There were tales of the wonders that could be gotten in Paraguay:
strange mechanical birds,
talking sticks, Japanese umbrellas, and
radios we had never seen before. Some people even
everyone that one could buy imported cars there! This Puerto Stroessner
was a true Ali-Baba’s
cave. Not free, but at least possible.
Growing up in Paraná in the 1970’s, we all knew that Paraguay was the place to go to get imported goods, some
nifty stuff nobody else in our (by then) small town of Maringá sold. As a matter of fact, when I was in high school, there were
two yearly rites enjoyed by those who could afford them: a trip to the beach, and a trip to Puerto Stroessner, the frontier
town in Paraguay, directly opposite Foz do Iguaçu, right across the bridge uniting the two countries.
In each trip, the happy travelers acquired one kind of trophy. From the beach, usually enjoyed hastily over a
weekend, each girl and boy brought peeling noses, red backs, and a satisfied look of pain in their faces, as they showed the
stigmata obtained after too much sun exposure. Those were innocent times when we knew nothing about skin cancer. Besides,
the sunburn was, of course, a sign of status: not every one could go to the beach.
I myself only got to see the big monster when I was twenty years old, and therefore spent all my high school days
envying those rich kids from Colégio Gastão Vidigal who came to school, after the beach, wearing think white shirts and
exclaiming in pain every time we even touched them. They were cool beyond belief, and we all, poor kids from the distant
neighborhoods, wished we could have such pain ourselves.
Then there was the trip to Paraguay, arguably even more cool that the one to the beach. There were tales of the
wonders that could be gotten there: strange mechanical birds, talking sticks, Japanese umbrellas, and radios we had never seen
before. Some people even assured everyone that one could buy imported cars there! As young persons learning our ways into
the world, this Puerto Stroessner was a true Ali-Baba’s cave. Not free, but at least possible.
One time, my eldest sister and her husband decided to take the plunge and go to Paraguay with a group from their
church. She saved money for some time, asked me to take care of her two children (ages 5 and 3), joined with a noisy group in a
bus, and left. On the way out, she said she was going to bring me something. I had visions of great sparkling things. She
returned after two days, infuriated. She said she could not understand anything the people in Paraguay said, and besides, the stuff
was too expensive. The whole group spent the day wondering up and down Puerto Stroessner (named after the brutal
dictator), afraid of eating the "dirty food", drinking warm Coca-Cola for nourishment, and begging the driver to take them back to
Foz do Iguaçu as soon as possible.
I knew better than to ask my sister for my present. When she was furious, anyone could receive either her freezing
glare or even some well-applied slaps. So, I wasn’t too disappointed when she just gave me a tiny little cloth bag, with a
poorly-embroidered butterfly on one side. I considered myself lucky to have escaped her wrath, and just hoped she’d calm
down soon. And, I figured, the two days hadn’t been so bad, since I got to play with my nephew and niece.
Some time later, a group of couples from the neighborhood decided to go shopping in Paraguay. This time, what
attracted most of them was the possibility of gain: the story was that you could purchase imported whisky in Puerto Stroessner
and sell it in our town for at least three times as much. This trip was a big deal, because many people gave the travelers
money to purchase the whisky and bring it to Maringá.
Some wanted to sell it for a profit, while others wanted to drink it, and quite a few just wanted to have the bottles to
display in their living-rooms. Like many other silly things, the bottles of some brands of whisky conferred a lot of status, not
unlike the beach sunburn. There were tales of people who drank the whisky from the fancy bottles, then filled them up again
with some cheap Brazilian rum.
That trip was extremely successful. When the chartered bus stopped and people started getting off it, each had
boxes, bags, packages. It was a true bonanza of whisky in my poor neighborhood. Some women in the group also brought the
famed Japanese umbrellas that folded to the size of a hand, others brought make-up with some stuff written on them that
nobody could read. It was either Chinese or Korean.
After this inaugural trip, many others were organized. They actually became a kind of regular thing for some people
to do: a chartered bus, two drivers, a full load of passengers taking other people’s requests and money, two days of
Paraguay shopping, and then the joyful return.
But one day the bus was late. Some wives worried. This was the time long, long, long before cell phones. Hell, it
was even before phones, since to own one in Brazil was so prohibitively expensive until the late 90’s, it is fair to say that in
the 70’s only the very rich Brazilian homes had one phone. In any case, the bus was almost a whole day late. When it
arrived, the people got off very sadly.
This time there were no packages, no big smiles. It turns out that the Federal Police in the Brazilian side had stopped
the bus, demanded that the merchandize be given to them, because, they said, they were being illegally taken inside Brazil.
