We crossed the Iguazú river into the town of Foz Do Iguaçu in Brazil first thing in the morning. This city was considerably larger than its Argentinean counterpart, Puerto Iguazú and passing through there was somewhat like stepping back into Ecuador, vendors on the streets jumping on and off busses selling their goods to the passengers… more akin to the pace of other third world frontier cities we had been through near the beginning of our trip.
Our bus was a direct bus to Paraguay loaded down with huge bags of rice, and other grains, cartons of fruits and veggies and people sprawled out sitting and standing where they could amongst the cargo. We made no official stops inside the Brazilian border but with the constant traffic jam we encountered while crossing the city and all the local street vendors hopping on and off the bus, it could have been fairly easy to get off illegally and stay in Brazil for a while. However, to leave the frontier town of Foz without a proper visa in order was a risk we were not quite prepared to take, so we stuck to the plan not knowing what would lie ahead of us in Paraguay.
The bus finally reached the other side of the city and crossed the Friendship Bridge over the Paraná river into Paraguay. To our surprise, the driver did not bother to stop at the border guard station nor at immigration so when we went to ask about why he didn’t stop: apparently they never stop unless someone asks them to, which never happens. We had two options, get off now and walk back with all our bags to the border guard so we could get a stamp, or ride to the bus terminal, store our bags and then walk back… so we chose door number two and stayed aboard the bus all the way through the city to the bus terminal. Although it seemed everyone at the bus station and the border were in such a hurry, we weren’t so we took our time, exchanged some money, stored our backpacks at the terminal, enjoyed a morning mate, and took a walk back to the border to enter the country legally on foot. Paraguay also requires purchase of a visa that can only be granted if the traveler has evidence (i.e., a ticket) of onward travel to leave the country and 2 color photos. We had the photos but without the valid itineraries we were stuck without the official visa. But a bit of the old greenbacks in hand we were able to get a seemingly official 5-day transit visa from the less than honorable customs/immigration officer. He assured us that we would have no problems leaving the country as long as we did it before the following Saturday. We left the office, our wallets $45 dollars lighter with a mixed feeling of relief that we were in, with a stamp in the passport, but equally the uneasy feeling that what had just occurred was slightly beyond the bounds of legality. For the mean time, there could be nothing else to do to remedy the situation so we dropped the subject and enjoyed an adventuresome stroll through the “Eastern City” as it is aptly named, being the farthest point in the east of the tiny landlocked country.
As is the case with most border towns where one country celebrates a stronger economy than its neighbor, this town was a huge bazaar, in fact, famous enough that it has been referred to as “the biggest shopping mall in South America.” The Friendship Bridge into Brazil has 10.000 people crossing it daily to do business in the tax free market. The chaos began as soon as you step off the bridge and set foot inside the border just beside the immigration office. The mall extended for two blocks on either side of the main avenue and occupied at least 10 blocks between the bridge and the center of town. To each side of the main avenue was a different department: to the right was the clothing (everything from cheap leather sandals to cheap heavy coats almost useless in this hot climate); to the left was electronics (everything imaginable from fake Rolex watches, to computers, to digital cameras). I mean there were people everywhere, stands on every square inch of sidewalk, and the buildings as well were filled with small outfits specializing in some electronics trade.
It wasn’t until we entered one of the multi-floor mini-mall galleries that I fully understood the gravity of what takes place here. You see, I failed to mention that on our original arrival to Paraguay while crossing the big bridge from Brazil I saw people crossing on foot carrying humongous rolls of some white materials on their backs. I later realized upon closer inspection the rolls were plastic bubble-wrap, but I still didn’t make the connection at that point. In the gallery we arrived on the third floor to find a series of merchant spaces occupied by packaging companies. Cardboard boxes, packaging tape, and of course….. bubble-wrap lying all about. People come here from Brazil, purchase cheap products and send them off where ever they need to go. Its a huge business and it preoccupies the entire existence of the Eastern City.
After several hours of meandering through the dirty crowded side streets and merchant galleries in constant awe at what we were seeing, we set pace towards the bus terminal discussing the complete and utter disgust at what we had just witnessed. How could we come to one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth and encounter such a filthy greedy honey-pot just down the river that seemed to totally ignore its existence? The answer to the question seemed bigger that just our immediate situation and for the moment I left it alone. But now looking back and reading what I’ve written it is all making me feel a bit queasy – slightly green in the face, at the risk of sounding cheesy – from all this lust for man-made green in the midst of, or better put, at the cost of losing all the natural shades of the same color.