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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Trip to Argentina and back to Modern Amenities

Buenos Aires
        The middle of November is a significant period of time in my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer because it marks the halfway point of my total time here in Paraguay. Up until the second week of November I had yet to take a single vacation outside of the country, and considering every volunteer is allotted 48 during their service I figured it was high time to take advantage of those vacation days I had yet to utilize. Given Paraguay's location in the middle of South America it is in many ways an ideal location to be based for someone who wants to travel around the continent. For many volunteers, Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital and largest city, is one of the more common destinations. In addition to being relatively easy to get to by bus or plane from Paraguay, it also has a large number of Paraguayans living and working there. For me, Buenos Aires was not a destination that was high on my list of places to go, my father is from there and I had been there several times growing up, but it was an ideal location for me to meet up with my parents having not seen them in over a year. So it was decided that my first trip outside of Paraguay would be to Buenos Aires with the principal idea being that I would have the opportunity to relax in a city that I had been to with my family. However, despite all my preconceived notions about what type of experience I would have in Buenos Aires given my prior exposure to the city when I was younger, my time there proved to be much more of a unique experience than I had previously thought.
        I was lucky to find a travel companion in the form of my friend and fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Jimmy. We were both looking to cut back on costs of transportation, and given Jimmy's location close to the Argentine boarder town of Formosa we decided that it would be a cooler and more cost efficient for us to cross the Paraguay River into Formosa from Alberdi located in the southwestern part of the country. Alberdi is located in the Paraguayan departamento (state) of Neembucu, which is considered one of the poorer departmentos in Paraguay. Unlike Alto Parana, in Eastern Paraguay where I live, Neembucu has very little infrastructure or large towns. Despite the fact that it shares a boarder to the North with departamento Central, the most populated department and home to the capital of Asuncion, Neembucu is remarkably isolated. Alberdi, the largest town in the northern part of Neembucu, is only 150 KM South of Asuncion, but takes over 4 hours by bus to arrive. This is primarily because almost immediately after you enter the departmento headed South from Asuncion the road becomes a white sandy dust bowl. To make the ride all the more exciting the older model, non-air conditioned buses that travels on this road motor as fast as they possibly can causing high amounts of dust inhalation for the passengers lucky enough to be on board. Once you get to the end of the line and get off in the sprawling metropolis of Alberdi the town comes off like something one would see in a old western movie except with more cement buildings in place of wooden ones. The existence of the town is dependent on commerce between itself and the Argentine city of Formosa across the river. I would even argue that if Formosa didn't exist that Alberdi would never have been founded. The testament to this is the fact that the town of Alberdi was named for the founder who was in fact Argentine. So it was on these sandy shores that our adventure into Argentina began.
Customs Dock Alberdi
       It is remarkably easy to get to Argentina from Paraguay even if you go through the process the legal way. The only thing that separates the two countries is a river that is very easy to swim across, and honestly quite easy to cross into illegally if one is so inclined. However, for the law abiding members of society all one has to do is go to the small customs agency on the Paraguayan side of the river, get some stamps, buy a ticket for about $2.50 to cross in a small vote, and repeat the process on the Argentine side of the river. The biggest differences in the crossing process is Paraguay still uses typewriter technology to document the purchase of your ferry ticket while Argentina has upgraded to computers. as Jimmy and I were going through the customs process in Formosa we could already begin to tell the differences between the 2 countries. For starters, we had trouble understanding the customs agent on the Argentine side's Spanish. Both of us have only lived in 1 Spanish speaking country, and to hear someone speaking differently threw us for a loop. After we go through customs our language troubles continues when we got on a bus and asked the driver to go to the bus terminal. He looked at us like we were complete yokels and simply ushered us to take a seat. THe bus ended up going in the complete opposite direction we wanted to go, and it wasn't until we slowly spoke in the most basic and clear Spanish we were capable of that he laughed and said we were going the wrong direction. To be honest, it wasn't until the end of our trip that we felt like we were finally able to get a grasp on Argentine tendencies in Spanish. I never though that I would struggle as much as we did. I figured that the Spanish between people in Alberdi and Formosa would be similar given their proximity, but that proved not to be the case at all. The differences were stark not just in language, but the appearance of the cities themselves.
