Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

Uruguay and Paraguay


I have decided to send you another newsletter so you know what I have been uptown in the last few weeks.

In Buenos Aires, I met up with my Dutch friend Esther, whom I had met originally in Peru. We had kept in touch and were to travel together for the next three weeks. After showing Esther a bit of Buenos Aires we headed off to the town of Colonia in Uruguay. The easiest and pleasantest way to get there is by boat across the Rio Plata. The ferry we went on was very comfortable and the water was as flat as a millpond, it was a lovely day and the three hour crossing was like a cruise.

In Colonia we made enquiries about accommodation suitable to our budget and inclination. This all changed though when we were met at the exit of the port by a little old lady who said she had place for us to day for four US Dollars each a night. We decided to check it out, as the hostel we previously were on our way to was five or six USD a night. We were then met by her husband at their car and driven the five hundred metres or so to the place. It transpired that we were to have a private apartment for that princely sum, with cable TV, kitchen and everything else including breakfast brought to us the following morning.

The town of Colonia is very quaint with lots of old colonial buildings. The odd thing about these buildings is that many of them are a mix between Portuguese and Spanish style and with some you can see where part way through the construction they changed to the other methods (Uruguay changed hands between the Portuguese and Spanish imperial powers several times). Many of the streets in the old town are cobbled and there were beautiful flowers and attractive vintage cars around town. It was a very pleasant day and the waterfront made a pleasant spot for a break and the views from the old lighthouse were very nice too.

In Colonia we at once found that we liked Uruguay, it was inexpensive, the people seemed generally charming and polite and the whole place seemed so effortless. Whenever we wanted something the next shop seemed to sell it, or the first person we asked knew the answer to the question. An example of this was when we came to the country we did not go to any immigration and could not find any evidence in our passports that Uruguayan immigration had even seen them so, whilst waiting for the bus to Montevideo – our next stop – I popped into the port to speak to the immigration officer about what we were sure was our error. We did not want to have problems when leaving the country so wanted to get this resolved. I found his office, went in and actually woke him up from a siesta. I apologised and explained what had happened, he took the passports from me, immediately found the entry stamps and told me all was in order. I apologised for having disturbed him, he replied by telling me to think nothing of it and welcoming me to his country. Apparently when we had been stamped out by Argentine immigration, leaving Buenos Aires an unseen Uruguayan official had stamped us in. That seemed to be the Uruguayan way, seamless efficiency.

In Montevideo, the capital, we walked about a bit along the Rambla (sea front) and through the town, where there are a number of interesting and sometimes quite lovely buildings. The Palacio Salvo http://www.ddbstock.com/largeimage/montevideo.html for a several pictures and of other parts of Montevideo) was built by the Italian immigrant Salvo family in 1925 and is one of the most interesting and attractive skyscrapers I have ever seen. It has a sense of fun in its architecture. It faces the Plaza de Independencia which also has the government building on another side, a much more modest structure. Unfortunately the rest of the buildings around the square are horrendously ugly monoliths. The old town in Montevideo is quite attractive and was pleasant to walk around. When entering the National Bank one is dwarfed by the immense hall into which one walks. We also went to the Government admin building which is the tallest building in the city so gave us a good view. We then got kicked out as we were not supposed to be there in the first place. The Palacio Legislativo is another very impressive building with some fantastic carving and sculptures and statuary. There was a pleasant market and generally a nice laid back feel to the city.

From Montevideo we went to the beach resort town of Punte del Este which was a bit of a ghost town as it is now autumn and very low season. Much of the time though the sun was shining. One day we went to have a picnic on the beach and the high winds were blowing sand all over us but it was fun. A little later we decided to cross the isthmus to the beach on the other side where there was actually more sun and almost no wind. What we had been doing for hours on the other side I don’t know, at the time we had just forgotten to look on the other beach.

After a couple of days in Punte del Este we went back to Montevideo for the night before heading onto Paraguay by bus. In the space of the one bus journey we actually went through four countries. Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and finally arrived in the city of Encarnacion.

