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The Road Less Travelled

IguazuIguaçu Falls had been one of the major milestones along my meandering path across South America. It was also responsible for my northerly track in Paraguay from Encarnación into Brazil instead of continuing south to Argentina. Thus, there was no longer a reason to keep me here in Foz do Iguaçu. I’d been here 5 nights and I have to beware of the smothering beast of ‘comfort’ sneaking up on me. Familiarisation of a location encourages roots of habit probing fertile ground for establishing a new home. The beast tells me “Stay here, life gets easier.” but what it does is use its cosy blanket to try to suffocate my spirit.

Mandala Garden,Foz do IguazuThis morning was born hot and airless, whipping up a lingering sweat from the lethargic effort of packing and loading. I had one more rest in the hammock to cool down and gather my thoughts before taking off. “I’ll have to get one of these…” I thought to myself. Especially after the lack of places to rest at Tati Yupi. I’d short-changed myself by not buying a hammock sooner.

Foz do IguazuOn my way to Ruta 277, I discovered the kiosks where the hostel receptionist said I should look. Cheap. Only about £15, and I double strapped it, still in its black bag, on top of the luggage on the back of the bike.

At the junction to 277; down the road to the left lay the border with Paraguay. I glanced that way beyond the traffic one more time before turning the page into a brand new chapter, turned right toward the Atlantic coast of Brazil.

Florianópolis on the coast was the next big box to be ticked and that was about three days away. Two if I was desperate: 930km via Curitiba.

Much of 277 is fast smooth dual carriageway necessitating a constant watch in the mirrors for tired truck drivers roaring up behind me. Over a long period, it becomes tiring and numbingly tedious.

The further from Foz I got, thinner the traffic became and two hours saw me about 150 kilometres away with dark clouds looming over the horizon ahead of me. Right then, a convenient cafe appeared around a bend.in the countryside. Just the job… an oasis of relief from monotony and foul weather. My waterproofs had blown away somewhere between Cuidad Del Este and Tati Yupi so my revised tactic was to dive for shelter before encountering rain and wait for it to pass.

I’m ready for a break after two or three hours and I use this opportunity to enjoy a coffee during the shower and search the web for somewhere to stop for the night along the way. A lakeside wild camp spot at picnic area pops up on iOverlander.com, just to the south of Ruta 277 at Rio Bonito do Iguaçu, 300km from Foz. Another three hours and I would be there. After about an hour and a half enjoying the coffee and peaceful ambience while watching the showers come and go, the weather noticeably brightens up and I hit the road,

 

After the rain, the air feels surprisingly cold in contrast to the sweaty heat of Foz and I stop to retrieve the orange mountain jacket from the pannier.

ShelterA couple of hours longer in the saddle, I’m cold and tired and had already ducked into bus shelters during brief showers and a false alarms by the time rain started to fall consistently at Nova Laranjeiras.

 

I swung into a supermarket to buy some peanuts and beer for later but I sat on the sheltered seat outside the supermarket grazing on the nuts, keen to move on but reluctant to get wet, listening to the car tyres hiss on the shimmering asphalt as they drove by.

I set off as the rain eased but before it had spent its last few drops, and by the time I reached the junction for Rio Bonito I felt chilled to the core. Just before the junction, there’s a terrace of shops set back in a large layby including what looks like a trucker’s cafe. I doubled back the fifty metres or so, and pulled in to warm up with a hot coffee and meal. The sky threatened rain but the clouds appeared to slowly creep away and I felt certain the sky brightened a little despite the looming dusk dragging the afternoon westward into night time.

Rodovia, Lanjeiras do SulI’d had enough of the fast and aggressive Ruta 277. What use is travel if it’s only about saving time? Where will that saved time be spent?  It’s not that I didn’t like the road, it was the attention that the fast traffic took from me. I wanted to enjoy the scenery and the journey here and now. I plotted the following day’s escape on the GPS searching for “The Road Less Travelled,”

Rerouting along the more southerly Ruta 280 toward the smaller town of Caçador instead of Curitiba looked the part. Perhaps longer, certainly slower. This put Rio Bonito en route which made me feel better about that particular detour. I didn’t even care if the road turned out to be dirt track, as long as it was warm, peaceful and scenic. Somebody showed me a picture of a sinuous mountain road in the state of Santa Catarina. I was in that state now but had no idea where the pass was. A simple question in a Facebook group returned dozens of sarcastic and unhumourous replies but, later,  also the single answer revealed. Further south, I would visit Serra do Rio do Rastro in the weeks to come.

I only had 15km to the camp spot which I estimated half an hour if the trail was typically rugged cobbles or earth. I wanted to be there by dark so paid the bill and bid my farewell to the friendly proprietor of Lanchonette Rodovia and traverse the huge layby back to the road.

I pull out onto the last few hundred metres of the 277 before the junction with Ruta 158, turn south on the dim and chilly asphalt to Rio Bonito do Iguaçu and then rattle along the cobbled track in twilight down to the Rio Iguaçu lagoon, its presence betraying the likely existence of a hydroelectric dam somewhere in the valley.

I had been travelling east all day but this route southwest now drives me into the clutches of a squall which starts to pummel me in earnest only about a kilometre from my destination. I locate the site, squinting through wet, misty spectacles in the gloom, and ride directly into the picnic area past the “Veículos Proibidos” sign and pitch the tent as fast as possible.

By now the downpour is established with the wind is driving the rain at a shallow slant soaking through my coat to my back as I wrestle and pin the tent to the ground. My eagerness for shelter seems to put every movement into slow motion but finally, I get the rainfly fastened over the dome and dive inside into 1cm deep puddles. The vulnerability of the design of this tent means that the waterproof groundsheet becomes a paddling pool while setting up in the rain, The rainfly can only be added after the inner is securely up.

Kneeling in water, I use my microfibre towel to sponge out and dry the interior the best I can. My clothes and bags are wet but the bag’s contents are dry and I do my best to keep them separated from the wet items.

Almost dark, I decide to turn in, stripping off my wet clothes but keeping on my t-shirt and underwear hoping that my body heat will dry them out while I sleep.

It works I awake dry and warm but the clothes I took off are still soaking and I get dressed cringing like I’m wading into a cold pond.

Rio Bonito do IguazuThe warm morning sun dries out the tent while I’m packing and I’m away by 10.30. I feel content in the dry warm air under a blue sky marbled with white cloud. It should be a good day for drying out in the airstream on the bike. People sit in the cabana about 60 metres away and I give them a wave wondering whether I should offer to pay for camping. I decide to coast out of the park slow enough that they can approach me if they want to. Nobody moves and I retrace the trail back to Ruta 158 and turn on my revised route south.

The warmth of the sun, the rustic roads and the chill of the air reminds me of Anglesey where the wind blows steadily off the Irish Sea before being thrust upwards over Snowdonia condensing the moist air into thick dark clouds. These quiet country roads of rustic asphalt become a more agreeable platform for absorbing Brazil’s natural ambience as its grass verges rush by to the hum of the Yamaha motor.

By lunchtime, the sun burns strong from overhead, branding thoughts of refreshment and urging me to park the bike in the shade at the side of an inviting looking roadside restaurant nestling behind a gas station.

Walking in and picking a table near the window, I order lunch and orange juice and relaxed and gazed out over the white-hot expanse of dust and gravel to the road about 100 meters away watching the world going about its business in, out and past the gas station here on the edge of town.

“Do my friends and family miss me?” I wonder. Nobody really knows where I am… I barely know where I am myself “What town is this?” I check and then later forget. What difference does it make what others think? Here and now is all we really have and it’s what we, ourselves, think about it that’s important…

I finish my second cup of coffee, pay and step out into the car park. The sun has moved far enough so the bike is no longer in the shade and everything feels hot to the touch. The air stream that dried my clothes earlier now only has to keep me cool.

I stash the dried jacket back in the pannier and ride in my fleece and t-shirt since it lets the air through to cool me and protects me from sunburn at the same time. The arm and leg shields in the bag have never been used. Correction, they were used once on the mountainside stretch between Santa Teresa and Santa Maria returning from Machu Picchu, Peru but they wouldn’t have helped the 100-metre plunge off the trackside cliffs and I got a sweat rash under the straps. They are too uncomfortable to wear. I need to get rid of them. I ride as I first started on my first bike in 1979: plain clothes. I just have to make sure I don’t come off… it could hurt more.

The shadow stretching out ahead of me tells me the afternoon is wearing thin. Up ahead dark clouds gather but seem to be moving in the same direction as me. I’m 40km from Caçador before I hit cold air and wet road. The sun is still bright in the azure sky behind me but the storm has already visited here not too long ago and I’m gaining on it. I didn’t want the same experience as yesterday so started looking for somewhere to camp, but where? Most places along the road are fenced off and there is nothing shown on the map between me and Caçador.