       Formosa as a city has a population of 210,000 people making it a pretty large city. Alberdi's population on the other hand is microscopic by comparison with a little over 7,500 inhabitants. Alberdi has a couple of paved roads and one large double avenue. Formosa on the other hand has paved roads throughout the city, with air conditioned public buses, well maintained parks, and a variety of restaurants. Alberdi's economy is dependent on Formosans crossing over to buy cheap goods. On the other side of the coin I don't think the livelihoods of people in Formosa would be impacted at all if Alberdi ceased to exist. Obviously these differences speak to a a variety of differences between the two countries, which I have discussed in previous blog entries, but reading statistics is one thing and seeing the actually differences between the 2 countries is a completely different experience. I could ramble on for hours about how the food is better, how much better organized the city is, and the noticible difference in wealth are, but I'll refrain to prevent a boring diatribe. All I'll say is that I was more shocked to see the differences than I had expected initially.
It was about a 18 hour bus ride from Formosa to Buenos Aires. The trip is entirely on paved roads, which is not often the case in Paraguay. I am not sure why I was surprised by the start differences in development between the two countries. After all Argentina is the 6th largest country in terms of land area, and has over 40 million  inhabitants making it not only one of the biggest Spanish speaking countries, but also one of the richest. These are all things I knew going into this trip, but for some reason I couldn't get over the differences. Buenos Aires is a beautiful city. It has a very educated population, is extremely cosmopolitan, and has its own unique cultural heritage. If you couldn't classify Argentina as the developed world as a whole you could definitely make the case that Buenos Aires is. Aside from the obvious infrastructure differences the thing that stuck me the most between the two countries was the people and how they acted. In Buenos Aires people were much more closed off. It wasn't easy to strike up a conversation, and seemingly everyone spoke a bit of English. In Paraguay we rarely to never overhear people speaking in English, and if we do an immediate conversation ensues. Argentina is much more of a tourist destination, so I personally felt more distance from the locals likely because of the high amount of tourists that go through annually has diluted the stangeness of overhearing English in a restaurant or a bar.
Buenos Aires
        That got me thinking about the reasons why Argentina is so much more developed, and whether it is their level of development or their culture that causes the people to come off as more individualistic? I think what it boils down to is that because Paraguay is a landlocked country in the middle of South America prevents it from developing at the pace of a country with a massive coast line like Argentina. A better comparison is Uruguay whose population is half of Paraguay's with a smaller area, but it significantly richer. Wealth gives a country more ability to buy things, which in turn makes individuals more money to buy things. There is a fine line between having too much and having too little, but I think many of us from America, especially older generations, can remember a time when families didn't have much but they did have each other. Nowadays millions of Americans live in suburbs, commute to work, and barely know their neighbors. We have reached a point where we have so much stuff we are longing for human contact that people in Paraguay have a surplus on. Americans and Argentinians to generalize might have more things, but do they have the same level of human interaction that makes the people in Paraguay come off as happy? My response to that is no. Paraguayans might not know a ton about the world outside their borders, and they might never travel more than a couple of hours their whole lives from where they are from, but what they lack in material wealth they more than make up for in human contact.
        It is easy to list the reasons, as I did early, as to why Argentina is wealthier than Paraguay. One could argue that Paraguayans are happier because they don't know what it is like in the rest of the world. This ignorance is bliss argument has a lot of validity, and I would venture to think that if Paraguay remained the way it is for the rest of eternity the people within would probably be happier than they would be in other more developed countries. Through my travels from Alberdi to Buenos Aires in a period of 24-hour I was able to see multiple stages of development that ran the spectrum from poorest of the poor to richest of the rich. It wasn't just that I saw that, but I lived it. I went from a wooden house in the middle of the Paraguayan country side to a luxury apartment in the center of a wealthy Argentine neighborhood. Personally, I loved the fact that I was able to take a hot shower, have air conditioning, and all the modern amenities imaginable, but I couldn't help by feel like something was missing from my trip to Buenos Aires that was being able to strike up a conversation with anyone and have them treat you like they have known you their whole lives. That is not to say I didn't have a wonderful time with my family, but after having lived a year in a place like Paraguay it sort of makes one reassess what are the most important things in one life that makes it fulfilling. To me the material possessions while awesome might not have the same value as they did a year ago, and all it took was a week away in a more developed place for me to have that realization.

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