Investigations in South America’s steamy centre.
Paraguay is separated from Brazil by South America’s second longest river, the Rio Parana. Heading west from Foz do Iguacu, the Friendship Bridge delivers you across the Parana and into the bustling mayhem of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s second largest city and perhaps the smuggling capital of South America.
Thousands of Brazilians cross the border daily to buy imported goods to smuggle back to their own country. As I weaved the bicycle amongst buses, motorbikes and pedestrians, the bustle of Avenida San Blas was immediately overwhelming. Stalls line the sidewalks and spill into the street, fake sunglasses and perfumes are everywhere, men shout “cambio cambio CAMBIO” and huge malls sell every type of electronic good.
I cambio’d some dollars into Paraguayan Guarani and was glad to continue cycling westward, away from the mayhem.
Although the heat was just as oppressive as in Brazil, subtle changes were noticeable soon after crossing into Paraguay. Cows and chickens freely wander on the side of road in great numbers, some buildings were in disrepair and there is dust absolutely everywhere. I was soon laminated in a sheen of sweat and dust, finding only temporary relief in roadside ice cream vendors.
Clemency from the sun finally arrived in Yguasu Reservoir and I swam in the warm waters as the sky turned red and cane toads looked on.
The road to Asuncion rolled up and down through steamy green countryside and a permanent haze hung in the air. Vendors on the side of the road sell herbs for Tereré, Paraguay’s ubiquitous refreshment. In other countries of the Southern Cone, Mate is usually drunk with hot water but the practical Paraguayans have realised that iced water is a much better alternative in this climate.
Perhaps because this route is less popular amongst cyclists in South America, I received a lot of attention in small towns and on the road. Police stopped me for handshakes and smiles, a store owner arranged me for a photograph for his Facebook page and resting truck drivers sat and shot the breeze.
One day, in what could fairly be described as the middle of nowhere, I brought the bicycle to a halt in front of a sign large sign that read ‘Bienvenidos a Nueva Australia’.
I was aware that Jesuits, various Nazis, the Japanese, Mennonites and many others had called Paraguay home over the centuries, but surely not Ol’ Skip.
It turns out that in 1892, a breakaway group from the Australian Labour movement was formed to create a socialist community outside of Australia. In 1893, over 200 Australians began new lives in the steamy green heart of South America, with various goals of communism, socialism, abstinence from alcohol and the great Anglo-Australian tradition of ‘keeping it white’.
The colony quickly fell into crisis (perhaps due to the prohibition of alcohol) and was eventually disbanded. Some colonists stayed in Paraguay, others returned to Australia or England and Mary Gilmore found her way onto the $10 note.
The approach to Asuncion was unlike any other major city I had visited in the continent so far. Markets were set up in the main road, pedestrians walked nonchalantly through the traffic and noisy buses sprayed me with exhaust. It was chaos.
The pool and ample supply of Caipirinhas at the hostel provided welcome respite.
When I departed the city, I decided to avoid the mayhem of the roads and made my way to the port. I stopped at a German bakery en route and the kindly Frau wrapped a block of cheese in paper as a gift. At the port, I gingerly laid Felix down on the front of a launch, hopped aboard and we set off across the Rio Paraguay.
The tranquil thirty minute trip cost about AUD$2.50 and it is difficult to see how the enterprise can turn a profit. On the western bank, heavy rains had caused the town of Chaco-i to flood and I was obliged to load Felix into an even smaller boat so that a kid could wade through the water, towing me behind.
Small streams of water had flooded the dirt road leaving town and this time, there was not a boat small enough to ferry me safely. The dirt rejoined the asphalt and I was on Ruta Transchaco, the long straight artery to the green heart of Paraguay.
I had heard many rumours of this place. Described as the “green hell” and “a great derelict sea-bed of cactus, Indian black magic and estancias big enough to engulf the little republics of Europe”, everyone warned me to be careful.
The first glimpses certainly did not disappoint. Thick, marshy, green vegetation spread as far as the eye could see, punctuated by thousands of palm trees.
Did I mention that it was really hot?
In eastern Paraguay, there had been sporadic shade on the side of the road in which to take refuge. Here it was just me and the sun, duking it out in a very one sided contest. For long stretches there are no signs of civilisation save for bolted gates guarding paths to distant estancias.
I hopped one of these gates and walked up to an estate to ask for some water. The men wore handmade leather shoes, hats and chaps, rode on leather saddles and more leather hung on the walls. One of the men extended a leathery hand and gave me the firmest hand shake in six months travel in South America.
I made camp at an auto service business next to a lake. The sunset was something to behold.
Alongside the Transchaco are ramshackle houses, sometimes of brick, usually of wood but often just made from plastic tarpaulins. An American anthropologist in Asuncion had told me that the indigenous people have been displaced by the (often European or Brazilian owned) estancias and now live on thin strips of land between the farms and the road. In some areas, signs indicate larger indigenous communities set just away from the road, but the protests I heard in Asuncion tell of a pretty grim situation.
I stopped in Montelindo for the night, spotting accommodation built on stilts over the river. It was closed, but the kind family at the adjacent general store let me set up my tent in their front courtyard.