CacadorOut of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a gap in the grass bank to the left and double back for a closer look. Tractor tracks carving their way into the woods. I follow the muddy tracks into the wet undergrowth of a pine forest, no gates, no fences. This could be a logging track judging by all the trucks I’ve seen along the roads fully laden with stripped and cut pine trunks.

CacadorDown a slick muddy slope, I turn right onto wet grass and pine needles to discover another narrow track traversing a ridge. High ground is what I need if it’s going to rain again. Over the ridge and down the slope is a beautiful pond. The water looks too green to drink and the ground is too low to ensure dry camping so I return up the slope to the crest of the ridge. I can see traffic on the road from here about 100 metres away but they can’t see me this far into the woods and I pitch the tent on the crest of the ridge directly on the trail. I expect no traffic due to the established plant growth all the way along it.

CacadorThe trees dampen the noise of the passing trucks and cloak me in a blanket of silence. The last of the day’s sun paints tiger stripes through the trees across the orange carpet of pine needles and picks out the pale emerald raindrops hanging on the ferns and leaves of the verdant undergrowth. Cool and colourful: literally and metaphorically.

I attempt to string up the hammock using the straps off the bike. They aren’t long enough for the diameter of the trees, it’s not warm enough, it’s too wet and a few mosquitos persuade me to retreat to the tent.

CacadorThere’s an understated life force here in the peace of the forest, without boundary restriction or regulation. This is what we are born to, the gift of life, why should my first thought be “Am I doing wrong by simply being here?” The answer is, it shouldn’t and perhaps even asking the question is a form of insanity induced by the conditioning by and for civilisation. A civilisation that keeps us chained to the treadmill of work, money and sleep blindly trying to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of modern life at the expense of our innate humanity. Where does all this paper authority and artificial restriction come from?

Best not think about it, I settle back on the sleeping bag and read a Kindle book and graze on peanuts until darkness falls and my eyes begin to close with fatigue and contentment…

Foz do Iguazu to Rio Bonito do Iguazu

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Across the Rio Paraná

Cuidad del Este BackstreetsEnding the fast and leaving Tati Yupi felt as if it were my first day out of prison, Reintroduced to society with freedom to roam again. I enjoyed Tati Yupi but I had been keen to escape my self imposed austerity. The meal at Hernandarias had been an anticlimax: functional food with little enjoyment.

ITAIPU BinacionalI cruised the few short kilometres and parked my fully loaded bike in the ITAIPU Binacional Car park and signed up for the tour. I bought a hat from the gift shop to protect me from the sun but I didn’t need it. There was little walking between the buses and the viewpoints so I just looked like a dam tourist.

The ITAIPU site is immaculate. Air-conditioned buses drive a circuitous route to the viewpoint and along the dam. Everything apart from the English subtitles of the film in the immaculate cinema was in Spanish. The tour from the Paraguayan side is free but the Brazilain side is paid but you get the privilege of seeing inside.

Back in the city, many hotels appeared to be closed for refurbishment. The ones that were open were more expensive than their equivalents further out of the city. All I wanted was a few nights on a soft mattress and some air conditioning. The Hummingbird hostel came up cheap, air-conditioned and not far from the centre. The people were very welcoming although the place looked a little tatty around the edges. Sylvia gave me some sheets and showed me the last available bed in a four berth dorm.

It was basic but clean and comfortable. The Dutch guy next to me didn’t say much and left early the next morning backpacking southeast toward Argentina. The two Korean girls were friendly and chatted happily in English. They also left, leaving me in solitude for the second night.

The dorm was hot in the late afternoons. The air conditioner didn’t come on until dusk and the single skinned walls shared the hot rays of the afternoon sun with the dark interior.

I discovered the Wunderli Cafe as an alternative haven just down the road. I could hang out there in cool, air-conditioned comfort. Both the hostel and cafe bordered a large tranquil park that seemed to be left with a wild but tranquil edge. I was close to the city but far enough away from the hustle and bustle of the markets and malls to experience the calm of nature.

I’d describe Cuidad Del Este as a commercial hub. It has little charm or tourist appeal but I liked it. I felt like I lived on the edge of another world, which it is since it looks east across the Paraná at the vastness of Brazil.

This is somewhere I could live easily long-term on short-term tourist visas, border hopping to Argentina or Brazil to refresh the rubber stamps in the passport. Cuidad Del Este doesn’t try to be anything other than itself.

Hummingbird HostelI had booked into Hummingbird for two nights and would have liked to have stayed longer but they had already been fully booked for the weekend. Instead of looking for somewhere else in Cuidad Del Este, I decided I’d cross into Brazil and find somewhere to stay in Foz do Iguaçu. It knocks down a barrier for thinking further ahead for my continuation to the Atlantic coast.

Brazilian BorderThe border offices are at each ends of the bridge. Migraciones was straightforward. Stamp, vamos. Paraguay’s Aduanas offices were hard to find and turned out to be the little blue kiosks between the carriageways. They looked like toll booths. I handed in my blue form and was waved away without any receipt or acknowledgement.

The bike lane across the bridge was barely wide enough for my loaded bike. And I’d feel the bags brush the concrete barrier where the lane narrowed by displaced blocks. Not all the traffic stops at the border offices. There’s a steady stream across the bridge in both directions.

A helpful young girl at the Brazilian side spoke English and spared the time to guide me to the correct desks. The Aduanas office was like a warehouse despatch depot. A steady stream of people were ferrying boxes of goods out of Paraguay and into Brazil via the rubber stamps of the Aduanas customs officials. From the road, the border looked so busy that I expected to spend the day there. I was through within an hour. Seems most of the traffic drives straight over the border without stopping.

Mnadala Hostel, Foz Do IguacuMandala Hostel came up cheap and close to the centre of Foz do Iguaçu on booking.com and I booked 5 nights, straight off, via Hummingbird’s WiFi. It’s always a risk committing to a long stay but I wanted a secure base for exploring the falls and catch up on some work.

The hostel looked like a large converted bungalow. A Hammock in the front garden and big rooms full of bunks. Two bunks in my room were doubles so they alone would take 8 people. The other four were single bunk beds so that was another 8. At most, there were 13 of us overnight and it was interesting to observe that all of them were engrossed in their smartphone screen, even the group of friends that settled in that day. I smiled to myself and returned to my facebook app.

Madala DormFoz do Iguaçu is the second most visited tourist site in Brazil. Consequently, backpackers would come and go at all hours. Russel and Zippy weren’t shy about living amongst people. Russel would fumble through his various plastic bags and Zippy would search through every compartment of her rucksack unzipping and zipping them up one by one as she went and repeating the process until whatever item was eventually found, often under the light of an Iphone LED light that could rival a small star so as not to disturb anyone by flipping on the light.

Uninterrupted sleep was hard to come by…

Around the town, Foz is a contrast to Cuidad del Este. Pretty avenues and clean smoothly paved streets of quality shops and cafes. More expensive too, and seemingly not so busy. January and February are ‘high’ season for vacations but Foz still felt tranquil and laid back. Perhaps all the people were busy harvesting the tax-free fruits of Chinese slave labour over the river in Cuidad Del Este.

With a supermarket and cafe so close to the hostel, I hardly needed to take the bike out which remained in the garden until taking the trip to Iguaçu Falls

On the third day, I set off for the falls on the Yamaha. It was an easy ride. Turn right on Avenida das Cataratas and continue along the Avenida until you come to the Cataratas. The visitor centre is set well away from the falls, about 10km, which means parking the bike at the car park at ‘car’ prices (no discount for having fewer wheels or taking up half as much space), queueing to buy a ticket and then queuing in the airport-sized queue for a bus to the falls.

Foz do Iguacu bus terminalThe bus terminal was packed. I’d got there early so as to beat the rush along with everyone else in Brazil having the same thought. Once on the bus, driving through the forest cooled and refreshed me ready for the stroll along the river.

Selfie warsWe all evacuated the bus at the first viewpoint to jostle for a good view and photo opportunity of the falls before we drifted down the path in a herd.  The mammoth falls roar through the valley parallel to the trail. Selfie sticks and arms stretch out across the trail to obstruct the dense flow of tourists along the narrow path. Even the most leisurely of paces is forced down to an energy-sapping dawdle.

Selfie warsSuccess in passing one group allowed a brief few paces before being blocked by another. I told myself there was no rush and to go with what there was of the flow. this was a strategy difficult to enjoy. Ducking under selfie sticks felt far more progressive and engaging whatever the result.

