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Safety Second in Asunción, Paraguay

You don't know where I am? Don't feel badly. It's the capital of a landlocked country in South America.
You don’t know where Asuncion is? Don’t feel badly. It’s the capital of a landlocked country in the heart of South America.

“Let me put it to you this way: Do you have any hobbies?” I asked.

“Yes. I like singing and going to the gym. But at different times,” She said.

“Makes sense. Doing them both at once would be challenging, I guess. Anyway, as for my hobby, I go to new countries.”

That was the crux of my conversation with Belén in Asunción last night. A short conversation was the least I could do.

She’s responsible for saving my life, after all. 

It’s a question I often get when I’m traveling: “Why are you here?” But she asked it in a kind of sad way. Like she was ashamed of her home. As in, “Boy, this place is really awful. Why would anyone choose to come here?”

For good or bad, people rarely understand why I am “here,” wherever “here” is. 

This brief encounter occurred at Kilkenny, Asunción’s most popular bar. Ironically enough, it turns out the hottest bar in Paraguay is an Irish Pub, which, based on Belén’s opinion of her homeland is somewhat fitting, I suppose. If you really don’t care for the place where you live, it makes sense for your most popular hangout to seem like somewhere else. In this case, Ireland. 

So, why would I find myself the only Gringo in an Irish Pub in Asunción? Well, read on.

But first, please do allow me to take a step back and share how I first got here.

A few days ago, Joseph, an Uber driver, picked me up at my house in Greensboro before he drove me to the airport. I was headed to Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Joseph is from South Sudan and was genuinely excited for me when I explained my goal of visiting 100 countries. He said,

“Wow! That sounds like an amazing adventure! I once had an adventure, too. I was escaping oppression in South Sudan when a wheel fell off of our train.”

“Wait. A wheel fell off of the train?” I asked.

“Yes! It was bad.”

“I’d say so.”

“People got hot so they jumped out of the train onto the Sahara. The sand was so hot it burned their skin off.”

Sure, that’s quite the adventure. But, my trips are typically a bit more tame than that. At least they have been up to now…

To get to Asunción, Joseph had to take me to the airport in Greensboro, NC where I hopped onto an airplane for Atlanta. Then, I took a bigger plane bound for Buenos Aires. Then, it was just a quick hop to Asunción. Twenty-four hours all in. Easy stuff. 

With about ten minutes before the final leg, I thought I’d check the Visa requirements for US Citizens entering Paraguay. Glad I did. Turns out, you have to pay US$160. In cash. {Ahem, corruption, anyone?}

I didn’t have any cash. I know, I know: “Who travels without any cash?” Me. That’s who. Lesson learned.

No big deal, though.

I went to the nearest ATM. It told me I’d overdrawn. Uh oh.

I went to the next nearest ATM. The same. Broke in South America didn’t seem like a good thing.

One more ATM. Again. I’m in hot water. But I hadn’t taken anything out in weeks! Surely, this wasn’t possible?!

How about that one? Over there! That one will be different! It has to work. At that point, a gate agent interrupted the dulcet tones of Taylor Swift and called my name over the loudspeaker with a thick accent, “Pasajero Broooooks. You must board immediately!” 

Game time decision: Should I stick around trying more ATMs? Or get on the plane with the risk of jail time in Paraguay?  I live dangerously, folks.

The airsick bag accurately reflected my experience.
The airsick bag accurately reflected my experience.

I’m not too proud to admit that I spent that flight freaking out.

Like most “worry,” though, it turned out it was merely misdirected imagination.

The first thing you see when you get off the plane in Asunción is an ATM. Inserting my card was difficult because I was nervously shaking. I typed my PIN, prayed, and received $160. Whew, turns out Paraguayan ATMs are better for me than the ones in Argentina. No jail time (yet).

The process of obtaining a Visa on Entry didn’t leave me with much confidence in the country. You walk up to a little cubicle, hand the guy the cash (Canadians get a discount, by the way. For them, it’s only US$135). The guy prints a sticker with your picture on it and he puts it in your passport. Good to go!

While this was not my car, there were a lot of them on the road. This one belonged to my friend the bride who you'll meet in a few...
While this was not my car, there were a lot of beetles on the road. This one belonged to my friend the bride who you’ll meet in a few…

Now, once I got through Customs, I faced the ride to my hotel. Let me tell you, getting into a car in South America is always a harrowing experience. Really, I mean it. But here in Asunción, they add guns. In that way, it’s kind of like Texas, but really south of the border. From what I could see, a lot of people had guns. And they were mostly big dudes. The kind of dudes with guns where you’re not sure which side they’re shooting for. So I chose to keep my head down. Which was difficult because there was so much commotion every time we stopped.

