After the late night silently waging social justice via facebook, I woke Friday morning to a slightly drizzly day, a fractured foot that barely worked, and no ambitions beyond the breakfast buffet. The infamous couple failed to show at breakfast, so I pocketed a few croissants and spent some lazy time on my balcony, contemplating my next move. Part of the impetus for this trip was to just spend some time alone, doing a good soul search, a solid recharge before heading back to work and whatever else was coming my way. I love the high of adventure, the risk of solo travel, the adrenaline rush of spontaneity, but I’m also getting to the point where I just want to go somewhere no one knows me so I can relax and not answer any questions. This might also have something to do with teaching. [Note to anyone who dates a teacher – I just want you to tell me what we’re doing and where we’re going. At the end of the day I am so freaking tired of making decisions and repeating myself and differentiating all the lives around me. I want my biggest decision to be red or white.]
But a few hours of this found me hungry again and feeling guilty for not exploring more. So I got dressed [this is a stretch – I put on Tevas and deodorant] and went in search of a cab to take me to the place where all three countries meet, called El Hito. A very tall, very thin man named Sergio picked me up in his cab and we started driving. Anxious to reclaim Spanish fluency, I threw myself into conversation with him, however his mother is Brazilian, so he kind of enabled my Portuñolish mess of language, but we became fast friends by the time we reached El Hito. Oddly, there were no red dotted lines marking between the waters like I always see on maps, so. This could have all been a big scam.
Out of curiosity, eager for another passport stamp, I asked him what it would take to go into Paraguay for a hot minute. He calculated driving time and border patrol and after some peso to dollar configuration (actually a dangerous practice, as I get paid in reias, which is about 3.5:1 to the dollar, but helps me feel better about spending money on vacation in a completely false kind of way), he named a time and a price and I said “okay so you wanna go?” He laughed the first of many laughs at my expense and we headed for the border.
Well, turns out my visa is expired. So. Things got a little dicey. BUT it ALSO turns out that I am very charming and a very skilled liar when called upon, so I got myself into Brazil on a wink and a smile and fingers crossed behind my back, and we drove on.
As I’ve said before, despite my cynical worldliness, something about traveling makes me believe the best in the people around me, and spill my guts out, and I also think seeing a woman travel by herself makes people want to ask a lot of questions. We covered everything from my childhood to my most recent break up to the USA elections in a combination of languages and gestures and giggles until we came close to the Brazil-Paraguay border. The traffic was so bad that he led us away to a parking lot, where we got out and then walked over the bridge of friendship to the government office.
Here in all my tourist glow, recently reacquired fluency, and joy of a new friendship, I approached the immigration and customs desk like it was all going my way. And was promptly corrected.
Turns out that if you just want to drive into Paraguay and go shopping for some seriously cheap goods (due to lack of import tax) you can do that. You don’t even get out of your car (or tourist bus) or sign a form or anything. If, however, you have the sentimental notion for a passport stamp, you must pay $100USD for a visa. To which I quickly said “ahhhh NOPE” and then was just as quickly escorted off Paraguayan property and back to Brazil by a very handsome but very serious militia man who declined a selfie.
And so Sergio and I trudged back to the car. “All this for a stamp, Raquel,” he lamented, shaking his head and guiding me past the homeless and hawkers. “But you’ll never forget me! And what a story we will have” I promised. We waded through sidewalks packed with turnstiles displaying baby clothes, cell phone cases, hair dye, fabric and all the other things that only a South American market will place all together until we reached his car.
Defeat permeated the drive back towards the Brazilian border, and I managed just enough charm to get stamped back in.
And then suddenly, Sergio was dropping me off somewhere I hadn’t planned on. I stuttered at the park entrance, claiming I had done enough for the day, that I just wanted to go back to the hotel, but he told me “it’s a wonder of the world, when will it ever see you again?” and nearly shoved me out.
I spent the next several hours wandering the Brazilian side of the waterfalls at Iguaçu. I hadn’t felt any desire to hike more or see more water after the previous day at the park, but his words rang in my head as he dropped me off. Oddly, as much as I had been enjoying Spanish, and even though it had only been a few days, there was an immediate sense of comfort in speaking Portuguese again, in understanding the currency, and in the comforting ring of my data plan kicking in and my cell phone with facebook notifications.
The Argentina side has more a sense of adventure to it – I hiked for seven hours and could have done more, and felt up close and personal with the waterfalls. The wildlife was more present, the trees everywhere silenced the humans around me and I was able to feel close to nature in a way I don’t get to feel often in Brazil. The Brazilian side was a well-organized tourist operation, but had points of beauty and great photo ops. The panoramic view of the falls was lovely, and I spent an hour drinking chopp and eating açaí and fending off coatis while looking over Devil’s Throat, which was lovely.
I think God knew I needed a weekend away in the woods and the water and the wonder. There are things bigger and better and more beautiful ahead.
Sergio picked me up, as promised, and helped me walk back to the car through the haze of my emotions and thoughts. On the way home, he asked again about me traveling alone, had I dated a Brazilian, why wasn’t I married? And I always love this about guys in South America, whether they really mean it or not, but given enough time with you, they will nearly always propose marriage. They will tell you that you are beautiful, smart, charming, that you deserve the world. I tried, unconvincingly perhaps, because he was so earnest and adorable, to tell him that I was perfectly happy on my own. “But everyone was meant to be loved, Rachel,” he argued. “And I know that you want to be loved. To be married and have a family.”
At that point I told him he was an old woman and sounded too much like my mother. But I agreed to let him take me to the airport the next day.
That night I wandered to the huge outdoor warm tub (it was certainly not hot) and floated among the many bugs until I heard some accented English. Then I got to meet and help a pair of cousins from Texas with zero Spanish but a lot of manners between them order some poolside house white wine. One was a traveling nurse stationed in Oahu, one worked in insurance in Dallas, and they were trekking through South America on an arranged tour. And in the way one so often does while traveling, we each quickly spilled our hearts and life stories out under that growing storm until the lightning forced us to retreat. I never even learned their names.
The next day saw another lazy start – a massage, a last visit to the warm tub, a few hours on the balcony listening to the rain. A long twenty minutes in the cab with Sergio waiting out the tension of attraction, then not even hugging goodbye at the airport and regretting it terribly. The power cut out a whopping six times as I stood at the desk trying to check in, freaking out the entire time. Many hours and anxiously checked tears later, I coaxed my way through Brazilian immigration, into the waiting car, and back home. How wild is it to call an apartment in a foreign country, full of things that nearly work, littered with knick knacks I never chose and insects I don’t agree with – ‘home.’ But at 2am I was desperate for it.
I’m back at work, faking it til I make it, trying to look for the good in each moment enough to return the next day. I’m in a season of doubt and disillusion. But just when I feel overwhelmed with it all, there’s another student hugging my waist and telling me I smell like cookies, or asking for another joke. And I keep pulling out keychains and stickers and receipts I’d idly stuffed into my backpack that remind me of the trip that now seems much longer ago than just a week – vacations trick you like that. Chip crumbs lining the pockets of my purse smell like a nice day in a park full of rainbows and wonder, and make me happy. I feel the peaceful moments in my mind – feel the spray of water, hear its powerful roar, see the prisms of colorful light and I’m okay.
If you haven’t heard it yet and you need you – coatis are JERKS and will steal the chips right out yo hands. But I will swat them away. Carefully. Because rabies.