IguazuI’d finished the snaking trail that links the succession of viewpoints within a couple of hours and had returned to the visitor centre by lunchtime. The queues had now all evaporated into the mist of the waterfalls. There was nobody left waiting in the departure hall. Arriving at Noon is a far better choice.

Triple FrontierOn the way back to the Mandala, I took a detour to see the triple frontier from the Brazilian viewpoint. In contrast to the Paraguayan side, which you can see in the picture, this view to the triple frontier had been fenced off and sentried by a ticket office. Restricted to paying customers only. Artificial scarcity is a great business strategy: take what’s already free and sell it back to people. I’d already seen the frontier from Paraguay anyway and I could see Paraguay from the car park for free so I looked across the river thinking about tomorrow’s visit to the Argentinian side of Iguaçu Falls.

Iguazu

IguazuThere’s no denying that the Iguaçu Falls is an impressive experience but the density of tourists helped me decide that I wouldn’t bother going the following day, especially with the added inconvenience of Immigration and Currency Exchange. I’d be better off helping ease the density for everyone else by staying away. I don’t mind doing my bit to ease other’s suffering… Instead, I decided to visit the Parque Do Aves (Avery, or bird zoo) that I’d passed earlier on my way back from the falls…

Scarlet Ibis

Foz do Iguacu

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Seven Ghosts

Tati YupiTurning north onto the supercarretera from Ruta 7, the airstream blew the edge off the heat of the afternoon sun, I reflected on the enjoyable day and its variety that emerged from another step into the unknown and the unplanned. I’d coasted around Cuidad Del Este, killing time I would have called it in the past.

Triple FrontierThe Triple Frontier: there’s nothing to see apart from a couple of lookout points that look out over imaginary lines from a different direction, almost like the tale of “The King’s New Clothes” Man-made lines drawn on a map that exist in reality only by collective belief and then define which set of rules apply to which people that live on whichever side of the river. The trees and plants look the same. The bird that flies over my head across the river to Brazil has more freedom that we do. Where’s its passport? I take a photo over the river anyway. Invisible walls that are used to imprison ourselves using our own minds. It’s brilliant.

Triple FrontierI realised I’d been daydreaming and couldn’t tell how long ~I’d been travelling or how far I’ve gone and pulled over to check the GPS. I’d passed it 8km back, quite a way considering the original distance was only 17km. I doubled back to an entrance with a sign the size I can’t believe I missed.

Tati Yupi EntranceTwo guards asked me for my permit. I didn’t understand what they wanted and handed them my passport so they phoned Juan at the visitor centre who instructed them to send me in. They point along the track. “7km,” they say.

 

I clipped my helmet to the rack and notice my hat and waterproofs have worked their way loose and escaped somewhere between here and Cuidad del Este. I rode ‘hatless’ along the track.

Mud TyreThere had been rain recently, within the last day or two judging by the thin dry crust concealing the underlying slick and sticky terracotta. The clay coagulated on the tyres, eliminating what little grip I had and I slithered along the road trying to follow the dryest looking tyre tracks to stay upright.

I reached the reception within about twenty minutes or half an hour. The second set of guards asked me for the permit which I didn’t have. Juan came out of the visitor centre and waved them away. Apparently, the person who authorises the permits isn’t at the ITAIPU Reception where I should have visited first. I remember seeing their huge entrance a few km south of here.

Juan's note.The Parque is closed to visitors for the next two days. I felt fairly privileged and I wasn’t really expecting to gain entry so easily else I would have thought about buying some food on the way. With the guards on the gates and the long slick driveway, it was enough of a deterrent for going back out for groceries.

Plan B: was to ride to Hernandarias to a campsite there if I couldn’t enter Tati Yupi. Plan C: I’d been meaning to try a three day fast for a while so here was the perfect opportunity. Plenty of time, no food. Two birds, one stone and all that.

ITAIPU LagoonThe staff left the office for the new year holiday and would be back in a couple of days. There was just me, a couple of guards on the gate and the drowned ghosts of the river Paraná. I was 7km from the road so could hear no traffic and there were no fireworks or boom boom music. Apart from food, the only thing I missed was somewhere comfortable to sit. Wooden benches were all there were. WiFi was out of range of the power sockets so a relay between the two sets of hard benches was necessary. I found it hard to concentrate, having no comfortable workspace.

I wandered down to the river, or lake such is the immensity of it. The thin line of the Itaipu dam protruding above the waterline gave a hint as to the impact of the building of the dam. The flooding of the river buried the most powerful waterfalls in the world making Iguazu the successor.

Carlos Drummond de AndradeThe water was lower than maximum revealing the sharp mussel shells on the dry beach of cracked mud. Enough to turn me back to the soft grassy bank from where I embarked barefoot to the water for a swim.

Tati YupiI’d done 24-hour fasts before but this experiment was different.

Day 1. Nothing to report. I’d done 24 hours before regularly. Edited some video and walked along the river Parana lagoon shore above ITAIPU Dam.

Day 2. Heavy limbs, listless, no energy for anything except reading, no capacity for study or thought. Forget blogging or video editing. Looking forward to forum reports of ‘feeling amazing Day 3.’ The consoling thought that I was now two thirds through and only a day to go.

Day 3. The ‘feeling amazing’ feeling never appeared. Heavy limbs, nausea, ‘never-again’ feeling, I was tempted to abandon the experiment, even so close to the end. A passing thunderstorm took the heat out of the day and made the tent bearable and helped me sleep through the day and night.

Day 4. The 72 hours finished late in the morning. I still felt weak and didn’t feel like cooking or eating but I cooked up the pasta and ate half of it. I had to exit Tati Yupi the following morning so I had a full day for recovery. It took an hour or two after eating before I started feeling better. Then I finished off the rest of the pasta and spent the rest of the day reading and finished a couple of half-read kindle books.

Day 5. I felt almost back to normal and happily packed and loaded the bike. I rode into Hernandarias to search for a ‘comedor’ for breakfast.  The best I could find served a plate of a segment of sawn-off leg, rice and creamy sauce with a vegetable salsa plus a litre of apple juice and soya. It was the best they had, barring chips and coke. I could only finish a third of it. It looked like I’d just stirred it with my fork and left it but I was full and keen to go to the ITAIPU-Dam tour, just down the road. Evening meal was a small chicken lomito (shwarma wrap) with a couple of glasses of Mango juice. Starter size, but I was full.

Day 6. Breakfast at the Hummingbird Hostal was a jam sandwich, a cup of coffee and orange squash. Enough to see me through to Chicken burritos and Peach juice in the evening.

ButterflyIt was hard to tell if there was any benefit for the fasting. True, I felt good now but I didn’t really feel bad before. And how do you gauge a healthy immune system without the illnesses that reveal its weakness? It reminded me of the preventative Y2K work that was done in 1999 and bosses complaining about wasting the money on it since nothing bad seemed to happen when the year 2000 clicked over in the digital universe… As it was, I’d only been ill twice in the year I’d been here in South America. Once through dehydration and once as a side effect of the Yellow Fever jab: both self-inflicted.

ITAIPU BinacionalFors:

Cheap; Solved the problem of arriving at Tati Yupi without food for four days; Cooler body temperature for sleeping in the hot climate; Constipation for 5 days (handy for being out and about later); No longer craved food; Gone off beer in favour of fruit juice; Smaller appetite; Smaller stomach; Broke lifelong conditioning for clearing my plate because “There are people starving in Africa”… i.e. less pressure to finish off a plate of food since I feel full sooner and finishing is a bigger stretch (literally); Feeling more energetic (2 days after); Feeling more contented for no identifiable reason (2 days after). Preference for more fresh food and less junk.

Against:

Limbs feel twice as heavy (Day 2 and 3); Bored; Depressed; Chronic discomfort standing, sitting or laying down; Unable to exercise; Unable to think or write; Chronic back-ache; Nausea; Unwilling to move; all these during the fast.

Lessons:

Have food ready for the end before you start. Luckily, I carry a jar of pasta sauce and bag of pasta in my kit for emergencies. Have someone close for support – it’s a hard haul on your own.

Notes:

If you have a medical condition don’t do a three day fast without medical advice, as your blood sugar might go haywire. I made my own choice and accepted the risks I was aware of as well as any I wasn’t.

Have someone with you for support. If food is to hand it’s harder to resist the worst of it but have something prepared ready for completion. If there were crisps or ice-cream about I might have failed. The nearest store was 10km away and I had to pass two guard posts for the refuge to get there – enough incentive to stay put.