Encarnacion itself is not attractive but just an hour or so away is some nice countryside where we went to visit ruins of the Jesuit missions. We first got a bus to the crossroads where we were going to get another bus onto Jesus where the first ruins were. We were approached by a pleasant old man though who offered us his taxi services at what we thought were a fair price. Behind we had seen a thirty year old Opel (also known as Vauxhall or GM) Chevette, presumed that was the vehicle and thought it was just about adequate. Esther and I started to walk towards that car but were then told that was not his taxi. The other car, a very old Peugeot, which we had previously not even noticed thinking it derelict. Our driver was however was very proud of his car telling us it was the car from the films (we did not know what he was talking about and we are pretty sure neither did he). He spoke Spanish slowly and clearly and this it transpired was because he had only learned it later in life. In Paraguay a large proportion of the population only speak the native languages, most predominant of these is Guarani, also an official language in the country. He also kept on saying that the Nicaraguan President had died in this car (apparently something to be pleased about), not really surprising if the man was foolish enough to have gotten into the thing. A head of state really should be more responsible.

When we got to the ruins at Jesus we explored them a bit and appreciated the lovely setting and excellent sunny weather we were having. Then an hour later our driver took us on to the Trinidad ruins. As were going he gave a lift to a boy who seemed genuinely confused as to what Esther and I were doing there in the car. We passed an odd looking fellow walking along the side of the road. Our driver informed us that this man walks fifty kilometres a day. We asked why and he duly responded “because he wants to”. He also told us that the guy is a bit strange and believes that if he ever gets in to a car he will die. We actually thought that very reasonable given our current conveyances lack of so many things we think of as standard such as windows, doors that open, a dashboard, any kind of fascia or trimming covering the interior bodywork.

When we arrived in Trinidad, the custodian asked us what we had paid the taxi driver and thought what we had given was fair. Then joked about what a miracle it was that we had even arrived. The ruins at Trinidad were quite a bit bigger and in some parts more impressive than the others at Jesus, although the setting was not quite as picturesque. After our exploration we headed back to the crossroads where we waited some time for a bus back to Encarnacion.

In Encarnacion we had been told about a Churrasceria by the receptionist at our hotel. When we went it turned out to be unlike the Brazilian Churrasceria, but more a buffet. For about three USD one could eat as much as one liked, there was freshly cooked meats to order, several courses and live music. It was good food and cheap with excellent service. We were getting to like Paraguay too, although part of the charm was definitely its oddness.

We decided to take another day trip from Encarnacion to a town that we heard was nice called San Ignacio Guazu. We got on the bus and informed the ayudante where we were going and asked him to tell us when we were there. A couple of hours later I thought the town we were going through looked like it was probably San Ignacio, the ayudante however looked at us and said nothing so we presumed it wasn’t also because we had not stopped at a bus terminal. Fifteen minutes after we out of the town the ayudante asked us why we had not got off the bus? Lost for a decent answer as he seemed to be oblivious to the fact that he was going to tell us where to get off. We went for a little while longer and were dropped in the village of San Juan to get a bus back to San Ignacio. We had a brief look around the uninteresting village and then waited a while for a bus. Nothing came so we decided to walk a bit and flag the bus down when it passed or hitching, whichever happened first.

After walking for about half an hour we managed to hitch a ride for another five kilometres in the right direction in the back of a pick-up truck. We then walked some more, then carried on walking and did a bit more walking, from there we walked. So far no buses were stopping as the few that had passed were all expresses. We saw a few pretty birds and the scenery was pleasant although far from spectacular. When we passed a builders merchant we decided to ask how far he thought we were still, my estimation had been about eight to ten kilometres still, he told us twenty-five, that did not impress us as we had been walking more than two hours now and it would be dark in an hour and a half. A little further on was a military base and we asked a soldier there (generally quite reliable on distances as they have to march them and shoot things etc.) and he told us it was about two hours on foot. This tied in with my previous estimates, so off we trudged. As we were walking I was trying to help improve Esther’s command of English, particularly the colloquial bits and we then progressed on effective swearing. During this language tuition a bus finally pulled over, the ayudante stuck his head through the window (it had previously been opened) and asked us where we were going and when we said San Ignacio he nodded his head and they drove off without giving us a chance to say anything about it. This gave Esther a chance to practice some of the words I had just been teaching her and the two of us made a chorus that would have made a sailor blush. Another short while further on with no sign of the town we managed to flag down another pick-up truck for a lift and because of the complete lack of buses we had seen, we decided to chance our luck hitching all the way back to Encarnacion, also we just didn’t care anymore about San Ignacio Guazu, despite the amusing name. The occupants were a little surprised how far we wanted to go, but said we could, although there was only room in the back. We climbed over the various thing there and tried to make ourselves at home on the mattress in the back. The sun was still shining although waning, the wind chill though in the back of that pick-up was already astonishingly cold and when the sun finally disappeared we were absolutely freezing in the back. Huddled up on the mattress with a blanket I had found amongst the personal goods of the guys sitting comfortably up front (it was on top of things, I had not been rummaging), we could ourselves a tiny bit from the cold. When we finally arrived in Encarnacion a couple of hours later we were glad to walk a bit to relieve the cramps and cold and both looked forward to a well needed hot shower. We went back to the Churrasceria for dinner, this time we arrived when there were only a few customers and three minutes later we were on our own, with seating for more than three hundred. We had waiters hovering at all points ready to give us clean plates whenever they could, top up our beer, it was a bit embarrassing but the food was still good and cheap.