If you buy me a beer, I'll explain just how harrowing getting this picture proved to be. It's a post in itself that I'd rather not write....
If you buy me a beer, I’ll explain just how difficult getting this picture proved to be. It’s a post in itself that I’d rather not write….

You see, the driver had to make a ruckus at every intersection to keep kids from washing his windows and demanding dinero. At one point, I glanced up and saw an honest-to-God standing-room-only-bus-with-chickens. It was like something out of a movie. I’d heard of them, but had never seen one. I would have taken a picture, but the car was between a kid with a squeegee and a man with a gun.

One of my favorite take-aways from Paraguay was how much better their Bicycle Signs are.
One of my favorite take-aways from Paraguay was how much more literal their Bicycle Signs are than ours.

Finally, I made it to the hotel.

Despite the gunshots echoing through the neighborhood, I thought I’d head out for a little stroll (You’ve got to understand, I’m a seasoned traveler: I’ve been to Compton, Camden, and Texas).

And I’ll do just about anything for you, dear reader. I’ve got the grit and determination of a hardened journalist. I cut my teeth at my University’s student newspaper helping to publish hard-hitting stories under headlines like, “Dried blood, bandage found in dining hall meatloaf” and “Campus clocks toll irregularly.” I know what it’s like to chase a story.

So, I left my room, called the elevator, got in, and pressed the lobby button. As the door opened, there were cameras pointed at me. Wow! This is great. I’ll take a camera over a gun any day of the week! Guess they don’t get many tourists here in Asunción. Wait, who’s that woman in the white dress? Damn. It’s a wedding. I awkwardly walked through her special day. I hope she’ll remember me as that dashing young American man in cargo pants, just like those lovely brides who have the same memory of me back in Australia in 2012.

I asked the people at the hotel’s front desk where the best place to have dinner might be.

“Kilkenny! You have got to go to Kilkenny,” said the front desk clerk.

“Is that an Irish Pub? It sounds like an Irish Pub. I mean, I’ve come all this way. There’s got to be a better place than that?”

“No. That is where you want to go. Believe me. Nowhere else is as good!”

So, that’s what I did. I traveled 5,000 miles to Paraguay to pretend to be Irish. As I made my walk, the gunshots increased. I was thinking that this was not the cleverest idea I’ve ever had. But, I’d committed. Act cool, I thought.

Suddenly things started to seem even more weird (as if gunshots weren’t weird enough). Drivers honking their horns with reckless abandon. Passengers hanging out of car windows, shirtless. Women running down the sidewalk with tears streaming down their cheeks. People singing. What the hell have I gotten myself into?

The image is courtesy of Google and is a pretty accurate reflection of my time at Kilkenny.
The image is courtesy of Google and is a pretty accurate reflection of my time at Kilkenny.

Finally, I got to Kilkenny and bellied up to the bar.

“What’s happening?” I asked the bar tender.

“Paraguay just beat Brazil in the Copá Cup!” he said with a tear forming in his right eye.

Soccer is a big deal here. And when Paraguay beats Brazil it’s even bigger than that. Recognizing the importance of the moment, I asked for a menu with reverence.

That was when my new buddy Belén joined the conversation.

“Sounds like you’re not from around here. Where do you come from?”

“Los Estados Unidos.”

“I knew that. Listen to yourself talk. Where in the U.S.?”

“North Carolina.”

“Oh! I’ve been to Myrtle Beach.”

“That’s South Carolina. But whatever.”

Belén had to get to a baby shower (apparently they’re late-night activities in Paraguay), which was — thankfully — on the way to my hotel. She was kind enough to offer me a ride explaining that my decision to walk to Kilkenny was not my brightest.

It turns out that Brazil’s colors are yellow and green. Just like my shirt.

My life was quite literally at risk. I didn’t need to run into the wrong fan…

Go Team!
Go Team (on the right)!

Fortunately, I made it home alive. I would not leave again until it was time to fly out of Asunción to Montevideo. By the way, it turns out the Brazil Goalkeeper’s name is Jefferson de Oliveira Galvão. He goes simply by, “Jefferson.” That’s also my given name. The joke was not lost on the Paraguayans who saw my passport the next day. And probably explains why my suitcase was the last off the plane and my seatmate was a 300 pound woman. Thank goodness none of the fans with guns knew that little fact.

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