22.09.2007 - 24.09.2007 32 °C
Slightly annoyed at the price and quality of our hotel, and likewise with the quality and service of our dinner the night before, we left for Loma Plata, the capital of the oldest of the three Mennonite Settlements. 25km later, we pulled up on the Hauptstrasse in an altogether livelier place, and set about finding a place stay. Half an hour of random wandering later in 30º heat showed in hindsight that the tourist office would have been best place to start looking.
Outside a crowd of tourists from Asunción had gathered, and we were able to tag along to their organised tour, which involved not only an informative film and question time (I dozed briefly), but also a box of chocolate milk. We learned that the Mennonites had built themselves a model society in the middle of the Chaco, an area nicknamed 'The Green Hell', at that point occupied by indigenous tribes. The settlers of Colonia Menno arrived from Canada and set about employing the indigenous people to work for them, and profitable industry soon grew around corn, milk and beef. The society works through members donating wages towards infrastructure, and in turn receiving health care and subsidised food. There is barely any crime, and the indigenous groups, though far from being equals, receive a pay much higher than minimum wage in the rest of the country, plus health care and shelter upon the lands they now no longer own.
The Mennonite Evangelical Church is a strict protestant order. They believe in a second, adult baptism as a sign of strengthening faith, opposition to military service and taxes to the state, and the right to run their society according to their beliefs. This had led to religious persecution in other countries . We borrowed some bikes from our hotel on Sunday to ride to Laguna Capitan, a salt lake we had been told was 30km away from town. The going was rough into a cold wind, and the roads were bumpy and rutted. Amongst tired gasps, we passed farm houses and tiny communities between large expanses of not much at all. It became evident at the 18km mark (with apparently more than that to go), that we were not going to make it. With energy flagging and water supplies dropping, a few more kilometres down the track we pulled into a driveway to see if we could garner a lift. We finally arrived at the Laguna by way of mini bus from the school we had visited, and decided once there, apart from the thrill of having reached our destination, it wasn't really worth the effort. The return bike ride, despite being with the wind, became even more torturous thanks to torrential rain, and eventually while sheltering miserably under the eaves of a church we got a ride, bikes and all back to Loma Plata.
By nightfall, despite the kindness shown by the hotel owners, we had noticed that on the whole, many persons in the Mennonite community appeared to be lacking in the friendliness department. We found they were more likely to ignore us than be helpful, and in the eyes of some there appeared a distantness like I have never seen. Perhaps this model society, a revolution in Latin America for health, human rights, employment and safety was lacking in the one thing most important to well-being: Life. This led Isabel (from Germany herself) to note, "These people are more German than Germans..."
We had the opportunity to ride a horse on Monday. A skittish beast, the horse didn't take to the saddle and bridle too happily. I was assured it would be safe to ride and anyway, Isabel would ride it first. Much later in the day I would find out it was a 50% puro sangre (pure blood) - though probably the other half pony - and hadn't lost a race in five years. I didn't know this at the time, but regardless I am never one to shirk a challenge, and within half an hour the horse indeed was calming down a little. I tentatively climbed aboard, and tried to exert a little control over the animal. Despite being notoriously unresponsive, I feel we were slowly building some kind of sympathetic rapport until an approaching moped spooked it and it almost trotted us both into a roadside cactus.
A little surprised, I nevertheless pressed on, but barely another thirty seconds had passed before the thing bolted at full gallop. For the following twenty seconds my eyes were probably as big and wild as the horse's while I desperately tried to stay on, as first one and then the second foot came out of the stirrups. I made my peace with the universe about half a second before we leaped a ditch at the end of the road, and when it appeared I was about to land amongst the boughs of a thorny tree, we came to a rapid halt. I scrambled off before it had another chance to run, got trod on twice by its hoof and swore never to ride again.
We made our way into town, thankfully on foot to visit the Mennonite Museum. The order started in the 16th century in Holland, then moved to north Germany and on to eastern Europe and Russia because of persecution due to their radical way of life. In the 19th century, some groups moved to the US and Canada, and after encountering more persecution, a group went searching for a promised land in South America. Following their successful colonisation in 1927 (though not without further decades of hardship), another group from Russia set up Colonia Fernheim, with the capital of Filadelfia. After World War II, a final group founded Neuland, another community in the Chaco nearby. After nightfall we caught the bus back to Asunción, where i would be spending my final week in Paraguay.