The only choice I have -and count on- for safe camping is the border check-post, 7 kilometer before the actual border crossing. Having arrived here after 110 kilometers cycling in a heat of 40 degrees, I surrender to the customs. That means I must first drink the offered tereré, as if I am not tired and hungry but tranquillo is the key to success.
One of the guys calls the colonel and soon I am brought to the man who gave his approval for camping at the cartel. A man with European looks and visible authority plus white legs placed under a leisurely short welcomes me.
‘Do not worry’, he says when I utter the word tent. The colonel speaks French and English, besides Spanish and Guarani. I go for English and after the initial welcome talk he guides me upstairs where I am given two double beds in a romantic dark red velvet setting with the plastic still protecting it’s lavish designed head-end. The yellow paint on the walls and the creaky wooden floor makes this another Southern India alike loft.
My room is a total private one although the door is in a continuously open position held up by a bolder. But since it is bordering the colonel his small room, stocked with guns, no one enters this light immersed loft. The military men sleep in bunk beds in a dormitory. I feel sorry for them. It looks like a princess has entered the henhouse. Or should I refer to myself as a bat?
‘Anything you need, ask me’, and colonel keeps more than worth.
‘We are going for a walk tomorrow, I want to show you some wild animals,’ says the colonel. I am in for it. More so because I don’t want to leave Paraguay yet. I keep postponing my departure and here at the last stop, is my last chance.
’15 minutes, be ready and we go,’ says colonel. Obviously not used to princesses in his cartel but ruling as a colonel decides.
The walk goes through semi dry desert-alike landscape. The thirsty earth is cracked and haven’t had water for months. Littered with second Chaco-war bullets and an assortment of prickly needles, worn traces and narrow pathways of the animal world, and all sorts of feces. Yet the bushes celebrate their yellows and bright fresh greens in a song to welcome the spring. I don’t realize it yet but one reason I like to walk in the bush is because of the absence of fences. And this is the first time I am able to ramble afar in the Dry Chaco where wild animals might be viewing me too. We wade through thick spiny forest while the colonel carries a gun for our protection. No one goes out of the cartel without a gun, or two. I am not to go wandering by myself without an armed escort.
‘It is very good, the Chaco, because there is no malaria and no dengue,’ says the colonel, who has served in Congo where conditions are probably worse. But I’m not sure what’s worse, a mosquito or a tiger?
I get to spot deer and the pig-like creature peccary which I saw before in the Toledo Proyecto Taguá, but that was behind fences. Walking on a non-existing path, pushing branches away and attracting thorns, I meet unexpectedly with a crocodile.
‘Stay. Stay as long as you want, 3 days, a week, as you wish,’ says colonel after the successful wild spotting walk. I end up staying a week, and would still be there if not power-cuts would have interfered.
The man, their bellies and guns
The men are quite a bunch. Ages differ from 22 to 59, as do the difference in bellies. There is an abundance of food, to such an extent that about 30 pigs and 5 dogs feast on it too. Plus a rather hungry princess, and I am not shy to ask for a second plate. Others are different: ‘I don’t eat too much because I don’t want a big belly,’ says the colonel while sucking in his tummy. Another says: ‘I skip breakfast otherwise my belly becomes even bigger.’ Right he is, a flap dangles over his South American style belt. The youngest of the pack says: ‘This is a nice belly, don’t you think?’ and he shows a perfectly still flat attractive abdomen.
The men are interesting to study; they leave the light on day and night. Itaipu dam is the world largest, why bother? They use the table-cloth as towel. When one has just finished mopping the floor, another whips the breadcrumbs on it. As most are city men they don’t seem to realize they’re in the dry Chaco now, and water runs happily, as does their piss on the terrain. They don’t do dishes and regularly they leave their meat unfinished, good for the 5 dogs around.
‘So, what are you actually doing here?’
