‘Paraguay is weird,’ said the student I’d met in Ponta Pora. Good, weird suits me. I’d heard little to nothing about Paraguay and so it only became more attractive to me. Paraguay is in the heart of South America, wedged between Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. 95% of the population lives in eastern Paraguay, which is easy to figure out on the map of this country.
I bought a map of Paraguay, the cover depicting a most boring narrow two lane highway. A closer look at the map gave way to a busy south, where roads were competing and stretches of emptiness absent. The north appeared much better to me and the biggest emptiness was to find where green capitals formed the words DEFENSORES DEL CHACO. Here was only one road and a bit to the south of the farthest town a weird lay out of vertical and horizontal lines. It looked like a Le Corbusier-plan, as he had made for Chandigar in the Punjab of India. Even more bizarre, the farms are mentioned on the map of Paraguay. Yes, even whether it is a dairy farm or a meat production farm. Weird, as the student said.
Chaco is a semi-arid region with a very low population density. The area is being rapidly deforested, as ranches sprout and technique makes it easier to raise cattle in this dry area. Consisting of more than 60% of Paraguay´s land area, but with less than 2% of the population, the Chaco is one of the most unused environments in South America. But before I reach the Chaco I have some distance to cover.
So, having done a bit of planning, usually unknown to me, I arrive far from Iguaza Falls. I want to avoid tourists and big places, however interesting. I am in search of emptiness, aloneness, nature and quietness. There is one more place on the map I encircled, a stretch of 140 kilometer road where wildlife may cross the road.
And boy, do they cross the road! Many with a deadly end.
But again, before I reach this stretch of road I first head to Concepción. And another new experience starts right away when I enter this country. I get to sleep in national park Cerro Cora. Not at the visitor’s center which, apparently, is half a kilometer away from where I pitch my tent, but at a self-chosen spot. The place is covered in paw prints of a variety I haven’t seen before. The foliage is dense and the species of trees uncountable. I have not much choice other than just try it out, or cycle on. I already tried another spot somewhere else but didn’t feel comfortable there. Now I decide to be bald and sleep in a real jungle with real animals. Not those cute little capybara or shy anteaters but big cats who won’t come over to be tickled under their chin. I decide another thing: I don’t believe chances are such I will see a savage animal in my little camp.
I sleep a deep 600 minutes under a sky dazzling with an uncountable number of glittering stars, not one paw has awoken me. And I rise with a stronger sense of trust. Not only that, I am presented with the most glistening colored birds like the urraca común and the better known toucan. I am elated to camp between such birds.
As always the case is, crossing into another country is seeing an immediate difference. Paraguay has plenty of dirt along the road. A few dead cows along the highway, perhaps that’s why the mosquitoes are different too. Agricultural lands are small, farmers have noticeable humbler places to live in, and houses are dotted in a continuous string along the highway. Finding a stealthy spot will not be easy. Nature is such that it seems like Dio’s hand decide the border was the line of new creation, and so hill after hill and separate pointy outcrops dominate this area. It is a poor country obviously, where prices are slightly lower, and age of marriage too. Couples often marry young and a baby doesn’t wait long before it’s perched between them on a motorbike, wrapped in blankets. Faces are different here and slightly more similar to one and another, not strange as 95% of the Paraguayans are considered mestizos, which means mixed indigenous and Spanish descent. People have a curious reaction towards me, but most surprising is the look on people their faces: their expression does not betray one emotion. Not whether they are surprised, stunned, happy, friendly, arrogant or indifferent.
Men seem to avoid my gaze altogether, and they certainly are less abundant than the average Brazilian, and more reserved. That’s fine, I’ll attune to it in due time.
One of the things I immediately love are the postures of the woman in this country, they sit perfectly straight on their motorbike. Not a scooter but a men’s motorbike. They hold their babies in their arm while sitting on the back or, when they drive themselves, they put their tiny offspring on the gas tank where it is supposed to grip itself steadily. Often the women lips are coated in red lipstick, while raven black hair flappers in the wind.
