February 11, 2006

That's my car! En garde!

I found this tidbit on mindlesscrap.com: “Dueling is legal in Paraguay, provided both parties are registered blood donors.” I chuckled because Paraguay, which I have peered into but never stood in, seems like a place where swords at the ready are a really good idea.

We were in Brazil at Iguacu Falls (Iguazu, Iguassu), which sits in the jungle at the junction of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. We’d enjoyed a two-day stay at the lipstick-pink Hotel das Cataratas, a place that’s worth the price of admission. The cotton candy confection sits smack on the falls, one of the planet’s wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The epic cataracts, which caused Eleanor Roosevelt to utter, "Poor Niagara," thunder and foam just outside the hotel's front door.

On our last day, a guide named Stephanie escorted us to the airport after a detour to an enormous enroute souvenir shop called Tres Fronteras, where we bought bags of wood, stone, and fabric things at fabulous prices.

After the shopping spree, Stephanie told us about Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, the town that sits just over the border from Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil. “It’s a giant black market area,” she said. “Twelve million people a year come to Foz do Iguaçu. But only one million go to the falls. The rest come to shop.” And lots of them cross the Friendship Bridge over the Parana River and shop in Ciudad del Este.

Brazilians themselves pour in, snapping up cheap black market electronics and cigarettes to resell in Brazil. Illegal. “To get stuff over the border,” said Stephanie, “they do all kinds of crazy things. They go by boat, by airplane, they swim.”

If the police catch them, the cops either keep the goods or extract a monetary bribe. Some of the best rides in town are owned by police officers. “Cops have cars that businessmen don’t have,” said Stephanie. More than a black market, Stephanie called the goings-on “a black mafia.”

Stephanie wished more people would come to Iguaçu for the falls. She told us to tell our friends that “Brazil is a good place to travel to” and that “Brazilians like Americans and think they’re friendly people. Americans are like Brazilians. We both like to talk.” (I was starting to think maybe Stephanie shouldn't talk quite so much. It might get her run through by an epee...)

As we drove to the airport on a road that runs near the border, Stephanie pointed into Paraguay and said, “Paraguayans steal cars in Brazil and sell them in Paraguay. Once the cars are sold, for half the price they’re worth, you cannot get that car back.”

She said people sometimes see their cars driving around Ciudad del Este on the other side of the border, sporting new Paraguayan license plates. And there’s nothing they can do about it.

“The president of Paraguay has one of these cars,” said Stephanie, “and he has said publicly that if he meets the Brazilian who used to own it, he’ll give it back.” She let out a giant sigh wrapped in an exclamation point: “The president!”

Who was leading the little landlocked country when Stephanie told her tale I won’t say. I’d hate to have her pop over to Paraguay for some shopping and find herself challenged to a duel.