RAT-A-TAT-TAT! A skinny guy raps hard and fast on the outside of the taxi window to get my attention.
Not an easy thing: It’s cacophony city here, in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, a Wild West town that straddles the borders of three South American nations. The skyline is the color of dust, and we’re mired in a traffic sludge of trucks, cars, and people. Cart-pushing pedestrians yell “Watch out!” in Spanish and Portuguese as they weave through the crowds, balancing teetering towers of boxed cigarettes and cases of whiskey and beer like acrobats.
Ciudad del Este is one of the world’s most notorious smuggling hubs. It also happens to be just a few miles from one of the hemisphere’s most jaw-dropping attractions, the reason I have come to this part of the world: Iguazú Falls.
After two days of tromping, spray-soaked, around the edges of cliffs thundering with white water, however, I’d become itchy for a different kind of adventure. So I set out from Argentina’s side of the falls at 8 a.m. in a taxi, passed briefly through Brazil (where at 8:30 a.m. there wasn’t a soul to check my visa), then crossed a short bridge into Paraguay, where I was only a little surprised to encounter no immigration check.
At first I don’t see what the skinny guy is trying to sell; I figure it’s the usual stuff offered in traffic jams around the world — a cold bottle of water, fruit, a newspaper. But then he smiles at me, gap-toothed, and holds up his offering for my inspection: a fire extinguisher.
Huh? “It fell off the back of a truck, of course, and it’s probably empty,” snorts Pablo, the beefy taxi driver I hired in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina, to take me on this three-nations-in-one-morning loop. “Todo lo que quiera — anything you want, and lots of things you don’t want, you can find for sale in this town,” he says.
I may be the only person crossing the border into Ciudad del Este who isn’t here to buy or sell stuff on the sly. Instead, I’m chasing something else: the fun of lowbrow travel.
Our travel wish lists generally begin with the highbrow — places and things considered beautiful. We steer toward destinations that promise sublime sights. In places where beauty is negligible, we dig to find the gems: a neighborhood of traditional shopkeepers, artisans, and hand-built houses, or a culture that has finely tuned aesthetics in clothing, dance, religion, or cuisine.
Eventually, saturation sets in. I’ve found that if I experience too much of the staggeringly stunning, my threshold for awesome goes up and up until the inevitable happens: I lose all ability to really see it. (My shorthand label for this moment is: Angkor Wat, day four.) When that burnout sets in, I know it’s time to take a break and head for the less refined side of the place I’m in.
When the going gets tough, the tough go looking for a karaoke bar. In Vegas. Or, even better — Macau, Las Vegas’s Asian cousin, where high rollers glug tea instead of beer and pop coins into beeping slots emblazoned with local themes such as “Enter the Dragon.”
I live in nearby Hong Kong, so when a friend visited some years ago, I played tour guide and dragged her through the highlights of Macau’s World Heritage circuit of colonial Portuguese architecture: hilltop mansions, 17th-century fortresses, cobblestoned streets. Finally, caked with sweat and grime, we hit our travel wall. Our next stop? The air-conditioned splendor of Macau’s Grand Lisboa Casino.
We slipped, unnoticed, into a smoke-filled back room of baccarat players. The gray-blue fog wasn’t thick enough to veil the angry red scar on the cheek of a man at the table. Yelling out in Cantonese to the female dealer, he defiantly bent back the corner of his turned-down card.
“You’re bad,” the dealer cooed, trying to dissipate the tension. Then backup arrived: A pool of security guys rushed in, and for a moment I felt I’d entered a classic Chow Yun-Fat gangster movie.When my friend and I reminisce about our trip to Macau, it’s not the World Heritage architecture we talk about; it’s the tension of that moment, the slap of the cards on the table, the guy with the scar.
That’s the thing about lowbrow travel. When I first veered from the highbrow path, I was looking for diversion, a break from visual overload. And, I admit, for the subversive thrill of going where a traveler wasn’t “supposed” to go.
Yet I discovered so much more when I wandered neon-bright lanes in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, where young women in pink wigs and nurse uniforms giggled through megaphones at tipsy businessmen, and stopped in the Bangkok bar where a Thai “ladyboy” in flawless black eyeliner crooned love songs.
The best travel happens when you open yourself to all human experience and activity, not just the “beautiful.” Sometimes the lowbrow end of the spectrum is where your best travel memories are waiting.
The vendor won’t give up: He keeps rapping on the taxi window and waving the red cylinder at me. Pablo shouts at him in Spanish. “Listen, this lady didn’t come from America to buy a maldito fire extinguisher.” No, I didn’t. I came to visit the certifiably beautiful Iguazú Falls. But later, and forever, when I tell the story of this trip, I will begin it here, in Ciudad del Este.