Drink lots of water even when you’re sick of it. It will help. I could have drunk more but often I didn’t care much during the lowest feeling moments. This is where moral support helps.

Would I do it again? In the same circumstances… only if I had a hammock or a comfortable bed… the discomfort of camping felt a lot worse during the fast… and facilities to make tea. I had developed a backache that was slow to fade afterwards.

Also, I’d look for a group for mutual support and a more controlled environment, like at a retreat. Plus, I might research it a bit more along the way.

The main thing was, I had survived New Year in peace and tranquillity, just what I wanted. I set foot into a new year, cleansed by a three day fast, poised to cross the Rio Paraná into Brazil.

Although the Itaipu dam destroyed one habitat, it also created a new one. Refugio Tati Yupi on the banks of the bloated Rio Paraná. A tranquil habitat that helps provide 90% of Paraguay’s electricity and 15% of Brazil’s.  Clouds with Silver Linings. Even so, I take one last look over the water and spare a quiet moment for the silenced voices of the Seven Ghosts of the Guaira Falls 

Guaira Falls

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Triple Frontiers

Manantial YamahaON THE THIRD morning, I packed away, at Parque Manantial, and was away from Hohenau, through Obligado and Bella Vista northwards on the 250KM jaunt along Ruta 6. Within a couple of hours, black clouds closed in and I raced the storm to the next petrol station 3 km up the road and only losing the race by about 500 metres, enough to get wet but without getting soaked through, and sheltered under the canopy of the fuel station licking an ice cream over the twenty minutes of rain.

Natural TunnelI resumed my journey, drying out in the cool post-storm air. Ruta 6 is fast and busy but not half as much as Ruta 7 running east into Cuidad del Este. High-speed dual-carriageway thick with trucks and buses. I could use another 20km/h to feel safer but don’t want to rev the engine that high, even if it could reach that speed.

It’s early evening as I settle into the last few kilometres down the dual carriageway toward Cuidad del Este. I get a thumbs up from a rider joining Ruta 7 from the slip-road and I give him a wave before he speeds away.

Cuidad del Este Entering the city, I take the service road with its speed humps so I can slow down and look around more. Ruta 7 ploughs on through the heart of the city and eventually over the Rio Parana bridge on the Brazilian border.

In the west, we have motorway junctions with elevated roundabouts and on off ramps. Not here. We are on the same plane. A roundabout with a dual carriageway bisecting it. Speedhumps regulate traffic so if you doze at the wheel, you’ll be launched into the air but not high enough to clear the crossing traffic. It’s all negotiated by trust, eyes open or closed. Give way to those braver than you or those you can see aren’t looking your way.

Pousada del MondayI find my way south through the city to Pousada Del Monday, counting the junctions on Maps.me as I go. Pousada del Monday is a farm on the suburban edge south of the city next to the Saltos del Monday park (Monday Falls.) Mario finds it hilarious that I say in English Monday means “Lunes.” It’s a Guarani name and not the day of the week.

TentAfter pitching the tent, in the field, I stroll up the shop to buy a beer as a substitute for dinner and return. The deposit on the bottle is as much as the beer. therefore, you see no glass beer bottles littering the street… just plastic. There’s not a whisper of a breeze and my tent feels like a sauna so I wander across the field down to the picnic shelter to enjoy the beer while watching the sunset. Darkness slowly descends and I return to the tent and zip myself into the muggy interior. Saturday night music blares from over the treetops in the near distance. Fireworks pop and bang. Predictable, even though it’s only 29th December, it’s still Saturday night.

The noise and a rogue mosquito make for a long miserable night. When it wasn’t biting me it was whining in my ear.

Morning creeps around and I walk up the drive in anticipation towards a favourably reviewed vegetarian restaurant just up the road to find its under major refurbishment and closed for two weeks and I carry on past to drop off the bottle and collect my deposit.

If there was any doubt whether I should move on that morning, this tipped the balance. I decide to pack up and head up to the Tati Yupi refuge, a nature park above the Itaipu Dam. The plan B was a Christian Campsite at Hernandarias not far from there.

I dripped sweat packing away it was already so hot. I removed my fleece and put it on the chair next to the tent with my bike key on top of as I packed away. What could possibly go wrong, there was no-one about. I turned around to discover a cow chewing the sleeve of the fleece and, as I lurched toward it to grab it, it took off across the field with my fleece, dropping the key in the grass. The cow dropped the fleece in a small stream as it jumped across. I retrieved it and retraced my steps to find the key. I found it fairly easily but vowed to always keep the key clipped to my belt as I usually do. Somewhere else in the field lies the charge cable for the GoPro that was in the fleece pocket.

Salto del MondayPulling out of the gate, I ignore Saltos del Monday Park since foreigners are charged five times more than locals for entry, at $10US, and settle for a photograph of it from the road. I was hungry so the priority was to hunt for a cafe for breakfast that’s open on a Sunday.

I cruise northward to the City centre and end up taking a tour around it with still half an eye out for cafes, observing the bustle of busy glass-fronted malls surrounded by terraced market stalls along the streets, stacks of flattened cardboard boxes and the sound of packing tape being ripped off reels and wound around newly purchased electronics and old cardboard.

This is a mad place. Hoards of Brazilians flock across the border to save a fortune in Brazilian sales taxes. Paraguayans import cheap (and fake) goods from China to capitalise on the opportunity while customs officials are kept busy with documents and rubber stamps, panning for fees and penalties like gold prospectors.

Of course, not all goods are fake but it’s up to you to tell the difference and I’m sure you can find what you want if you know where to look. I needed a GoPro cable and came across a street vendor that finally had one. Yes, it fitted, No it didn’t work. It’s hard to tell whether there is any actual wire in it.

Triple FrontierTriple FrontierI rode back down to the Triple Frontera with Brazil. Argentina and Paraguay. I should have gone there first as it’s not far from Pousada del Monday but I had been thinking of food at the time and was even now still on the lookout. I’d read about the triple frontier years ago, about it being a hotbed of smuggling but I don’t see how unless the guards are in on it as you can see in all directions of the river. The way I see it, Ponta Pora and Pedro Juan Caballero is the place to go since there’s no river or fence separating the two countries.

The Triple Frontier was quiet. No cars were waiting on the ramp, no ferries were running and I looked east across the river at the Brazilian Viewpoint to the left and the Argentine Viewpoint to the right. The place was quiet enough for a camping spot but there’s nothing much to do, especially on a Sunday.

On the way back, I finally discovered the restaurant that seemed to be the only one open, busy with local customers (always a good sign) and nestling in the cheaper suburbs. I parked the bike under the awning of the closed store next door to keep it out of the searing heat of the midday sun.

Chicken and noodles with mandioca and a coke. Basic food, dirt cheap. Body refuelled, I returned to the city and explored the streets around the glass-fronted malls on the main roads again. Maybe I could get a new battery for my Hero3 GoPro. No, Hero4 is the oldest they cater for. I’m obsolete already. Not even a cheap Chinese knock-off to be had.

Cuidad del Este BackstreetsRound the back of the impressive high rise glass facades and flashing LED signs luring customers from among the shoals of shoppers, people in rags cook skewers of meat on homemade grills at the sides broken concrete streets while paper and plastic trash tumble in the breeze. A city with a facade as false as the brands it is peddling hiding the harsh lives that many people face. ‘Money makes the world go round’ so they say. It’s more like, the lack of money stops the world for those that don’t have it.

“Me? Just looking, not buying, thanks.” There is something very much “buyer beware” here and I can’t imagine any after-sales dispute being settled easily. Stores started closing at 4pm and the traffic soon built up to plug the only route back to Brazil, the single bridge across the Rio Parana to Foz do Iguazu.

The whole situation is crazy when you think about it. A whole ecology manufactured out of the artificial scarcity that bank-money creates. People trying to save their earnings from exploitative taxes in Brazil, people trying to make money from the differential of the price differential of local sales prices and the minuscule wage of Chinese workers and whatever’s left over from corporate profits. All this impacts quality and abundance. When I look around this continent, it is abundant in natural resources and manpower and it all seems ultimately choked by who controls the money. It’s a banker’s world and they are making a hash of it.

As the shutters start coming down, I turn west to the junction to the Supercarretera and it’s a straight run North past Itaipu to Tati Yupi. 17Km, straight on, you can’t miss it…

Manantial to Saltos del Monday Map

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Hohenau

Parque ManantialBOXING DAY, PACKING to leave the Maui Waui International Hostel in Encarnación, I notice the new back tyre is flat and cursed the Chacomer fitter back in Asunción. The bike is now fully loaded and I give the tyre a splashy kick to confirm its soft appearance. I don’t want to deal with it now so I inflate it and hope for the best. The pressure holds without any noticeable drop in the 5 minutes I finish tying up the loose ends. I smear a film of spit over the valve and its bubble remains flat. The leak isn’t at the valve.

