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Noah’s Ark

El Jardin, Asuncion

SUNDAY MORNING DAWNED beyond the wooden shutters of my darkened dorm at the El Jardin, and I emerged into retina-searing sunlight for breakfast. A table in the corner presented a selection of items nestling under tea towels to keep the resident quartet of flies from spoiling it. A fan helped keep them away while gently drying out the cakes and crusts of bread. Cornflakes and cold sour coffee assaulted my taste buds. It wasn’t until I tasted the cornflakes that I realised that the anonymous-looking yoghurt was not the same as the anonymous looking milk sitting next to it.

Ford Escort Mk5John picked me up for the church service at the Bruderhof community at Primavera House. Opening the door to the street revealed the unexpected sight of Manuel’s Classic Mk5 Ford Escort in Aztec Gold (or as I call it, metallic beige.) Even so, it’s a generous loan by Manuel that opens up all sorts of options for our stay in the capital. The car’s existence defied Ford’s reputation for limited longevity and this particular model still appeared to be nimble enough to escape the local motor museum or scrap yard. We kangarooed our way across the grid of streets to Primavera House in traditional style…

Primavera HousePrimavera House is the Paraguayan base of the Bruderhof Community now the lands around Itacurubi have been sold off to the Mennonites. Primavera House is the Paraguayan home and place of worship for just over a dozen community members and anyone who wants to attend the services.

Of course, John’s friends are here but I was welcomed just as warmly as a stranger. The people seem as happy here as anybody anywhere, maybe more-so, although I confess I find it difficult to tell whether a salesman’s smile is because he’s genuinely happy or he just has something he wants to off-load for a profit. Still, the warmth and peace I sensed were almost tangible.

The men dressed in modern casual clothes but the women wore long dresses and headscarves that reminded me of how the Amish dress. Back in the days when I considered myself a devout atheist, would have avoided attending at all but that inverted self-righteousness is no excuse for me to remain ignorant. People get what they get from how they interface with life and spiritual matters.

John became an invaluable guide, as Asuncion doesn’t offer much of itself to tourists as a City. Over the following few weeks, I discovered that the beauty of the place isn’t in the landscape or architecture, it is in the hearts of the people. After a couple of weeks of settling in, I felt at home. There was no urgency for sight-seeing. The tacit, cheerless staff seemed to accept me like a stray cat allowed to wander the garden. They weren’t really cheerless, they were just relaxed with who they were.

Time was taken to visit people and John was busy helping friends and a poor family build a house. Sometimes I tagged along, sometimes I found my own entertainment.

I was fascinated by the Museo de las Memorias covering the 35 year period of the Stroessner Dictatorship. I’d never heard of him. Pinochet, yes, Stroessner no. Everything looked as if it had come straight out of the cold war times of Eastern Europe.

We limped around the city in Manuel’s geriatric Ford, meeting new faces from pioneering places and historic times. I get the sense that Paraguay is one of the last places on Earth that still grows through long lost times we look back on in Europe with nostalgia. Family and community are still important and valued here. Back in the UK, we rarely know the name of our neighbour.

John had a lot to do and seemed concerned about abandoning me. I didn’t mind – I got to discover things without any other worries or attachments that being in company brings.

It wasn’t until taking off on my own that I got to imprint the layout of Asuncion’s streets in my consciousness. Being a passenger in tow fosters no sense of direction or location.

To the west of the El Jardin was Downtown Asuncion and to the east were the suburbs including the Chacomer Yamaha Dealer, Primavera House and various air-conditioned shopping malls.

I was surprised at how few people speak English in this capital city but John’s Spanish is good which both took away the pressure of trying to communicate and slowed my learning of the language. When I travel alone, I hardly speak anyway, which should be no excuse.

