Monday, January 23, 2012

Filadelfia, The Grand Chaco, Paraguay

NASA took me to Filadelfia

The above is neither misspelled or the result of interesting experiments with Guarani herbs. NASA is the name of the bus company that I used to get to the wonderful town of Filadelfia. More accurately this is the stadt of Filadelfia. This place is a Mennonite colony. Although Filadelfia itself is populated by emigrants of the Ukraine and Ex Soviet Russia, the language of choice is still Deutsch (or whatever weird ancient variant they sprechen)

For those of you unfamiliar with Mennonites, they are an anabaptist sect and a hippy one at that. Some of the original anabaptist were crazy genocidal arseholes. Mennonites are pacifists. Methinks pacifism became a wise chice after the Munsterites found out that regular Christians were more than ready to have a fight. The Mennonites still got persecuted and as a result they are spread across the globe. Here in Paraguay they are known for going to one of the most inhospitable places (the Gran Chaco) and turning it into very, very productive cattle grounds. Apparently they produce most of the dairy products in Paraguay.

The result is a very weird town. Many signs are biligual and there are very Krautlike youth loafing around doing fuck-all yet somehow looking more active than Paraguayans. They keep in tune with their European cousins by having crap hairrcuts and godawful music blasting from their ipods. It's on a very inflexible grid with neat houses and the odd museum dedicated to their forebears. All closed I'm afraid. In my wisdom I decided to come to an agricultural town full of religious nuts in high summer on a Sunday. There is absolutely naff all to see and do.

I did pop over to a church to see what was going on but the Teutons do their worshipping early so things had already started. I pondered going in but realised I didn't know when it finishes, how weird they are and how easily they would make me for a heathen. Even worse, most of them are in mufti. Some of the oldies were in costume but too few to make photography unobtrusive. The garb is like an attempt to make the Amish look cooler. The women wear still get frumpy dresses but the men get to shave and wear black shirts.

I was also tasked with a mission from one of the Kraut poker players of the hostel in Asuncion. He had come here with his parents and they had gone to worship with the locals. They met an old couple who where apparently ignorant of the story of the great German Volk. The poker player's parents remedied this by sending him a set of DVD on the history of the Germans (Amusingly the last chapter is the Weimar Republic. Nothing significant happened after that). The gambler had been waiting for someone dumb enough to go to Filadelfia. Enter yours truly. The couple in questions live a fair bit away from the hotel and it's 40 degrees so I did my duty by dumping it on the hotel receptionist.

So why am I here getting bored? The answer is the bus trip and a desire to have been to places I have heard of. In this case the Gran Chaco. This is the one famous place in Paraguay. It covers more than half of the country but has less than 3% of the population. It's where Paraguay had a war with Bolivia. Tintin's "the Broken Ear" satirised the callous positioning of western companies. Oil companies picked a side and the Bolivians got told by the Brits that they could kill Paraguayans but had better not touch the railway. As such I knew about it and therefore wanted to come here. Filadelfia happened to be the easiest town to access in the Chaco. The German god squad presence was just a bonus.

Basically I accomplished my wish by taking the bus and looking out the window. It's basicaly swampy and full of palm trees most of the way from Asuncion and then gets dry and spindly near here. It's stepping out of the bus while they fixed stuff that made me understand just why this place is so sparsely populated. It's basically a big oven with cows.

I must learn not to base my trips on borderline racist Belgian children's books.

Next stop Concepcion. A town named after shagging and hailed as the" pearl of the north".

Take care,


Friday, January 20, 2012

Asuncion, Paraguay

Finally made to the sunny and oh so fucking hot country of Paraguay. Famous for insane wars against much bigger neighbours, vicious dictators and very little else.

Got a night bus from Campo Grande and bid my farewells to Brazil. On the bus I immediately enjoyed being able to converse with people. I also thoroughly enjoyed Brazilans having trouble getting themselves understood by Paragauyans. Welcome to my world. Being on the move and changing countries perked up my spirits hugely. Getting in was easy formality wise although I did not check out of Brazil so I have sort of burnt my bridges for that country. Oh well.