My objective today is Hohenau, not far past Trinidad maybe only forty kilometres all told. A camping spot indicated on iOverlander as pleasant and cheap, two of my main criteria. The flat tyre is a distraction but I’m soon buzzing my way north out of my way out of Encarnación northward back towards the two missions of Trinidad and Jesus de Travarangue,

Hohenau. Stopping at the first set of traffic lights to check maps.me for the exact location, there it is on the screen, a km back: Camping Manantial. I pull into Parque Manantial mistaking it for a cheaper place the other side of town not realising until I pay for 3 nights at G50,000 per night. The woman on the gate speaks only German or Spanish, as do the owners.
“Sprechen ze Duetsch?” “Nein, lo siento. Ingles?” “Nein.” so it goes.

edge of the woodsI pitch my tent on the edge of the woods and the grass field furthest from the swimming pool. Good thing too as the usual bass rich music starts pumping out of a speaker down near the restaurant.

Tyre RepairParque Manantial is a well-presented place in woodland and fields over enormous grounds, hosting a popular swimming pool and smart restaurant. The location I had chosen to camp was far enough away to feel private. There are power sockets and I am at the limit of a WiFi signal but I’d go to the Restaurant for better reception.

PunctureThe buffet breakfast is delicious and the air conditioner in the Restaurant makes for luxurious relief in the muggy heat. Back at the tent, I break out the spares and tools and replace the inner tube of the back tyre and discover a hair’s width piece of wire in the back tyre, penetrating the inner tube.

ToolsMy suspicions about Chacomer were unfounded. In any case, I had taken a week to get to Encarnación without any problem. I took it all back forgiving my suspicious nature and apologising quietly to my innocent victim. I need some tyre levers to make the job easier. Bendy spoons and pliers make hard work of the task.

Victor Hugo BenitezVictor Hugo Benitez approaches me in the restaurant on the second morning. He’s the Chacomer Yamaha area supervisor for the whole of Paraguay and invites me to a barbeque at one of the dealers that is exhibiting the latest Yamaha bikes in Hohenau and I gratefully accept.

I ride up to Hohenau at 7.30 and meet half a dozen bikers already chatting together and over the next half hour, more bikers come rolling in from the north of the town. I sit and talk to Doda and his wife. They grew up in Asunción but their families moved up to Bella Vista 6km up the road to escape Stroessner’s curfews and hard rule years ago. Doda’s wife told me that Josef Mengele worked as a doctor in Obligado, in the next village, after the war and did a lot of good for the people here. Bad in war, good in peace.

Hohenau YamahaApparently, Hitler also lived for a time in the basement of a Hotel in Asunción. This was something that seemed to be commonly accepted knowledge in Paraguay. When I think back to my own spoon-fed history, I was told by my state-run institutions that Hitler shot himself in his bunker but I never questioned the lack of evidence. And why bother lying about it? And what else do they lie to me about? When I think back to how I was promised life would turn out if I went to school and worked hard, it was mostly lies for getting me to participate in a post-industrial compliant workforce. And getting robbed of my life’s gains by the Mortgage securities fuelled credit crunch in 2008 was the final straw. Never again…

Toward the end of the evening, a speech was given to round things off and I was honoured with a round of applause for my trip from Peru on the little Yamaha YB125, the smallest bike at the meet.

Encarnacion to Hohenau map

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Misiones: Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangue

Jesus de Tavarangue MissionSTRIKING CAMP AT San Cosme, I retraced my way back through the grassy network back up to the Observatory on the Plaza.

San Cosme CampingThen took the ludicrous decision to head for the Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangue missions only because I already had 2 days left of a 3-day ticket in my hand. These were 40km further on from Encarnación and I would pass them later anyway on the way to Cuidad Del Este. For the sake of £2.50, buying another ticket made much more sense, if only I had spared the thought.

Grassy LanesAnother short leg of 125km meant I could set off late and look around the San Cosme Mission between combing the surface of the sun for sunspots and pushing on for Encarnación along the solar heated asphalt.

San cosme yDamian Mission, ParaguayUnesco denied issuing a world heritage certificate to the San Cosme y Damian mission as it had been restored too much. Unesco likes things to be a little more ruined. I liked it restored. Besides, there are two less improved ruins not far away and they give a good contrast to a common template: the layouts are basically similar.

Looking at the building here and learning about how they lived I think I might have liked living as a Jesuit if it wasn’t for the threat of the Paulista slave traders raiding the countryside for easy pickings.

Bus StopA hot, bright day made the going tiring. Keeping the pace fast and swinging out of the way of the speeding trucks and buses away from the line of sight of the tired driver’s drooping eye-lids, I stopped to rest in the shade of a bus shelter about 15km from Encarnacion.

I removed my helmet and slumping on the cool concrete seat, under the hot concrete canopy in the warm concrete shade. Across the road, a silhouette of a man under a tree waved at me. I didn’t really want to be disturbed but he beckoned me over the road. The path of least resistance was to join him.

AristedesAristedes is his name and he runs the tyre shop right opposite the tree but there was no-one around to keep him busy. He straightened up a ubiquitous plastic patio chair, the modern emblem of third world living, and asked me about my trip. He showed me his Honda Titan 125 propped next to him, cleaner than mine and probably newer, and talked bikes.

We sat in the shade for a while away from the heat of the day, two parts silence, one part conversation. He rose from his seat and went into the tyre shop saying “Una minuto.” and emerged from the dark doorway carrying a half litre bottle of ice-cold mineral water, sparkling with a sheen of condensation and Aris refusing offers of payment.

He sipped his terere and me my water. “Calor, e?” “Si, mucho!” and we sat in the shade of the tree watching the faint orange wisps of dust drifting down the verge from the passing traffic in the hot breeze.

Encarnacion BeachArriving at Encarnación was as if I were transported to a laid back version of a European resort town with its seafront. Sunshine brilliance. I took a detour, turning right along the costa instead of left, inland towards the missions.

The riverfront opened out into a wide promenade and the sandy beaches reminded me of seaside towns back in the UK on heatwave days, Cleethorpes perhaps, except that it wasn’t Hull visible across the water. On the distant southern shore of the river, silhouetted against the sky stands the tall modern looking Argentinian city of Posadas, far enough away to look immaculate if it isn’t already.

Posadas, ArgentinaI pulled over to the curb, kicked down the side stand and climbed off the bike to walk along a pier and take some photographs before continuing along the promenade following the river. The road followed a long gentle right-hand curve around the contour of the river followed by a long smooth left, banking slightly, a jolt and grinding noise shook me to attention. I’d forgotten to flip up the side stand and had been riding with it down for about a mile and the left-hand bend now brought it into contact with the road lurching me toward the side of the road.

Braking firmly but delicately and keeping the grinding down to a minimum, I managed to stop before the right side of the front wheel met the edge of the curb. I made a mental note to lubricate the stand so if it happened again it might flick up all the way on its own. I’d gone far enough anyway and swung a U-turn and took a route through the city to resume my route toward the Jesuit missions.

Rio TrinidadiOverlander indicated a wild camping spot between Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangue. Ideal looking location on paper or screen. I meandered through Trinidad and caught a glimpse of the ruins from the viewpoint on the hill before continuing to the camping spot. The access wasn’t readily apparent and I passed it looking for a more obvious entrance but this was it, a drop off a large step of asphalt onto a steep loose earth lane down a fairly steep slope to a flat area only about 30 metres from the roadside but mostly hidden by the riverside woods.

Rio TrinidadThe bank to the horseshoe-shaped river bend was steep and loose and the water an uninviting coffee coloured turbulence about 8 meters below where I decided to pitch the tent. The amount of litter suggested I was unlikely to remain alone here all night but I was happy with it and it didn’t really matter.

On the map, the road between Trinidad and Jesus looked insignificant but all night there was an unending flow of motorcycle, car and truck traffic invading my dreams and stretching the night out into a semi-awakened dreamscape.

At dawn, three motorcycles arrive and the riders started hacking away at the undergrowth. They walked by my tent and we exchanged greetings and I fielded questions about the Peruvian numberplate before they headed down the bank and started hacking at branches. It wasn’t clear what they were doing since the place looked pretty wild but they were all busy with physical exertion.