Chaco-i Water TaxiAcross the river to the west of Asuncion is Chaco-i, a small riverside village. The roaring diesel of the water taxi trying to shake itself off the mountings while beating its high decibel rhythm on our eardrums ferried us across the river and up the shore a little to the boat that Claudio built. John discovered him a few years ago hidden in the woods working away like Noah on his Ark. Claudio spent 10 years building a yacht in the woods of Chaco-i with the dream of eventually sailing it down the might river Paraguay to the sea. “How will you get it to the water?” asked John. There was no easy way to get this Ferro-cement monster through the trees and down the bank but I think his intention was that it would float out on a flood when the time was right.

Chaco-iThe boat was almost complete, laying on its starboard side but still lacking sails. John found some used sails cheap in Panama where vessels refit before continuing along the canal to the Pacific and dragged them through excess baggage rules all the way to Chaco-i to discover Claudio had died of a heart attack working on his boat only a few months previously.

John hardly recognised the route, the River Paraguay being seven or eight metres higher than normal. the small brook that led toward’s Claudio’s boat was now a broad river and John bribed the river taxi to beat its diesel tattoo up the tranquil new tributary to save us possibly wading through the woods.

Claudio's BoatAnd there, through the trees, was Claudio’s legacy before our very eyes. Peacefully floating in the flood water Afloat in the garden wearing the mud stain on the hull like an emblem of unshakable faith. Afloat in the woods, where Claudio had invested the last chapters of his life.

Noah's ArkJohn said he died in the process of his dream and we shouldn’t be sad. Even though I’d never met the legend that was Claudio, I felt real emotion for him.

It’s a metaphor for life, in a way. Apart from those of us that are eaten away slowly by progressive diseases or time itself, few of us are never really finished before we pass. Loose ends are left hanging. messages left unsaid, money left unspent, bills left unpaid, dreams left unlived. Up until now, I just thought this was an interesting story, but seeing this ghost-ship floating in the woods left me with a profound regret that the man was no longer around to meet face to face. The boat, being the symbol that all we leave behind, carries on without us before they too pass in their own time and we ourselves are eventually forgotten…

Noah's Ark

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Primavera

JOHN’S A NATURAL speaker and an interesting guide. My ears sometimes have a hard time keeping up but I’m picking up a lot about Paraguay from John’s upbringing with the Bruderhof Communities and the relationship to the Mennonites.

Paraguay’s War of the Triple Alliance and the Chaco war with Bolivia, allegedly a war fomented by US oil interests, shaped the country in indelible ways. The resulting depletion of the Paraguayan population was probably instrumental in Paraguay granting sanctuary and autonomy to these immigrant groups where other countries were flatly rejecting them. Finally, shaping a society retaining a traditional feel of family, community and sense of freedom much like I remember growing up with during the sixties and seventies in England and Wales.

Two days at Laguna Blanca had been enough rest and recuperation for me and I felt ready to go even though I didn’t get round to walking the trails around the lake.

 

Mechanical problems on John’s Kenton seemed to dog our departure. Kickstarting and pushing was unsuccessful and we checked the fuel and the spark plug before discovering the kill switch on the handlebars was switched off. I was surprised the Kenton had one.

We exited along the sandy track next to the sea of Sunflowers bathing their faces in the morning sun two miles to Route 11. Route 11 was a gentle start to the day and we soon arrived in Nueve Germania, proudly displaying the colours of the German flag painted on bins and signposts. We stopped to top up John’s phone credit and took advantage of the nearby Cafe for a buffet lunch. “Weigh and Pay.” Which means, gram for gram, steak costs the same as rice.

Our objective for the day was Puerto Rosario, the other side of the Mennonite town of Volendam. My first encounter with the Mennonites surprised me. I expected something like the Amish but everyone dressed like modern Europeans. I could have been in Hampshire or Hamburg. The first ones I’d noticed had fair hair and blue eyes sporting unhappy faces.

Two girls sitting outside a store ignored my greeting without a flicker in their expressions. Strikingly different to the native Paraguayans. The incongruity of our race in this environment reminded me of the movie “The Boys From Brazil:” a Nazi experiment gone wrong. This wasn’t reflected in my later visit to Friesland though: friendly Europeans that spoke English and German with the atmosphere reminiscent of a rural village in bygone England.

