“we are travelers, nothing more”

My friend Dre used this line to ward off solicitors when I went to visit her in Buenos Aires, and it stuck with me. When you think about it, it’s sort of a strange way to express disinterest. I’m a traveler, I am smaller than this place – and for now, I’d like to stay that way. But it makes visceral sense.

I only bring this up now, at the beginning of the anticipated Iguazu post, because in going through these photos I have found that I have a bit of a problem: scale. The events of this documented weekend exist on an scale that is completely undocumentable by visual medium, and nearly as elusive in words. The best way to begin to describe everything I saw last weekend is to tell you that, more than ever, I felt like a traveler in this world – nothing more.

It is a five hour drive from Asuncion to Ciudad del Este, a city on the tri-border of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. The city is infamous for a hundred reasons – most of them having to do with or spawning from its geographic position and serious lack of border control. But as we found out, it’s really not as dangerous as people from other countries would have you believe. Keep your nose clean and you’ll be fine.

The first locale to discuss that defies the bounds of scale is the market in Ciudad del Este, where we spent Friday afternoon. They say it is the second largest “black market” in the world, although they use the term as if it refers to the magnitude of the physical place. What they mean is that any sort of bootlegged Chinese electronics, designer clothes, watches, sunglasses, instruments, knickknack, widget, or thingy your little heart desires can be found buried somewhere in the endless expanse of tables, tents, makeshift storefronts, and pushcarts. It is entirely overwhelming. On a good day I look like an Argentine and sound (in very, very short interactions) like a Paraguayan, so I wasn’t hassled at all. My blond-haired, blue-eyed, Lacoste-clad, fanny-pack sporting companions, on the other hand, could not walk two steps without having a two different perfumes thrust at them or a pair of Niekes (sic) dangled in front of their faces. I don’t know how they survived.

That night, we reserved places to see what was described to us as the “light show” at the Itaipu Hydroelectric Plant. Here is the second event that defies the bounds of describable scale. Approaching Itaipu is daunting. As a security measure, you have to park several kilometers away at the visitor’s center, and ride an official bus to the actual dam. As we approached through the dark, my mind went into a mode of free-association. First I thought of Howard Roark, then of the modernists, then on Eisenhower and his military-industrial complex. Gradually fields of power transformers and towers, and all varieties of nameless high-tension equipment began to surround us. “your machinery is too much for me.”

The busses finally reached a platform, and we were allowed to disembark and gather around a railing, our eyes straining to see that which loomed off in the distance. Barely visible by the moon was the Itaipu Hydroelectric Plant – clean, ordered, intimidating and permanent. Perhaps because it was dark it was easier to feel the magnitude of the monolith. Seven kilometers long, generating 95% of Paraguay’s electricity and over 20% of Brazil’s (Paraguay’s primary export is electricity), it is the second largest dam in the world by physical size, and largest by potential energy.

The light show was sparse. There were no lasers, no strobes or fireworks. They literally just turned the lights on to illuminate the damn. But I can’t describe how powerful it was.

It was an incredibly honest affair. There was no need to dress it up or add flare, the dam itself is stunning. It is paralyzingly immense. It is, or at least appears to be, a perfectly efficient, seamless machine, and it just sits there, quietly modest, but completely unapologetic.

The next day we went to Iguazu. The Falls are literally on the tri-border, so Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil all have a slice (and true to Paraguayan form, my new friend Cinthia informed me that before the War, it all belonged to Paraguay). We opted for the Brazilian side, being the most well-organized, maintained, and (although can’t imagine it would matter in the end) beautiful.

Crossing the border from Ciudad del Este to Foz in Brazil was complete and utter chaos. Again, my words and photographs fall short of the complete disarray that is this border on a Saturday morning. Since a river runs between the two cities, the checkpoint is on a bridge. One might think to oneself “oh, a bridge. that seems like an easy enough bottleneck to control.” In fact, one would be wrong. Car and bus traffic gridlocks in both directions by 7am every day except sunday. Cars move a meter every 5 minutes if they are lucky. Pedestrians stream through traffic, over the sidewalk, everywhere. It is an un-contained river of humanity in both directions. Easily 99% of people cross the border without once showing identification, making contact with border or immigration police, or even breaking stride.

