Once we'd picked up the drenched little bits of ourselves and moulded them back together, we decided to venture onwards to our 41st country: Paraguay.
In theory, the trip for Puerto Iguazu, Argentina to Encarnacion, Paraguay should have been a simple one, requiring nothing more than a single change of bus.
But as we quickly found out, virtually nothing in Paraguay is simple.
We were stamped out of Argentina quickly, but owing to some complicated border-design, in order to get to Paraguay, one must pass through the southernmost tip of Brazil. (Without actually getting off the bus it didn't count as country 42: pish.) And then the bus goes through the border at Ciudad Del Este, the first town in Paraguay.
Imagine a cocktail with two parts Mos Eisley, two parts The Barras, one part Deadwood, add a dash of acidic diarrhoea, shake well, and you've got something approaching Ciudad Del Este. The place is so lawless, we spoke to Buenos Aireans too afraid to go. It's so lawless that any and all contraband in South America is said to be available there. So lawless, they don't even bother to check passports on the way in...
And it was this, lastly, that began our sorry tale. We sat on the bus and kept waiting, and waiting, to be stamped in.
It never happened.
Apparently, no one in Ciudad Del Este gives a cross-border fuck where you're from, who you are or what you might be carrying, so long as you've got money to spend/steal. So instead of having another stamp squeezed into our ever more clustered passports, we got off one bus at the terminal and were immediately hustled onto another to Encarnacion.
|Photo: Wee Mo|
This, as it turned out, was a mistake. Paraguayans don't take too kindly to people sneaking into their country and the penalty is a substantial fine (OK it's only $50, but like Mr Wendell, it's a big deal to us).
We decided to throw ourselves on the mercy of the immigration officer in Encarnacion, to see if we couldn't weasel our way out of the whole mess. One thing you should know: people in Paraguay are very normal looking, which, having spent quite a lot of time gawping at the beautiful people in Argentina is on one hand quite reassuring, and on the other a little bit dull.
Subsequently we were greeted by a tall, surly, unattractive secretary and brusquely informed that Señor Vega would see us when he was ready. Promptly we saw a small man milling around in the office beyond. “Oh he's just lit a fag,” said Wee Mo, despondent.
At which point we were shepherded into the office.
There sat the little man, smoke in hand, behind a brown little desk, in front of a yellowing wall. Faint light coughed in through the window onto his scrunched little face, wrinkled like a shar-pei, caught halfway between triumph and failure. While he sucked on his cigarette, I couldn't get another Señor out of my head.
I relaxed my sphincter and let forth some woeful Spanish but only had to get as far as “Ciudad Del Este” before the wee man's anger peaked. Theatre ensued, he coughed, grabbed a phone, and barked a couple of questions in our direction.
“What is your country?” he asked in his native tongue.
“Great Britian, but I'm Scottish.” I said.
“Scottish.” Said Wee Mo, picking up on the fact he hadn't heard.
Where we in trouble? It was impossible to tell.
Then he had a look at our passports while waiting for one of his phones to ring back.
“You have a lot of stamps,” he mostly likely said in Spanish.
“Oh yes, many countries,” I maybe said in return. “Many in Asia.”
Again silence was the reply. He flicked through every page, and seemed particularly disgruntled by the Laos visa, a cheap-looking full-page thing for which we had to pay baksheesh to a detestable little runt many months before. Señor Vega grabbed an UV light and had a closer look. Still he said nothing.
Now we were filled with dread. It seemed that something was going badly wrong. I was about to suggest we pay a fine [bribe] just to get the whole thing over with. He reached our picture pages and seemed surprised to find that they have been reinforced with laminate. Lifting up the passports, he started flicking the sturdy pages with a yellow finger.
“Come here,” he said, beckoning me to a picture on the wall.
“This was us at a course to detect document fraud,” he approximately said with a sudden smile on his face. “This guy was from Scotland Yard in the UK, he was very nice.”
I laughed, “Really? Cool,” all the while belting out Flower O Scotland in my head.
A few minutes later, Señor Vega was giving someone on the end of the phone a ladle of shit for things not working as they should and writing us a letter to take to Asuncion, exonerating us of any blame for border skipping.
|Photo: Wee Mo|
Some days later in Asuncion and amazingly, everything went according to plan. The capital itself may have been chronically boring, dirty and utterly infested with mosquitoes, but their immigration department quickly swapped our letter for another, more menacing one to take to the border.
We spent two and half days in the capital – about two days too long – sweating, giving millilitre after millilitre to the blood-suckers' cause, bored, but finally able to relax that we could get out of the country, vowing never to return.
So what can we learn from this whole episode?
That going off the beaten track doesn't always bring rewards. And that unless you're dealing with anyone named Thatcher or MacKenzie, telling people you're Scottish will almost always pays off.