I wasn’t going to tell this story until I was safely home in Europe, but since I’ve arrived at this point of my trip and I only have a few days left, I hope you – and by ‘you’ I mean my mum, and my sister who has become quite worrisome since she herself became a mum – can all read it without worrying now, and I hope my last couple of days in Buenos Aires will proceed without incident.
From Salta, I had looked into different options for my onward journey. On the map, it had looked easy to cross over to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, but in fact there are no roads or buses between the two cities. Buses in Argentina are expensive, and the distances large, so I decided to skip Paraguay and head straight to Iguazú Falls. This I did, and 26 hours later I arrived. As usual, the meals on the journey were erratic: I was given dinner but no breakfast or lunch, though on the last stretch I was given chocolate liqueur.
At Iguazú Falls Hostel, one of the girls in my dorm was Javi from Chile. She had already been to both the Argentinian and the Brazilian side of the waterfalls and planned to head into Paraguay for a few days, before coming back to Iguazú for her flight to Buenos Aires where she’s been studying. Like me, she had seen that most tourists don’t go to Paraguay – Lonely Planet says that people don’t think that Paraguay is worth visiting but that those who do go are rarely disappointed – and wanted to experience the country, if only briefly. I decided to join her; we would cross the border to Ciudad del Este, travel west to Asunción, go down to Encarnación in the south, and then head across the border again and back up to Iguazú. I would visit the falls when we returned.
Ciudad del Este exists for one purpose: a huge market of everything you could possibly imagine, to which Argentinians and Brazilians flock for the day to make their purchases. (Miguel and Gabriela, a French/Portuguese/Chilean couple whom we met once back in Iguazú, had spent a night there and confirmed that it was not a place to stay.) The police and ordinary people like the shop owners openly carry big guns, and poverty is palpable – people are living in boxes on the street right in front of the bus terminal. Javi and I were just passing through, though, and headed straight on to Asunción. We arrived in the dark and I paid for a ridiculously expensive taxi (extra for Sunday and nighttime), but I had decided early on during my trip that I would value my safety over my money. We settled down in our 14-bed dorm at the Black Cat Hostel in a nice area of town, and Javi started to cook dinner as I headed out into the night to buy water and beer, since the hostel had run out of both. I left my bag in the hostel and brought only a bit of money, following the directions I had been given to the petrol station that turned out to be further away than I had thought. I successfully brought back the drinks, however, after only a bit of harmless flirting from a security guard outside a nearby building. (Later Miguel and Gabi, who had been staying at the same hostel in Asunción, told us that another backpacker had been robbed at knifepoint right outside our hostel – but I didn’t know that then.)
The following day, we explored the city with Claudio, another ‘chileno’, and Cati, a German who introduced herself as being Argentinian having studied in Córdoba for a year and having picked up a local boyfriend. We wandered down to the river and into town, and on the advice of a super friendly guy there we took the bus out to climb the Cerro Lambaré for a bird’s eye view. As we walked up the hill, three guys were approaching from behind. We all felt distinctly uncomfortable, and subtly redistributed our cameras and money in case they were to steal our bags; but nothing happened.
Still with me? The story is dragging on, and I still haven’t come to the bit about the gun. But don’t worry, it’s coming up.
Javi and I continued on to Encarnación, described by the Lonely Planet* as “Paraguay’s most attractive city”. The bus broke down halfway, though we very smoothly transferred to another bus that was already waiting (albeit half the size). Nonetheless, the journey took two hours longer than advertised, as per usual in South America, and we arrived after sunset. The town must be very different during high season, and during Carnaval. We checked into a cheap hotel across the street from the bus terminal – there is only one hostel in Encarnación and it’s several blocks away – where we found two copies of the New Testament in our room and the wifi password was Salmos100 (The Book of Psalms 100, which, according to Wikipedia, “thanks God for having been saved from dangers we face every day”). Around 8pm we headed out to buy something for dinner, asking a couple at the bus station for the closest supermarket. Two or three blocks in that direction, they said.
Now neither of us would have headed off into town at night had we been alone; and there was no reason to look for a supermarket – there was anyway no kitchen in the hotel, and we could have just bought some empanadas from across the road. But we were chatting and didn’t really think about it as we followed the directions we’d been given. We didn’t notice that we had passed from a row of shops to a dark part of the street, still no supermarket to be seen. I was alert, though, as I always am while travelling, especially at night. So I heard the scooter approaching on my left, and felt it getting far too close. I must have instinctively taken a few steps back, and observed somehow, in fast forward and slow motion at the same time, how one of the two guys on the bike leapt onto the pavement and a gun appeared a few centimetres from my face.