The owner of this shop turned out to be some sort of Paraguayan Dr. Dolittle. Four dogs battled each other for my affections, five cats tried to use my tent as a climbing gym, a talking parrot swung in a bicycle rim and ChaCha the monkey reached out of his cage to hold my finger. A group of 20-30 ducks marched past and I was told that they were just a small patrol from a larger company of some 200 ducks.
I stayed up talking to the owner and one of her daughters about life on the transchaco. They confirmed that their shop and land was by arrangement with the boss of the estancia which lay behind them. They also explained that the reason that the nearby bridge was missing railings was due to a truck flying through them a few weeks before. The daughter whipped out her phone to show me a picture of the crumpled truck in the mud, and then swiped right to reveal the body of the driver, just pulled from the wreckage.
We shared mate in the morning, then I said goodbye to the animals and waded back out into the heat. A couple of hours later, I thought I had begun to hallucinate when I saw the body of a huge caiman alligator on the side of the road.
Twenty kilometres before Pozo Colorado, I pulled into a service station for some empanadas. To my surprise, it was full of fair skinned, blue eyed, European looking people. A blonde motorcyclist told me in a thick German accent that Filadelfia is his hometown and that I WILL like it. This was my first glimpse of the Mennonitas.
A cyclist from New Zealand (the only cyclist I met here) gave me a map of the Mennonite colonies as he left it’s border and I entered it.
The scenery grew repetitive, but there seemed to be a constant supply of bizarre experiences to stave of boredom. Skinned wild pigs hung on the side of the road for sale, semitrailers crept along with blown out wheels, German-Paraguayans bought beer at 11am (Kaiser brand) and drank a can before hopping back into their trucks, men completely drunk on caña at 7 in the morning,
I stopped for water at one of the roadside dwellings and had my bottles filled from a large concrete mound. Shortly after, a bold goat leapt on the mound and started drinking from the tank. I asked the girls if he was always allowed to drink like this and they shrieked and ran out with a broom. This was how the battle began.
The scenery slowly began to change, scrub replacing marsh and huge cacti and palo borracho popping out of the green.
Then suddenly I was cycling along a wide avenue into Filadelphia, the capital of the Mennonite colonies. I arrived on the Sabbath and the whole town was eerily empty. Every shop was closed, the streets were deserted and I could almost see tumble weeds bouncing down the street.
The Mennonites ended up in Paraguay through several routes; some escaping the persecution of Stalin, others escaping Canada (after the government introduced secular, English education) and more still after World War II.
It is fair to say that they arrived with no idea of the conditions they would face, the museums are full of warm felt boots, coats and other equipment wholly incongruous with the baking heat of the Chaco.
Despite the challenging environment and deaths from lack of medical care, the Mennonites prospered and the communities are extremely wealthy today. This has influenced their cultural traditions and today many fully embrace modern technology like mobile phones and vehicles. My guide at the museum seemed to look down upon some of the Paraguayan and Bolivian Mennonites that still shun modern technology (and have incredible numbers of children).
I took back roads out of Filadelfia, passing through smaller colonies and beautiful homesteads. The Mennonites have really created a little pocket of paradise in the green hell.
In Mariscal, the officer in the customs building opened up the official dormitory and gave me a bed for the night. I spent the afternoon at the nearby petrol station where a young, newly married Mennonite couple were working. Jerry had grown up in Manitoba, Canada and his wife Eve was from Bolivia. We shared Tereré from a bull horn cup and I learned more about the Mennonite experience while we watched men climb on cattle trucks and electrocute the cows.
The next day, it was time to traverse the worst road in Paraguay. At the edge of town, a man hailed me down and insisted I drink mate with him. Perhaps he knew how much my day was going to suck.
The story goes that crooked contractors laid no base under the road and pocketed the extra money, resulting in a dusty mess of rubble, with pot holes big enough to swallow a car. Thick bull dust covers rocks and holes, making for very precarious cycling; it was not long before I had a flat tyre.
I saw a small coral snake pressed flat into the pattern of tyre treads, a multi-coloured sinusoid. Then I rolled over my ten thousandth kilometre in South America and took a moment to get naked.
I was cycling long after sunset, trying to see huge holes in my little headlight and swerving out of the way of livestock trucks. The police at La Patria let me camp on their patio and a dog curled up next to me in the night.
The last day to the frontier with Bolivia was almost completely devoid of any signs of human life. The road was full of large grasshoppers that gleefully jumped into my wheels, but little else.
This section of the Chaco saw many battles between Paraguay and Bolivia during the Chaco war. The whole affair is a miserable story of unnecessary death. Poor communication, poor logistics, poor equipment, mass death from lack of water and of course deaths due to conflict; ‘the War of the Thirst’ was the bloodiest war of the 20th Century in Latin America. The whole thing was supposedly the result of a spat between Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil over access to potential oil fields.
The only remnant of this war I spotted was a grim and run down concrete rest stop at Canada El Carmen.
After 120kms of little to see, I finally arrived at the border. The officials let me camp in the immigration building, but on seeing my mat rolled out, told me to use my tent because the building was full of snakes and spiders.
I spent my last afternoon in Paraguay eating cool fruit salad and watching the sun set over Paraguayan immigration.
For such a small country, Paraguay has an incredibly diverse and interesting history. I feel like I barely scratched the surface during my time there, and that there was often some joke going on which I was not part of.
If you are thinking of travelling here, I highly recommend reading “At the tomb of the inflatable pig” by John Gimlette.