A late stretch of dirt road had me sweating up a hot thirst by the time we reached Puerto Rosario and we took it in turns to strip off and bathe in the cool waters of the Rio Paraguay beneath the iconic tree, symbolising the Bruderhof’s arrival at Primavera, while one of us kept an eye on the bikes. This tree John helped the town save from the erosion of the bank by the Rio Paraguay and a negligent, idle town Mayor a few years ago. John, a foreigner with no claim to Puerto Rosario. His proposal to pay for shoring up the riverbank to save the tree shamed the local Mayor into doing the job he is paid to do.

Puerto RosarioWe were on John’s historic turf and we stopped by to say hello to a couple of his old friends but (against our tentative hope) discovered nowhere nearby to stay for the night. This meant hitting the road to Itacurubi 25 miles away. Not so bad but it felt a lot further since it had already gone 5pm and I’d thought I’d hit the finish line for the day and was already unwinding.

John’s phone needed a boost so I hooked it under the rubber strap on the handlebars, like I do my own, and plugged it into the USB socket before we set off. Darkness had fallen before we arrived at Itacurubi. Passing under a gantry with the lights of oncoming traffic, Bang! I hit a pothole; hard. The force of the impact jolted the phone out from under the strap and the cable now hanging by the wheel was no longer attached to a phone.

I checked my front wheel which I was relieved still looked round and the tyre was still up and I quickly turned round to find the pothole and scan the road immediately after it. There it was, about 10 meters from the pothole just over the centre line in the opposite lane. Luckily there was no traffic and I quickly bent down to retrieved it without having to dismount the bike. John was waiting at the next roundabout, the turnoff to Itacurubi. We had arrived. Apart from a cracked screen protector, the phone survived and was now at 55% charge.

John knows the owners of HSS Hotel so we got a good deal on a room. One of the cockerels was up all night disturbing the peace and found himself to be the source of dinner the next day. I saw one of the Senoras haul him out of a shed by his feet and neck and never saw him again.

We missed dinner at the hostel that night.

Itacurubi del Rosario is the town near where the Bruderhof established their Primavera community after retreating out of the harsh environment of the Chaco. The Bruderhof are a peace-loving, pacifist Christian community that were helped to settle in Paraguay by the already established Mennonites. The Mennonites share the same Anabaptist faith and some of the national origins of the Bruderhof. The Bruderhof arrived in Paraguay in 1941 first escaping Germany to Britain and then escaping Britain’s racism against Germans during the Second World War.

The Mennonites began to arrive at the turn of the last century. Some of their Canadian colonies left Canada after the government wanted their dominant language taught in schools to be English instead of German. The main differences between the two sects are that the Mennonites maintain the concept of ‘Private Property’ while the Bruderhof give up private belongings in favour of community.

John recounted his upbringing around the woods and rivers of Itacurubi. these days, the trees have been cleared, roads built and tracts of land divided into farms and ranches. For my Westernised eyes, I got a glimpse into the past where life was simple but work was hard. Wood-fired stoves, food growing in the next field or walking around the ranches. the Bruderhof land had long been sold off to the Mennonites but we still had access to the ranch and the river. We took the ranchers horses around the Estancia and later drifted down the river using a tyre and plastic bottles for floats like John used to in bygone times.

We spent a couple of days exploring and hanging out with John’s friends plus the ranchers drinking Terere, a kind of green tea sipped through a metal straw, similar to Mate in Argentina but served cold instead of hot, and passed around like a pipe of peace.

We hit the road to Asuncion late Friday afternoon after a generous lunch by one of John’s old friends he grew up with.

A swampy region obstructs the direct route south so we had to almost double back along the asphalt route east to San Estanislao (aka “Santani”) and then south-west along Ruta 3. I was following John and gradually dropping back. His exhaust was blowing out blue smoke – sometimes in thick clouds and the noxious fumes were becoming nauseating.

