In the morning, on Friday, we all headed out to go shopping in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. I had no visa for Paraguay, and my visa for Brazil had run out the day before, yet there were no problems for me to check out of Argentina. From this point on I was in no-mans land, a place of the unknown. Amazingly I was able to visit both Brazil and Paraguay without ever stopping at their border control.
It was late Friday morning by the time we had boarded the bus that would take us to Paraguay. Getting a group of nine people ready seemed to take a long time. Especially this group of people. Mind you, this time it was me who they were waiting for.
This happened because after I had been waiting around the for the morning I realised that I had completely run out of money. Since we were still waiting for Victoria, I figured that there was enough time to walk the six blocks to the bank and back. There probably would have been if I had not met Vicky at the very first corner. Feeling a compelling need to get money before we left, I continued on my journey. When I returned I was greeted by the cheers of a relieved group that was waiting to go. Oops.
So on the bus we journeyed until reaching the Argentine border. Here the bus stopped and we all got off and went through the processing, getting back onto the bus again afterward. It would have gone smoothly enough except for our two Americans. Bree had lost her passport only days before and was running on a temporary one from the American Consulate. Christine had overstayed her visa unknowingly. Both had to pay 50 pesos before they could continue.
Bree was early in the line and there were enough people around her to explain the problem of not having an entry stamp in her passport and why she would have to pay this fee anyway. By the time Christine had reached the processing point everyone else had returned to the bus, assuming that there would be nothing wrong. There was however, and after delaying an anxious bus driver for a further five minutes, two of us quickly got off to find out what the delay was.
It did not take long before everything was sorted and Christine only had to pay her money. The two of us that had just jumped off returned to the bus to wait. That was all the bus driver needed to believe that we had just reached critical mass. Not caring for poor Christine who was left behind, he suddenly took off to try and make up his schedule. We were less than a minute away from having her join us. Now she would have to wait until the next bus passed through that way.
Brazil – The Wait
Unable to do anything about our current situation, I simply sat back and watched the changing scenery around us as our bus drove straight through the Brazilian border gates without stopping and into Brazil. Suddenly I realised just how much Spanish I did know. The words I was looking at seemed really foreign to me once again. The new language of Portuguese was nowhere near as similar to Spanish as I thought it was when I did not know either language.
As we neared the Paraguayan border, delineated by a bridge across the river, we found ourselves caught in a huge traffic jam. It was going to take a long while to get through this. We discussed getting out and walking, and this is exactly what we did in the end. Just as we could see the border gates we left the bus and waited. At first I did not know why we were waiting, but I found out that this was the way that Christine should be coming on the next bus. She was not on that bus however, nor was she on the bus following that bus, nor on the one following that bus either.
It turned out, unknown to us, that Christine had watched all three of those buses go through the Argentine border and instead kept waiting. It was one hour later that she finally boarded a bus. This bus took her directly to Paraguay instead of going through Brazil first. That meant that no matter how long we waited in Brazil for Christine, we were not going to find her. Fortunately we did not wait too long after the third bus, considering that she was resourceful enough to find her own way there. We were right too.
It was while we were waiting there beside the traffic snarled road that our group devolved into individuals. The younger ones were keen to head over straight away and not wait, so we sent them off. Everyone was now fending for themselves, at least within their little groups. Having waited for Christine and not found her, and waved off all of the younger ones in our group there were only three of us left, Victoria, her mum, and myself. Our new arrangements were that we would see everyone back at home, in Argentina. It was wise arrangements too, as we did not ever see any of the others from that point on, even though the city was quite small.
Now my understanding of my current situation was that I was now standing on Brazilian soil as an illegal immigrant, and about to thwart the Paraguayan authorities when I slipped into Ciudad del Este without a visa. With these thoughts in my head, I climbed aboard a motorcycle taxi and pulled the helmet hard onto my head, dismayed that it was open faced.
We each had our own motorbike taxi, and would meet on the other side of the bridge. I was not sure that I would make it through the border but was willing to give it a go. I pulled my helmet down harder over my head as we approached the border gates. My open face helmet did little to disguise my very non-local looking face. Instead, I resorted to keeping my face pointing away from anyone that looked like a guard, pretending to simply be looking around and trying to avoid looking obvious.