The violence of his presence, his movements, his weapon, was oppressive. I screamed. I heard a second scream when Javi realised what was happening, though she doesn’t remember screaming. I was thinking to myself: I can’t believe this is happening, why did we walk down this street, I have so much unnecessary stuff in my bag that he’s now going to take… But of course he had a gun, so I was going to give him everything. I started to lift my bag off my shoulder. But this is where I’m not clear on what exactly happened. The gunman had gone straight for Javi. I was several steps away and the other guy on the bike wasn’t looking. Somehow I started to back away. Somehow I started jogging. Somehow I reached the shop maybe 20 metres back from where we had come. And somehow I still had my bag with all my things.
What should I do? Scream? Get someone to call the police? But it would be too late, and my biggest fear was that they would hurt Javi if they were disturbed. I had heard her saying, “Yes, yes, I’m giving you everything.” So I waited, my heart thumping in my chest. A few minutes later, she came walking back towards me.
Somehow, Javi had been able to extract her camera and her wallet from her bag, slipping them into the hood of her jumper. She had stared into the face of the gunman, trying to maintain eye contact so that he wouldn’t notice what she was doing. She kept thinking: The camera. My mum will kill me if I lose the camera. And being from Chile she was able to speak to the guy, reassure him, as he nervously looked from side to side. He was yelling “Cellular! Cellular!” but she calmly explained that she didn’t have her phone with her in Paraguay. He didn’t notice her money belt on the inside of her clothes. So all they got was a little bit of cash and her lip gloss. We took refuge inside the shop, where the owner told us how dangerous that area was, pulling out his gun from under the till to prove it.
Unfortunately, Javi soon realised that the thieves had, in fact, got away with one important item: her photo ID. We called the police and got an escort to the station (two officers in the front and another two behind us – much more impressive than my one little tourist policeman in Mendoza) and Javi gave her statement, after which she was told to come back the next day to get a printed copy that would let her cross the border back into Argentina. Of course neither of us could give any kind of description of the colour of the bike or what the guy looked like. (The police station had a Christmas wreath and a silver sign that said ‘Feliz Navidad’.) When she messaged her mum, what do you think was the first thing that her mum said? “The camera! Do you still have the camera?” Javi’s five-year-old son was a bit more empathetic: “I’m glad they didn’t kill her, I would have missed her a lot.”
I didn’t tell anyone at home about this because I didn’t want anyone to worry. But now you know. It was incredibly frightening, and perhaps it could have been avoided, but we were also incredibly lucky. It would have been a much more tragic story if they had got away with Javi’s camera, or with my whole bag (containing my camera and a lot of money in the form of guaranis, Argentine pesos, and, for some reason, my euro wallet) – and, yes, more tragic if we had been hurt. Consciously or subconsciously, I was sufficiently traumatised to wake up screaming during the night (though I do that from time to time, even without guns in my face), and to feel physically sick the next day when we arrived late at night at an isolated bus terminal. In the following days, both Javi and I would tense up every time we heard a motorbike. And, of course, since then I make sure I empty my bag of anything I don’t need before I go out, and I continue to take taxis when I arrive late in the evening. And I have another story to tell.
So, Paraguay: though neither Javi nor I regret going – in any case, such regrets are pointless – we now enthusiastically warn people off it. We met some lovely people, both foreigners and locals, we had a nice day in Asunción, and we enjoyed the Jesuit ruins at Trinidad (more on those in an upcoming post). But from our three days in this country, we would tell you that there is little in Paraguay that you can’t see somewhere else: the jungle you can visit in many of the neighbouring countries; Itaipú Dam can be visited from the Brazilian side; the cities are not that different from other cities; and the main tourist attraction, the Jesuit ruins in the south, have their counterparts both in Argentina and in Brazil. The country needs to establish an infrastructure for tourism (and, fundamentally, to improve its security) if it wants more people to visit and to leave with a positive impression. So I’m sorry to condemn a whole country, but: I don’t like Paraguay.
*Having looked back into the Dangers and Annoyances section on Paraguay in the Lonely Planet, I’ve found the following:
“Despite what you may hear from people who have never been, Paraguay is one of the continent’s safest countries. With the exception of Ciudad del Este and some parts of Asunción, cites are quite safe to walk around, even at night.”