Along the way, there lives a family John has helped out in the past and we were expecting a warm welcome due to the firmly established bond. Turning off the main road, We slithered along the sandy ruts to a small plot of land. Apparently, this was one of the brothers that lived nearby. “This guy’s a bit of a wanker.” said John, casually dismounting his bike to approach the gate “Buen’ Dia, Mi Amigo…!” Our friend didn’t crack a smile or even make one step toward us to shake our hands, living up to his reputation.

After a few minutes of obliging pleasantries, we excused ourselves and I followed John’s spluttering bike up the lane to the main house and we both rode through the gate and onto the immaculate lawn. No-one home but the Gardener.

I didn’t understand the exchange coming from the ensuing phone messages but apparently, relations within the family had been soured and, as a result, we were denied access to the vacant house. John was livid after all the money he had donated and the time and energy he’d provided to the family.

Plan B. We would stay in the garden. John borrowed a hammock from the wanker down the lane and I pitched my tent in the garden. The younger brother, Ariel, that lived next door gave us a proper warm Paraguayan welcome.

John’s hammock looked comfortable strung out under the grape vines. I pitched my tent up on the edge of the lawn out of snoring range. Just drifting off to sleep. I was disturbed by a rustling noise. Something was moving under the groundsheet near my head, about as thick as a child’s arm and already about a foot inward. Toads gathered at night to feed on the insects that drop off the street light next to the garden but this didn’t sound or move like a toad. I dropped my hiking boot on it and the creature withdrew. By its movement, I guessed it was a snake but I didn’t want to step out in the dark to find out.

John bought breakfast from the shop the night before so we had a pleasant start to the day. Ariel’s wife brought hot water and milk for tea. Asuncion is not far so there was no rush to leave and after a leisurely farewell, we dicovered that John’s bike would not start, not even with the kill switch off.

Ariel ran it down the lane jumping up and down on it and we watched him disappear down the lane out of view listening for evidence of ignition. He returned after a short while with a mechanic and some tools and they set about dismantling the engine to discover warn piston rings and valves: the cause of all the smoke and oil loss and now not enough compression for starting a cold motor. Four of us drove into town to get the parts. Cheap and readily available, Kenton is a Mennonite company that builds motorcycles out of a mixture of Chinese parts and their own.

Meanwhile, Ariel’s wife brought out a hot lunch for us and we enjoyed the warmth of the family as well as the weather.

The engine is a single cylinder overhead valve with tappets and pushrods. I hadn’t seen tappets since my Mk1 Ford Escort, so simple, it was a joy to observe. Normally you’d use a feeler gauge to set the valve gaps but not in Paraguay. Wiggle the rocker to see if it’s free but not too much. the bike fired up on the first or second kick and would now even start on the button. I’d not seen it start on the button before.

We were on the road by three and soon penetrating the outskirts of Asuncion. I was wearing my fleece to protect from sunburn and although the hot air passes through the fabric freely, it did little for helping me keep cool. Running up a side street, we pulled up outside a luxurious townhouse that reminded me of my dad’s neighbourhood in Houston Tx. The Garage door rose to reveal a couple of cars, motorcycles and a pool table before re-emerging out of the cool shade to the rear patio and swimming pool.

Manuel is a good friend of John’s and after a brief introduction, Manuel disappeared down the road in his car inviting us to cool off in the pool until he returned. John showed me the room he was staying in, which was set out like a plush hotel with ensuite. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be staying there and we were soon duelling with the city traffic as John escorted me to the El Jardin Hostel via a whistlestop tour of the city. It turns out, the tourist attractions in Asuncion are sparse and we’d just about covered them all in about twenty minutes.

As a Capital, the centre of Asuncion is small and finishes abruptly on the banks of Rio Paraguay where it looks across the water to Chaco-i and the Argentine border beyond. The El Jardin is a kilometre from the centre and their small Garden snugly accommodates my bike squeezing through the doorway with half an inch to spare for the luggage rack.