Trinidad RuinsToday was Christmas eve and the opening times of the mission at Jesus de Tavarangue was unaffected. Business as usual. It’s a beautiful site but it doesn’t take long to wander around and take pictures. I’d finished within a couple of hours at a gentle meander resting at the viewpoint taking in the vista of trees and green fields. This could easily be Northamptonshire on a hot sunny day. Rolling green hills, stone buildings and fluffy white clouds. If I were there, maybe I’d be heading my family’s way for Christmas… who knows?  Anyway, the sun was climbing high in the sky and reminding me I’m not home in the cold…

Rolling HillsBradt’s guide suggested embarking early to Trinidad since there was not much shade and it gets hot in the afternoon. The heat was already building here but I figured, I’m right here anyway, get it done in the heat and ticked off the list.

PigeaonThe Trinidad mission is more spread out and has less shade. By noon, the midsummer sun was virtually directly overhead, only two or three days off the solstice, so the walls offered not an inch of shade. Halfway round I climbed a fence and rested in the porch of an abandoned church just outside the perimeter to read some more of the guide while pretending to cool down.

Bike in ShadeThe springy lawn felt like I was walking on a mattress. Walking felt energy sapping on every stride, like some authority imposing a tax on each step. There was more ground to cover here but I thought Trinidad lacked the quaint beauty of the mission at Jesus de Tavarangue. Afterwards, I dropped into the hotel near the ticket office for some lunch and refreshment. A woman with a beaming smile walked in. I asked her if she knew any good camping spots here, mainly for conversation but open to changing my plan of returning to Encarnacion. She didn’t know but escorted me to the Mission ticket office where she translated what the ticket office staff told her. I’d already been up to the hill with the viewpoint they were talking about before settling at the riverside woods and it felt too exposed for me. I just said thanks and left with a wave an adios. I wouldn’t see them again anyway.

Mirador, TrinidadTrinidad was closer to Encarnacion than Jesus so the journey back didn’t take long. Cruising the streets, eyes peeled,  I didn’t notice many hostels and there weren’t many listed on my apps, particularly at the budget end. Checking iOverlander, Maui Waui was just a block away around the corner and I pulled up outside. Nobody about so I waited in reception for half an hour on the WiFi until Jorge, the receptionist recovered from a siesta.

I was shown a bunk in a 4-bed dorm and flopped onto the lower bunk and basked in the remnants of the cool breeze of the air conditioning above while chatting to Isaac, a Canadian involved with an ecological project in Paraguay and Brazil.

Another traveller entered the room and stooped to look at me and I was stunned to recognise Martin from the El Jardin in Asuncion from about a week ago. I thought he’d gone to Brazil already. It’s the first time I’d crossed paths twice with a traveller in South America. Big continent, small world.

The next morning was Christmas day and at breakfast, the woman with the beaming smile I’d seen at the Trinidad ruins appeared in the kitchen, Minerva from Colombia who spoke competent English. She asked me about the camping spot she’d divined for me up in Trinidad and I told her that it felt too public and exposed and I decided to come to Encarnacion instead.

Encarnacion is a cute town with tree-shaded streets in the familiar latin grid pattern, spreading up the slope away from the river. Many of the hostels were closed, presumably for Christmas, but one or two shops were open and I got some beers in for the guys.

Maui Waui Hostel, EncarnacionJorge invited me for barbeque but it when I asked when we would eat, it was going to be about 10pm. I don’t like eating that late and declined but stayed up sipping beer while Jorge was cooking. A tall European who spoke impeccable English but chose not to asked us what kind of music we liked. The Doors was one, Creedence Clearwater Revival was another. Classic Rock from way back using real instruments… anything other than thumping bass and electronic crap that drowns out a good time in night-clubs.

I finally turned in at 11.30 and the food was still on the grill, to the beat of the thumping bass speaker and squawking electronics, underpinned with the mute harmonies of rumbling stomachs.

The Maui Waui is all right but not that cheap. All the accommodation in Encarnación is more expensive than everywhere else I had been in Paraguay. On top of that, other than a vacation spot with a great beach, there wasn’t much else to keep me here.  As usual, I was behind with the blog but that didn’t justify the accommodation rates here. Hohenau had WiFi for cheap, according to iOverlander…

Map San Cosme to Trinidad

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Misiones: San Cosme y Damian

Misiones, ParaguayAT BREAKFAST THE next day at the Santa Maria Hotel, the rain eased back to a soaking translucent grey mist and I packed and loaded the bike in the soggy hotel garden. The sky still clung to a thick blanket of cloud but the sun seemed to be quietly slowly burning off the layers above turning them from grey to white and eventually poking through holes of cobalt blue.

Santa Maria Hotel, Santa Maria de Fe.The smooth, dry, yet unspectacular run southeast was punctuated by a detour through a couple of cobbled towns to see what was left of the Jesuits, not too much I have to say but the break from the endless conveyor belt of asphalt and the hum of the little engine broke up the hypnotic state it tends to induce. I passed a sign to San Cosme at a modern junction that looked arrow straight to the south and decently surfaced. Maps.me had routed me out of Coronel Bogado 11km further down the road so I blindly followed that to discover a 24km dirt track recently doused by rainstorms turning it into a long, slick, bruising and laundry hazard. I doubled back to the junction I had passed earlier and enjoyed the straight dry road into San Cosme y Damian, once more, promising my eyes that I would trust them more than the phone app.

Santa Maria de Fe to San Cosme is a relatively short leg of 115km so it was still early afternoon when I arrived. San Cosme had little sign of life on my arrival but the cafe opposite the Observatory on the Plaza was open and had WiFi. iOverlander reviews said that the Observatory no longer permitted camping in their grounds but I crossed the road after lunch and asked anyway. One of the guides pointed over at the Plaza and said it would be OK to camp over there. It seemed a bit public to me with its swings and roundabout but it was a large spread-out area with plenty of trees and not many people. Proportionate enough to be able to remain inconspicuous.

San cosme yDamian Mission, ParaguayI bought a 3-day ticket for G20,000 (about £2.50) that covered the Observatory and mission here plus the other two at Trinidad and Jesus de Tavarangue. I thought it best to wait until dark for visiting the observatory and followed the staff’s recommendation to return at 8pm.

San Cosme y Damian Picnic AreaHaving 4 hours to kill, or make use of, I decided to ride down to the ocean-sized River Parana. the road led south of the plaza, past the Jesuit Mission, down a gentle slope about 15 blocks to a large riverside park of scattered trees with picnic areas beneath. A few families were relaxing and splashing in the cool blue water. This looked like an ideal camping spot if it wasn’t for the fact it was a Saturday. Saturdays bring out the boom boxes and families that tend to party late into the weekend and this looked a prime venue for that sort of thing so after chilling in the hot shade of the riverside trees, I coasted back inland a block or two to probe the grassy, less-travelled lanes between the fields to the southwest of the town and happened upon a perfectly remote spot a couple of hundred metres down from the marina. I marked it on the GPS to find after the visit to the observatory in the dark.

Camping San Cosme Y DamianI spent the rest of the afternoon in the cool of the cafe catching up on the Wi-Fi and admiring the immaculate looking mission over on the opposite side of the plaza, without the worry of where I was going to comp.

As luck would have it, some Peace Corps members entered the Observatory at the same time as me and offered invaluable translation to the non-English speaking guides. On the other hand, it was a full moon on full beam, drowning out the interstellar backdrop in a cloudless indigo sky so the only constellations I could see were indoors inside the Planetarium and we used the telescope only for looking at the surface of the moon. The guide mentioned if I came back in the morning I could look through a filter in the telescope to look at the sunspots. Looking through at the blood red disk through the filter the next day I said I didn’t see any sunspots and they said it’s because there weren’t any…

San Cosme y Damian is the place that Buenaventura Suárez studied, researched and published The Lunario de un Siglo (1744) predicting the exact times and phases of lunar eclipses. “What a great name,” I thought, I wondered if he would have achieved as much if his name had been Dave or Colin. The observatory is also the place I learned how the indigenous Guarani used the appearance of constellations throughout the seasons as signals for planting and harvesting since they didn’t use man-made calendars. The Guarani call the milky way ‘The Trail of the Tapir.’ Tapirs tread repeated paths until they become visible on the ground. Much more poetic than ‘The Milky Way.’

The full moon illuminated my path along the cobbles, dirt and grass track back to the camping spot and pitching the tent was just as easy as if it were day time. The reflection of the moon danced on the river reminding me of my time on Glee moored in Sint Maarten. The only thing lacking was someone to share this moment with. Lying back staring at the moon framed by the tent door, the lapping of the water on the bank sang me to sleep.