The police confiscated the whisky, the Chinese make-up sets, the Japanese umbrellas, the children’s toys, the jeans, the
shoes, the fabric, the cheap tools, the cheap sunglasses, the cheap suntan lotions, everything, everything.
One man in particular was crestfallen: he had taken money from the whole family to purchase what was supposed to
be Christmas presents for all the children. Now, he had nothing to show for his trip, and there was no more money to buy anything.
After this debacle, it took a while for anybody to have courage to return to Paraguay. The tales of horrors on the
Brazilian roads, even many kilometers after Foz to Iguaçu, kept coming steadily. There were some people from Marialva, a
neighboring town, who had their bus stopped by the same Federal Police. Knowing that their goods would be confiscated (and most
likely either drunk or sold by the policemen), they decided to take the bottles by the roadside and break each one of them.
"If we can’t enjoy the whisky, neither can those son-of-a-bitches," was the attitude. The policemen were very
furious, and almost arrested a few of the more angry men. In the end, the passengers had to collect some of the left over money
and give it to the police to make sure they could continue the trip.
Still, with all these tales of corruption, the trips continued, even though with less frequency. The trick, then, was to
buy stuff that could be concealed in the person’s body. Each person was allowed one bottle of whisky, so the passengers
each made sure he or she brought one, even though not all wanted whisky.
Some women went to Paraguay wearing clothes they meant to throw away there, and then bought some four or five
pairs of jeans, and put them on one on top of the other, and wore them until they were safely away from the police barriers.
Others crossed the danger zone wearing wigs, glasses, two or three t-shirts. The return from Paraguay became a source of
great amusement, and stories about what happened to some naïve person who didn’t know how to avoid the police.
I never got to go to Paraguay until 1994. I had been to Foz do Iguaçu once, in 1973, but never felt tempted to cross
the bridge. Besides, why go there if I had no money to splurge on glittery goods? But, in 1994, circumstances left me no
choice but to visit the fair city of Ciudad del Estethe current name of Puerto Stroessner. (When the dictator fell, someone
decided to change the name of the city, a very excellent idea, specially considering that at that point the horrors of what
Stroessner did to the Paraguayan people were coming to light.)
My husband Terry, as an American living with me in Brazil for one year, had to have his visa renewed every three
months. After the first three months, we went to São Paulo, paid the complicated taxes, and had his visa renewed. We were
delighted to see that the
funcionário gave him not a 3, but a 6 month visa. We figured it was because we were married.
So, some 15 days before the big visa expired, we went to the Federal Police in Londrina to have it renewed again,
since we were planning to stay in Brazil longer. When he looked at the dates in the passport, the
autoridade at the Federal Police office in Londrina grinned, with obvious pleasure, and informed us that my husband was in Brazil illegally and he was
going to be deported within a few days.
How could that be? Didn’t he have the visa for 15 more days? No. It turned out that the person in São Paulo had
made a mistake, and Terry should have been given a 3 month visa. We were horrified. After trying very hard to comply with
every damn demand by the government (even having had to pay a tax that was exactly the full price of our laptop computer
when we arrived at the airport in São Paulo), we were now faced with this mess because somebody who didn’t know his job
had been "kind enough" to issue a visa period that was not correct.
Not only was Terryin Brazil as a result of a prestigious award by the Guggenheim foundationgoing to be treated
as a criminal and be deported, but we were also going to face enormous complications and costs to disentangle our life and
leave the country in a hurry. I was outraged. I wanted to slap that policeman-bureaucrat in the face. I had visions of myself
strangling him and burning every official paper ever issued in Brazil.
Instead, I looked at the man in Londrina right in the face, and asked, "How can we get the visa renewed for him not
to be deported?" After a life lived in Brazil under a dictatorship, I know better than the challenge anybody with an official
title or a military uniform.
The funcionário explained that we could still renew the visa if we went to
you guessed it, Paraguay! It is the
closest foreign country if you are in Paraná, after all, and the Brazilian consulate there could issue Terry a new visa for three months.
So, off we went, by a regular bus, to Foz do Iguaçu. We barely had a chance to enjoy the wonderful falls, because duty
awaited for us on the other side.
Knowing nothing about Ciudad del Este, I was surprised at how much I knew, probably from the many tales heard
from the travelers-buyers on my early youth. The town is thoroughly ugly, consisting mainly of a dirty, dusty strip of a road
with tiny little shacks on each side. Each shack sells some kind of merchandize, mostly what we could characterize as crap,
refurbished electronics that not always work when you bring them home, toys that look previously played with, and whisky.