After the ritual hot cup of tea, while standing in the cool swimming pool, John left for the luxury of Manuel’s for the night.

Despite the tranquil green sanctuary of the garden, there was a peculiar atmosphere created by the ‘guests.’ They were not conventional guests but kind of live here, lounging about the furniture, chain-smoking and socialising in their small familiar clique. The atmosphere felt glum and solemn and the regular guests were greeted without a smile or friendly gesture. It’s not that they were unfriendly… first impressions just felt cheerless with a heavy ambience. Still, I was here now. Five days was the answer I gave the registration form but I didn’t yet know.

My six-bed dorm had only a single occupant. A tall tacit dutch guy named ‘Took’ or ‘Tool,’ or something similar, locked to his phone screen and, like most Dutch people, spoke English clearly but, unlike most Dutch people, as little as possible.

Laying on my bunk in the dark, with just the glow of an iPhone screen from the bunk across the room and the rhythmic pulse of the ceiling fan stirring the warm, muggy air, a memory returned.

Decades ago when my future spread out before me as an immense possibility, far further over the horizon than it does now; anything seemed possible. Decades of abundant careers and fortunes waiting to be tapped. Undiscovered fields of dreams and plans waiting to sprout fruit from any choices and actions I might take. Maybe a family, maybe adventure, maybe security or maybe a home in the sun and early retirement to enjoy the rewards and fruits of my labour…

Asuncion, Paraguay. A place I had been curious about more than 30 years ago as a possible future residence since reading WG Hill’s 5 Flags Theory on the creation of a life, wealth and freedom outside the rat race… and how to protect it once you had it…

Primavera: Springtime in Paraguay… I’d arrived at an ancient milestone in a forgotten dream approaching the autumn of my life and, on the face of it, found it disappointing… but somewhere along the way, I had already discovered the freedom I had been dreaming of all along…

Lake Titicaca at Night

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Laguna Blanca

Belen. Stuck LorrySUNDAY IN BELEN is a day for sitting back and doing nothing. Much like any other day except the shops are shut. John and I planned to head south, cross country, to San Pedro the following day so I took my time adjusting the chain and head bearings, topped up the oil and packed away the things I didn’t need overnight. The recent storm produced a rumour that the road to San Pedro was now impassable so we took a ride out to check the first few kilometres ourselves

Just outside the village, a bridge crosses the river and two locals were busy fishing off the middle of it. John asked, “How’s the road to San Pedro?” The young man replied that his sister had taken the bus that direction three days ago and hadn’t been seen since. John asked if there was another bus that could take his wife, leaving them chuckling before we continued down the track.

The dirt road was slippery with scattered puddles of unknown depth but we found it manageable – even fun. A few kilometres down the road, we happened upon a truck in a large puddle, listing with its back wheels submerged deep underwater. The truck looked abandoned but as we dismounted to take a closer look, a man opened the driver’s side door and jumped down at the water’s edge.

Belen LorryJohn spoke with the driver for a while and he and the driver looked at me. John said, “He asked what you think about Jesus… please say something nice.” I replied that Jesus was “The One!” and left it at that, with it not being a topic I like talking about, but my comment seemed to smooth over an awkward moment as he vigorously shook my hand.

The driver had been here living in his truck already five days. A JCB had failed to pull the truck out of the puddle but the trailer and truck’s cargo of cattle had been rescued early on. He told us that the road was not too bad for twenty-five kilometres but the final stretch to San Pedro was impassible and we should turn left after about seven kilometres, northeast toward Tucuati lying directly east of Belen.

Stuck LorryMonday. We set off to Tacuati stopping briefly at the stricken truck to leave the driver some beer for company. Onward we rode over varying surfaces of red, wet and dry dirt track. Having been running around on an unladen bike for a week, my steering now felt heavy and lethargic with the weight of the tent on the front. The bags strapped on the back added some weight but I made good progress bounding over the potholes and slithering through the mud.