The following day we decided that we were done with Encarnacion and so headed onto Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. We arrived at night and found another Churrasceria, a little more expensive but better quality too.

The next day we decided to look around town. Asuncion is an odd place, with extreme affluence literally next door to abject poverty. The Palacio Legislativo, the seat of Congress is housed in a glittering new fancy building with the Presidential Palace next door. Literally twenty metres away is a shanty town squeezed in by the river bank. There we met an old lady digging up wild plants from around a monument of some national hero on horseback as apparently the roots are good for her stomach ailment. She warned us against thieves and cut throats and went back to looking for more plants. In the river ship is moored from the Paraguayan navy.

For those of you with a limited knowledge of South American geography, Paraguay is landlocked, it has no sea, nothing really to occupy a navy except a some rivers, that is what Paraguay is like. After all this was the country (or actually Solarno Lopez, the mad dictator in charge) that in a bout of megalomania decided to declare war on Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay at the same time. Previously Paraguay had been the most developed country in South America. They had been fighting at a ratio of ten to one against them and in the latter stages the majority of the soldiers were twelve year old boys, the adult males all dead already. After this war (known as the war of the Triple Alliance) the country had effectively been sent back to medieval times but the dictatorships continued, after all there was no-one to mount a successful rebellion. Much of what was then the case one hundred years ago had only changed slightly.

Whilst we were looking at some monuments in front of the old Palacio Congresso we got chatting with Yorkhand a local guy. He told us what the monuments were to some youths who had been shot in front of the Palacio just in 1999, five years ago. This prompted a coup, laughable for its simplicity. Ten soldiers and two tanks drove up in front of the Palacio Congresso, whilst the government were all inside and threatened to blow it up with them inside unless they leave permanently. They left. Things however didn’t really change, new face same tricks. Whilst we were chatting with Yorkhand three travellers walked past. One of them I sort of glanced and he looked vaguely familiar. Thirty seconds Rudy was back and asked “Raph?”

I had met Dale (from England) in a pub in Kathmandu, Nepal nearly four years ago and he had introduced me to his Swiss friend Rudy. Dale and I travelled together for a week or so in Nepal and then he had to get back home as he was out of money. I then bumped into Rudy a few days later and we ended up having a good time partying in Kathmandu together. He actually missed three buses and had to buy a new ticket, each time because of our good times. It was Dale and Rudy who had just walked past with a girl, Cat, they had just met a couple of days earlier and who was leaving that evening. It was a little surprising to see them here of all places and we spent the rest of the day catching up and chatting over a few beers and dinner as they were leaving the next day. It was nice to see them and despite the four year hiatus, conversation continued pretty much from where it had last left off.

Another interesting landmark in town is the Plaza de Los Heroes it has a nice small craft market and also a Pantheon dedicated to the people fallen fighting for Paraguay. It is also where the first few presidents are interred. The changing of the guard there was quite a casual affair with the pretence of formality. The good thing was that the soldiers were wearing funny costumes. This actually changed on a daily basis, some days there were representatives from one branch of the services and then another day there were others. None however had quite as amusing costumes as the first ones we saw.

