Sunday, 31 May 2009

In Defence of Asunción

Slipping across the border, Paraguay appears to be everything those on the outside say it is; chaos infused with an abundance of cheap electronic and corruption. Nestled between the continent's richest and poorest nations, it achieves neither the grandeur of Argentina, nor the romantic charm of Bolivia. Yet away from the cluttered hawkers stalls and makeshift tents which line the road out of Cuidad del Este, and unwatched from the outside world, city dwellers delight in Asunción.

A soft tap stirs my first morning in the capital, whilst a kind whisper invites me to breakfast. Slipping out of soft sheets, I follow the scent of freshly brewed coffee. An hour later I am being guided around the city's sights by my host's company driver, who proudly points to the continent's oldest this 'n' that. Soon the high-fliers are heading home for lunch, leaving London's lawyers to inhale processed sandwiches at their desks.

The sun retires early this winter's eve, leaving brave locals to battle mild temperatures for a poolside barbeque. Inside, friends gather on worn leather sofas over bottles of Chilean wine, passing plates piled with local treats.

Thousands of miles away, a computer screen clock marks the start of a new day. Unnoticed, the city worker types another minute closer to the dawn deadline, and thinks nothing of his calmer counterparts.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The City of God?

Standing in a hostel reception, a pale girl shakes uncontrollaby. She has seen the statue of Christ, and thrown herself infront of speeding cars to be with God. A few hours later in the same building, a teenager will drink one too many vodkas and spray vomit across his sheets.

For this is Rio, where Christ and vice battle beneath a cloudless sky.

Such extremes form the sandy spine of the city, where rows of religious statues cast their watchful eyes over the sex shop next door. Just streets away, an ageing church demands confession from the glowing red motel beside it.

Across town, Paradise exists at Ipanema beach, where the fallen wrap their barely-there bikinis in ´Redeemer´sarongs. For the faithless, Christ has been enveloped in affordable kitsch, glowing green, blue and yellow all the way home.

And so riding the `Redeemer´ bus the morning after, one cannot help but feel that in this city of God and the Godless, there is at least a sunbed for everyone.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Ten Hours in Chuy

Born and bred on an island nation, my concept of border crossing generally involves check in, fly, immigration, go. Even on the mainland, driving through Europe involves nothing more than a stampless wave to the border guards. Try getting from Uruguay to Brazil, however, and you will find yourself exploring the strange anomoly that is Chuy.

Having jumped off the bus on the edge of town, we were unceremoniously stamped out of Uruguay and into no mans land. A brisk walk down shady streets led to the Brazilian bus station, where bored staff wait behind a rusty wire mesh. The dusty timetable is for display purposes only; there is no bus for the next 10 hours. And so we pay in Uruguan pesos for our Brazilian bus, and head back towards the main street.

Here lies the true border, lined with ´Duty Free´ shops piled high with panini presses and home entertainment sets. One side of the road hosts a broken ATM, which gives Uruguan pesos and US dollars. The latter are rejected on either side, whilst Brazilian reais free flowly from nowhere.

Attempting to flee the confusion, a fellow purgatory resident directs us to a pensión on the Uruguan side (the Brazilian side of the road is more expensive, of course). Greeted with strange looks by our bearded host, he nonetheless guides us up creaky wooden steps and through a hole-in-the-wall sliding door. We are left to contemplate our new abode, where a bunkbed reaches the ceiling, the dusty 70´s TV sits unplugged in the corner, and a lone mosquito drifts through a rusty window. With nine hours to go, I begin to read the list of ´house rules´hanging on the wall, and take note that we must ´keep the room clean´. Eight hours left, and I slip into faded sheets and wait for dawn.

Shuffling to the bus stop at first light, we are accompanied by nothing more than a limping dog and brooding clouds. Without hesitation we jump on the bus, hoping to be driven far away from this uncertain place. A few miles out of town, we speedily reverse; the Brazilians forgot to stamp our passports.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

A Coca-Cola Country

Forever bus bored, as a last resort I turn to my drink carton for an informal Spanish lesson in all things juice-related. However, I am regrettably informed (in English) that my Latin American sugar rush is in fact owned by the mighty Coca-Cola Company. Sigh. This infamous logo brings with it images of slaughtered union workers in Colombia, drained farms in India, and a host of other sticky situations said company would prefer to hush up. And so I hastily blacklisted one more ´Argentine´ beverage, before entering Uruguay in the hope that this little nation had escaped such a partnership.

But rather than allowing Coca-Cola to subtly infiltrate its national drinks market, Uruguay has gone one step further, and stamped the garish logo all over it´s sandy soil.

Quiet beaches are presided over not by a trusty lifeguard or signs warning of terrible tides, but by Coca-Cola flags ten feet tall. The classic emerald green kioskos of Colonia have been painted over in the recogniseable red, whilst rusty brand memorabilia has infiltrated the charming clutter of antique stalls. Even the local rositerias have been united countrywide by one advertising board, detailing the delicious fresh pastries on sale, which must be washed down with a fizzy splash of e-numbers.

Uruguay is often regarded as living in the shadow of its giant southern neighbour. But in reality, is it not the imposing Coca-Cola umbrellas which are casting a darker shadow on the streets of Montevideo?