and agree.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Paraguayan border to San Bernardino – 180 miles.

By far the easiest border crossing to date. Even though this is a busy border with hundreds of people crossing every day between the falls, the dam and duty-free shopping in Ciudad del Este, only if you are venturing further into the country do you need to stop. After we were checked out of Brazil at Foz do Iguaçu, we crossed the Puente de la Amistad (Friendship Bridge) that spans the Parana River and divides Paraguay and Brazil. This afforded some beautiful views of the surrounding area. From there it was a quick stop at the immigration and customs building. We went first to Immigration to get our passports stamped and then we were directed to Aduana for the vehicle. There was one official who glanced at our title. He immediately stamped and initialed it. That was it. No photocopies, no request to see our licenses, no vehicle check, no carnet. We had been told and read that carnet was required. That is not so. Winston is also a non issue. Within 15 minutes, after changing some of our Brazilian currency for Guarani with a money changer we were finished. Since it is not possible to exchange Guarani outside of the country, we are only going to try to change what we need and first we need gas. Thinking petrol would be cheaper than Brazil we had waited to fill up. Disappointment. Gas is still expensive around $6.50 a gallon. Oh well. The next step was to navigate through, what is called “South America’s biggest shopping center” – Ciudad del Este. This is a bustling city where Brazilians arrive by bus loads to buy imported, duty free goods. Tom asked if I wanted to stop. After looking at the crowded walkways and the masses of humanity, I declined. What could we possibly need that would require struggling through the crowds? With the help of the many police who direct traffic through the busy intersections of streets thronged with people, we were through the town and on our way. Our stop for the night was to be San Bernardino, a resort town on Lake Ypacarai, about 35 miles from Asunción. We had read online about a hostel and campground which had room for motor homes and offered water and power. Hopefully we can camp there and get used to our new country. Just as we began the drive on Highway 7, known as the Mariscal Estigarribia Highway, we arrived at the first, of what turned out to be many police/military checkpoints. Naturally we are stopped. After a perfunctionary check of our passports and title, the inevitable questions began. How long had we been travelling? How were our experiences? Questions upon questions. Tom and I answer good naturedly and with laughter. Sharing stories as best we can in our limited Spanish, which after 4 months in Brazil has become rusty, we chat. Although this adds to the time it takes to travel, we understand that for some of these officials, it may be their only chance at talking with Americans and we want to leave a good impression of our own people and country behind. As we travel we view ourselves as ambassadors for America and realize that for many of the people we meet, this will be their only contact with Americans. We want the experience to be as pleasant for them as it is for us. So, we indulge their curiosity. The road is a toll road and we make good time even with the stops. We also learn that in a few days, on May 15th, it is the bi-centennial of Paraguay’s independence from Spain in 1811. At one of the stops we are presented with an emblem to honor the occasion, which we promptly hang from our mirror, much to the delight of the attendant. As we travel, we pass roadside vendors selling pottery and wood carvings from the nearby villages, the most famous being Tobati and beautiful wood furniture made by descendents of the Mennonites. We pass through the town of Caacupe, which today is quiet but is known for its celebration on December 8th, when pilgrims come from all over Paraguay carrying heavy stones on their heads as penance. We also pass many stores called Chiparrias and wonder about them. It turns out that chipas are small cakes made from maize and are sold by the Guarani. We see traditional Guarani women carrying baskets on their heads, filled with fruit and chipas. All of this is surrounded by a landscape that is lush and sub-tropical. Lots of agriculture with fields of corn and soya. Well-fed cattle, goats and sheep, graze on the abundant grasses in fields by the side of the road. It is all so new and exciting to us. As we turn from the main highway for the final 10 kilometers to San Bernardino and the lake it is getting dark, so it was with relief when we finally arrive at the resort. A friendly lady called Silvia greeted us. On 6 hectares we are the only ones here. Winston is in heaven and as soon as we park takes off to explore his new surroundings. It has been a long day but we have made it. We are in Paraguay and at a very pretty lakeside campground. We will definitely stay a couple of days and try to decide where to spend the May 15th, bicentennial Independence Day celebrations.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Foz do Iguaçu