The road soon becomes less busy with traffic, truck loads are few and shops even fewer. Life seems to happen at intersections, called ‘cruce’. And addresses are based on the distance. So it happens I come to a standstill at Ruta V Gral Bernardino Caballero km 68. Cruce Bella Vista. Here people are waiting for the long distance bus while chewing on some freshly fried beef. Truckloads with alive beef is being checked on high wooden stairways, where a man handles an electric rod to count the confused cows. The cattle transport is the only transport, and I wonder whether the cows know what is going to happen?
I am buying a package of wheat flour in the shop of Primitiva and before I know, she serves me a plate with lasagna, with some minced beef. Soon I sit at her veranda, 4 loving dogs at my feet, who might actually be practicing the art of begging. Primitiva runs her shop, a big barn more empty than stacked while her son lays in his underwear on the couch, watching television.
The same evening I manage to find a stealthy deserted plot along a sandy side road. I recognize it quickly as abandoned as there isn’t fresh laundry on the lines and the fence is open. Turns out I have a mango- and an orange tree, a jasmine flower bush, a beautiful view of a proudly butted hill and am the only human among 30 cows.
As an early bird I lay in my tent one hour after dark has set in, 8 o’clock, when the owner of the 30 mammals next door drives very near to my little dwelling. Of course he sees his new neighbors existence but decides to go home first, collect a bunch of hotheaded Paraguayans and return with his big farmer-style knife not positioned at his back, but glittering at the front when he shines a high lumen lamp on my tent.
Turns out a little young lady in her sleeping attire pops her head out and introduces herself.
I can see the tension fading between his dark, hairy brows when he asks: ‘Qué quieres dormer en mi casa?’ and the next morning we have a lovely chat and a photo session, a bit against his will ‘I am not photogenic’, he opt.
The route has become rather boring. I can’t really take another road as there are no other roads. So I stay on it, rolling up and down, watching the daily life along the road and noticing my mind going over matters such as ‘would beauty still play a big role in lovers life when they are married for 10 years?’ followed by ‘or will it be exchanged for respect and dependency? She who cooks and washes, he who brings in money?’ Many women who are slightly older -and here that is years below my age- look blunted, tired and are often fat. Their faces have lost glow and sugar and wheat have added more than respect and dependency only. Daughters are still enthusiastic, slim and often very attractive.
The next evening I decide not to put much effort in finding a stealthy place and ask permission to camp at a football field. ‘No match will be played?’ I ask the carpenter who’s making a cow gathering next to it. ‘No, only some youth will come and practice,’ he answers. The evening coolness sets in and the field soon is bathed in stadium light, and boy. Who seems to find me a curious occurrence but are seemingly taught not to react to their curiosity and not to stare at me. Imagine this is India, is what I think?!
But when one boy dares to come over and talk, within a second the whole team tips over their hard spiked football shoes to hear me out, they have never seen a tourist! There’s one guy who speaks English, Brigido has been living in France for 3 years where his father, who was a journalist, was kidnapped. Questions ranging from ‘is your country corrupt?’, ‘do you know marihuana?, ‘will you still cycle when you are old?’, ‘have you been to Egypt?, ‘did you see the pyramids?’, ‘how did you take your bicycle on the plane?’, ‘why do you cycle?’ to the most beautiful question ‘what is your objective?’
The surroundings are soothing, a small, young green sugarcane field where men are ploughing the earth by hand, palm trees elegantly swift unnoticeable and hills that are slowly becoming flat. I am cycling towards Horquetta after I had cosido, hot fresh cow milk with yerba mate tea. Cosido was offered as soon as I entered the house of Ranulfo and his cousin and aunt. Ranulfo was brought in the arena by Brigido, the moment I was planning to go to sleep. He offers me to sleep at his house but I am not in for packing my tent, kitchen, and bedding.
Ranulfo is a farmer and as relaxed as Cesar I meet later that day.
Cesar is medical graduated and enthusiastically introduce me as an adventurer to his mom. His mom is a single woman who raised 6 children and set up a hotel. She is not impressed with me being an adventurer as her red painted lips ask me what I actually do for a living, being an adventurer is no job.