Now in Asuncion I can relax and enjoy the many sights that this fair city offers. Or not. The heat here is insane and to be fair there is not much to see. I still like it. It's a properly lazy South American city. People do nap in the streets and you get a few mule carts kicking about. It's also wonderfully cheap unless you forget to buy beer in the day and end up at the petrol station. I am in a backpacky hostel and I can swap stories and get info. For some reason there is a large contingent of German online poker gamblers here . It's good to be back on the trail.

One sight of note is their pantheon. I will do more on Paraguay's fondness for a fight later. Their pantheon is what you would expect by day. It's a pretty, useless building topped with cross and with an honour guards consisting of 2 poor souls in full dress uniform trying not to faint from the heat. By night it gets a bit weird as the place is lit up with changing disco hues, the guards piss off and get replaced by Asuncion's finest break dancers. Beside watching that time is spent out of the sun drinkng terere. Terere is a herbal tea drank chilled in a cup with a silver straw. Half the people here walk around with a funky thermos full of ice water, a bag of herbs and a decorated cup and straw

Asuncion is fun in the detail. There are buildings so ugly they put Rio to shame but also some exquisite Beaux Arts jobs. The place is littered with statues of notable Paraguayans (oxymoron?) but what is interesting is the graffiti calling for human rights for the indigenous peoples. There are many swanky shop for the rich fuckers of this city and just in front there will be street vendors selling cheap knockoffs of the same goods. The city centre is full of cops so you feel quite safe except for drunks walking around waving tasers.

Anyhoo I'm back in traveller mode now. I will have to return here but for the moment I am going to take a bus to a place nicknamed "the green hell" to watch the amazing sight of German religious nuts making cheese. Will expain.

Take care,


Monday, January 16, 2012

Campo Grande, Matto Grosso del Sul, Brazil

You are officially richer than me. Why am I being charged more than locals?

This will be my last post from a country that has just bumped mine off the coveted 6th most loaded nation place. What did I think of this emerging South American powerhouse?
I should start with a confession. I was sort of prejudiced against Brazil from the start. Weirdly, it's the positive cliches that put me off this place. Samba, Carnival, Niemeyer architecture, football and beaches are all things that draw folk to this place. They also happen to be off little interest to yours truly. For me, Samba ia a military parade gone worng . 2 trumpets, 5000 tom-tom drums and what sounds like football chants. Niemeyer buildings look like a bunker specialist got his hands on Gehry blueprints. Football has always bored the crap out of me and the bigger the passion, the bigger my contempt. As for beaches; it's basically just sitting on sand.
The stereotype of the beaches being full of hot chicks wearing tiny bikinis did tweak my interest but is only half true. The bikinis are indeed small but as for the hotness...... Claiming something does not make it so. It remainds of when Brit politicians say that the Met, the NHS or the Parliament is the envy of the world. I can't help feeling they have watched to many Disney movies where a cute munchkin gets his heart's desire if he wishes it strong enough. I do have to give due respect to the chunkier women who still wear less cloth on their body than I do one one foot.

Another problem I have with Brazil is the language. Portuguese has alway been the ugly sister of the Latin languages. In Europe, Portugal is a thin wedge of the Iberian peninsula. In a way their language is nearly cute and amusing, like the way Suriname speaks Dutch. Not so Brazil. It's the biggest and most important country of the continent. It just looks like they are being deliberately awkward. If it was radically different from Spanish I would probably be less annoyed. I feel like I'm learning the piano but every third key is now a clavecin. It's just odd.

Prejudice aside, I could not miss out on Brazil. It's too big and too important. It's a country on the way up and those are often very interesting. The whole 6th biggest econmoy thing got the Daily Mail riled up but I think it's much ado about nothing. A country umpteen times the size of Britain with 4 times the population and resources a-plenty should have a bigger economy. There is also a stunning level of social inequality here. In Rio you can find some of the priciest real estate in the wolrd and areas so bad the army had to be called in to police them. Brazil does not feel like a poor country but a mismanaged one.

