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january 25, 2005 -> counting the 'guays': paraguay and uruguay  

We spent three days in Uruguay, and only three hours in Paraguay.  While obviously superficial (and completely gratuitous) visits, we could not pass up the opportunity to add a few new countries to the list.  After all, Paraguay was just across the river from Puerto Iguazu, Argentina; and Uruguay only a short ferry ride from Buenos Aires.  While visiting Victoria Falls in Zambia, we had neglected to cross the bridge to the Zimbabwean side, and have felt stupid about it ever since.  A new stamp on the passport is one of the most treasured souvenirs of the avid traveler.  (For an interesting discussion of ‘country-bagging,' please see my new Rambling, “What Really Counts in Travel?”) 

Uruguay and Paraguay share similar names, latitudes, and languages but not much else.  Uruguay has been called “The Switzerland of South America” for its small size and relative wealth, not alpine landscapes - the country is mostly flat.  Paraguay, on the other hand, is known as South America's “Empty Quarter,” a large, dirt-poor, landlocked nation further isolated by megalomaniac dictators.  Uruguay's population is mostly European immigrants, while Paraguay's is largely indigenous or mestizo.  The ‘Guay,' incidentally, comes from the indigenous Guarani language, which means ‘by the side of.' 

Together with Robert and Marianne, a fun couple from Holland, we took a bus from Puerto Iguazu to Paraguay's Ciudad del Este (City of the East.)  During the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870), feisty Paraguay took up arms against Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay and lost most of its male population in the process.  It also gave up huge chunks of territory to Brazil and Argentina – giving the two South American superpowers unfettered access to the Parana River, which eventually flows into the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic Ocean.  The thumb of Argentine territory now wedged between Paraguay and Uruguay (which includes half of Iguazu Falls and the historically rich Missiones Province) was part of those concessions. 

You shouldn't judge a country by its border town (most are disheartening.)  But Ciudad del Este did not leave me clamoring for more of Paraguay.  The bridge across the Parana River was jammed with traffic, and ‘runners' carrying huge stacks of goods on their head jogged along the crowded pedestrian walkway.  The exhaust from thousands of scooters, minivans, and ancient taxis stung our eyes and filled our noses with soot.  The city was a madhouse of street-side vendors, grilled sausage sellers, and purveyors of poorly pirated music and films.  I felt like we were back in Africa. 

Having nothing else to do, we rushed inside the Mona Lisa shopping mall, a multistory building of gleaming floors, air conditioning, perfumes, golf equipment, electronics and designer clothing.  It is cheaper for Brazilians and Argentines to buy certain products in Paraguay, so glitzy malls have sprouted up amongst the dusty street markets.  We had a cappuccino in the 7th floor restaurant and did a half-hearted survey of the products on sale.  The prices were not cheap compared to Europe or the USA, so we soon found ourselves on the street again.  “What do we do now?” we asked in unison.  We visited a few shops (3 pairs of Nike socks for US$13,) surveyed the souvenirs (“I Love Paraguay” bull's horn mate mugs, cheap leather goods,) and had a local beer at a tiny kiosk selling food fried beyond recognition.  We were bored and hot.  “Well, I think we have just about experienced enough of Paraguay for one day,” I commented.  Everyone agreed.  “I'm just glad that we didn't miss it!” said Marianne sardonically.  We walked back across the bridge and caught a bus back to Argentina.  

Uruguay sits opposite the wide Rio de la Plata from Argentina.  Several large ferries run daily services to Colonia de Sacramento, a pretty colonial town directly across from Buenos Aires.  From there, numerous buses connect to the capital, Montevideo, and further to Uruguay's swanky beach resort, Punta del Este.  Colonia was celebrating the 325th anniversary of its founding with several weeks of events.  We were lucky enough to be there on the night of the Miss Colonia beauty pageant, and even luckier to catch the swimsuit contest!  Though relaxed and quite charming, there was not much to do in little Colonia, so we caught a bus to Montevideo the next morning. 

Montevideo will be beautiful again, some day.  With a wealth of beautiful buildings (in styles ranging from neoclassical to art nouveau to ‘eclectic,') ample sea views, and wide beaches, it is only a matter of time before the money that is reinvigorating Buenos Aires finds its way across the Rio de la Plata.  We followed a delightful walking tour designed by the local tourism board: a winding route that took us past Montevideo's most beautiful edifices on the way down to the port and its lively crafts and food market.  Uruguay has the highest literacy rate in South America (97%, similar to the USA,) and it showed in the dozens of bookshops that we passed during our explorations.  We visited the stunning House of Parliament, with its over-the-top display of multihued marble and revolutionary frescoes that seemed more appropriate for a Versace hotel.  The trash of downtown Montevideo was collected by filthy men on horse-drawn trailers.  The streets were clean save the pungent piles of poo.   

Perhaps the most unique cultural aspect of Uruguay (that we observed) is the highly ritualized drinking of yerba mate – a tea made from the leaves of a shrub from the holly family.  Mate is drunk widely in southern Brazil, and in all of Argentina, but nowhere is it imbibed as religiously as in Uruguay, the self-proclaimed center of gaucho (cowboy) culture.  Sharing the mate is a sign of friendship, a highly social activity.  Mate is brewed in a small container: a hollowed gourd, a bull's horn, or a leather vessel not unlike a sliced baseball.  Because the leaves are small, and the tea is unfiltered, the filter is in the straw itself – the bombilla.  Because the vessel is small, new hot water must be added after every sip.  Serious mate drinkers carry a special (often leather) case that holds one or two thermoses, the drinking vessel, the bombilla, and the mate itself.  In downtown Montevideo, men in suits walked with briefcase in one hand and mate case in the other.  It is illegal to drink mate while driving – not because of collisions, but because people keep scalding their hands.  Uruguayans are famous for the “one-handed pour,” where hot water is poured from a thermos tucked between the upper arm and the body, into a drinking vessel held on the same side.