A Brief Afternoon in Paraguay

Luxembourg & 7 Cajas

We stumbled across 7 Cajas (7 Boxes) when it was featured at a Spanish film festival in Luxembourg. The film tells the tale of a wheelbarrow porter in a Paraguayan market who undertakes to transport  seven boxes of unknown content to a mystery recipient in exchange for half of a torn US$100 bill and the promise of the other half when the job is done. The gory thriller somehow manages to be bizarrely funny and in 2012, it  grabbed the attention of the Paraguayan public and smashed box-office records in the diminutive Latin American state. Curiosity stirred, the chance to step across a bridge from Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil into the chaotic market city of Ciudad del Este in Paraguay was too tempting to pass up!

The Bridge of Friendship

Collecting our Brazilian exit stamps and with the dire warnings of our guidebooks echoing in our ears (well in all honesty, probably only in mine), we cross the footbridge into Paraguay. The Río Paraná flows fast, wide and muddy beneath us and we are swept along by the bridge’s considerable foot traffic. Though only about 200 metres long, there is a police presence at either end of the crossing as well as in the middle of the bridge. The levels of my initial trepidation and slitty-eyed suspicion drop considerably.

Ponte da Amizade (Friendship Bridge)

Ponte da Amizade (Friendship Bridge)

Names changes & market economies

Formerly known as Puerto Presidente Stroessner, after the dictator, Alfredo Stroessner, the border town of Ciudad del Este is the second largest city in Paraguay and lies at the heart of the Triple Frontier, the point where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet. It is reputed to be one of the most corrupt cities in the world, in a country which has, over the years, provided a haven for international criminals, smugglers and counterfeiters. It’s a place of trade where supply industriously meets demand.

The market unfurls at the very foot of the Ponte da Amizade (Friendship Bridge). Immediately, the noise, colour and sense of absolute chaos engulfs us. Makeshift stalls crowd the pavement in an uneasy row. Their mismatched roofs of salvaged sheet plastic and tin overlap the gaudy canopies of the squat, concrete shops and cast long swaths of shadow along the resulting corridors and alleyways between the vendors.

Wares are touted in loud, or interestingly quiet, voices. A hawker sidles over to me and asks whether I’d be interested in a top-of-the-line hand-held sewing machine. I shake my head as he waves it under my nose. Undeterred, he rummages in his pockets again and gleefully brandishing a crackling implement, he cries “then how about a taser?”. I’m half tempted by the taser! A few minutes later, a man slips casually in alongside Damien and with a questioning raise of his eyebrow, slides a blister-pack of blue pills out of his right sleeve. Damien smiles a no. The criminal in me wonders what else is for sale here! We wander through the market peering at goods and people watching. Games of chess, dice and dominoes are taking place on the top of stools and upturned cardboard boxes. Bets are made and money changes hands.

Chess and strategy in Ciudad del Este

Chess and strategy in Ciudad del Este

The bags are counterfeit, the mannequins shapely and the black market money changers plentiful. The promised wheelbarrows weave through the stalls. Security men stationed in front of the shops tote semi-automatic rifles. It seems like a place where anything can be bought for the right price. It’s dirty, seedy and thrumming with life.

"Fonda ain't got a motor in the back of her Honda"

“Fonda ain’t got a motor in the back of her Honda”

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