I can't claim to know much about Brazilian politics. I am amused by the fact their president, Dilma Roussef knows how to plant a bomb. From what I understand the problem in Brazil is actually excessive democracy. There are too many parties getting elected and some of them are blatantly there just to get cash in exchange for support. Any governemt wishing to pass laws must make a Faustian pact with these clowns regardless of how bent their own party is. That's why even anti-corruption zealots struggle. As far as I know the press is the one area of Brazilian politics that truly works.That might be comforting but I suspect it won't be enough to clean up the body politic.
My initial reaction to seeing the ads for the world cup and the olympics was to think of bread and circuses, except less fun. I have touched upon what I perceive to be an obscene lack of spending priorities. If you have billions to spare and you have a crap education sytem, fix that first ( I have been astonished at the way many Brazilans struggle with basic numbers). I will admit that the world cup does make cultural sense. Footie excellence and Brazil do go together. I supect if you had a referendum asking Brazilans to choose between the World Cup and computers in every classroom, it would be a close thing. Not so sure the Olympics but I loathe them. It's a colossal waste of cash and a pathetic ego trip for politicians. Even if all goes splendidly nothing has been gained. My life does not change one iota because some dude can jump a bit higher than other dudes.

In my opinion Brazil should not host big events but I will admit that Brazilians will want to. This brings me to an uncomfortable question. To what extent are Brazil's problems linked to Brazilians.? Some countries get lucky (Gulf states). Some countries get seriously fucked over (most of Sub-Saharan Africa). Sometimes meeting the people helps you understand why the country does well (Korea, Singapore, Germany) and sometimes not (France). And there are places where you can't help thinking their problems are linked to the way they are (most of the world sees Greece that way now). As for Brazil, I'm not sure. They might look indolent but when they work they put some effort into it. If Brazilians were callous enough to accept bent cops taking bounties for killing street kids in Rio why were people making goody bags for the river folk on the Amazon? Sometimes it seems they are allergic to planning but then again I have just taken a 20 hour bus trip that arrived pretty much on the dot.

To be honest I am speculating for nothing. Brazil's getting richer and money solves many problems. A growing middle class will want their streets safe, their schools decent and their taxes spent on other shit than villas for politicians. Eventually they will join the civilised world where corruption is like polo, a sport for the very rich. They will learn that the briefcase full of cash is very gauche and that true leaders accept a promise of consultancy "work" in exchange for favours. It's a brave new world.

So what's my take on Brazil for the traveller? I don't think I will come here again unless there is a special occasion. It's basically not my scene. That being said you can't tour South America and skip it's biggest and most important country. It does have a lot going for it for the holiday crowd if not for the culture vultures. It has got the best coastal real estate on the continent and is actaully pretty easy to get around in. There's no shortage of partying and the booze is cheap. Brazilian food (excluding Bahian) is boring but most of the cities have alternatives.

There are things that I liked with this place. I love that you can get fesh fruit juice anywhere. The transport is really quite good if you upgrade. I am impressed by the quality of the graffiiti of all things. The tags are crap but the paintings are really good. A notch above the fat letter crap you see in Europe. It's also a decent place to get your South American cliches in. Brazil has a prodigious cultural output. An easy way to test this is to try and think of 5 Brazilian cultural creations. Now try and do that with any other country in South America.

Brazil sort of reminds me of China. I'm glad I've been here but I'm also glad to get out. I'm in Campo Grande now and have been pondering whether to go into the Pantanal or not. Fuck it. It's a swamp and I need a change. Off to Paraguay!

Take care,


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Feliz New Year

Despite having little interest in this city, fate has provided me with a nice place to stay and a family crimbo. I have spent some time enjoying the delights of Copacabana. The beach, the sights, the music, the pouring rain, the stylish but broken pavement, the hordes of thieving favela kids. I can't help thinking about the time Rio complained about a Simpsons episode where they come here and get robbed by children, attacked by monkeys and kidnapped. Rio got an apology but I think they dropped the lawsuit. My humble opinion is that someone told the Rio tourist board they might not win if it came to court.

This is a catch up post of sorts. I have been based in Rio for a while and sort of settled. I am going to try and write about the places I saw outside of Rio before moving on to the great city itself

Florianopolis and the Iguacu Falls.