San Cosme Y Damian Wildcamping San Cosme Y Damian Wildcamping San Cosme Y Damian Wildcamping Santa Maria de Fe to San Cosme Y Damian

 

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Santa Maria de Fé

Santa Maria de Fe HotelWEDNESDAY MORNING, 19TH December, I packed away the tent, skipping breakfast and quietly left Villa Florida without seeing a soul on the streets and pressed on to Santa Maria de Fe, which boasts a tree-shaded plaza home to Howler Monkeys.

San Ignacio, ParaguayI took a break at San Ignacio in the shade of the trees in the Plaza, busy with vendors and commercial traffic rumbling along the main road on the northern edge through the town centre. the place was ripe for a bypass but maybe that would impact the traders around the Plaza. I was only here to rest and cool off in the shade and take a few slugs of water out of my bottle.

San IgnacioJohn told me to seek out Margaret Hebblethwaite who runs the only Hotel there on the Plaza. Kicking down the side-stand swinging my bruised thigh over the saddle and limping into reception, stiff from being immobile on the bike, I notice an older white-haired Caucasian and a young Paraguayan man and woman at a table. They were just serving lunch and I ask if they served food since I was hungry and missed breakfast. No, it’s just for them, there is no public restaurant.

Milciades explained in decent English that there was no Margaret here and that he runs the hotel. After going into detail about why I was asking he then said yes there is a Margaret who originally founded this hotel but she lives on the corner over there. Close enough, I thought, and went to interrupt the lunch of another stranger.

Margaret HebblethwaiteThe door opened to a fair-skinned woman about 5’6″ tall with wavey, strawberry blond hair, wearing a friendly smile and a small silver crucifix around her neck. She reminded me of Deb but a little less ginger and a little more Christian. Margaret greeted me with a generous smile and apologised that she had just made lunch and suggested I sit and admire the garden before adding “Have you eaten?” I said yes, as it was more convenient than saying “No but I don’t want to interrupt your lunch and if I joined you, I would feel uncomfortable and so would rather starve, thanks.” I’d only intended to deliver John’s greeting, after all.

Debbie Bulman

Deb

After lunch and sharing a fruit salad. we talked about Paraguay, the Jesuits and the route I was taking on my trip. Margaret added, “Which Holland’s does John belong?” I didn’t really know as I only knew of one family of Hollands so I showed her his photo, which received no flicker of recognition either.

It reminded me of a time my uncle Terry told me to drop in on some relations when Debbie and I were passing Bridport. After inviting us to eat and us declining in preference for a cup of tea, Deb whispered in her plain speaking way, when they retreated to the kitchen. “They don’t know who the f*** you are.” We were on our second cup of tea and piece of cake before they asked who we were causing Deb to splutter tea into her saucer, and I attempted to revive a fairly long branch of the family tree with my father revealed as a rather small twig on the end of it. I think we succeeded at identifying a wedding we had all attended a decade or so previously.

Anyway, I’m sure if John were here, she would have recognised which of the Hollands by his exuberant presence.

Santa Maria de Fe PlazaMargaret suggested I stay at the hotel for the night and join her and two English language students for dinner and a movie. I asked how much would it cost, remembering the plush decor of the Hotel and half anticipating “Oh for free as my guest.” and instead, hearing “100,000 Guarani!” About double my budget but cheap for the quality of the place. Even so, I thought the invitation sounded too enticing to pass up and quickly accepted. One night wouldn’t break the bank and went to check in and unpack at the Hotel. At 7pm I wandered through the domain of the Howler Monkeys in the plaza. “Quiet Monkeys,” I call them. I didn’t see or hear anything of them.

MealThe home cooked food was delicious and being in company softened the callouses on my soul that solitude tends to form. A thunderstorm rumbled overhead during the meal, relieving us of the hot sticky afternoon air and cutting off the electricity in exchange for the favour. There would be no movie but the dinner and conversation over candlelight and abundant good quality wine turned out to be a much better experience. If anybody ever asks, “What would we do without TV?” This was it… starring in your own movie as yourself living your own script: the story of your life…

Maragaret Hebblethwaite, Bradt Guide to ParaguayMargaret is the author of Bradt’s Guide to Paraguay, jam-packed with information; far superior to Lonely Planet or Rough Guide so, in Margaret’s company, I received a lot of well-researched and first-hand knowledge about Paraguay and especially of the Jesuit Reductions. Consequently, I augmented my plan from continuing directly to Encarnacion with a diversion to San Cosme y Damian where there stands a restored Jesuit Mission, Observatory and Planetarium. The evening was well worth going over budget for. Besides, I could camp in the wilderness with water and nuts if I ran out of cash but time cannot be reclaimed in such a way. I returned to the Hotel through the silent order of Jesuit Howler Monkeys feeling happy and content.

Santa Maria de Fe RainMuted light filtered through the window reminiscent of a grey British winter dawn. True to form, Sod’s Law of Budget Travel No 3 kicked in:

“If thou art sheltered in accommodation above thy budget,
it shall rain forty days and forty nights.
Unless thine endure a proper soaking,
thou shalt reflect on thy folly until thy purse becomes barren.”

Winter Light

At breakfast, I checked the forecast on the Sony Xperia.  Rain another four days the screen told me but, as I discovered in Jardim, the forecast in this part of the world is as accurate as a wild guess. I eyed up the white-haired Caucasian man on the next table carefully spreading jam on a piece of french bread and dropping crumbs on the table with each bite. I guessed he was from Germany and researching his Nazi father, who’s nickname was probably ‘The White Angel,’ and discovering his fate escaping to Paraguay after the war. Turned out he was retired Argentinian teacher on vacation from Buenos Aires and didn’t say why he was in Santa Maria. If he did, I don’t remember. We were the only guests here. Both solitary men on their own mysterious path in life.

I stayed another day holed up in the hotel room reading Margaret’s guide to Paraguay. In the grey light barely making it through the window, it gave the lamp and the interior of the room a warm and cosy sepia glow like an old English cottage in the winter. After all, Christmas was only a week away. This was more in keeping than the boiling Capricorn midsummer heat. It was no hardship just to kick back and rest in the tranquillity of it all, and the rain was the perfect excuse to do just that.

GuitarI’d spotted an old guitar leaning against the bookshelves earlier and recorded a couple of my old compositions and uploaded them to Youtube before I eventually forget them.

Villa Florida to Santa Maria de Fe map

 

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Mission

Gloria and Noni I ESCORTED JOHN to the Airport. Not to make sure he left but to savour the friendship of him and the others that he brought to me. another page, another chapter. Thursday, no point in moving until after the weekend. Monday, I’d go on Monday. I honoured the Bruderhof commitment of the Carol service, such fun in good company it was too.

Tucking into the buffet on the patio afterwards, we all got assaulted by tiny mosquitos. I was one of only a small band that retreated indoors and was one of the last to leave promising to attend the morning service the next day. When I woke up, I didn’t really feel like going but I went anyway.

Turning along Mariscal Lopez, already unbelievably hot at 9.20am. The traffic slows and I notice a crowd in the road at a junction with a Policeman taking notes … a bike lies on its side. It looks like a Harley Davidson or similar. The traffic my side of the road compresses together and crawls along. As I idle past I notice a man on his side but face down away from me on the asphalt, no-one at his side. My assumption is that he is either unconscious or dead.

Earlier, I’d received a message that Roy Boughton, who I’d sailed with in the Caribbean, was reported in the national news as missing. It had been a while since I first heard about it but this seemed a confirmation that he was a goner too.

Roy Boughton's Guiding LightRoy had been to a bar for the evening, as he usually does, and heading back in his dinghy to his boat anchored in Rodney Bay, St Lucia… never to be seen again.

TimeI say nothing about it at the service but it reminds me that our time here is temporary and it creeps by whether we are paying attention or not.

Primavera HouseAfter the service and expressing my gratitude of everyone’s generous welcome within the community, I headed for the Anglican church at John’s suggestion and met the Bishop of Buenos Aires. I couldn’t help bringing a chess piece to mind since I’d started playing online that week. I had just caught him at the end of his service as he had to rush off, leaving diagonally across the floor tiles to the door. I spend a few minutes speaking to Tim, his son, savouring the rich English language that knocks my translation brain cell out of gear to coast down communication’s easy path.

Tuesday morning I bid my farewells to Gloria and the current guests in the ever-changing drama of El Jardin. Noni arrived just as I crossed the street for a final photo so I snatched one of Noni and Gloria together with my bike before setting off southeast toward Encarnación.

Nemby Drop ZoneJohn had given me one final mission to drop off some money that Gloria gave me for Petrona’s family in Nemby – kind of on the way. An alternate route and perhaps shortcut the main Ruta 1. I’d visited Petrona’s house before but as a passenger so at that time, I magically emerged from an Aztec Gold Ford Escort on their doorstep without taking much notice of how I got there.

