A Travellerspoint blog

"More German than Germans"

sunny 32 °C
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Saturday 22.09.07

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.

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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.

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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.

Posted by Jeremy T 05:20 Archived in Paraguay Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Tracking the Jaguar

Enter planet dust...

sunny 38 °C
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Wednesday 19.09.07

In preparation for leaving Asunción, there were a few bureaucratic hoops to jump through; once again I had found myself enjoying a place so much, i was close to overstaying my Visa. Despite a couple of days of running around, i was only half successful, and the rest would have to wait until I returned in six days. Come evening, two fellow students from Germany, Isabel and Jan boarded the bus with me, bound for the high Chaco, a sparsely populated and vegetated region in the far northwest of the country. It was adventure largely into the unknown - we had only fairly limited information of how to get to the national park we wanted to visit, but we had taken every precaution with food, water and equipment to ensure our survival.

Much later, the bus driver signalled for me to accompany him at the front, and he told me that we would soon be approaching our stop - Estancia La Patria, a police checkpoint about 20km from the park entrance. When we alighted at 4am, it became clear that we were positioned almost halfway between nowhere and nowhere else, and at that particular moment, stuck there. With a bit of a chuckle, the bus driver climbed back into his vehicle and sped off up the Trans-Chaco highway to Bolivia, less than two hours distant. We made ourselves comfortable and attempted to bribe the cops to take us to the park, while noting with a little revulsion the two metre long viper nearby which they had killed just before our arrival.

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I gleaned a couple of minutes sleep before the mosquitoes arrived, and by the time i had summoned the energy to find my repellent, the sandman had all but bitten the dust. I spent the hours normally reserved for neighbourhood trash collection wandering about the place. The Estancia, aside from the checkpoint consisted of only a few scattered buildings, a family of goats, a handful of pheasant, and a general store that stocked mostly fertilizer and condiments. The policemen were cheerfully pessimistic but we found a man willing to take us in his truck all the way.

The Trans-Chaco highway is infamous in South America. It is a long, straight road connecting Asunción to Santa Cruz in Bolivia that cuts through a flat expanse of disagreeable terrain - a blisteringly hot, arid dustbowl in the dry season, and a near-impassable mire in the wet. Buses during the latter are frequently bogged for days in the Bolivian part, but very recently the entire Paraguayan section has been paved, and the bitumen extends all the way to the border. Off the Trans-Chaco though, the roads are still rutted and dusty, and it was up one of these that we were travelling to the national park.

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We had expected to be roughing it somewhat, so it came as a surprise when we discovered proper accommodation there, complete with a reasonably equipped kitchen. It wasn't long before we set off to explore the nature trail. The temperature was climbing steadily, and a searing wind blowing in gusts. Every endemic species here, from cactus to flowering bush to tree, employed some kind of spikes or thorns in their structure, some of which ultimately ended up in my feet or legs. Prolific especially was the Floss Silk Tree, also known as Samu'u in Guaraní or Palo Borracho (drunk trunk) in Spanish; featuring a fat spiked trunk, bright green foliage and cotton-like seedpods.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floss_silk_tree

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There was still plenty of heat left in the air after nightfall, and with flashlights in hand, we joined a park ranger to scout for wildlife. The national park plays host to many large mammals, but being the dry season, the only creature that crossed our path was a medium-sized tarantula. In the mud surrounding a waterhole, we were at least able to discern recent tracks of tapir, giant anteater, puma and even jaguar, and while i was out alone later in the evening in the middle of nowhere, the Chaco was alive with the chirps of insects and frogs, the fluttering of things winged, and the odd vague snort or movement in the distant brush.

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Thankfully, a public service to and from the park existed on Fridays, but our route to Filadelfia, capital of the Mennonite colonies in the middle Chaco was far from direct and included several detours, including one almost to the Bolivian border to pick up a package. Finally, after seven sweaty hours on the road, we arrived in Filadelfia at 9pm. The Hauptstrasse (main street) was a wide avenue of dirt more than 5cm deep in places; though for a Friday night, the place was far from lively. The only signs of life were the scores of motorbikes and the odd car driving up and down the street, and apart from two restaurants, everything was closed by this time. The Mennonites, their favoured tongue being Plattdeutsch (Low German), are deeply religious folk and most don't drink, smoke or even eat unhealthily, so it's no surprise the dust-filled streets were as empty and dark as if they were on the Moon.

