Into the Falls
(This is my travel journal that I kept during a medical mission to Paraguay; part one can be found here)
September 27, 2015. 05:50
Tadeo’s Van, Row 3
It is Sunday; a free day. Dinner on Saturday night began after ten o’clock. Someone suggested a visit to the waterfalls of Iguaçu. Before I left for this trip to Paraguay, I spoke with a family friend who lived in Paraguay for a number of years, and she suggested that if I had the chance, I should go. I wrote this off when I looked up to see how far it was from Asunción; it is about a six hour drive and I had no idea how to get there.
There were some discussions about the purpose of us being in Paraguay, and the extraneous journey to Iguaçu. From my perspective, we were afforded a day off which could have been spent at a resort on the river; I wanted to see more of the country, to get a feel for life outside of a large city, and embrace an opportunity to see a part of the world I may not have the opportunity to visit again.
I joined a group of four others and we hired a van to drive us, the only problem was that we had to leave a few hours after diner at two in the morning. The five of us packed into a van with our driver, Tadeo, and headed out. I tried to sleep, and was jealous of the ones I could hear snoring.
Our driver stopped at the Chiperia Maria Ana. From the looks of things we were perhaps the first customers of the day. Later I found out this is perhaps one of the best places in Paraguay to eat Chipa, and Tadeo appeared to be one of the first customers.
A little less than half way, the morning light slowly illuminated the environment around us, farms and trees, roadside huts selling fruit, queso and asado. The bare earth has a red tint to it, something of a rouge mahogany of which I have never seen before; it looks so rich and full of nutrients.
The clouds swollen, low and grey, released periodic drizzle; off and on. The buildings and the side roads remind me of parts of the Caribbean, without the beach; palm trees, easily spotted everywhere. You can sense the jungle is near, encroaching. We pass a cluster of ply-board houses, huts really, with the lower third edge stained from the red soil. The rest of the huts seem to blend in with the vegetation, nearly engulfing them.
A police or medic passed us, flashing its green lights, veering off the highway, onto a dirt road – a community in a crossroad – towards the Medicina Emergencia. Chickens roam the grass. Two people, not a couple, stand near the edge of the grass, where cars might park. A man looks on from the Mercado, which is essentially a shack with a couple of crate tables with nothing for sale; it’s too early.
Couples pass on small motorbikes against a backdrop of old granaries and small towns we pass. Like rusted statues representing wealthier times. Always couples or paired amigos, sharing rides. I would guess they would be going to work, but it is Sunday, and I am not aware of the culture here or the need to work seven days a week. I see some people walking on the side of the road and wonder, “how far do they have to walk?” The drizzle picks up again and we pass a larger rusty building with a newer banner announcing the sale of “Star Fuegos” (fireworks). On Monday, tomorrow, it will be the Boquerón Battle Victory Day holiday.
We stop at an Esso Station approximately ten kilometers from the Brazilian border in the town of Ciudad del Este. Tadeo instructs us to have a bite to eat here and some coffee if we would like. We have about forty-five minutes left to drive. Tired, hungry, and unsure we funnel into the convenience store as the armed guard walks out. We are all clueless, aimless, or timid to come to a decision of what to order. I take the lead, still not knowing what I would like, but order a cappuccino and an empanada like the man in front of me. I was wondering about the taste, the experience, the curiosity of others, and interested to see what it had to offer; the carne tradicional empanada.
We sit at tables in the middle of the store, noticing the return of the armed guard, at-ease next to the ATM. Despite the combination of meat and coffee, the empanada was better than the coffee; barely, and the coffee was not that good. A hotdog for breakfast at any convenience store would meet the same expectation, but for some reason, this was still better. The morning conversation is few and delinquent, joking about high withdraw fees, either to help pay for the guard, or as a “fee” to use it.
I was the guinea pig to locate the restroom before we left. Asking the cashier, left me rerouted to the pumps, asking the attendant, and becoming victorious when handed a key tied to a darken and rounded wooden stick. The key, brass perhaps, looked like what you would expect “a skeleton key” to look like. Boney appendages skewered out from the tip in a random growth of orientations. It took me a minute to figure out how to insert it into the sheet metal covered latch plate. I would rather fail to mention the state of the interior than subject any reader to its contents. I handed the key to Bernie and joked that there is no treasure on the receiving end of the key.
We headed out and quickly cross the Paraná River, immediately after the bridge, a quick right; we veer off into the “free” zone, a seven kilometer buffer zone into Brazil not through customs. Our driver explains as we pass an abandoned hotel complex, that it was once a site for drug cartel. There is a marathon taking place and the traffic has been chaotically rerouted through the neglected parts of the free zone. Our congested entry to the park was held up for the marathon. At each crossing, are serious looking, heavily armed guards (Policia) with massive black Kevlar vests with neck guards, black holsters, dual side arms, and khakis.
We purchase entrance tickets, and decide to take the additional boat ride to the lower part of the falls. There already appears to be a ton of people despite the rain; the park has been open for thirty minutes. Inside the park there are three main stops on the bus route, the first one, which nobody gets off, is a loop hike through the forest. The second stop affords you access to the boat ride and a brief, one kilometer trail walk. The third stop is the main part of the falls with a hike along the gorge to the falls.
We disembark at the second stop and find that it is in our best interest to purchase ponchos, essentially two dollar plastic trash bags with arms. We are the last to pass the turnstile and ticket takers, the five of us are split between the two trolleys which take us through the forest to the boats. I notice a sign of dos and don’ts shows a pictogram; one of the person standing beneath a tree branch with a spider web. It said, “Watch out for branches with spider webs hanging on it.” Huh? “Ok, now they have my attention,” I thought.
