Have you ever been to Paraguay? Not many tourists have, I suspect.
The eastern most city in Paraguay is Ciudad del Este, which sits on the border between Brazil and Argentina. Ciudad del Este is known mostly as a shopping centre. Brazilians and Argentines make shopping day trips from over the border.
Ciudad del Este is a labyrinth of shopping chaos.
I arrived over the border from Argentina into shopping mayhem. Buses, people and stuff was everywhere. My plan after elbowing my way to a hotel was to somehow get to the Itaipu dam. Built in the 1980’s at incredible environmental cost, it was allegedly possible to visit the dam on a local bus.
I arrived at the bus departure point onto a street rammed with randomly lettered buses.
Buses in most South American cities often do not contain place names, and will just display a single letter or number in the front window. There is no information, no maps, and certainly no timetables. I would later learn that all buses eventually go everywhere if you stay on for long enough.
I began to flag down random buses. “Vas a Itaipu?” I asked. (Are you going to Itaipu?) Bus driver after bus driver simply looked at me blankly. There were thousands of people in Ciudad del Este, and every one of them seemed to know where they were going except me.
Next I began to stop people on the street. I thought, given my primitive Spanish, that I had figured out how to ask the right question. I stopped perhaps 20 people, and asked “conoces donde sale el autobus para Itaipu?” (Do you know from where the bus to Itaipu leaves?)
Blank face after blank face. Dejected, I started the short walk back to the hotel. Just before I turned off the street I stopped one final man. The man’s brow furrowed for a moment as I repeated the work ‘Itaipu’.
“Ah”, he said, “ItaipU!”
“Si, IpaipU!” I said. With a minor pronunciation difference that was what I had been saying the whole damn time. Excitedly the man pointed down the road to a point not 50 yards from where I had started. “Autobus E”, he revealed to me.
Eventually I borded Autobus E, and did indeed make it to the dam. All I can tell you seven years on is that it was big.
Now you would expect, me having gone to all that trouble to uncover the identity of Autobus E and all, that Autobus E going the other way would simply drop me off where I got on.
You would think that, and you would be wrong.
I got back on Autobus E, and after 20 minutes we stopped at a busy bus terminal. I had no idea where I was. Everybody got off and the driver stopped the engine. I studied the tiny map in my Footprint guide, and decided I was lost.
A number of motorcycle taxis were parked near the terminal. I approached clutching my Footprint map which showed the location of my hotel. The bike riders took turns to look at my map. A few spun it round in their hands. Not only did the people of Paraguay speak a weird pidgin Spanish, I would later learn, but nobody seemed to have ever seen a map before.
Eventually one of the riders gestured to get on. “Vamos gringo!” he said encouragingly. Tentatively I climbed on the back of the bike.
It turned out he had no idea where I wanted to go. We rode around Ciudad del Este for a while he asked his buddies if any of them could read a map, and if anyone knew the mysterious location of my hotel.
I did get back, in the end. Which is just as well because today’s plot archetype is ‘voyage and return’.
Classic voyage and return stories include Alice in Wonderland, Back to the Future, Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz.
The destination in a voyage and return is usually of only marginal importance. The voyage and return plot about is the experience the main character gains from the ordeals of return.
In many voyage and return stories the voyage is set out upon by accident. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Lucy accidentally wanders through the back of her wardrobe to discover Narnia. Dorothy has her house blown away by a tornado in the Wizard of Oz. Marty McFly inadvertently winds up in 1955 in Back to the Future.
I thought I was going to take a simple bus ride to walk round a boring and over-sized component of the Brazilian power grid.
In every Voyage and Return story the real challenge is getting back. It is the experience of getting back which provides the story with its learning outcome.
I have used a physical journey here for ease of illustration, but the voyage and return plot could equally be a journey into a market.
Has there ever been a time when you accidentally got in to a market, perhaps against your better judgement, and had to work hard to get back to your core business? That’s voyage and return.
Have you ever opened up shop in a location that in hindsight was never appropriate?
Rather like The Quest I think voyage and return has limited or occasional utility in business use. You might have one voyage and return story at the core of your narrative.
Still, it is a useful and engaging plot to be aware of.