Markus is out of the house by 5:45 and so I had to be too with my plan to cross the border and end up somewhere near San Francisco, where I’d be meeting Nora, one of 200 Peace Corp volunteers in Paraguay. San Francisco is about 135km from Markus’ place, so you can imagine my frustration when after travelling 207km I was 130km away.
I’d already crossed the Posadas – Encarnación border with Gaz, on our way up to Iguazu, and so I decided that I’d take the border crossing 100km up river. I’d asked at the border in Posadas, which was 5km from where Markus lives, and been told that there was immigration there. When I arrived 100km later it turned out there was, kind of. There were however a couple of problems. When I arrived at the control point of the dam the security told me that there definitely wasn’t anyway for me to go over. It was private property, and while I could go on a tour, only people from the nearby towns of Ituzaingo and Ayolas could cross.
When I explained that I’d been told my immigration that I could cross, the security guards made some phone calls assuring me they’d do what they were able to. Their bosses were really lovely too, and would have no problem with me crossing but for one small problem. There was Argentinian immigration to leave the country, but no one on the Paraguayan side to stamp me in. Failure.
I had the choice of doubling back to Posadas, to cross at the Posadas-Encarnación border, or going on to the next one, some 400km away. It took me forever to make a choice, as I refused to toss a coin to make it easier. In the end I decided that my desire to see Paraguayan life through Peace Corp eyes was stronger than that of my dislike of doubling back and rode 15km back to a toll booth on the road I’d come along, and realised just how nice a nice tailwind I’d had helping me that morning. I waited a couple of hours trying to hitch a lift, but the lack of traffic that had been so lovely on the ride meant there was slim pickings and no-one wanted to give me a lift. By the time the sun was going down I knew my chances of finding a lift were even smaller so stopped the next bus that came along and got to spend $8 on two tickets, apparently my bike needed her own.
Back in Posadas I skipped the idea of going back to Markus’ place. He would be working at the exact same time the next day, and I didn’t want to have to get up quite as early. Gaz and I had been well received by the bomberos a couple of weeks earlier, so I went there to find that the boss was out and chatted with a bombero there for the best part of an hour. When his boss did end up coming back, I was told that for some reason he didn’t want people staying there – apparently something had happened, but they didn’t want to elaborate – but because I’d been waiting so long they’d let me sleep on the floor in the parking area. It definitely wasn’t my best sleep. I was just a few metres away from a frequently called-out fire engine. I know this because the driver liked to turn his siren on before he left the station and leave it on when he came back, waking me up each time. There was even one guy who decided to hose down his car at 4am that ended up spraying me… maybe thinking that I smelt bad.
Not long after sunrise I was up with very ominous clouds in the sky. It started raining as I entered Paraguay and I made it to the front of the bank to hide away and eat breakfast. I kept going, when the rain briefly stopped, but within 2km I was rushing for cover as it resumed hammering it down. That seemed to last a couple of hours, which I made the best of by reading my book and then taking a nap at the table of a closed bar on the beach.
The rest of the day took that pattern of intermittent rain and me only riding during the breaks. I didn’t get so far, but I did get to start and finish the wonderful Growing Pains of Adrian Mole. In the late afternoon the rain stopped so I pushed on and got to the town of General Delgado where the police let me stay with them. If only I had arrived the day before, which would have happened without the Yacyreta detour, I’d have got to share a barbecue as they’d been celebrating the day of the policeman. After showing me the shower, they found me a quiet place for me to put my tent up with a roof in case it rained. No one woke me up with sirens or washed me while they were washing their car. A definite improvement.
Back in Montevideo, I’d switched to my new Schwalbe and was carrying my almost failed one as a reserve. On further thought I realised that was about as useful as a moth-eaten safety blanket. Not being willing to throw it out, I put it on with the idea that I’d ride it until it failed, which happened about 500km later and turned what would have been a short ride to Nora’s place in San Francisco into a ridiculousness, not helped by the fact that of the 4 fixed spare tubes I was carrying 2 turned out to not have been repaired properly and one had the valve break. Of course my 1/4 chance of picking the right tube meant it went in only after the other 3 had all failed. Thankfully it was working, because my puncture repair kit glue had leaked everywhere, and wasn’t going to be much help to fix the failed tubes. The good side was that the 3rd time I stopped to fix the flat it was outside a house (mainly cos they had shade) and I was immediately included in the tereré circle. Southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay all love their maté, a tea that is drunk so hot that the zone is apparently victim to the world’s highest rate of throat cancer. Tereré is the Paraguayan version, made from cold water, drunk whenever it’s hot.
I arrived at Nora’s place and during my two days in her small pueblo of San Francisco I drank plenty of maté and tereré. It seems to be the glue that holds lives together. They wake up early, maybe at 5am, and spend an hour drinking maté. Then there’s more maté time during mid-morning while lunch is being prepared, sometimes a bit more after lunch, and then a nap, followed by more, some tereré (or maté) around sunset and you might throw in some more later. I’ve never seen a person drink maté or tereré alone, it’s all about the sitting round and chatting while the circle makes its way around, with the people being careful to never say gracias as that’d mean you didn’t want any more rather than thanking them for pouring you anything – it takes a lot of effort and tongue biting for me to receive something without saying thank you – leading to many confused foreigners who don’t know that culture wondering why they keep getting skipped in the circle.
Nora works for the US Peace Corp, a government run programme where people are sent out to developing countries to help out, and it was really interesting talking to her about life. She has only been in country for about 6 months, of a 2 year 3 month stay, and is still finding her feet. There is 3 months of training to start the job, and then you’re sent to your site to just be there for another 3 months before you’re expected to really work on anything. In Paraguay there are four different types of volunteers – agriculture, health, economics and environment – with Nora being there for health. That involved her trying to get more people to wash their hands, to wear footwear so they’d avoid the local parasite and to lower their blood pressure. There didn’t seem to be much guidance from above, much more of an idea of let people get into the communities, make contacts and get going. My initial reaction was that it’s incredibly vague and I don’t quite get how they expect people to do things. Working on the diet in a community where most people live off the food they grow would, at some level, involve persuading them to throw away the foods they have traditionally eaten and that grow best and replacing them with … something else. Yes, you can definitely argue that a ridiculous amount of soft drinks are drunk and the amount of sugar put in drinks is phenomenal (I saw a cup of tea being made with 4 heaped TABLESPOONS!), but persuading them to eat less of their traditional foods sounds hard. As far as hand hygiene, there are plenty of studies showing that surgeons don’t always wash theirs ahead of surgery and they know all about the risk that can cause. One thing that Nora has is a walking club, and I think that’s a fantastic way – even though research show that diet is far more important than exercise for weight loss – to foster relationships and improve the health of those who go.
Small town Paraguayan life is all about sharing, and we were fed and given drinks multiple times over the two days I stayed in town. We would wander around and be invited in to chat and share a drink. It’s a fabulous custom, and the amount of the day that’s spent talking, mainly among families, is just amazing. I’d run out of topics, but they seem to have no problem chatting for hours on end with the same, limited, group of people. I had the normal range of questions, with only one slightly more awkward conversation when the topic of religion came up. I was asked about my faith, and when I tried to give a detailed (and evasive) reply the man was insistent that it was a yes/no question. I really think it’s a lot more complicated than that, but he wouldn’t take it, until somehow the conversation veered elsewhere when he expressed his regret about how he is unable to hit his students as they definitely learnt before when they were scared of the teacher. I was much more comfortable talking about that, having seen teachers in Korea well overstepping the mark when they let their emotions cloud the way they dealt with a student.