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A forgotten country

Friday, October 21st 2005

It was a long drive through northern Argentina. Throughout the night a man a few rows behind me coughed flamboyantly, and the woman across the aisle couldn't work out how to turn her reading light off. I dozed uncomfortably. When it got light, we were somewhere in northern Missiones province, and rain was lashing down. At about 7am we got to the border at Encarnación and under heavy skies we got off the bus and trooped through immigration. I was the only foreigner on this bus, and so there was no-one around to consult with when, to my surprise, the immigration official put my passport in a box behind him and motioned for me to go on through. I walked off, confused, hoping that I hadn't just badly misunderstood what was going on, and boarded the bus again. I was very relieved when the bus driver appeared with all our passports.

We drove on into Paraguay. I had really wanted to come here because it's such an obscure place that has no reputation at all as a travel destination, known if anything for its corruption, dictatorships, and forgiving attitude towards Nazi war criminals. For the first few hours I was too tired to appreciate it though, only awaking occasionally to see forested plains with occasional hills jutting up, and the clouds slowly breaking up. By midday it was sunny. We arrived in Asunción at about 3pm, and in the capital the temperature was soaring. I got a taxi from the bus station to a hotel right not far from the city's Río Paraguay waterfront. It was friendly, cheap, and slightly squalid in a harmless, run down sort of way - perfect.

Asunción was lively in the afternoon temperatures of over 35°C. My guidebook described the city as having an 'enviable riverside setting', but I couldn't help feeling that was wildly inaccurate. The city centre lies a couple of hundred metres from the river banks, and on the flood plain was a slum, which stank. Appallingly, the slum sits right next to Paraguay's parliament buildings. Nearby lies the presidential palace, upon which Paraguayans were forbidden to gaze in the days of one crazed 19th century dictator.

But apart from the horrendous poverty right next to the legislature I enjoyed Asunción. People were friendly and the pace of life incredibly laid back. After an uneasy night's sleep in the stifling temperatures I spent the following morning walking around. A band was playing the national anthem in front of the Panteón de los Héroes and a crowd gathered in the street for some kind of celebration. I had a coffee in a bar and watched the world go by.

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