On the trolley, the guide asks who speaks Portuguese? Most everyone raises their hand. I anticipate that he would continue down the list: Portuguese, Spanish, English, etc. But he doesn’t. He stops and proceeds to drive three kilometers into the rain forest, pointing out various plants and trees and handing out some type of nut; all in Portuguese. I’m in the minority. Living abroad, you get accustom to sucking it up when things are not in your native language. I brushed it off searching for the branches with spider webs.
Bernie and I get off of the trolley and wait for the other three. The guide discovers that Bernie and I do not speak Portuguese and proceeds to scold us for not saying anything, as if we had the opportunity to do so. Through the rain forest trail, he (our guide) fills Bernie and me in on the lost details and explains a few other things about the trail. At a small waterfall, 25 meters high, he explains that the river, far below, was about thirty times higher than normal a month ago. As interesting as this is, I watch a giant ant (about the size of my thumb) making its way across the hand railing.
Arriving at the boat area, Bernie and I are pulled aside by our guide to explains that “you will get wet,” and advises us to place our belongings which are not waterproof into a locker. He also suggested that we leave our shoes and socks in the locker as well. Bernie and I discuss this on the side and we conclude that “wet” is a little more than spray from the waterfall, probably because we cannot get too close to the falls, but that going barefoot is perhaps a good idea nonetheless. Who like wet socks anyway?
We meet up with the other three and, after stowing things in lockers, we set off down the bank to the boat dock. A huge platform loaded with lifejackets and speedboats. The brown river rages. Life jacketed, we are the last to board the boat, with the only remaining seats at the front. Rondrigo, which is not his real name, but if you could envision a charismatic Brazilian adventure guide, this would be his name. Rondrigo announces the protocols, tells us to hold on and above all, have fun.
We speed around rapids, bumping and swishing from side to side and arrive at a merging point in the river where massive waterfalls can be seen cascading off of the cliffs from Argentina. Everyone shoots photos as Rondrigo shows up at the front of the boat in a fisherman’s dry-suit. It is a deep blue suit which appears to be impervious to all liquids. The five of us are sitting in the front row with our bright white, two dollar ponchos looking like cheap condoms. We. Are. So. Screwed.
The engines rev, we are thrown back in our seats and we head for a section with a couple of waterfalls which project out and away from the cliff wall. We pass through while tons of litters are dumped on us. There is no escaping it, we are in a flood. The boat pilot drives through again and again, and again but slower. As I shrug down between my shoulders, head down, I think about the guide in the jungle, realizing that “wet” is a very subjective term.
Afterwards, we attempt to change without towels, to dry ourselves, some of us with paper towels from the adjacent restrooms. Two of us buy replacement pants, and a third a shirt to change into. We replace our ponchos, some are torn, holes from the stress of the lifejackets, but all wet, inside and out.
The ride back to the bus stop seemed much longer than the way in. At the gift shop, where we had picked up out first set of ponchos, we each have a coffee to warm up a bit, and catch the bus to the third and final stop.
When we step off the bus there are large signs, posters, of a bloody hand holding a napkin. It reads, “Do not feed the Quatis.” I’m not sure that the posters showed what a Quatis looked like, but throughout the trail, we were keeping our eye open for these suspicious animals.
The Iguaçu waterfall is a conglomerate of hundreds of cascading pieces of an incredibly huge river. It is raging; the volume is out of control and amazing. Throughout numerous spots to photograph and to look over into the ravine to the river below, we find people dancing with selfie camera sticks, couples videoing the experience with desires to become the next BBC travel guide, and many others, who like us, appeared to enjoy the experience in a more normal way.
The best part is perhaps the end. We hiked down a section of the trail, out and back, called the Devil’s Throat. The trail heads down and levels off to an extended platform on a large terraced section of cascading falls. The platform extended nearly over the edge for an exciting view more than halfway down the waterfall.
We made our way towards the exit, spotting the Quatis weaving throughout the crowd. They looked like slender raccoons the size of a cat with long snouts and brown and black striped tails. There is a rusty lift which takes us up to the top of a slick wet metal observation deck which connects to the top of the falls and concession stand. There, the rest of the Quatis family is hanging out at the snack bar.
No sooner had Bernie placed his backpack on a table to rummage for a protein bar, than the Quatis began their coordinated attack. I suspect it was the sound of a crackling wrapper which these skilled rodents have been groomed; like Pavlov’s dog. One jumps onto the table and reaches out, not curiously, but boldly, into Bernie’s backpack. Quickly, they surround him, one nearly jumps on his back as he turns.
I have never seen a squad of animals case a situation and begin a shakedown like these Quatis. Bernie backs up from the table, slower than I would have, not stepping on the two Quatis at his feet. I’m envisioning the poster at the bus stop and glance around for some napkins to potentially stop the bleeding. He is surrounded and followed by six of them. Like an invisible fence, they seem to stop their pursuit at the edge of the snack area. I thought, for sure, they would jump us and drag our bodies into the bushes for that Choco-mint Cliff Bar that Bernie was eating. It was fascinating, like watching or anticipating an accident, not willing to turn away, but caught up to see if something really does go south.
The long bus ride takes us back to the main entrance. We locate Tadeo in an almost empty parking lot. It is three in the afternoon, and we are starving. He takes us to a Brazilian steakhouse/buffet restaurant relatively close and within the free zone along the border. This was a perfect stop to cap off the day before a long (very long) ride to Asunción.
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!