(This is my travel journal that I kept during a medical mission to Paraguay; part one can be found here)
September 25, 2015. 14:00
Hotel Internacional, Room 1004
I arrived. I recognized two “Operation Smile” t-shirts on the way off the plane; Andrea and Clive. A Colombian Dentist from New York and a Londoner who no longer lives there. I introduce myself as the American living in Switzerland. We walk to and through Customs, but I was stopped and waved to turn back for a Visa.
I had passed the Plexiglas encased booth which was around the corner as I walked into the Customs hall. “18ºC” is displayed on the air-conditioner behind a man who is intensely looking at his phone. Tenuously, I wait; unsure how to approach a man who governs my only possibility for entry into a country. I begin to sway, moving slightly. I approach and step back. Several times I hope that my motion will trigger something in his peripheral view. I quietly clear my throat, several times. Already smiling, he looks up in a blank, yet happy stare.
“You’ve got a customer,” I think as I smiled. I slipped him my passport and disembarkation paper through the slot beneath the glass. His heavy, nearly exophthalmic eyes stare back at me. Same smile. He reviews my papers and begins to scan and type and photograph me, twice.
“How long can this possibly take?” I am the only one here I wonder.
From a door past the side of the thermally cooled Visa booth, armed guards emerge. Two of them are wearing dark green jungle jumpers with Kevlar vests, adorn assault rifles, and black baseball caps. A third wears a light khaki camouflage with a matching vest and accessories, including side arm and beret. They stand on separate sides of the booth facing out.
“Interesting” I thought, as well as the inappropriateness of getting a selfie with these guys. The Visa man completes the paperwork, and redundantly attempts to peel the Visa sticker from the printout. Pulling. Rubbing. Folding edges. Same smile. He works the edges to cleave the bond from the back while nearly separating the fibers in the paper itself.
“When was the last visitor who required a Visa?” I think. Success! He affixes a large Visa sticker in my passport consuming four spaces and points to the chart which references Visa charges only for Australia, Canada, USA, New Zealand, and Thailand. “Thailand? What did you do to Paraguay?” I thought.
Through the slot in the window, I hand him one hundred and sixty US Dollars in crisp two thousand and thirteen vintage bills in twenty dollar increments. He counts and points to the chart again while waving his finger expressing “no.”
“How the f***…?” Is my first thought. I know it is the correct amount; I counted it ten times! He started to count it again as I begin to reach for the spare twenties in my bag, just in case. In mid count he finds two nested twenties which separate to recalculate to the correct amount. I am all set. By this time, there is no longer a queue and Clive and Andrea are nowhere to be seen. I go right through to find my bag roll out on the carousel; awesome.
After our bags are scanned one last time before entry, we exit and meet some of the rest of the team. Russ and Victoria (the main contacts with Operation Smile), Susan and her Swede counterpart, Elizabeth (a UK Swede or vice versus, her accent throws me off), Pasquale (from Italy, of course), and two others whose names fail me. Names are not my strong suit.
We board a bus and ride through an unfinished part of town. Not really unfinished rather than neglected. We pass people selling fruit (bananas and some kind of melons), people waiting for buses or just standing around, and a large river. The Asunción River I hear someone say. Swollen brown, on it sits a dredge a quarter of the way across with various piping and conduit strewn back to shore. We enter Asunción and pass a government building, the guards and some type of military green vehicle gives it away.
We stop and get out at the Hotel Internacional. I’m not sure how I managed to get a shower. Really, I just managed. Once the spigot was adjusted to the optimal performance, something of a trickling spray emerged. Despite attempts to adjust, the temperature was not quite luke warm, but refreshing was perhaps a better context after the long journey to get here. I worried about the water getting into my mouth.
I tried to find the light switch, but given the various switches, I was unable to find a combination which rewarded me with luminescence. The bathroom light worked, so I switched the light-bulbs with the lights on the nightstand to see if the bulbs were the issue. Nothing worked. I realized it was probably the socket. I put the bulbs back in the bathroom, checked the switch – POP – one of the lights went out. Damn, now I only have one left!
I draw the curtain open to let the midday light in. If I stand on my toes I can see the river just over the building across from me. The views are of old, weathered buildings, some of which are broken down or unfinished. The safe in the closet is missing the tumbler, I’m not sure if that is extra, or purposefully missing. I begin to worry about the fate of my belongings. I have a money belt, for the bare essentials. I photograph my journal up to this point, just in case, and in the same instant wondering why anyone might take my handwriting.
The views expressed on this website/blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer or Operation Smile. The author encourages your help and support by donating to support medical missions by Operation Smile via this link: http://support.operationsmile.org/goto/schoutens
This blogpost-series are pages of my personal journal leading up to and during my first medical mission to Asunción, Paraguay. I hope this series encourages you to serve global communities and/or donate to a wonderful organization that improves the lives of children and families around the world!