A wide puddle bisected the whole track with water and mud. John rode into the mud and got stuck in the middle about twelve feet in and 8 inches deep. I paused behind. Looking at the brown water, the truck tyres seems to enter at a shallow angle so I rode along a tyre track through the water trusting there were no potholes lurking beneath the surface. The water was no more than about 8 inches deep at the centre and I coasted through smoothly to park the bike on the other side. John signalled me for getting a push. The thought of wading through thick claggy mud wasn’t too appealing but there was no other option unless I simply rode off.

The thick, sticky mud gave a little support and my feet only sunk in about four or five inches. Gripping the rear of the frame and standing out of the line of the spinning back wheel, I leaned my weight forward with the bike and helped John creep the bike across to the water with the back wheel ploughing a deep trench in the slime as it dug in looking for grip and not finding any until reaching the water. With John out of the trench and now taking off down the track, I washed as much of the terracotta clumps off my boots as possible and rinsed my hands in the orange puddle, leaving my hands with an earthy fake orange tan.

TacuatiBy the time I remounted the Yamaha, John was out of sight but I continued at my own pace knowing that if there was a junction – or shade – he’d wait. Squirly tracks on the margins of the track showed that we weren’t the only riders struggling to stay upright.

When I caught John up we began riding on increasingly dry surfaces. Even though it became dustier when cars or trucks pass, I felt grateful for it. Following John along some truck-tyre tracks, he moved to the right to make way for an oncoming Lorry and lost control in a sandpit swinging left and right losing front grip before the bike finally went over. I helped lift the bike. Apart from some cuts on his leg, John was OK but his flat battery meant he had to manually kick the engine over a dozen or so times before it rebalanced the drained carburettor and fired into life.

Mennonite OstrichesWe continued over the corrugations, gravel and potholes at a more or less steady 40kmh and I reflected that I’d been on the road for over half a year and, apart from dropping it while stationary, had not come off yet.

The countryside transformed suddenly from wild brush and woods to mega agricultural fields, fenced straight and true, fringed with modern buildings with immaculate lawns. We could have been in Europe or the US. The red road remained dry with deep patches of fine sand and my bike suddenly went into a weave as the front wheel tried to find grip in the sandy depths. At the same time, the rear wheel lost traction and lurched to the side like it no longer wanted to follow the front wheel. The bike fell over to the right and I managed to step off and lift it fully loaded with some grunting and sweating. My first off.

While I was remounting, I  saw a young man on a moped hurtling towards us in the opposite direction at an impressive rate and thought “I have to see this when he hits that stretch of soft sand.” and he hurtled across the top with barely a weave. High speed is the key, I learned later: like water-skiing, but I dared not try it since the loaded steel luggage rack behind my footpegs would probably break my leg if I came off at speed. The good thing about sand bringing me down is that it provides a soft landing. Paddling along in first gear with my feet off the pegs seemed the safest overall strategy; later defined as “four-wheel-drive.”

Riding along the furrows ploughed out of the track by the tyres of the heavy trucks seemed to be the safest strategy. the ground wasn’t so loose but it frequently put me on the wrong side of the road.

I saw a lorry approaching in the distance and moved to the right well in time only to go into another uncontrollable weave and fall, this time to the left pinning my foot under the left pannier. My leg was twisted under the bike so I turned to lie face-down in the sand to relieve the pain and then to work out how I was going to escape.

Apart from the twist, I wasn’t hurt but I couldn’t move my leg out from between the pannier and the sand. Bringing my right leg over and between the bike and the sand, I used the rest of my body to lever the weight of the bike up enough so I could drag my left foot out. Once out, I managed to lift the bike up before the truck arrived and idled slowly past.

Before the day was out I’d fallen twice more to the left and twisted my ankle again but didn’t get trapped. Four falls in one day all in deep dry sand: my new nemesis.

We had two methods of navigation. Me with the Maps.me GPS app and John by asking everyone we met along the way. I gave up looking at the GPS unless there was no-one about. Asking was quicker and more entertaining.

