I think it was around 3:30 am as we turned into a parking lot in some godforsaken place in the middle of Paraguay when I realized it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11. That morning ten years ago, I was having breakfast with the president of one of the world’s largest public relations firms and I replayed the day in my mind. I wanted to forge a business relationship with his firm and I think he was there out of curiosity as his agency had recently lost a competition for an agency search I conducted for a client.
Ironically, we were in a restaurant called An American Place at Lexington and 51st, now no longer there, and had just begun our breakfast when we noticed people gathering around the TV at the bar. We asked the waitress what was going on and she told us a plane had hit the World Trade Center. So we got up and went to the bar to watch. I think only the first jet had hit at that point. Like everyone there, we were stunned but went back to our table not quite sure what to do. It may have been that the second plane then flew into the towers or something hit us that the country was under attack. Uncertain of what to do, we got up, talked about calling our families and then parted. I think Andy went back to his office as one of the airlines involved was a client. I realize now that I don’t know what the rest of his day was like.
I was working out of my home office at that time having recently moved to New York, so I returned to my apartment on 43rd and 1st and, like millions of people around the globe, stayed glued to the TV for the next several days. Much of it is a blur now but an image that will always be etched in my memory is waking up the following day and seeing snow outside my window. When I went up to the glass to look, I realized that what looked like snow falling was actually ash. I still shudder at the thought.
Ten years later, I was sitting in the back seat of a Toyota, somewhere in Paraguay, trying to sleep with little success. In the front seat was a Paraguayan woman, 8½ months pregnant, reclining, sound asleep and next to her, her snoring husband in the driver’s seat. I was wired from a day of coffee and soda so sleeping was out of the question. I wanted to get out and take a walk but we were parked near a police checkpoint and I didn’t want to raise anyone’s suspicion. I was there illegally.
It wasn’t meant to be that way. I had been invited to be one of the keynote speakers at a prestigious business conference in Asunción, the country’s capitol. I had been to Chile and Argentina many times but never to Paraguay and my image of the country was outdated and based on what I knew about a former dictator who was openly sympathetic to Nazis and stories of trading in contraband. So I was curious and had been offered a reasonable fee to speak about branding.
The trip seemed uneventful at the beginning. Business class on Tam Linhas from New York to Sao Paulo and then I’d get my connection to Asunción. I left New York on the 9th so I’d get two days to see the city and form some current perceptions of Paraguay. Everything went the way you’d want it to go on an international trip until I went to board my flight to Asunción. I was asked for my visa.
“What visa?” I replied.
“You need a visa to enter Paraguay.” a surprised gate agent told me. “You can’t board this flight.”
No one had said anything to me about a visa. Not the conference organizers, not the Paraguayan travel agency that booked my flights and not the speaker’s bureau in Chile that arranged for me to speak and negotiated my fee. Nadie. Nada.
Within a few minutes I was approached by the airline’s security officer who explained the visa requirement to me again and then told me that they were going to put me on a flight back to New York that was leaving in a few hours. While he escorted me to the business class lounge, I negotiated with him to have four hours to figure things out. If I couldn’t get to Paraguay, I’d go directly to Chile where I had meetings scheduled the next week.
Once settled in the lounge, I began to email, text and call furiously to the event organizers, travel agent, speakers bureau and my wife. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about the Visa requirement? How are you going to get me into Paraguay, now that I’m stuck in Sao Paulo with a visa? If I don’t hear from you in three hours, I’m going to Chile instead.”
Within my three-hour time limit, I received instructions from the event organizers that they had bought me a ticket to Buenos Aires and then another one from Buenos Aires to a town called Posadas on the Argentine-Paraguay border. They told me I would be met there and driven to Asunción.
With my spirit of adventure in tow, I followed the instructions arriving in Posadas at close to 10pm that night. I knew nothing about Posadas except where it was located. The airport reminded me of other small towns around the world – two gates and served by only one airline. It was, as the saying goes, not the end of the earth but you could see it from there. Not only was there little activity, but neither my suitcase nor ride were there to meet me. So here I was, in the middle of nowhere, Argentina, no luggage and no ride.
I went to the airline desk to find my bag and after the desk agent made some calls, he informed me that my bag was in Buenos Aires and he could have it in Posadas the next night at 10pm. I asked how far it was from Posadas to Asunción and after checking with his friend in the back office, he told me five hours by car.
“¿Qué? Cinco horas! ¿Cómo peudo reciber mi equipaje cuando estoy en Asucncion?”, I pieced together with my fledgling Spanish. Not that he needed to come up with any ideas as my whereabouts wasn’t his problem, he kindly informed me that there was a flight to Ausunción at the same time the next night and he could have my bag sent there. Yes! One problem solved, assuming it was, in fact, my bag that he found in Buenos Aires. I hadn’t seen it since I dropped it off at the departure counter in New York.
Now, for my ride. It was 10:30 and after solving my luggage problem, the desk manager said, “Señor, tenemos que cerrar el aeropuerto. No hay más vuelos esta noche y queremos ir a nuestras casas.”
My ride had not shown up yet, so again, I began to text, email and call furiously but typical of many small towns, cell connections weren’t great. Then, I noticed one more problem. My cell phone battery was getting low. They were turning off the lights in the airport and the three or four staff that were there were looking at me sympathetically and sadly but not with any ideas.
