Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Citizen Journalism: Deeply Rooted Corruption

On Thursday, Nick and I hopped aboard a 23 hour-long bus ride to Iguazu Falls, in the north of Argentina, snuggled up against the Brazilian and Paraguayan borders. The point of this journey was two-fold: first and foremost we went to experience the waterfalls, of course. But secondly, we had some business to take care of--we needed to renew our tourist visas and figured that with the easy access to Paraguay from Iguazu, a trip to the Falls was a perfect way to kill two birds with one stone.

SIDE NOTE: Nick and I arrived in Argentina on a tourist visa, good for three months. To renew it, when we were in Buenos Aires, we simply took a day-trip across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay. We would be stamped out of Argentina, stamped into Uruguay, stamped out of Uruguay, and stamped back into Argentina, and alotted another three months, all in a day. Being in Cordoba makes our semi-legal racket a bit more difficult, since we're sandwiched inside the country. What happens if we overstay our tourist visa? Probably not much. At minimum, it's a $50 fine, but we don't want to get caught in a situation where we've broken the law in a foreign country, so we don't risk it. Thus, to Paraguay we went, and just in the nick of time. Our last tourist visa was set to expire June 7th, and it was already June 5th. So on we went across the border...

It turns out that getting to Paraguay from Iguazu was fairly straight forward. We just headed to the major depot in town, where we were told that a bus to Paraguay came every 45 minutes. Sure enough, a half-hour later, a yellow bus came crawling around the corner, a sign reading PARAGUAY standing upright in its windshield. We hopped on the bus and paid the fare--3 pesos each.

The bus soon filled and we took off. After a tiny stretch of highway, we arrived at Argentine immigration, where we hopped off and got our passports stamped to mark our timely exit from the country. Back on the bus, we cruised away from Argentina and onto a Brazilian strip of highway. Soon enough we came upon an arrow directing us left to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay and right to Igaucu, Brazil. The driver veered to the left. (We would have loved to go to Brazil, but the visa costs $100 a person...Someday we'll get there!)

The moment when the highway stopped belonging to Brazil and started belonging to Paraguay was shockingly obvious. As Nick said, you could literally see the line where the resources stopped. The Brazilian highway was well-paved and well-painted, with neat and trim vegetation on both sides. The Paraguayan side was not so. The road was bumpy, with cars and buses stopping and going according to their own whims, not according to traffic rules. Half-built ramshackle buildings crumbled on the side of the road and people were everywhere. The bus stopped at the immigration office and Nick and I hopped out.

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The immigration office looked more like a hang-out pad than an official port of entry. People were wandering around--there were no lines, no uniforms, no official-ness. One attendant waved us over.

He had greased hair, a white-collar shirt tucked into jeans. He didn't smile at us. He took our passports, saw the US emblem, seemed to pause in thought, and then opened the booklets up to stamp. Just before stamping them, he seemed to regain his thought. He motioned Nick in.

Nick cocked his head to listen to the attendant, but the man was speaking so quietly that Nick had to bend his head under the glass (which was quite awkward and quite low) to hear the man.

He was telling Nick that there was a visa. Which we knew very well that there wasn't. He tried to scare us by saying that we could only stay for 20 hours without a visa. We responded that we were just going to do some shopping and head back. He looked disgruntled but he stamped us anyways.

Just when we thought we were in the clear, he closed our passports and set them aside on his desk, looking as if he had no intention of giving them back. He motioned me forward.

It seems he just remembered that there was a "transportation visa" that we needed to pay. 100 pesos each. Again he was speaking so quietly, it was so hard to hear. I couldn't aruge; he has our passports and I don't speak enough Spanish to confidently and convincingly aruge. We handed over dearly-earned 200 pesos and in exchange got our passports. What a crapshoot, we thought!

We left the immigration office and stepped out into the bright bustle of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. It was overwhelming. Nick and I couldn't have sood out more, and in every direction someone was offering us something--a ride in a van, a taxi ride, a motorcycle ride, a tourist bus, street food, contraband...It was too much. We clung to the little money we had left, and ran to the bus stop across the street, back to Argentina.