Of what I’ve understood the men need to protect the border a bit. Apparently, besides peccary, deer and tigers there is drugs trafficking. More fathomable, there is hunting too. Not weird in a country where guns are to be bought without a license and sign boards with ‘prohibido cazar’ warns the hunter not to hunt. Yet hunting seems to be allowed when it is for own consumption. While it is prohibited to sell your blood-sport trophy, you may hunt to feed yourself. I think that is complete nonsense in a country with such an abundance of cows. Though, the indigena might need to depend on it, they don’t hunt with bow and arrows anymore. For me, hunting is not acceptable, unless it is done without preponderance of a machine-alike tool.
After two days it is clear to me, this military camp is like a holiday. There is one man who fences the goats in the evening, who seem to herd themselves throughout the day. Two men are cleaning the premises in the morning, interspersed by two men who are sitting at the check-post while a third one does the cooking for the 8 of us. I admit that I like this All-In Resort. The colonel and I chuckle often at the table when our food is brought, meat trice a day, in all sorts and methods fried and cooked. The weekends behold casero, traditional barbecue in a slow manner. It takes more than 2 hours, which leaves me drooling; my cycling metabolism still at a high needs food before 9 in the evening. First portion is therefore for me.
‘Stay, don’t go yet,’ is what I understand from several men. ‘We like you having here.’
Introduction with the woman who cycles through the Dry Chaco
The men are curious to this morsel who’d entered their premises. The first three days the prevailing questions are ‘how old are you?’, ‘are you married?’ and ‘do you have children?’
Most men agree to my answer that a partner mostly gives headache, that children are a huge responsibility, besides an expensive deal, and that compromises have to be made for both of these.
The group of man changes every few days. Most men come from Concepción or Asuncion. They arrive here by public transport, a rickety bus company from Bolivia, bringing with them sacks of onions, potatoes and bottles of oil. Then there is the Rally Trans Chaco coming up, a three-day motor sport competition, said to be one of the toughest races. A guy who’s doing research for this route, and lived in the USA, awaits me. His eyes deform into slits, pondering clearly, for how can this tiny lady do what we do in cars?
‘Where do you sleep?’ he asks. ‘In the bush,’ is my answer. He looks at me in disbelief. It’s like saying I honey comb the whiskers of a tiger. ‘Are you not afraid?’ he continues. No, because no one knows I am out there and I seek protection at people their houses when there are big wild animals around. The man, with a belly not easily to match, keeps his gaze connected to mine. I know what he’s going to say: ‘The biggest danger is man, not an animal.’
South American men, and Paraguayan in particular, are a fine species to be around with. There is none of this uneasy dividing caused by the underlying wave of frustration and desire. There is just open desire with a fun woof to it.
There’s no machismo or sexism. Maybe I feel one of the guys, in a female wrapping. I see their eyes taking me in, as my eyes do exactly the same.
Well, there is dividing since I am part of the colonel status. I sit with colonel at his table, separated from the others. From that table I have an excellent view of some of the more attractive guys. Their firm bottoms and muscled legs, their dark eyes and luscious lips covered in chap stick. Some have clearly indigena blood, and I can hardly take my eyes of him. Another lean towards similarities with Bolivians. Some wear silver necklaces with a horseshoe and a horse, after all, quite some guys are part of the caballería. It’s interesting to see how much a uniform changes the appearance of an otherwise dull man, or the contrary; enhances his beauty.
Almost each of them has some desirable feature; one his visible tiredness from being here, doing nothing. His aliveness only wells up when beer enters the evening, or afternoon. The other his resignation and high state of content, his hair always dusty and, like me, not overly focused on showering. Turns out these guys are not military men but doing some sort of invisible business.
It is he who suddenly talks to me one morning, a soft bit creaky voice whispers that I should stay. That he likes my company, not that I noticed any of it. The tick I attracted, and removed, is enough reason to stay another day. I kind of agree. Every reason is a good one to stay longer in Paraguay.
Of course, all this attention is caressing the ego. It’s an artificial boost, a hollow compliment, an illusion. I am well aware that any lone woman would cause some commotion in a military camp in the Dry Chaco environment. And I know it’ll be over the moment I leave.
The lesbian princess has entered the premises of fertility
I might be the princess who entered the henhouse yet I am not your average South American chica. I have no low cleavage shirt to show off my big boobies. I have no big boobies. I have no red lipstick to enhance my luscious lips, neither do I have a big sexy hairdo. I prefer to dress unrevealed. I don’t drink beer. I don’t smoke. Don’t do sugar. I haven’t got that sultry hoarse sweet voice and I am actually a vegetarian. One of the questions is: ‘Are you lesbian?’