I walked out in front of the airport. There was one cab there, still hopeful that maybe he’d get me as a fare to somewhere; perhaps to my long lost Argentine cousin or to some wealthy benefactors with a large estancia on the border? If I was going anywhere in a cab, it would be to the nearest hotel where I would spend the night and get myself to Chile the next day. Then, I finally got a text from the people coming to get me, “We are late, the traffic has been bad but we’ll be there soon.”
I decided to trust the text not really knowing who it came from, waved the cab driver off, watched the airport staff close and lock the airport doors and head off to their cars to go home. They waved as they went by with an enthusiastic “Buena Suerte!” I looked around and saw there were no benches so I sat down on the curb and waited. The thought occurred to me as I looked around and saw only some distant headlights that I might spend the night there, wherever there was.
About thirty minutes later, a car drove up and a very pregnant woman and her husband got out. They introduced themselves as Karin and Diosnel and apologized profusely but said the traffic from Asunción had been terrible and the drive took seven hours. I looked at my watch and grimaced with the thought that the return trip is going to put me in bed around 5:30 the next morning. Well, it’s off to Asunción we go.
It took about a half-hour to get to the border and I was beginning to wonder how we’re going to get me across without a visa. The only thing my drivers could tell me in a tentative voice was, “We’ll figure it out when we get there.” It was about at this point that my phone began to receive automatic texts from ESPN telling me every time there was a score in the Michigan – Notre Dame football game. The game was going back and forth and was a high scoring affair so it was really running my phone battery down with each text, but being a Michigan alum, I couldn’t stand the idea of turning it off.
Argentina and Paraguay are separated by the Parana River, second largest in South America after the Amazon, with customs checkpoints on either side of the bridge. There was long line of cars waiting to cross into Paraguay, probably Saturday night revelers returning home from the high life in Posadas. When we got to the first checkpoint, the Argentine customs agent asked for our passports. He looked at them in a rush, stamped them all and waved us through. Now, for the hard part I thought, entering Paraguay with no visa. My phone sounded a text announcing that Michigan had scored again to take the lead. I envisioned myself spending the night in a Paraguayan jail, hungry, lonely but knowing the score in the game. But when we got to the other side, the border police simply waved us through.
“Easy peasy!” Diosnel exalted, and then, “I’m hungry.” Personally, I wanted to just get on the road and get to Asunción as soon as possible, ever hopeful that a five to seven hour drive was a bit of hyperbole. But Diosnel was hungry and we drove through Encarnación, a ramshackle Paraguayan border town. I hadn’t seen much of Posadas on the Argentine side but after a few minutes driving through Encarnación, I could imagine that a Saturday night in Argentina could be quite alluring. After a few minutes, we pulled up next to an Italian restaurant. Is there anywhere in the world where there isn’t an Italian restaurant? And no different than at hundreds of other similar restaurants in small American towns, the food was lackluster but the beer was spectacular. It was called Baviera and, maybe it was the late hour and my weary day, but I could have been in Munich as I drank that beer. Then I remembered what I had known about Paraguay as a haven for ex-Nazis and great beer in Paraguay made sense. What else do you do if you’re an ex-Nazi in hiding?
When we left the restaurant and got back on the road, I looked at my watch and saw that it was 1:00 am. The memory of the beer quickly faded and I prepared myself for a long drive to Asunción. It also occurred to me that Diosnel had driven seven hours to get me and so far, another hour on the way back. How was this guy going to stay awake to get us back?
It was a bright, moonlit night and as the small-city lights of Encarnación faded, we drove past what looked like fields dotted with palm trees – probably quite beautiful in daylight. I tried to sleep but had consumed too much caffeine during the day and the monotony of the drive began to wear on. That’s when we turned off the road so Diosnel could take a nap. I looked at my watch and realized that it was 9/11. What were the terrorists doing ten years ago? Waking up? Bathing and shaving all the hair off their bodies? Preparing for their day of infamy and promised meeting with 72 virgins?
When I was growing up, I knew that places like Paraguay existed. I had geography in elementary school and loved it. I used to play a word game with my father. He would name a place in the world and I would have to name another that began with the last letter of the place he named. Then it would be his turn. I never tired of it and it was how I learned about the world. How else would I know about the Sea of Okhotsk or the Pirana River if my father hadn’t pulled those answers out when I thought I had him finished with no more places beginning with S or P left in the world?
I replayed the day as Diosnel and Karin slept and while I was angry that I had gotten into this situation, I was appreciative of their effort and that I could still travel to places like this ten years after an event that would change us forever. I think I was doing what you’re supposed to do at times like that – remember and appreciate – so perhaps, the fact that I was doing that in a parking lot in the middle of Paraguay was okay. Technically, I had been smuggled into the country. Unsure of what the rest of the trip was going to be like or how I’d get out legally was yet to be encountered. However, I think I gained a certain perspective on the world that day and the one I had ten years before.
In my next post, I’ll complete the story about the conference and getting out of the country. When I asked Karin during the drive to Asunción, she said, “There may be a bribe involved.” Not what I wanted to hear.