When raising the word Amish or Mennonites one might be inclined to think: ‘Devout hard working people, women in dark ankle length dresses and men in similar old-fashioned style clothing. They are pious, quiet and live an utmost simple life without pleasures as many of us know them whereby avoiding modernity and social jumble with outsiders.’
This sounds dull and uninviting to many people, reality of the Mennonites in the Chaco of Paraguay is different to that what conjures up the repute of those who live here. Cycling can be a fleeting experience of the moments passing by, without taking part of that what Chaco mainly exists of: farm life.
The Mennonites of the Chaco are hard-working, calm tempered and moderate living farmers, though owning many hectares. They don’t care for showing off, loudspeakers, excessive television, exorbitant behavior, or harsh talking.
The Mennonites are Protestant Christians. The name derives from Menno Simons (Friesland, which today is the Netherlands) who transferred a belief system where baptism at an adult age was conceived as evil by many, punishable with death. The Mennonites argued that only adults are aware of good and bad and thus can be punished for sins, whereas infants are unaware and too young to make their own choice of baptism. This started around 1500, in those ages this was very much against the beliefs of the majority.
Their radical beliefs had them fled to neighboring countries, and eventually were invited to Russia from where they moved on to USA and Canada in the late 1800. Mennonites have become known as great pacifists, committed to non-violence.
Implements of several different countries, such as military service in Russia and teachings of English in Canada had the conservative Mennonites moving to Paraguay in 1927. Later, communism, bad economic situations and famine genocide had more Mennonites coming over. In 1947 the receding German army, rise of Russian labor camps and fear of deportation had more Mennonites moving on. Over the years three different colonies turned arid Chaco into fertile farmland.
The blending with the indigenous Indians who roamed as hunter-gathers went without much fighting or hostility and until today the relationships are well, albeit greatly uneven: the Indians lost their heritage while, in contrast, the Mennonites work tremendously hard.
The hosts of the estancia Iparoma, calm and easy-going Elvira and Andreas, bring us a homely experience of life on a farm in the Chaco. The kitchen may sound voices of German Anita and Heintje through a small speaker, the smells of fresh sourdough bread, self-made cheese, chicory coffee, kaisersmarren and ginger tea. I call it the good live, one without overload.
The lack of tourism is the reason that I returned to Chaco. Yet some tourists find their way over and joins in but always another volunteer worker is present.
For a solitary loving person, being used on my own so long, camp in nature, built fires and wash in streams and oceans, I have a busy social life. It’s a bit of a transition, yet I’d come to like it. If it gets too much I head off with Emma.
The bible is present, a prayer before starting a meal usual. That’s nothing new to me, as I thanked not God but mom and dad before I start every meal, Nature for hosting me at each camp site and every day for being it a safe one.
My neighbors are indigenous Indians of the Ayoreo tribe, where Avelino takes care for the cows and bulls, he does so together with Gerd, the husband of Marilyn.
The evenings are filled with stars, fire flies, warmth and only with coolness when the heat is tempered by the onset of rain, being it the rainy season, it can get muddy.
I take refreshing dips in the natural pool, green with algae, teeming with fish, spiders and deafening insect melodies, while Emma grazes contentedly.
Going for walks is hoping to meet tapirs, capybara’s, mega reptiles, anteaters, nandu’s, foxes, Chaco rabbits and secretly a puma.
Unexpected happenings happen.
Trying to save lives.
Sometimes it’s not about saving lives, but smashing them to death!
I feel like I am in an ashram, far away from town, which on itself in the middle of the semi desert. Working with other volunteers, where I take pleasure in being an assistant in the household, cooking, cleaning and cutting, I feel being part of a greater whole that fits me.
I met Marilyn on my first visit to Filadelfia, having kept contact and in desperate need for rest, I asked if she could use a helping hand at her 600 hectare farm which serves as a hotel too. Marilyn had connected her rustic hotel to Work Away and I could serve on the conditions met with this platform: 5 hours a day/5 days a week for full board.
Since I desperately needed mental rest, and not be in constant movement, not to search daily for a shady place to camp, press myself and the bicycle between layers of wire, struggling with the onslaught of mosquitoes, the pressing heat, the continuity of boring nature, agriculture and fences, and the great lack of challenge, other than finding food, water and the will to carry on, I think having structure and restriction of movement in a surrounding void of impulses is a pretty good choice.
‘What do you want?’ asks Geo, a charismatic former leadership lecturer, handing me the obvious options of continuing, returning or settling down here. My answer is: ‘I don’t know. I have no clue what I want. That’s why I am here.’ And that is why I am here…