It must have worked, because although we were within one foot of a Brazilian border patrol guard, our bike was not stopped. I breathed a sigh of relief that I had made it at least this far, and then stuck my head out to see where we were now heading. It was at this point that my rider braked suddenly and pulled quickly in behind a car. As my eyes focused on what was happening I realised that we had been riding down the centre line, splitting moving traffic.
Then a bike zoomed past in the other direction, followed by a number of others. At some point my bike pulled back out into the spaces between the moving lines of cars and soon we were whizzing past other bikes. At times there was two way bike traffic in the middle of all of this other traffic. It seemed crazy to me, the sort of thing I would have loved to have done when I was 18. I still quite enjoyed it now actually, but was also very aware of the dangers too.
Reaching the Paraguayan border gate, I repeated my face-hiding moves once again. The big difference that I noticed here was the loaded shotguns on the back of every guard. I tried not to let that affect me as we once again slipped past all of the paperwork without stopping once. I was now in Paraguay. The thing that really amazed me was that although I was in Paraguay, no one knew about me. I was totally off the system. It seemed incredible to me. No wonder this is one of the biggest mafia and crime places in South America.
Ciudad del Este
Our small group met up again on the other side, paid our motorbike taxis and headed off into the markets. Now I was expecting a normal city here, but although there are lots of normal shops around the place, the sidewalks were full of markets too. It seems that along these markets on the sidewalks are the real bargains of the city. Ciudad del Este is known as being one of the cheapest places in the area to buy electronic goods and it is very cheap for virtually everything else too.
Knowing that this is the crime capital of South America, I ensured that my money and bag was safely hidden away under my coat. Of course nothing is ever completely safe, but if someone wanted what I had then they were going to have to work very hard for it. The girls did the same thing, hiding things where they would not get lost and be unlikely to be stolen. As we wandered we kept our eyes out for any signs of danger. There did not seem to be anything that happened near us, although the presence of police and security guards with loaded guns in their hands ensured us that this was not a very safe place.
As we wandered, we shopped around for different items. I found myself some very good quality black shoes that were made in Brazil. These were not exactly cheap, but they were still cheap for what they were. Baby clothes and slippers and other bits and pieces were all bought as we wandered, even some very good quality large umbrellas. We also stopped a while to watch a man juicing cane, his motorised juicer pulled by two donkeys parked in the middle of the roadway.
Just as the shops started shutting up we headed down to the electronic stores to buy a keyboard that LIFE needed for their computer. It was here that I discovered the next version of my digital camera for only USD $300 and a laptop without a name for only USD $500. It was incredible what was here. My visit only served to reveal the possibilities to me. Now I know where I will go when I need to buy anything electronic, although there may be some importation issues to work through yet.
With our shopping complete and forced to end by the closing of all of the shops, it was time to return home. We all climbed aboard the motorcycle taxis and took off over the bridge. There was no problem in leaving Paraguay at all, and I hardly realised that we had gone through the border patrol, but the traffic on the bridge was causing problems.
With all of the shops in Paraguay shut and the shops in Brazil doing the same thing, the bridge was now completely filled with trucks, buses and cars. This did not daunt our crazed motorcycle captains, who rode on like another day in the office. We split the traffic between cars and cars, cars and buses, and cars and trucks. It was quite disconcerting at times. Then we stopped.
It turns out that an over sized truck was heading up the bridge, and we were trapped behind the semi-trailer truck in front of us and this over sized truck coming toward us. It was not just my guy either. There was about twenty or thirty bikes that had built up waiting for a clearing. Beside me was a rider on his dirt bike blipping the throttle constantly, the front of his bike leaping forward at each blip. I figured he was in a hurry.
When the truck finally passed us there was a rush of bikes for the opening. It was like watching water pouring down a drain as bike after bike pushed their way into the limited opening. All of this took place with the traffic still moving around them. Before long I had entered the canal that all the other bikes had moved through. It seemed considerably less than safe with a semi-trailer truck on one side and a flat-bed truck on the other. I was glad to have gotten out of that situation, but then things just seemed to get worse.