Cesar agrees at once when I ask to camp at his mom’s hotel. His perfectly clean and manicured fingers type words and sentences on the Google translator of his phone to tell me I may take a hot shower and will be invited for dinner too.
One of the most obvious signs in Paraguay is the yerba mate tea. I once had a boyfriend who drank this tea from a calabash gourd with a bombilla straw and thought this odd and overly relaxing. I have changed. Here everyone, Ranulfo and Cesar too, seem to start the day with relaxing.
People actually relax a lot. Some tell me the yerba mate is taken because of hydration. People have chilled water in a rather big thermos shielded in a leather or other fancy enclosure with a cup holder attached to it. Driving on a motorbike or being a guard with a machine gun doesn’t mean you can’t have your thermos with you. No matter what you do, the yerba mate should accompany it. People may carry nothing other than the thermos with yerba mate. People sitting along the road have a special designed stand for the yerba mate. And so Paraguay has stolen my heart. It has me thinking while peddling through its lush nature of sweet smells and tantalizing birds: ‘How come India has never drove me crazy?’
Green chatty parakeets fly over often, they shriek as highly disturbed little devils over my head. I have come to see those little birds as constantly in debate with each other. It’s like they are fussing over something áll the time, probably yerba mate, and they simply can never be quiet.
Small, unexpected surprises come my way. A girl who sees me making a photo of a church wants a photo of me. I pose patiently and her cool hands rub motherly over my back while she gives me two kisses.
Here in Paragay I am seen as a tourist, people look, stretch their necks and notice me. But never in an uneasy manner. I am actually expecting such behavior, as I think it is quite rare to see someone like me. I haven’t seen one tourists yet, nor will I in the whole of Paraguay -and of course, when I wrote this, the next day I met a motor biker from the USA…. and good I met him-.
Although the sky changes in color towards Horquetta and the farmers start to use big wooden carts with huge wooden wheels, the route keeps being boring and I decide to take un unpaved track now I am in the possibility for the first time since on Ruta 5.
It has become more rustic yet everything is still fenced. And there are people just about everywhere. In a string along the red earthen tracks one simple house lays right next to the next simple hut, whether it be indigena or a Paraguayan washing his car, combing one’s hair, being busy with the ever popular task of laundry and most important: relaxing with tereré, the iced yerba mate.
Red closed-covered jungle paths never grow fully dense by the usage leading towards dwellings, some built from palm trunks and thatched roofs, mud and decorated with red earthen hand prints. Pigs run free. Young women still have red lipstick and are beautiful to glance at. I never thought Paraguay as a tropical jungle full with cows, but that’s what it is.
I pitch my tent in a mosquito infested area damp with cow pee, right along a fence. Much of the area start to become swampy. The hills have faded into heavenly flat land. Heat built up slowly, rain will fall a bit and temperatures drop again.
Concepción lays on the Paraguay river and really divides the country in a whole other kind of land.
I like it here immediately and can’t help feeling a similarity with India, former Portuguese occupied India that is. I feel I am being watched by undercover police guards yet I do feel at ease. Where indigena sell strawberries and roam the shop-fronts in hope for some alms, their long skirts made from a velvety cheap fabric flowing, their kids trotting behind them with a tiresome expression. Where men sit on horse carts transporting goods to the boats sailing towards Brazil. Where bright colored monumental old houses are being used as bakeries with not the best imaginable bread for sale. I stroll around and notice the way walls shed their paint, how gardens host flowers and dry grass. The structure of trees, sounds of cutlery in kitchens. Fronts and letter types. Way of doing business. The chaos which works. The easiness of life. The old man who walks slowly around. The keys of how words are spoken. There’s even incense burned in the cheap hotel I stay. But that might be to distract the mold of this neglected somewhat dirty place.
I tear myself loose from Concepción and from one of the hotel guys sending me red flickering hearts over Messenger while offering tereré. Declining both, I am off to the more remote areas of Paraguay.