Florianopolis s a city about a 1000 k down the coast from Rio. My first impressions of the place and particularly the Isla of Santa Catarinha was that of a Brazilian Phuket. It's a kind of hippy dippy place full of rastas, surfers and other wonderful types. The beaches are nice but my problem is I tend to get bored. I swam a few times but I was interrupted by the Baywatch boys who thought the sea was too dangerous. I was mumbling about Brazilians being pussies until one of them sprang into action for some reason or another. Lifeguards who are that quick and fit indicate that they need to be.

Florianopolis itself is a large city. A fine surpise was the fun market near the bus station and a small park with a ridiculously big tree in the middle. Also of interest was the friendly tourist police who approached us and offered assistance in the risky task of ordering an avocado smoothie. Perfect English, a chummy attitude and relaxed garb made me a bit sorry for them. There was evidence of a real effort to be useful to tourists but the sad truth is that Brazilian cops are still famous for shooting kids more than anything else.

Anyhoo the next stop was Foz do Iguacu on the Argentinian and Paraguyan border. Of note was the interesting discovery of the diffrence between the luxury bus and the "normal" ones. The nice ones have seats like a plane's business class, free snacks and other perks. The basic buses have normal seats but what you are truly paying for is who you share it with. No relaxed couples going off to their beach holiday, enter the world of drunks and bizarrely deformed people. he places you stop for food and bogs are also much more downmarket.

Once in Foz de Iguazu the first priority is to get out of that place and get tpo the rgentinina side. Puerto Iguacu is a bit like Foz de Iguazu except much nicer. It's a bit odd as both towns seem to have the same economic base of tourism and cross border trade. Once settled in Argentina it was straight offt o the falls. This is a case where I recommend you google the place as it's too hard to accurately describe what is a very visual experience. In short, it's shitloads of water going downhill very fast.

After that it was back to Rio for Crimbo and New Year. Copacabana is one of those places that is a New Year's Eve place-to-be. They do put a lot of effort into it. There was huge stages, presumably famous artists and a pretty awesome fireworks display. The tradition is to wear white and I obliged although it was hard to tell if others did due to rain. More a sea of umbreallas and raincoats than anything else. It was a pretty good public party if you are into that sort of thing. I'm not.


Post festivities it was time to go to Paraty, a resort town favoured by denizens of Rio and Sao Paulo. It's a Ye Olde town with Ye Olde Churches and houses and Ye Verye Fuckinge Olde cobblestones. Paraty takes pride in their streets and its uneven cobbles. I hail from a cobbly city and I know good cobbling when I see it. This wasn't it. I did wonder if it was just that no one had bothered to do anything about it for 200 years or if it's deliberate. Is there a commitee to maintain the cobbles and preserve the slapdash and slovenly workmanship of their forebears? Paraty itself has crap beaches so the trick is to take an overcrowded bus to a place with..........nice beaches. Done

Now onto the meat of this post, Rio de Janeiro. Locals call it the Cidade Maravilhosa. This is a true testament to Carioca pride and enthusiasm. It's also a damning indictment of their grasp on reality. In a way Rio reminded me of Paris with regards to status. It's hugely overrated and over romanticised but any visitor to the country should still go there. My problem with Rio is that I can always see the flip side.

Rio has an amazing street life. Rio has lots of quasi indigent people with litle choice but to peddle stuff on the streets. Rio has famous beaches, Sugar Loaf mountain and the Christ Redeemer statue. The sights will be overpriced and all will be overcrowded. The pavements are tiled with funky designs. Tiles are hard to maintain hence lots of tripping. Rio has the famous Carnival and will host the world cup and olympic games. Trust me, Rio has other things to spend cash and energy on. I'm always a grump when it comes to world sporting events but when a country has huge social problems it makes things even worse in my eyes. It just seems that Rio's leaders have the same spending priorities as a teenage girl.

Anyhoo it's a short post covering a lot of time because I've not really been on the move and I'm sort of low. I often need to write soon after I see a thing as it feels fresh and intersting. Time tends to delete the funky anecdotes and only the crap stuff stay fixed. I'm off to Campo Grande in the West. Changing places usually perks me up so I will decide what to do on arrival. If I recover all my positivity I will use Campo Grande as a base to visit the Pantanal. If I still feel Braziled out I will try to go straight to Paraguay.

Take care,