The Mennonite colonies have immaculate lawns and modern agricultural buildings, a contrast to the native Paraguayan’s laid-back, slap-dash way of life. We stopped at a modern looking store. My greeting to a young blonde blue-eyed girl went unacknowledged another sat outside the store wearing a cheerless expression. The scene suggested the legacy of a Nazi experiment, a bit like the movie “The Boys From Brazil.” but that was just in my imagination. The Mennonites are religious pacifists that arrived in Paraguay in the mid-1920s and helped many other people settle and survive the harsh Chaco.

Colonia Manitoba“How many bars have you seen?” asked John while we were sitting under the shade of a tree recovering from my third fall. None! “The Mennonites are workaholics.”  As a result, they drive the majority of the Paraguayan economy. The road through the Mennonite communities remains unpaved with stealthy pockets of sand traps so we took it steady until reaching the junction with the paved trunk road, Route 3, at Estancia Alegria.

The asphalt gave me a break from the 6-hour slog on the dirt tracks and I happily relaxed with the fast traffic flow along the highway 30km to Santa Rosa del Aguary.  Turning left at Santa Rosa, toward Laguna Blanca. we were happy to discover that, despite the map and Google Satellite view still indicating a dirt track, the road to Laguna Blanca had been paved and even extended to the Brazilian border. This meant that we made fast and easy progress the final 30km and arrived at Ecotur at Laguna Blanca before sunset.

Camping EcoturWe were the only guests for the night and I instructed to ‘Camp where you like’. John took an air-conditioned cabana and I pitched my tent under the shade of the trees. Only when the tent was up, did the birds start their divebombing campaign. There must have been a nest nearby. “Too late,” I told them. “I’m not moving, you should have said earlier…”

Rough Guide’s “South America on a budget (2009) says:
“Paraguay’s only true lake, crystal clear LAGUNA BLANCA is named for its white sandy substrate visible even in the deepest parts of the lake. Completely unspoilt (the water is clean enough to drink)”

Laguna Blanca KayakLaguna Verde, I’d call it. The water was now green with algae and visibility poor enough to block the light of the sun if diving more than a couple of feet beneath the surface but it’s still drinkable if you ignore the colour. The water is pumped from the lake to the taps of the campsite.

Ready to goOn the shore of the lake. the team at Ecotur were busy hacking back the grassland, dredging the shore and importing white sand for the creation of beaches. I suspected that Laguna Blanca is not quite the natural habitat it once was. Still, the natural remoteness, the breeze through the trees to keep us cool and the quiet tranquillity of being so far from the road made it a nice place to relax for a couple of days…

 

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Off-Grid at Belen

MY DEFAULT SETTING for invitations is to accept and I found myself riding along Route 5 toward Belen to stay at John’s house for a few nights. A few Kilometers off the right hand turn to Belen, the Tropic of Capricorn is painted across the road, implying it’s continuation looking across the fields east to eventually arrive at the back of my head from the west. It’s not the first time across the tropic since I’d ridden down a dirt track to El Roble near Belen last weekend for Sunday dinner with the family who run Hostel de las Aguas but it’s my first conscious crossing of it.

Before March I hadn’t even crossed the equator so 2018 sees me pushing personal records for southern latitudes almost daily.

Belen. A tranquil village laid out in the familiar Latin grid of hexagonally block-paved streets. Its ambience reminded me of an old cowboy town. My iron horse idled down the street toward the plaza. Porches of plastic chairs occupied by watchful locals returned my wave or nod. I got the feeling word would soon get around that “There’s a new gringo in town.”

I reached John’s house and continued down the mud track toward the river for a quick look before I glanced over my shoulder and noticed Renalda waving from the garden. I decided I’d better turn round. Renalda opened the gate and I rode into the grassless garden under the shade of the trees. John hadn’t arrived yet. Renalda and her two sons spoke only Spanish and Guarani. I settled in one of the chairs in the shade of the porch out of the midday sun and worked hard at communicating as best I could.

