Last week I covered the first part of our South American reunion of exchange students tour, 2019.
This week I’m recounting the second leg of our trip, to Paraguay.
Once we were convinced the flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago was actually going to happen, we were good to go. Breakfast at Johnny Rocket’s in Santiago airport filled both our bellies and the time nicely. The flight to Asuncion was uneventful, which was good, because trying to clear customs quickly descended into a comedy of errors.
We had known that we would need to buy a visa at the airport, but we assumed it would be pretty well signposted. I’m not sure why we thought this, because finding the place to pay our reciprocity fee in Santiago airport had been a little like a quest. Yet we did pay it, without issue, using international debit cards, and continued on our merry way.
In Asuncion, we followed the signs for visitors and then were told, in halting English, we had no visas. It would be some time before he would point out the booth we needed to go to get one, which was across the arrivals hall, and next to a statue of Pope John Paul II, which puzzled me, because the man was Polish. Still, I get a kick of pointing him out to my kids, telling them that just like 10 is my Doctor, he is my Pope. But I digress.
The very bored gentleman in the booth was sipping his mate, minding his own business and generally not having to process very many visas at all, which is lucky, because we ended up needing his advice and he was the most helpful person in the place by a country mile. We went to pay him and he told us he couldn’t take cards. Only crisp American dollar bills, and not ones beginning with certain letters and numbers. OK, sounds totally legit. $130, US. He did direct us to an ATM in the arrival hall, and so we backtracked again.
Turns out the ATM in the international arrivals hall of an international airport, which is the only place international visitors without a visa can access international currency to buy an international visa … doesn’t accept international cards.
So back to out mate we returned, and he pointed out the currency exchange place – just past customs. We pointed out that we couldn’t get though without a visa and he laughed it off, telling us to just ask permission. And so we lined up again, only to be totally surprised when they did indeed wave us through without checking anything.
Next, we had to try to communicate with the people in currency exchange. They insisted that we needed $160 US, because that’s what visitors from the US are charged. They were telling us this while holding our Australian passports. Then, we had to pay exorbitant airport conversion fees. Twice, because they converted from AUD to local currency and then to USD. Then my debit card was declined – with all these machinations, my balance ended up being short – by less than a dollar, we later learned, but a miss is as good as a mile. Asuncion is the only airport in the world I’ve been to in years that has no wifi whatsoever, so transferring money wasn’t an option. In the end I paid half, Jamie paid half and then I paid her back the instant we got signal. But this all took so much time that when we finally finished, we were accosted by airport security because there were two unclaimed bags left that they were about to take away and blow up or whatever it is that they do with suspicious parcels these days. Yes, they were ours. Everyone else had been processed, collected their luggage and left the airport but we were still there.
So back we went to our mate, dragging our suitcases and our tired selves past all the “do not enter/restricted areas” signs. He confirmed the price was $130US and happily took Jamie’s $160, right before we saw all the signs saying no change would be given. Luckily he took pity on us and understood Jamie’s Spanish and so the two visas went through as one “payment” and we were ripped off less than we thought we might be. In other news, I’m still carrying a few American dollars around because, you know, we weren’t in America and therefore had no use for that hard-won change.
I thought we were finally home and hosed as we put our bags through the X-ray and I caught sight of Dany’s mum, Gladys, who was looking every bit as stressed as us by this point – she must have thought we’d missed the plane. And then I was called back by security, who had seen something untoward in the suitcase that had already been through Sydney, Buenos Aires, Santiago (twice), and Punta Arenas (twice) airports with no issue. So I had to search for my keys, unlock the luggage, and watch her squeeze tentatively at my bag of dirty clothes, and my shoe, before finally snatching a packet of Tim Tams and holding it aloft in the self-satisfied manner of Hercules Poirot cracking a case. “Es frutilla!” she accused.
In no language and on no planet is a Tim Tam anything like a strawberry. I said “No” pretty vehemently and the woman stared at me. Me: They’re chocolate cookies. And so she shrugged and put them away. Final hurdle apparently jumped.
By this stage it had taken us so long to get out that Dany’s poor parents had to come back around and pay extra for parking, and we didn’t have time to eat before we hopped on the bus to go to Dany’s place in Ciudad del Este. But I was so darned pleased to see them, and incredibly thankful for the sandwiches they bought us before loading us on the bus.
Now, Jamie and I were blissfully unaware that Dany no longer lived in Asuncion. What can I say: boys communicate differently. He did, however, organise bus tickets and his parents to meet us, so the practical stuff was all in place; it was just a bit of a shock when we learned we had a five hour bus trip ahead of us. Dany came and actually took us off the bus, which was lucky, because Jamie was sure it wasn’t our stop, and I’d been concerned that every stop was. And so we had our reunion at a bus stop at midnight. We got back to his house in the wee hours and met his little princess, Sofia, who wanted to see the visitors, but was too tired to actually interact with us.
