There isn’t much you can’t buy in Ciudad del Este. Three borders meet above one of nature’s most powerful spectacles, Iguazu Falls, itself cutting a crescent through the two most affluent countries in the region. Left out of the party, Paraguay seems to have forged an identity antithetical to its neighbours and whilst it fell short on wealth it far exceeded them on edge and intrigue, at least in that small corner of the world.
When I arrived there I had been on the road for a couple of years already and was again running low on cash. I’d been contacted by a friend from back home asking if I could make them an e-commerce site. For cash. I didn’t know how to and I had no computer, but of course I replied and said yes immediately.
Ciudad del Este is a marketplace town with few rules. I crossed the border into Paraguay from Brazil on a mission to do two things: help buy enough alcohol, cash registers and sound equipment to get my friend’s bar up and running, and to use some of my last remaining cash to buy a laptop I could travel and work with.
Four hours later, after an afternoon sweating and haggling under the subtropical sun, we loaded the car full of our cut-price spoils and set off for the bridge across the border. We knew, as the hundreds of others alongside us did, that it could all be impounded by the Brazilian customs officers.
There are two ways to get goods across the border into Brazil from Paraguay: hide them in your car or wrap them up and float them across the river. Walking through the streets you see bales of consumer goods sandwiched in Styrofoam and swathed in plastic ready for their trip across the 100m wide river. Down on the banks the locals run ropes across the river and keep their eyes peeled for the authorities. High above them, on the white concrete arched bridge, we sat pondering our decision to take the route by car.
Up ahead there was a disarray of vehicles being turfed of people and boxes of all shapes and sizes. Life savings were being gambled and lost; the winners kept their eyes straight and their muscles tensed until they were beyond the bridge and approaching the bar. Our turn came and the seconds turned to minutes as our passports were triple-checked and then accepted, waved forward with thousands of dollars wrapped up in the boot in bottles and electronics.
A hazy night later I took a 36 hour bus back across the border, up towards Bolivia, and began building the World’s worst PHP e-commerce site and a career in Web Development.