Posted by Jeremy T 04:09 Archived in Paraguay Tagged transportation Comments (0)

Whip it!

overcast 26 °C
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Friday 14.09.07

My Spanish school played host to a party at night, kicking off with the usual drinking and socialising, and typically for Latin America, the meat took centre stage, but Sopa Paraguaya (not a soup at all) featured as a traditional side dish. Within a short space of time the party cranked up a couple of octaves as the harp player came out and the Paraguayan folkloric dancing began. In a flurry of whip-cracking, toe tapping and whirling, the dancers mesmerised the audience, as the harp player strummed his instrument like a lead guitarist at a rock concert. Soon came the grand finale , a female dancer balancing imitation bottles on her head - ten to be exact - while all the while spinning and stepping with the greatest poise.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sopa_paraguaya

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I ambled downhill toward the river to play football in a park with one of my fellow students, Isabel and Gerardo her surrogate brother. I found myself staring at the Palacio de Gobierno, an imposing white building guarded by soldiers carrying assault rifles, and poignantly noted this action could have had one shot during the reign of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, El Supremo from 1814-1840. We soon discovered the football field, while not on palace turf, was perhaps a little too close for the soldiers' comfort and we were told to vacate. We couldn't help but feel we were being picked on, because some suspicious-looking children frolicking on a playground the same distance away were still there when we departed.

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On the other side, practically in the shadow of the huge edifice and hidden amongst trees was a cluster of low buildings. It was almost like a tiny village, down an embankment at water level, with a dilapidated fishing boat moored out the back. What a poignant portrayal of Paraguay lay here, the Governor's palace, complete with trimmed grass, immaculate garden, parade ground and its naval frigate parked on the river, and the exact opposite parodied next door.

After the obligatory morning/afternoon/evening Tereré session(s), we took a prowl around the inner south western suburbs near Isabel and Gerardo's house at night. We snuck into the local cemetery - an activity which I always enjoy; and while creeping around the graves, discovered that despite some being lavishly decorated with bathroom tiles and glass windows, all were nameless. Plenty of final resting places were that no more as many open graves attested, the former occupants having apparently been exhumed to be used for medical studies in Universities.

On Sunday afternoon, Marite and Juan Carlos took me and another student to Cerro Lambaré, a hill not far from the cemetery, towering over a marshland/floodplain next to the river. From the vantage point of the monument atop the volcanic mound, i noted with a little shock and interest at the amount of people that had set up their homes in this place out of necessity, possibly aware that at any moment the meagre amount they do have could be washed away. Towering over this too, was a stepped pyramid of rubbish, and we could see people sifting through the choice bits on top. Over the millennia, many ancient cultures world-wide have chosen the stepped pyramid as their ultimate show of affection for their God(s). It's difficult to say whether discarded food waste, polystyrene and a million other nasties would have quite the same effect on these deities as gold, jade or sacrifice might, but who am I to comment on the fickle whims of such beings?

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It was a complete reversal of fortunes (quite literally) when we arrived at the Yacht & Golf Club, slightly south of Cerro Lambaré. The most exclusive and expensive club in Asunción was playing host to a powerboat regatta (of all incredulous things one never expects to see in the second poorest country in South America). Not long after we arrived one of the races began, accompanied by a high-pitched roar from the highly-tuned outboards. Within a short space of time, their hulls were lifting almost completely out of the water, and what followed was a dozen or so laps of the facing section of the river. The chequered flag was waved, and after a number of minutes, the boats lined up and it started all over again. Once finished, everyone began to pack up and leave to return to their palatial residences, safe in the knowledge their actions had all but confirmed the Grand Canyon-like divide between rich and poor in this country.

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Posted by Jeremy T 03:39 Archived in Paraguay Tagged educational Comments (0)

Pleasure & Pain

semi-overcast 32 °C
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Sunday 09.09.07

My friends Pedro and Diego picked me up in Pedro's huge pickup truck to go wakeboarding on the Rio Paraguay. Asunción lies on the western border of Paraguay and soon we were speeding off in Pedro's boat to a quiet reach of the river winding lazily between an island and the Argentinean shore. A smooth patch of water with barely a ripple in sight stretched a couple of kilometres between deep reed beds, overlooked by a few scattered hovels perched perilously close to the crumbling embankment. Wakeboarding is to waterskiiing what snowboarding is to skiing, and aside from being infinitely more stylish than its companion sport, a skilled boarder has the opportunity to do jumps off the speedboat wake. My first attempts contained both pain and disappointment - while the boat began to speed off and the board still underwater, my arms attempted to separate themselves from their moorings in my shoulders; naturally a painful experience.