Nemby Drop ZoneMy phone beeped a location link in WhatsApp, but by just looking at it, I knew it was wrong: far too close to the main road. I’d found the neighbourhood but not the house. The proprietors of the local stores and despensas didn’t know who I was talking about if they understood what I was saying at all. All the neighbourhoods looked the same in the repetitive latin gridded cobbled streets and the rattling over the stones on the fully loaded bike was jarring my patience. 2 hours later I found WiFi at a petrol station and expressed my frustration over WhatsApp. John told me not to worry about it and to keep the money and have a beer on him.

Nemby Drop ZoneI didn’t like the associated feeling of failure and a beer would be scant compensation. Even a case of beer wouldn’t help, which this amount would easily cover. I sat for a while looking for a drop zone that wasn’t too obvious but would be easy to locate. I noticed a big yellow brick next to a combination barbecue stall and bus stop in front of the big yellow supermarket and slipped the money under that then WhatsApped a video of where it was before setting off to Villa Florida hoping to make camp before dark.

A wrong turn takes me 10 minutes back toward Asuncion. Swearing echoing in my helmet, I use a pedestrian crossing to u-turn the cities dual carriageway south. These moods can be dangerous on a motorcycle so I elevate my caution and moderate my feeling of impatience but allow permission of the swearing session as a kind of meditation. The swearing stops after I pass the junction another ten minutes later and find myself on the usual unfamiliar territory into the unknown and eventually intersect with Ruta 1.

Playa Paraiso, Villa Florida, ParaguayRuta 1 is fast and tedious and I arrive at Villa Florida with the sun still a hand’s width above the horizon. Crossing the bridge over the Tebicuary River, which marks the northern edge of the village, I notice potential camping spots along the northern bank and beaches. There is a Police checkpoint at the southern end of the bridge and I coast through like Obi-wan Kenobi seemingly unnoticed. I would have liked to have checked out the camping spots back over the bridge on the north bank but didn’t want to chance another possible two passes through the checkpoint so headed down a side street and west along the south bank instead. The track is wide but has patches of deep soft sand and so, with no-one about, I try the Youtube tip of going fast enough to skim the surface like a “skier over water.” The first deep patch triggered a horrendous wobble before the bike plunged to the right and threw me clear. So it was back to paddling along with my feet. The camera in my pocket bruised my thigh when I landed in the sand so this slowly became a painful affair.

Villa Florida TrackAlong the lane, I noticed a gap in the bushes to my right opening out to a grassy area perfect for camping. I pitched the tent around a corner of bushes, invisible from the road and walked down the lane to see where the families were coming from in their bare feet and beach gear.

Playa ParaisoPlaya ParaisoPlaya Paraiso, a park on huge sandy beaches worthy of any seaside beach in the UK. I could have camped here but even though there was a huge area, it was busier. I was happy with my hideaway.

Hideaway, Villa Florida

Villa Florida Camping

Asuncion to Villa Florida Map

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Asunción – Roots and Wings

El Jardin, AsuncionEL JARDIN SAW guests come and go. Backpackers mainly, European and South American, very few North Americans but all in all, not so many travellers compared to the towns and cities like Cusco on the well-trodden Gringo Trail. As days rolled into weeks, I was beginning to feel more akin to the long term ‘residents’ at El Jardin: part of the furniture rather than a guest and I could now see that the people I initially assumed to be joyless volunteers were simply being their authentic selves, going with the flow, forgoing a facade even for the sake of professional hospitality.

Living in a hostel isn’t so different to actually travelling. Travel by proxy, I’d call it. The flow of social contacts is the same even if the scenery remains the same. Throughout the constant flow, I found it easier to gel with some guests than others. Some enjoy social contact while others prefer solitude. Part of the art of going with the flow is to not bother about the level of connection with ‘everybody.’ Social contact is abundant. There is no need to make hard work of it: let the closed shells roll by and release the time for the open hearts…

El Jardin, AsuncionMartin and Nikita arrived at the El Jardin same time; both Dutch but travelling separately. I assumed they were a couple but their simultaneous arrival was pure coincidence. Both were easy for me to relate to and their English was impeccable. I often move invisibly amongst travellers but not so with Martin and Nikita. I’d be on their radar as soon as I was within line of sight. It was an energising and refreshing failure of my invisibility superpower.

Intending to share one beer and the wisdom of Martin, himself a long-term traveller, turned into a relative drinking binge that hung over me like a tempestuous thundercloud the whole of the next sweaty day. That’s not usual for me and was an indicator that I was enjoying good company rather than the alcohol.

Cerro LambareTravel is not only a path of discovery of the world, it is also a path of discovery of the self and the line between the two becomes blurred the further down that path you go. When it comes to ‘education.’ travel shows you your truth from within – you feel it unfiltered bubbling to the surface like the fresh water of a mountain spring from the hidden depths below. Its source isn’t external. It comes naturally from you, stimulated by natural interactions with people, time and action. Schooling, however, brands an external curriculum – the agenda of the state – deep into your soul, conditioning to conform and obey at such an early age that the resulting effects become deeply embedded and difficult to extract and heal the remaining scars. It’s only just now, after almost three years of my journey with Life With Glee that I feel my own scars of conditioning beginning to heal, and travel has had a lot to do with that.

Asuncion Fruit stallJohn’s friends, Debbie and Cedron from the UK. arrived a couple of weeks into my visit and communication without translation felt effortless. That part of the brain I use for translation could be slipped into neutral and I could coast along the communication highway without having to even think about it. Debbie and Cedron were busy with their own affairs most of the time and diverted some of John’s attention but I enjoyed the solitude and opportunity to reflect and write a little plus attend to the increasingly urgent and time-consuming laptop maintenance.

The El Jardin managers, Nonni and Gloria, treated me like family and I felt very much at home, not just in the hostel but at home in the city itself. Asuncion is nothing to write home about as a tourist destination and you could tick the boxes of its attractions in half a day before rushing away for the next tourist hot-spot but that’s not what Asuncion is about. Asuncion still has a feeling of humanity and community that seems long gone in the west and it’s one of the few cities in the world where I feel I could settle down; probably helped by having been absorbed into John’s diverse social circle ranging from families scraping a living in their local communities to Paraguay’s eminent musician, composer and conductor, Luis Szaran. I felt a little intimidated attending dinner as John’s ‘semi invited’ guest at Luis’ house after witnessing his performance and standing ovation after Bizet’s Carmen suite at the Municipal Theatre with the Asunción City Symphonic Orchestra. I have no dress clothes so John donated a smart shirt to make me half decent.

There was no need to worry. There are no class barriers in Paraguay. People are people and interact freely without reservation or pretentiousness. The generosity showed by Luis and his family to me, a total stranger, was heartwarming and underlined my own unconscious class conditioning of growing up in the UK. My history as a Piano Tuner came up in conversation and Luis said there would be a good living to be had in Asuncion. something I hadn’t considered for a long time. Piano Tuning in Asuncion? An interesting career opportunity to look at… I’m not yet ready to abandon the path I’m on.Carmen

Luis SzaranThe Roosevelt Library founded on April 12, 1946 by the Centro Cultural Paraguayo Americano (CCPA) 6 blocks away from El Jardin became my cool workspace, since the Air Conditioners would be off at the Hostel during the day even when the temperature was over 100F. I’d commute on foot to the library of a workday, past the plywood shacks that the river flood refugees had erected along the pavements and parks.

RefugeesBack in the UK, the ‘authorities’ would demolish these shelters and kick the refugees down the road, sweeping the problem under the carpet without actually addressing it. Here, the authorities provide water, electric and US Aid portaloos for sanitation. Scattered throughout the city and even around the parliamentary building, these structures provided a stark contrast to the ideas of civilisation, community and humanity at every level.

Asuncion 1537I found it difficult to set a date for moving on from Asuncion since I was enjoying so much being here. John’s three-month visit to Paraguay was coming to an end in December so I set my deadline to leave the Monday after. That gave me time to honour the invitation to the Bruderhof Christmas Carol service and perhaps a final Sunday service.

AsuncionIn the end, the initial 5 days at the El Jardin in Asuncion became 5 Weeks. my roots were growing into the social foundation of the Paraguayan capital and my wings of travel were beginning to wither. But circumstances were signalling it was time to take flight again.

I accompanied John to the airport together with Manuel and a few of his friends. Cristobal Pederson brought along an accordion and gave a public musical send-off in the departure terminal before I returned with Manuel to his house and then rode home to El Jardin on the bike feeling that this was the end of a rich and fulfilling chapter…

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