Small, steamy hotel room. Sitting on the floor, a fan is blowing to my back. More to make me feel like it’s cooling me down than it is actually doing so. Outside it’s 40 degrees, inside it’s more. Air is dry.
The town is called Villa Montes, SE Bolivia, about 120km from the border with Paraguay. I came here on Saturday, but I needed a few days to come to the point where I’m able to write something. 11 days from Asuncion to here were though. Wind, heat, endless, straight roads!
Before coming to Paraguay, I knew little about it. I knew that is, by South American standards, a small country wedged between Brazil and Argentina. Well, it does also border Bolivia, but let’s not go too much into details.
I also knew that it has a huge plain in the West of it, called the Chaco which is a kind of savannah and another thing that I knew was that there are no major tourist attractions. And this lack of knowing, absence of any stereotypes is what attracted me to this country. To get to know it!
After almost three weeks in the country, I cannot really say I know Paraguay. Far from it. But surely today I know more about it.
I know for example that they have yellow and red firefighters. I wouldn’t have known that, but coming into Coronel Oviedo I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions to the firefighters. They are still the most reliable option to get a place to spend a night in a town. And the guy at the station asked me which firefighters am I looking for. The yellow or the red ones. “I don’t know, the ones’ that are closer!” Later I found out that the difference between the two is in their affiliation to two different voluntary firefighter unions. I don’t really understand the situation, but I’ll survive even not knowing this.
I also know that there are at least two Paraguay. Depending on the prism through which we look at the situation. One big and obvious divider is the river Paraguay. This river on the banks of which the capital Asuncion is situated, divides the country between a hilly, relatively humid, agricultural East and dry plains of the West which are home to huge livestock farms. And this difference in access to water also reflects in the way the land is populated. In the East it’s hard to find a stretch of road longer than 10km that would not have a village or a small town. In the West you can consider yourself lucky if you see any signs of settlement every 50km.
What I did make sure is that Paraguayans also are super friendly and hospitable people. And this makes crossing the Chaco more bearable, nicer.
Chaco is a huge plan that covers the Western two thirds of the country. The roads here are straight, leading into what seems like infinity. Traffic is scarce, the countryside is monotonous.
Yet another day you are fighting northerly wind which is so hot and dry that makes your mouth dry as a pepper. The asphalt is at least 10 degrees hotter than in the shade where it’s already 40 degrees. Shade, at least the kind you can use is a scarce commodity. And then, in the distance you can see a communications antenna. Maybe there is something there you say to yourself. And you push on. The antenna is obviously further away than you hope. Every turn of the pedal becomes more difficult. Every gust of wind that slows you down is cursed. The mouth is dry. You feel your body overheating and the only thing you wish for is that you could stop and took a rest.
There is a house next to the antenna, the caretaker. You are “greeted” by the dogs whose barking alerts the owner. And the lady offers you a chair in the shade, sheltered from the find. And the owner offers you a huge plastic bottle full of ice cold water, straight from the fridge. You are left speechless!
It could also happen that at the end of yet another hot day without a shade and with relentless wind, you stop at the last shop in Rio Verde. There are actually two shops, one on the left side of the road, the other on the right side. I turn left. A friendly owner, Norma starts chatting. I buy some cold water and go out for a smoke. With the intent to return to buy some onion and tomatoes as to give some variety to the pasty that I have on the menu for tonight. And the owner, Joel approaches me. “Have you already eaten?” “Well yes, some cookies.” “Come, let me give you some empanadas.” I don’t wait for a second invitation.
After a delicious late snack I sit outside. In the shade where there is already a small group, the owners and some locals. We drink ice cold terere (a local drink, similar to the Argentinian mate, only that this one is prepared with cold juice or water) and we talk. The time is approaching the point of day when I should be looking for a place to pitch my tent. I ask Joel if he has any space behind the house. Sure, we’ll find something. And then he quickly adds: “Don’t worry, we’ll prepare a room and a bed for you!”
“No, I don’t need a room. A place to pitch my tent will do just fine!”
“Well, if you want to sleep in the tent you can go to some other place. If you’ll stay here you will sleep in a room!”
At the end of the hottest and windiest day, just before the sunset I dragged myself to a semi ruined larger building. I enter the courtyard and a man, Luis comes towards me. It turns out this is a military post thou there are only three, maybe four men stationed here.
I ask for permission to camp, using the building as a windbreaker. He shows me a dormitory with an empty bunk bed. “Here you will be sheltered from the wind and will have a roof over your head. There’s the shower, water is drinkable. If you need anything else, just ask.”
After the shower I make myself some coffee and then I go outside to drink it accompanied by a cigarette. It’s a standard ritual that I have. It sort of makes me realize I’m saying goodbye to yet another day on this carousel that we call Life.
I notice the wind has changed. It’s coming from the South. This new wind brings freshness, smell of water. Half an hour later come the lightings, thunders and brief storm. And I have a roof over my head, isn’t that great!
And so I was once again, in an otherwise inhospitable surroundings of the Chaco, shown by the Universe that hospitality is one of the most natural of human reactions. And that the World is, in spite of what the media, capital and politicians are trying to make us believe, full of good, friendly people.
It’s just that sometimes you have to make an effort to get to them!
With a Smile on my face, until next time!