Luckily, the bus came right away. When we hopped on, we saw that it was filled to the brim with people and their over-flowing shopping bags. Paraguay is the place to go for the cheapest of the cheap goods, so Argentines love to stock up across the border. But cheap goods mean sweat shops galore, and the sight of that injustice on top of having just witnessed such blatant corruption made us sad for Paraguay. How difficult it must be to simply make it, let alone get ahead, in a system where palms need to be greased every which way and a good-paying decent job is replaced by the unbeatable competitiveness of the sweat shop? We thought about the Paraguyan domestic workers we had known in Buenos Aires, and how they probably had thought that Buenos Aires would be a world class change...And now they are stuck working in the black for people who so often take advantage of them. And to think of the bribes they must surely be coerced into paying when they return to Paraguay and immigration officials see that they have been working in the much-more lucrative country of Argentina...

A government weighed down with corruption damns the society it represents. If the government takes advantage of its constituents, there is no protection and assurance anywhere, and thus so many of the people can not develop to become the creators, innovators, thinkers, and workers they all have the potential to be...

I want to leave this post with the most beautiful poem (sent to me from the most beautiful Laura Eppinger!) about the country of all our dreams, that we can all create over time if we all put our hearts and minds to it (the English translation is below)...

En el país un mejor conocimiento
-- Alberto Blanco

una piedra que canta la alabanza de su peso
una rosa que llora al alba su propio rocío
un gallo iluminado por el sol desde adentro
y un ser humano reconciliado consigo mismo

en el país de un mejor conocimiento
hay un estanque lleno de sirenas transparentes
hay un barco resplandeciendo a la medianoche
hay un cerro que piensa cosas marvillosas
hay una ventana abierta al fondo del mar
hay una balanza de innumerables brazos
hay un circo y su carpa en el cielo
hay un perro que es su propio amo
hay un ajedrez sin adversarios
hay una torre sobre la brisa
hay un mantel junto al río
hay un sombrero con alas

una barranca que se abre y se cierra
según el vértigo de quien la mira
una fruta tropical que a veces crece
dentro de las piedras preciosas

una planta con bellas cartas de amor
escritas en cada una de sus hojas
y coronado por las nubes de colores
un árbol inmenso en medio del mar

un alcatraz que se aparece
cuando se cruzan dos miradas
y un pino sobre el acantilado
haciéndole cosquillas a la luna
un yunque donde se forjan
redondos minutos de cristal
y un amanecer que sobrevive
a un atardecer interminable

en el país un mejor conocimiento
existe Dios más allá de todo numbro y todo forma
y viven viejos que son sabios somo los niños
existe un camino que va a donde quiere
y cuatro poemas dentro del corazón
existe un amor correspondido
hay una idea perfecta
hay un silencio


In the country of higher knowledge

a stone that sings the praises of its weight
a rose that at dawn weeps its own dew
a cock illuminated by an inner sun
and a human being reconciled with himself

in the country of a higher knowledged
there’s a lake full of transparent mermaids
there’s a boat glittering at midnight
there’s a hill thinking marvelous things
there’s a window opening onto the bottom of the sea
there’s a scale with countless arms
there’s a circus with its tent in the sky
there’s a dog that’s its own master
there’s a chess game without adversaries
there’s a tower above the breeze
there’s a tablecloth alongside the river
there’s a hat with wings

a ravine that spreads out and closes up
depending on the onlooker’s vertigo
a tropical fruit that sometimes grows
with precious stones

a plant with beautiful love letters
inscribed on each one of its leaves
and crowned with multi-colored clouds
an enormous tree in the middle of the ocean

a calla lily that appears
when two glances intersect
and a pine atop the cliff
tickling the moon
a forge that shapes
rounded crystal minutes
and a dawn that outlives
an interminable dark

in the country of a higher knowledge
God exists farther off from every name and every form
and old people live as wise as children
a road exists that goes wherever it likes
and four poems inside the heart
a requited love exists
there’s a perfect idea
there’s a silence


Mama Africa said...


The contrast between the Paraguyan road and the Brazilian one is so sad and such a stark image...

I love your civilian journalism!! Keep it up!

-- Laura

Laura said...

Sad but true as Metallica`s song said.
And people from South America keep complaining about the corruption in their governments. But the corruption is made for everyone....well, for everyone who acts like the immigration office guy.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, just catching up with your blog now. I'm loving your travels!! Is the winter cold there yet?

By the way, good idea to renew those visas - it's now 300 pesos to overstay - eeeek!!!

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