The next morning we were up early –about an hour too early, as it turns out, because our iPhones had us on neighbouring Brazilian time–and after breakfast we headed out to see the Iguazu Falls. I was pretty happy about this, because earlier in the year I’d caught an episode of Travel Guides where they went to the Falls, and I was keen to go, but Jamie said no because her exchange group was taking her to the Argentinian side as part of the program. So I made a point of telling her that Dany was a better child, because he organised it all when she just said No! And so we headed over the Brazilian border and into the national park. It was freezing cold on the open topped buses heading into the park, but it was all worth it for the views.
We trekked down to the Devil’s Throat and the over-water walkway and the sheer volume of water was just amazing. Also amazing to us was Dany’s commitment to carrying his flask of Terere –the cold water version of mate. My summary of this drink is: it’s not as bad as I remembered it. I can see how it might be refreshing, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. Mind you, Dany has similar thoughts about Vegemite!
We went home to have lunch, and the kids, Sofia (6) and Iker (2) were back from school. We had a bit of a games night, playing once more with the Kangaroo Valley kangaroo puzzles. These proved too easy for Sofi, so we had races and stacking competitions. This was followed with team Jenga: Team Ballet (Jamie & Sofi) versus Team Australia (me & Dany). We rounded out the night with some Uno for good measure.
The following day Dany and Jamie and I headed out to Itaipu Dam & the hydro electric power station, which was when we made the news for the second time. Itaipu is a pretty amazing concept, with two nation states jointly owning the facility, and sending electricity to both. The day we were there, however, it was in the news because the original agreement is coming to a close and they are trying to sort out what the feed-in tariff will be for Brazil, moving forward. Protestors had barricaded the area but they let us through and we continued on our adventure. One of the protestors filmed it, though, and uploaded it to the Internet, so Dany was getting some pretty hilarious messages from his friends for the rest of the afternoon.
We had a private screening of a short movie and then a technical tour with our guide, Alex, which was pretty amazing.
Dinner that night was at a really nice pizza place, where we spent way too much time trying to translate “arugula” to know what was going on our pizza. I had never heard the word, even though all our apps were telling us it’s English. Turns out arugula is to rocket what cilantro is to coriander, and aubergine to eggplant, and cantelope is to rockmelon. And here I thought I’d be learning some Spanish …
Next morning we loaded up the car for the five hour drive up to Asuncion. A multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-generic singalong ensued. Evidently Dany often makes this drive, and on Tuesday morning he drove everyone home, then went to work! Although I do sometimes do drive 4+ hours to work (in Bega), I don’t try to do it before a full day’s work!
I got excited by a sign to Universidad Santo Francisco de Assis (South America has captured a couple of corners of my heart, but I still love Italy’s Assisi beyond words). We saw traditional timber products for sale by the side of the road, and bought chippi out the car and mandarins out the car window. We saw an extraordinary number of chooks, dogs and even cows just wandering along the sides of the roads. And at one point we were diverted (for cash) around a road blockage. While we were going off-road, Dany was cheerfully remarking that at least if we got robbed, so would all the other cars! But we arrived without incident to a large family gathering, some delightfully heavy-handed whiskeys, and copious amounts of BBQed meat. My daughter rather helpfully informed me that my English sped up to its usual pace (as opposed to my more moderate ESL-friendly version when traveling) with a couple of whiskeys under my belt, and Dany compared me unfavourably with his cousin’s host-mother, who phones annually to offer birthday felicitations in Spanish.
Saturday was a big day. Dany took us around Asuncion, where we saw such sights as the Presidential Palace and the birthplace of Paraguay. Lad knows his History, and was able to relay it in English, too. Major props; I could not do that in Japanese. Not sure I ever could have, come to think of it. We also went to a lookout and looked out over the city. A lot of the area was flooded and it seemed very disrespectful to photograph that, so I didn’t.
We wandered through some souvenir shops and I was very excited to buy a souvenir teaspoon to add to my three-generation collection, and a very delicate filigree charm to add to the collection on my bracelet. (Jamie was much less excited to realise the teaspoon collection would one day become hers).
That night we headed into town with Karen for another car singalong, some shopping, and a quick cuppa. Then we all headed downstairs to Sofia’s 6th birthday, which was quite the affair.
Jamie, Karen and Dany’s cousin Susi soon decided not to leave all the fun to the kids:
Karen decided that Iker shouldn’t miss out.
And there was dinner, cake, amazing party bags and pinata that actually burst (note to my younger self: those things are so well known for not breaking, that the people who invented them just use balloons now).
After all the excitement, we headed home for Sofi to open presents. There, Dany & Vivi also surprised us with some lovely traditional souvenirs – things we had admired, but not purchased, that afternoon. And finally, Sofi and Susi gave us a fine rendition of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” with some help from Karen. Sofi told me she was “muy felicidad” (very happy) with her present, and even conceded that she might visit us in Australia, even though we don’t have dinosaurs.
We were really reluctant to head to bed that night. A few hours’ sleep, and Dany took us to the airport, where he squeezed my shoulder very tight right before I headed in to security. He’s promised that he and Vivi will come and see us soon … probably one January, when we can both obsess over the Australian Open together.