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Eventually I got the hang of it, and was soon skimming along the water in a haphazard way behind the boat. What we novices soon discovered, was that wakeboarding accidents tend to happen so fast, one scarcely has a chance to realise what is going on, and by then it is far too late anyway. On one particularly notable crash i managed to point my board in a perpendicular direction to where it was supposed to be, and flipped rather rapidly onto my face and hands. With the wind in our faces on a hot day, with refreshingly cool water to swim in and free food from Pedro's restaurant, it is no wonder that we all had a blast. My body was beginning to protest while we were still on the water, and slowly the muscle soreness increased until by nightfall I felt like I was dragging around several sides of meat attached by fish hooks to my bones.

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Naturally the soreness hadn't subsided by morning, and in fact through the pain i discovered several group of muscles i never even knew existed. After school was thankfully over, i checked myself in for a Shiatsu massage. There is something incredibly decadent about getting a full body massage, lying there while someone you don't really know rubs your limbs, extremities, body and head. There is a place your consciousness seems to go in these moments, it drifts off into a realm of introspection, as if spring cleaning. Waves of sensation roll through, and complicated mental matters are swept away and fragmented into solvable pieces.

Tuesday I armed myself with my camera, a bag of sweets and a Guaraní phrase: Ikatupa anohẽ foto peẽme, and i set off to Plaza Uruguay to ask permission to photograph the indigenous people. Their lives at the moment are unbelievably wretched - living in a park in the middle of a noisy city, uneducated, unemployed and justice undone. I was astounded at the amount of children running around the place, and whilst sipping Tereré again in the park with locals, i learned it is normal for a woman in rural Paraguay, both indigenous and mezcla (mixed) alike to have ten or more children.

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Posted by Jeremy T 11:45 Archived in Paraguay Tagged boating Comments (0)

Only in *insert Latin American country here*

Familiarity in foreign lands

semi-overcast 28 °C
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Thursday 06.09.07

My life in Latin America contains structure, form and function right now, and i never thought I'd relish the boredom quite so much. Asunción is a great place to study, it is quiet enough to be able to complete my homework, and has just enough nightlife on the weekends to keep me interested. Every weekday, i wake at 7, eat toast and coffee, and I'm at school by 8am. I study until midday, eat lunch with the family, and my afternoons and evenings are spent on the internet or completing my homework. If I've been good, i treat myself to some TV. Sound familiar?

I was picked up on Friday night by my friend Pedro, and we headed off to a bar to hang out with a group of friends which included a model that turned down a role in Playboy and a lesbian variety-show host. Pedro is half Brasilian and half Paraguayan but has spent most of his life living with his mum in and racing motorbikes in Miami. He now lives in Asunción with his father and runs the family business, a very successful restaurant in the centre of town named Bolsi.

Typically for this continent we drunk beer by the litre bottle and danced with girls to Latin music once the cover band had finished. It had gotten quite late by the time we left, and we stopped in to get a Lomito (steak burger) each on the way home. In front of our eyes an 80's model Mercedes driving past lost one of its wheels and ground to a halt nearby amidst a shower of sparks. It was one of those moments, where you shake your head and exclaim "Only in Paraguay!" to the stranger laughing with you. I watched with a little apprehension as the drunken driver elevated the car (which was missing the handbrake) on a flimsy jack and attached a wheel bolt or two he had stolen from the newer Mercedes parked near to it, whilst oil leaked over the road from beneath the vehicle. With several disastrous situations playing themselves out in my mind, i left to catch a taxi home.

Even though i knew people were dwelling in the ground floor of the huge abandoned tower around the corner of my house, I didn't want to miss out on climbing the vacant monolith. I got my chance when some kids burst out of the gate in front of me, I asked their father if i could climb up to the top. They had set up their home on the rubble-strewn concrete, with a few appliances and furniture, and clothes hanging up from lines everywhere.

The tower is familiar among countless Latin American buildings - having reached a stage of completion where the concrete and brickwork was done, but work had halted for good for whatever reason leaving a colourless, empty skeleton towering over everything else. The building was not safe to climb by any means, thanks to an open lift shaft and no barriers at all where the windows would be. To make matters more nerve-wracking, as I ascended a narrow concrete spiral staircase on the outside of the building, I disturbed dozens of pigeons who flew frantically around me in surprise. From the tiled rooftop courtyard, central Asunción spread out beneath me, but unfortunately with a smoky pall over the city - the result of several fires burning around the country, i was unable to see very far.

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Posted by Jeremy T 05:14 Archived in Paraguay Tagged automotive Comments (0)

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