Before I knew it we were plunging into the narrow gap between a semi-trailer truck and a bus. It had the same feeling as caving, when you are squeezing yourself between two immovable walls of rock, except in our case the immovable walls of rock were actually moving quite significantly, but it was toward us. Our gap was getting so tight that I pulled my legs in tighter to ensure they did not get caught on one of the vehicles, and pulled my bag of shopping in tight. I could see the handlebars only centimeters from the bus and wondered how long we had before we would be crushed.
My valiant motorbike rider pressed on against all odds and simply started beeping his horn. It had the same effect as a mouse squeaking at an elephant, and inexplicably the ever-closing gap began to once again widen. I breathed a sigh of relief when we got out of that situation. As if once was not enough, my rider seemed to go looking for situations like this and the process was repeated several times between anything that lined the way.
As we approached the Brazilian border I realised that my bike had found its way into a trap. The pathway we had taken had become extremely narrow and was impossible to now escape from. I was hoping that the excessive bike traffic that I was now caught in would help me to escape through without a hitch, but with three large umbrellas under my arm and a huge white plastic bag beside me I guess I had made myself too obvious. We were beckoned by the guard to stop.
At this point my thoughts were going crazy. What will happen when they find out I do not have a visa. How am I ever going to get back to Argentina if I cannot go through Brazil, the only way I know. Will I have to stay in Paraguay or will they evict me. If they evict me, where will I end up. There was nothing I could do. I was trapped on the back of the bike in a narrow pathway. Dozens of bikes were behind me, and a border patrol guard stood in front.
My taxi rider moved aside for the border guard to speak to me. Once he was next to me, the guard beckoned for my bag. I offered it to him, and he reached in and fished around to see what was in there. He then looked up at me but I hardly registered it. My mind was busy trying to work out where I had stored my passport for safe keeping and thinking about how awkward it would be to retrieve it. Then the inexplicable happened. I was waved on. There was not going to be a visa check. I could not believe it. I was through.
On the other side of the border I met up with Victoria and her mum and we talked about what had just happened. Vicky was stopped for a bag check too. We thought that perhaps it was only a bag check that I was stopped for. Now that I was in Brazil, it did not really matter any more, I was just glad to be here.
We waited quite a while for our bus home. It was dark by the time we boarded the local bus and weaved our way toward the border via the local streets, stopping many times along the way. This did not seem to be a great thing to me as a local bus would more than likely mean that it would be stopping for processing at the Brazilian border. I did not have a visa to be here. Fortunately this was not the case and the bus drove straight through the Brazilian gates to the Argentinian border.
At the Argentine side I received a new three month tourist visa. My passport only states that I left Argentina and returned again. There is no record of me ever entering Brazil or Paraguay. What a great feeling it was to be back in Argentina again. I felt like I had returned home, like I was in the safety of my house after being outside in a storm. It was nice to be back.
Upon returning to our hostel, we started to catch up with everyone else and find out about their stories of crossing the border.
It turns out that the younger guys had simply walked across the bridge without anyone stopping them. On their way home they stopped at the Brazilian side. Although they should have had a visa and didn’t they still made it through, receiving an exit stamp without any other problems.
Christine stayed on her bus right across the border. A guard boarded at the checkpoint to check everyones visa status, but the traffic was extremely heavy and so he only did spot checks. Fortunately her passport was not checked as all Americans need a visa for Paraguay. Her return was blissfully uneventful.
Carina, who used to live in Paraguay, stopped at the Paraguayan consulate to see one of her friends. While there she also asked about our attempts to cross the borders without visas. She was told that the entire area within 80kms of the borders was considered a high-tourist area. As a result the movement between each of the three countries, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay is relatively unmonitored. Once you move deeper into the countries there is a second passport and border control. This is the main control to keep track of cross-border migration.
So it turns out that I need not have been so worried about my border crossings. It seems that moving around in the areas that we went is pretty carefree and easy to do without visas. I know that we encountered another border patrol inside Argentina where our visas were verified. At least I had a chance to think I was acting as an international fugitive at the time.
It was fun while it lasted… the Paraguayan Fugitive. Me.