We walked very fast all the way down to the Brazilian consulate, filled out the many papers, and then walked all the
way back to a bank to pay the taxes, and returned to the consulate, all the time wondering if the consulate people were
actually going to give Terry the visa. They could do anything. In our experience with consulates, ports of entry, international
airports, the official people can do any thing they want. They are THE LAW, and we, the travelers arriving, are vermin that can
be crushed, arrested, sent back, humiliated.
No matter who you are, you are nothing when confronted with these people at these limbos called customs, or
consulates. Terry and I had even discussed what to do if the consulate decided to deny him a visa renewal: he would fly back to the
US from Asunción, and I would return to Maringá, convince our landlord to not charge us the full price for the apartment
we had rented, settle all other bills, say goodbye to family and friends, and then leave.
But it turned out that the consulate guys at Ciudad del Este were
gente fina, and didn’t cause any trouble. The papers
were in order, they stamped the passport, made a few jokes about the dust in the street. We couldn’t believe our eyes. After
all the anxiety, there it was: a perfectly good and legal visa for three more months.
We stumbled on to the street, and then walked all the way up the road, this time stopping in some of the shacks to
check out their goods. I bought two Japanese umbrellas, three sets of plastic playing cards, a few funny T-shirts to give as
gifts. Terry bought himself a leather belt (which turned out to be plastic), some stationery and then we decided to take the bus
across the bridge. That is when the fun started.
The bus was completely full of Brazilians, all talking loud, laughing, telling stories of purchases. Suddenly, as we
approached the bridge, there was a sudden panic among the passengers. A woman started putting on shirts over shirts,
pants over pants, and stuffing the pockets with smaller items. Another started going down the aisle asking each passenger if he
or she could "take care" of a bag for her. The bag contained whisky. Nobody accepted to help, because each was already
carrying one bottle.
We felt sorry for the woman, and I said I would carry her bag for her. Then another person realized that Terry had
no whisky, so he could take yet another bottle. And so it was: we got off the bus at the bridge, declared our goods, and
were let in the Brazilian side. The owners of the whisky bottles were grateful for our help. We were glad and felt we were
somehow doing some kind of justice by helping these poor people get stuff they could not afford in Brazil.
The other day, we took another bus back to Maringá. It was full of shoppers, all ecstatic with their purchases, all
making jokes and telling stories about how they evaded the bridge people. A tall and fat man was the noisiest of all, boasting
that he had taken that trip many times, and had never been caught. Some passengers tallied their items and realized they had
more whisky than they should, but the tall man insisted there was no danger. "The police are after bigger fish nowadays," he
said, probably meaning drugs and drug-dealers.
Then, suddenly, we saw a police car by the roadside, stopped right behind a tour bus. A line of people, looking like
penitents, carried their bags of Paraguayan goods. There were already a few boxes piled up at one side of the police car. We
knew immediately that those had been confiscated. A deep silence fell inside our bus. Everyone, we included, were shocked
and a bit apprehensive.
After the initial moment, little by little, the conversation re-ignited, and the division of whisky bottles began. For
some reason, it seems that the police targeted mostly the whisky, probably because they wanted to "resell" those, who knows.
Once again, somebody came and asked us to "take care" of some bottles.
I almost wanted to refuse this time, afraid as I am of anything to do with the Federal Police in Brazil, but the person
said that he was going to use this whisky as a present, bla bla bla. We relented and "took care" of a bottle each. Then a
woman asked me if I could say that the make-up sets in a bag were mine. I said what the hell, yes. Then we got to take care of
some toys of indeterminate shape. By the time all the things were "divided," all the passengers felt that we would be all right
if we were stopped.
But we were never stopped. Some 40 kilometers later, the first passenger got off the bus, in his hometown, thanked
everybody for the companionship, and bid us farewell, saying he hoped to meet us all again in another trip to Ciudad del Este.
Terry and I "gave back" to each owner his or her purchases when it was time for them to get off. We reached the Maringá
rodoviária, took at taxi and got back home the proud possessors of plastic playing cards, funny T-shirts, stationery, Japanese
umbrellas, a fake leather belt, and a visa extension. Unfortunatelyor fortunatelywe never got to taste the cheap Paraguayan
whisky. Maybe next time.
Eva Paulino Bueno has published books on Brazilian literature and cinema, Latin American Popular
Culture, fatherhood in world literature. She teaches at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. You can get in touch
with the author emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org