The first thing that comes to mind about “Foz” is water. Water, primarily the Parana and Iguaçu rivers almost define the very existence of this tourist destination. I use the term “tourist” loosely, as the remoteness of the town keeps tourists to only the most adventuresome and curious. Without the Parana River, there would be no Itaipu Dam with the world’s largest producing hydro-electric plant and without the Iguaçu River, those famous, completely spectacular Iguaçu Falls would not have been created. In addition it is also the cornerstone for the Brazilian border with both Paraguay and Argentina as evident by the Marca dos Tres Fronteras (The Three Border Monument). Foz do Iguaçu co-exists not only with Brazil but also in its close proximity to the other two countries with many visitors entering and leaving daily. In addition, our visit was highlighted by our choice of camping facilities. The Hostel Paudimar is beautiful, clean and well-maintained. We were able to have power and water and much to Tom’s surprise and delight, a sewer dump. These have been few and far between and he has had to resort to using the “bucket technique” for emptying our black water tank, not an enviable task but we absolutely refuse to jungle dump. There is laundry service, swimming pool, restaurant and a huge field where we can let Winston run. What more could a traveler need? The other thing we need to do is go to the Paraguayan Consulate in town. Like Brazil, Tom being a US citizen needs a visa; Angela with her UK passport does not. We also have questions regarding the motor home – do we need Carnet (insurance) or not – and Winston. The weather is gloomy and rainy so we spent the first couple of days relaxing at the campground. We are told that by midweek the weather will be sunny for our trip to the falls. Tuesday found us at the consulate. It was easy. With just a photo and payment of $100.00 we have the visa and according to the consulate, driving into Paraguay with the RV and Winston will not be a problem. On the way back to the hostel, we stopped off at the Tres Fronteras Marca. The view is amazing with the Parana River running down the center, Argentina to the left and Paraguay to the right, both national flags clearly visible from our own vantage point on the Brazilian side. Wednesday, we go to Itaipu Dam. Built as a joint venture between the governments of Brazil and Paraguay, Itaipu Dam is the second largest hydro electric plant (China now has the first) in the world but it is the largest producer of hydro-electric power. Classified as one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the dam is a feat of engineering and ingenuity. In addition to the panoramic tour we elected to take the technical tour which gives an overview of not only the workings of the plant but also how Brazil and Paraguay by joint agreement and personnel (50% of employees are Brazilian, 50% Paraguayan) who do not share a common language (Brazilians speak Portuguese and Paraguayans, Spanish) manage to co-ordinate their efforts into this huge power-producing facility. Thursday and Friday, we dedicated to the cataratas, Iguaçu Falls. Spectacular. Awesome. Amazing. Jaw-dropping. There are not enough adjectives to explain the absolutely powerful, thundering, beauty of these falls. Since they border both Brazil and Argentina, they can be viewed from the National Parks on both sides. Wednesday we spent on the Argentina side, doing a boat trip which took us up close and personal to some of the areas. It was very exciting and very wet! Thank goodness it was a sunny day and we could dry off quickly. We were also able via a string of trails and walkways, to get extremely close to many areas of the falls especially an area called Garganta Del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat canyon). The sheer amount of water that cascaded over the edge was amazing. The trail back through the park also provided close encounters with coatmundis, monkeys and, what has quickly become my most favorite of birds, the beautiful Toucan. Friday, we visited the Brazilian side with another couple who are travelling from Ireland. Steve and Jenny have been on the road for three months going first to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Then onto Australia and New Zealand and finally Peru and Brazil before going home to Dublin. They are young, energetic and loving life and Tom and I enjoyed spending the day with them before taking them to the airport to visit Rio before going home. The Brazilian side is more tranquil, more serene and gives the most beautiful panoramic views of these amazing cascades. Again easily accessible trails and walkways give up close and at times very wet experiences. On both days we saw gorgeous rainbows, single, double, triple ones created by the mist and sun. We were truly awe-struck. Everyone, it seems has their favorite side. Neither Tom nor I could decide as both are vastly different and both should be seen. The Argentine side is larger, more developed and more dramatic where as the Brazilian side is definitely more panoramic, scenic and with a greater overview of the falls. We took hundreds of photos, which once I have sorted them, we will post. Friday night we gave ourselves a treat. We got dressed up and went to a dinner and show at the Rafain, an event center in town. It was a churrascaria (Brazilian barbeque) buffet and a show featuring traditional music and dancing from South America. Since we rarely get gussied up and go out for the evening, this was a great way to end a remarkable few days of sight-seeing. Our last 4 days, we stayed around the campground. Tom did a little maintenance on the R.V. and I did some cleaning and preparation for the upcoming border crossing to Paraguay. We gave Winston a much needed bath and generally lazed around enjoying the solitude and sun. Wednesday we will cross the border into Paraguay and as there is little written by overlanders about that small land-locked country we are not quite sure what awaits us. Exciting!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Peruibe and a change of plans

The sleepy, small beach town of Peruibe is perfect for us. Not too many people during the week and a little busier on the weekends with mostly people coming from Sao Paulo to their beach homes. Within a few days we had met several of the locals and were becoming fast friends with Tony and his wife Ingrid and Luis and his wife Franklina. Tony had lived in the US for 30 years and immediately offered us the use of their home for showers, internet, laundry and anything else that was needed. Luis is a geo physicist who works for a US company and travels mostly to the middle- east for oil exploration and Franklina stays Brazil at their home in town. We are also very aware that we are woefully behind schedule and winter (southern hemisphere) is fast approaching. Our original goal had been to be in Patagonia no later than March and here it is April and we are still in Brazil. In addition we need to go back to the United States at the end of July for about three weeks for Tom’s mom’s 90th birthday. The family has scheduled a Mexican Riviera cruise for the party and it is a good opportunity to catch up with family and friends. However, leaving Winston and our motor home had been a dilemma. This was solved when Tony and Ingrid kindly offered to take care of both whilst we were gone. Being retired does have benefits and having a flexible schedule is one of those. We study our maps and timetable and revise our plans. We will still go to Foz do Iguaçu but from there will go to Paraguay (not originally on our list) and will come back to Brazil either via Argentina in the south or go to northern Paraguay and head into the Pantanal region of Brazil before coming back to Peruibe. With the help of Franklina and Elena (a realtor friend) we rented a house for June and July. After our trip back to the States, we will continue going south in Brazil down the coast to Uruguay, also not on our original itinerary before travelling from Montevideo to Buenos Aires by ferry. We will miss some of central Argentina but we will see more countries and will be back on schedule to be in Patagonia in December. As we plan our visit for Foz do Iguaçu and beyond, we are visited by a lady from the local TV company. When we return, she wants to do an interview with me regarding our travels. What fun. On the day of our departure, we sign the rental agreement; get a farewell gift from Franklina – a bag filled with local goodies and a last lunch with Tony and Ingrid. Early afternoon finds us on the road. We hope to be in Foz do Iguaçu in 3 days.