Sunday evening, and as I prepared to leave Buenos Aires for the first time on this particular trip, I started to think about the first time I left Buenos Aires, in January. Then, Retiro bus station had seemed to be a terrifying South American shambolic, scrubby, shifty place and I remember being scared and bemused by the seemingly incomprehensible PA annoucements, the baffling timetables, the scurrying, shouting urchin-like street vendors. I remember clinging onto my backpack. I remember being incredibly nervous about leaving the city behind and venturing forth into South America.
Well, the rest is history, my Spanish has become adequate, and I've seen so much worse in the continent, that my return trip to Retiro on Sunday was a doddle. I arrived just before my bus was due to set off, managed to understand most of the PA announcements, and chilled. How quickly a strange place can feel like home.
Argentina is rightly acclaimed for its steak (fat and juicy), women (), football (Maradona) and cheapness, but its buses should be added to that illustrious list. My seat was big enough for at least two of me, an elephant, or four anorexic people. The wine flowed. The seat reclined all the way back to make a bed. Outside, I watched as we passed the River Plate, a huge estuary that stretches out to meet Uruguay, invisible, on the other side. The sky was on fire, and a distant hot air balloon hung on the horizon. The city stretches on for a long while - there's something so un-British about cities here - I can't put my finger on it - the way that the white tower blocks seem to have dozens of aerials on top of them, each scraping at the sky. The huge advertising billboards. The city left behind, the sun dipped and we were on our way. The only downside - the in-bus film. Meet the Fockers. Again. Ben Stiller and Robert de Niro have been following me all round South America. This must be the seventeenth time I've seen it here, and it wasn't that funny the first time. It was always on in Cusco, and on every other bus journey. I drifted off into half-sleep before, amazingly, arriving a good hour early in Posadas, at 5.30am.
Posadas is in the north east of Argentina, bordering Paraguay. Blurry eyed and blurry tongued, I staggered out and injected myself with caffeine before finding the bus for the border crossing. It was a typical South American border crossing - getting chucked off a bus that clearly has no intention of waiting for you, being pointed in the direction of at least 8 different windows and queues, being waved away by curt border staff. Anyway, after a bit of queueing and passport waving, I got my exit stamp and waited for the bus to take me to the promised land of Paraguay.
The contrast wasn't as severe as I had been expecting. I'd been expecting real poverty - kids begging, pavement-less unpaved roads, ramshackle stalls bordering the side of the streets. Yes, it was different, but not hugely so. There was even a Lloyds TSB in Encaracion. How nice of my favourite corporation to be greeting me in Paraguay. It was 8, and the sweat was already trickling behind my knees...
I took a bus to Trinidad - a UNESCO world heritage site - featuring haunting ruins from the Jesuit missions of a couple of centuries ago. I think by this stage, I was beginning to understand Paraguay a little bit. No signs, no infrastructure, just a red dirt road and there they were, the shells of these ancient churches and monastaries. Beautiful. Things took a turn for the worse at this stage. It began to rain. It began to more than rain. It began to be windy. It began to be more than windy. I was wandering around the ruins (inconveniently there are no roofs on these ruins), when the sky turned black, and the palm trees started doing tiptoes, and the rain came horizontally at me. And, smugly, I had packed light - i.e only one pair of trousers - my jeans, and they don't do so well in the rain. After sheltering with a couple of old dudes in hats and with spades, I made a charge for the entrance, got ridiculously soaked and then sheltered in the office where I made entertaining banter about Radiohead and Pink Floyd with the guy there, who wanted to be an international DJ. The rain continued to come and the sky continued to throw a tantrum, as the guy explained why he didn't like Argentina.
Eventually, shivering and dripping wet, with soggy cigarettes and sticky soggy 50,000 Guarani notes, I made my way to the bus stop, back to Encarnacion (and a terminal full of in your face vendors offering me watches, necklaces, batteries, coca-cola, bus tickets, empanadas) and then finally onto a bus headed for Asuncion, the capital. With massive relief, I took off half my clothes, and got changed and then fell into a shivery sleep, only occasionally glancing out of the window at the curious red earth that we passed through.
And now, I am here, Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, and possibly the most un-capital like capital I have ever been to. Cars and people crawl along under the palm trees, down narrow 2-laned roads. Yellow mercedes taxis pass by the bizarrely contrasting buildings - old school colonial facades that sit underneath stark white jutting communist-esque tv aerial firebomded ugly tower blocks. The river Parana sits at the edge of the city, a protest of around fifty people banging drums takes place alongside a mirrored bank that reflects a number of shanty tents alongside the river bank. Old men lie on park benches, underneath crumbling swimming pool coloured peeling fountains and bizarre green grey statues of dogs and old kings, queens and generals. An old lady with a green, red and yellow headress tries to sell me a little bag, she practically begs me when I refuse. People openly stare at me. There are just no tourists here, just me, and I stand out like a sore thumb. I buy cigarettes for 45 pence, a litre of beer for 60 pence, wander around sleepy and drunk at 3 in the afternoon. The Christmas lights are just going up, and bizarre renditions of Silent Night eminate from an art shop...eminate not into a snowy night, but a 35 degrees heat. It feels like I am back in South America. Not that Buenos Aires isn't South America, it's just that it's sort of like - home. Here has all the halmarks. People staring at me. Internet connections that barely work. An electric shower in my hotel that has 2 heat settings (freezing and boling), which I dip a toe under, then an armpit then run away before going back for another try. Toilets that don't have loo-roll in them. The people are friendly, chatty, curious. Why on earth am I here?
Well, I love it. This sleepy city, where the most happening thing at 11pm is to sit in a bookshop with a generous gin, with it's contrast of ancient and new, corrupt and clean, with armed guards patroling with machine guns, with overhead hum of electricty and insects mingling. I like it a lot, and I am glad I have come.
Well, sorry for the ramble. There's not much to do here, and that's why I like it. You can just sit, sit in the shade, sit under a palm tree and watch the Paraguayian world - slow, smiley, serene - go by.
Tomorrow, am off to Ciudad del Este on the Paraguyian, Brazilian, Argentinian border before spending a couple of days at Iguazu Falls, before returing to my temporary non-South American kind of home.