Google translate let one of the most attractive singles -the one with indigena appearance- in the possibility to tell me that I can stay as long as I want, and have any one I want. He blushes.
Another tells me he coincidently likes woman with greenish eyes, small of posture and aged up to 45 years. He is 22, and apparently there are cougars around, but I am not one of them.
There’s a dog who jumps me when I sit on the ground. When I walk he throws himself at my feet and offers his crotch to be caressed first, legs up in the air. He goes with me on every walk, begging for some more cuddling’s. I’m okay with that.
The inevitable happens
I fall in love. The first day I got there. Undeniable. Predictable. I am a woman of flesh and blood and I do have desires when they are sparkled. And oh boy, are they bubbling.
His way of walking, how he mold his feet firmly in the hard, dried up earth. Click clack click clack. His firm bottom, swaying manly. His rather big South American nose, sure got character, probably some Indian influence. His belly hard and carried by strong limbs. His restlessness to follow me wherever I go. His eyes might be small but his lashes luscious, and his lips; readily available to swallow all I give him. I am kind of attracted to his irrelevance of being dusty and dirty.
Pinky. His name is Pinky. Pinky the still pink piglet. Pinky and her sister were abandoned by their mom while another sibling died. Mom ran away and the men were so kind to feed this two piglet, who will be food themselves soon. I’d be promised a photo when that moment arrives.
I stroke the two piglet often, to some other’s envy. I feed them sometimes 5 times a day. Not like some moron who feeds them water with dough, causing diarrhea and have their pink legs covered in brown watery doughy shit. Which completely ruins their pink prettiness.
When I am not busy caressing, feeding and photographing the piglet, I either help Freddy with his cooking duty or laugh with the guys their humor. There’s no need to speak Spanish for the obvious military young men jokes.
One such day I hop on the motorbike of Javier. We go bird-watching, armed with the usual protection, a two liter flask of iced water and a cup full of yerba mate. With his army green chemise opened a button or two too far, a leather belt with an intricate pattern of local embroidery holding up his jeans which holds a knife bolstered in an animal-skin case. His sturdy ochre yellowish shoes and somewhat Bolivian broad-faced appearance, a gun tied to his back and an army cap covering his thick black hair. He’s a rough looking Paraguayan, but the only one who is quiet and void of obvious jokes, and that’s the kind of softness I prefer. Just like Pinky the piglet.
Riding through a jungle of cacti and prickly plants, over withered earth, embraced by bright green and soft yellows, we park the motorbike. Wading through a narrow, worn path we pass burned patches of forest, cacti, prickles, dry grasses, gnarled dry trees and much fallen wood. Ultimately we reach an open space where is still some water left for the animals to drink. I haven’t seen a fence since and to be able to venture in such nature is heavenly beautiful. Javier spot paw prints of a tiger, we see monkeys and a lot of birds. But the best Javier comes up with is the place we settle ourselves.
Since I was a child I climbed trees. Yet now I am somewhat ashamed that I do it so clumsy, like I am afraid to fall 3 meters down? When I feel settled and secure enough we sit there for hours, sipping tereré, passing the cup continuously. We get to know each other by my substandard Spanish and more advanced Google translate. And we just sit there, hours on end. The hard wind shakes the tree in a rave and we need to grab ourselves steadily onto her dried out branches. I suck in the tremendously relaxed atmosphere and the total absence of uneasiness. Perhaps the lack of my Spanish is an enforcement?
Subjects of hypocrisy
The colonel likes to introduce some participants of the Trans Chaco Rally, guys who come and go, with my thoughts about homosexuality. We might be in a highly heated discussion about lesbians, insemination, abortion, homosexuality and adultery when he is saluted the strict military correct way by his lesser in rank. It seems Paraguayans don’t accept homosexuality. Colonel asks me: ‘Would you still like homosexuality when your husband has sex with another man?’ He finds man with man wrong as it destroys human kind, yet he is in favor of abortion and thinks women sex is delicious. Another enforces the colonel his views with: ‘Homosexuality, pour kerosene and ignite.’ Adultery is just fine, ‘a man needs to play’. ‘And what if your wife has another man, would you still like it?’ I ask.