A day trip we took from Asuncion was to go see Itagua, where they produce a very distinctive “spiders-web” lace. When we got there the village was far from interesting but the lace was very interesting. WE continued a bit further from Asuncion to the village of Caacupe where they have recently built a huge basilica and are still making some of the accoutrements to furnish it. There was an artisan part way through carving the marble altar whilst we were there. One can climb to the top of the Basilica and there are nice views of the surrounding area. On the bus back to Asuncion there was a fabulous sunset that seemed to last forever.

Another day trip we took from Asuncion was to the Maka Reservation. These Indigenous people live in abject poverty on a small bit of land assigned to them near Asuncion. When we got there one guy assigned himself to us as guide and showed us around a bit. We were fortunate that we had arrived on a birthday, for what or whom we couldn’t establish, the point being there was general fun being had as a result. We bought a few bits of handicrafts from the women, most of whom could not it seemed, speak Spanish. Then we went to see the party. There were several distinct groups. There was a group of middle-aged women playing volleyball in one spot and younger ones doing so in another area. It looked quite picturesque in their traditional skirts (that look similar to Sarongs). There was a group of men gambling in a game that involves four sticks in each mans hand and two teams. The teams compete each other for points and thereby money. The points are arrived at by the way the sticks fall when the man slaps them to the floor. Each stick has a dark side and a light side. I did not manage to entirely understand the scoring system, but the game is played with great gusto. The men playing it were generally quite old and had large grommets in their earlobes. There was another group of men playing drums and singing traditional music. When we went to see the women cooking there were half a dozen stood in a line chanting and jumping rhythmically with long staffs in their hands that they seemed to be keeping time with, thumping them on the ground. The kids were running around and generally asking to have their picture taken. The whole thing was interesting and fun to see. There is no question that they were not putting on any kind of show for us, there were after all no other tourists, nor are they visited much, also they had no forewarning of our coming.

When walking through town the following day, the streets were entirely empty. I asked a serviceman who seemed on guard what was going on, it transpired that as it was May 1st it was workers day and so the people were protesting against a number of things and that was why there was a high military presence. When I said to the man “so that is why the army is here?”, he proudly corrected me, pointing to his badge that actually he was a sailor in the navy. I decided now was not a good time to point out that it was ridiculous to have a navy in a landlocked country. He had a big gun and I didn’t want to get a look down the business end of it because I had upset him. Further along we saw several Maka selling handicrafts on the streets, they acknowledged us and one in particular was telling us proudly he had seen us in his village and that, that day there was another party if we wanted to go see it, we didn’t go as we had a train to catch.

The train we were to get is an old steam train and I had been recommended to take the train by my friend Andrew (who is quite a train aficionado). The train ride was very short through the outskirts of town to the station there, where we were entertained by a magician and guitarists. Then we headed back. On board there were several performers role playing the disgruntled aristocrat, belligerent peasant etc. It was catering much more for children although the music was very pleasant. Late that evening we got a night bus to leave Asuncion and Paraguay to Brazil, more specifically Foz de Iguacu next to the world famous falls.

I had been to Iguacu a couple of years previously, however the falls are incredibly beautiful, majestic and powerful so it was a pleasure to see them again. Firstly we went to the Argentine side (the border between Argentina and Brazil runs down the middle of the Iguacu river). We had a very good day, with fine weather and as we had arrived early almost directly from the bus, we were amongst the first there and we were actually the last to leave. Some of the time we spent in a secret location where although not allowed to go there, there is a beautiful spot with part of the falls pouring into pools where we went swimming and generally lazed for a little while. We were completely isolated from the rest of the world and in effect had our own private falls about one hundred metres wide or more, with a couple of smaller separate falls, under which we showered.

The next day the weather was horrendous it poured torrentially and we got soaked looking at the falls from the Brazilian side. It meant however that the water volume was even greater than its normally gargantuan levels.

The day after Esther and I parted company as I left back to Buenos Aires and she headed on through Brazil.

In Buenos Aires I had a few bits to sort out and also to see my friend Mauro, whom I was unlikely to see again for some time. From Buenos Aires I then headed to Mendoza a pleasant city in the foothills of the Andes. The city has some attractive plazas and parks, as well as some nice looking buildings.

Tomorrow I am going to go to Santiago de Chile, just a short hop over the other side of the Andes. There I have friends to catch up with before meeting my friend Micha who is coming out from Holland and I will be meeting in the north of Chile on Tuesday.

So now that you are fully appraised of what I have been doing I leave you again with best wishes.



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