The national park is an easy bus ride from a point just past the border. The set-up of the park is actually pretty fascinating, and maybe something to discuss in more depth later. But basically, the federal government owns the park, you pay an admission fee which gets you a guide, and then the guide takes you around to 5 or 10 different private touring companies operating independently within the park which subsequently charge you for different sorts of adventure tours, boat rides, or the like. We opted for the free nature trail. Our guide was displeased – she gets commissions on anybody she brings to the adventure tours.

The trail is very relaxing. It follows the river up to the falls, so you hear it long before you see it, and the anticipations builds. At this point I am obliged to let you in on one of the more charming details of the park.

These animals are everywhere. I cannot remember their name – something in guarani. But they are everywhere. They are fearless, they are deceptively adorable, and they are gigantic. For real – like large, very dense cats. They live on food that they steel from tourist. You cannot sit down at a table to eat your french fries, for example. They will jump onto the table en mass, ravage your food, and be on their way to the lap of the next hapless diner. One of my friends was carrying a back of picnic foods, walking down a set of steps on the trail, when one of these creatures bolted down the steps from behind us, launched itself into the bag, and began flopping like a fish out of water. Said friend shrieked like a twelve-year-old and dropped the bag on the ground. Within three seconds an army of these creatures had descended upon it, and in three more seconds everything was gone. Everything. Even the turkey, which is disconcerting, because if they will eat cooked meat, what’s to say they won’t make the leap to human flesh. I digress. And shiver.

At this point I feel as though I am stalling, because I am not really sure how to begin talking about the falls themselves. So I guess I’ll start with a picture and work from there.

This is the first vista you see of the falls, and these aren’t even the falls, they are the small post-falls. Again we have a problem of scale. To use concrete terms, that stuff that looks like moss at the top and base of the waterfall is a forest full of full-sized trees.

The falls are both enormous and beautiful to a degree that I can hardly begin to describe. Whereas Paraguay proudly damed and contained the river at Itaipu, the construction of the park is decidedly around the falls. It is unstoppable. In hundreds of different places, oceans of water rushes off cliffs and plummet into lush tropical forest.

The falls are so intense that, on a sunny day, the rising mist imagines rainbows wrapped around everything.

You can walk out on a platform between two levels of the falls, standing at the foot of one and looking over the edge of another. I was soaked with mist and felt, more than I ever have, tiny and insignificant – but in the most absolutely refreshing way.

Taken from the platform, this picture doesn’t capture the extent of the rainbow. It springs from the base of the waterfall and plants itself once more in the top, spanning 270 degrees of a circle. Imagining the ground we stood on to be the very face of mother earth, this was her psychedelic lip-ring.

Below is a picture of me and Cinthia, an incredibly interesting young woman who works at the Ciudad del Este branch of the Foundacion Paraguaya and who agreed to show us around a little bit. We spent quite a lot of time talking, mostly about Spanish literature, and I silently thanked Profesora Throop for exposing me to that which would be necessary for us to break the ice with people such as Cinthia. Although worth pointing out – the rainbow makes this shot look a lot more romantic than it should. Also, as you can tell by my face, Paraguayans don’t count to 3 when they take pictures.

The sun began to set, as it is wont to do. It is a subtle but nevertheless powerful transition. Nothing changes about the falls themselves, but at the same time, it is entirely different. The rainbows gradually fade, and as the sun sets across the river from the falls, it is no longer refracted in the mist, but rather somehow captured in it, and the world turns to gold. It is not quieter, per se, but a day of exposure acclimates you to the sound of rushing water, and it becomes a comfortable and familiar part of the ambiance.

Here again, I find, no words or pictures which could do justice to this place. I have said before that, while I am not a religious man, I have found it impossible to talk about the Falls at Iguazu without referencing the divine – so I will leave you with this:

The epicenter of the falls is called “Garganta del Diablo” – Throat of the Devil. To approach the falls under rainbows in the day and leave them wrapped in gold in the evening is to be certain that the Devil knows nothing of this place.