But as is the case with hunters, it’s a point of view, it doesn’t say all about the person or his total being. It has perhaps more to do with culture and upbringing. Like I don’t have a child. They all agree I should have a baby, and since there’s only one other divorced, single man my age: ‘Why don’t you take him?’ they suggest. Sex seems to be playfulness and fun. And a child the result.
The cartel is far removed from any human activity. About 100 kilometer both directions are void of shops. The sound of a car has all our ears sharpened. A walk at dusk and unusual sounds or human-alike movements makes one super cautious, gun ready for position. Like I would hold my camera ready to shoot a bird.
What I enjoy mostly is the caring part, and being a member of a group, however out-of-place I am. And however a contradiction for a voluntary lone person in search of solitude, I feel completely at peace and fully at home. After all, when I was a child I wanted to become a soldier.
I could stay…
The need for my masala chai is replaced for ice-cold tereré, hot mate and cosido in the morning. Sitting in the open kitchen area and watching Freddy cook, being a witness of the secret of preparing cosido. Waking up before 6 is being an observer of the sunrise, my position a double velvety bed. I hear the crickets sing and the military men walking their uniform boots over the creaky wooden floor. The pinky piglets are still seeking warmth from underneath the wood stove, long before another start chopping wood. Pinky and his sister will rapidly start screaming and overrule the hens who did so starting at 5. Meanwhile someone turned on the radio and Julio Cesar announces himself song after song.
It’s your typical cowboy love songs and it makes me rush down to be part of it. To stroke the piglet their tight tummies, to see them follow me to the dining hall where the preppy, always neatly combed and clean colonel suddenly is misplaced by two pink yet dirty piglets. But not before I have envisioned the cowboy on a wooden balcony, playing his guitar, his lips molded around a plastic harmonica, holding a rose in the corner of his mouth.
Whispering ‘mi amor, te quiero’. Indeed the atmosphere is heavy, pregnant and tangible. Comfort (however much is lacking), culture and the unusual place I ended up makes this the kind of travel I love most.
The evening of the lunar eclipses I am in a bad mood. I feel rejected… was I feeling totally at ease and part of a bizarre community, now I am feeling a pariah. The reason is jealousy and power. I think it became too cozy among a few of us. And since I am the pig-mom between the military swans, I am the one who has to be eliminated. I don’t blame the objective.
Again, the atmosphere is heavy and tangible, now with the total opposite of ease and hospitality. Perhaps the initial reasons for such were based on primary requisites. I still find it an extraordinary experience, to be able to feel so strong a tumble of a congregate listening to the power of one.
The only guys allowed to interact with me are the one watching, those without cans of beer, and probably the ones true to their matrimonial promises.
Sitting on the porch far away from the men not supposed to talk to me anymore, with my back against the moon. Glancing at the newly arrived men their too slow cooking, I see an orange bullet rising before my eyes. At once I sprint upstairs, grab my camera and hurry out of the cartel, into the bush. Through the pit with skulls and dried up cow hides, past the 30 or so scavenger pigs. I get stuck behind prickly plants and worry about snakes around my ankles. Once in the open I imagine a tiger will appear, but it seems so out of possibilities, that I keep on watching the Blood Moon in admiration. Deciding to leave the next day…
And so I do.
I play Blondie, my childhood power lady. Cycling on a yellow lined empty road, glancing back at the cartel I feel an overwhelming sense of luck to be a lady, to experience adventure, knowingness about the bush and insight of yet another sub-culture. The heat starts to build towards 45 degrees, flies attacks me when I stop but I am singing out loud. Partly to alarm tigers, puma’s and wild swine but mostly because I am happy. I cycle and I sing:
Cold as ice-cream, still sweet
* Staying at a military camp is not new to me, it are one of those places I go ask shelter when options run out. I did so in India, Iraq, Iran and Liberia. Never was it this special though!