John's HouseApologising for the repeated phrases that I failed to grasp took more effort than the mental decoding of the phrases themselves. Sometimes listening gets more tiring than speaking. I was relieved at John’s arrival about an hour later. He likes talking more than I do. Even so, ‘not speaking’ in Spanish is still more effort than ‘not speaking’ in English.

During a tour of the property, the list of little tasks slowly grew. I volunteered to help plant the sack of mandioca. This visit wasn’t going to be as lazy as I had expected but it felt good to contribute something in the offline world.

The next day, locals gathered and were allocated various jobs from clearing and planting to plumbing and wiring. I found myself at work like on a Workaway or Helpx site.

“Gardening in Paraguay is different to the UK,” said John. “You just put something in the ground and it grows.”

Planting Mandioca (Yucca)The next day, I followed the young Paraguayan’s row of shallow holes dug into the ground with a machete, poking in the cuttings and covering them over using my boot. The Mandioca was quickly planted so I helped out with some of the plumbing jobs punctuated by shuttle runs on the bike to the hardware store to exchange various items that didn’t fit properly.

At the end of the day, one of the guys brought over a cooler of beer and we sat back to cool off. When a can was finished it was tossed into the garden. I’ve seen this behaviour all over Paraguay, even whenever there is a bin close by. Someone else either picks it up later – or it is left. John did his nut and the locals retrieved the litter and laughed amongst themselves speaking in Guarani which poured more fuel on the fire. “When you’re on my account you speak Spanish.” instructed John.

A Guarani looking guy in blue sleeveless top kindly offered me a cold beer and I gratefully accepted. After I’d downed the last drop, the international sign for payment came with a rubbing between finger and thumb. Ah, I’d been suckered. Everything seems to have a hidden price here. I pretended not to understand and asked John to translate. He said, “I can never understand what he says” and walked away.

Renalda told me that there’s beer in the fridge if I want it at 10000G each since she says she pays 6000G to get it. It sounds fair until I see at the store they are really 3000G. £1 sterling works out to between 7000 and 8000 Guarani, so we aren’t talking large sums for gringos but probably are so for locals. It was more irritating than anything else as Paraguayans are kind and generouse with their time and energy.

After the workers had gone, we set off on the bikes to visit Christian, a German hermit living in a hut down by the river, pausing to pick up four beers along the way. The earlier storm had left the trails soft and muddy. the bikes slithered around looking for grip wherever they could find it beneath the slick mud and water.

KentonThe trail became wetter and rougher, and the sky was getting darker as the brush closed in around the track with the sun quickly sinking to the horizon. “We’ve gone wrong somewhere.” John announced, “we’d better go back before it gets dark.” Good call. I wouldn’t want this experience in the dark.

John’s bike began misfiring before we got back to town and hard roads. We stopped a few times to work out what to do but it always managed to kick it into life and splutter out another half a mile. We made it to the mechanic John uses and he abandoned his bike there before hopping on the back of mine.

We rode home, pausing to pick up half a cooked chicken for dinner. the food tasted good after the day’s work plus our hard ride over soft ground. We divided up the bill and put the beer in the fridge. John was going to Asuncion that night so I’d look forward to the cold beers the following days. By the time I wanted one, they had all gone, empty cans lying in the garden. Still, not worth trekking up to the plaza when the water here is so clean out of the tap.

The next morning, I was awoken by Renalda’s boys walking through the internal door. I’d forgotten to lock it by looping the rope fastened to a table leg over the handle of the door.

Without a translator, communication was hard work and I felt embarrassed by my lack of ability. Apparently, Renalda liked my company so, despite the urge to escape and progress my journey to Asuncion, I felt obliged to stick around. Young Pablo continually whined and the only remedy was for his mother to present him with a breast for milk. It turned out young Pablo was coming down with a fever.

FishingRenalda encouraged me to socialise and we dug worms from the ground in front of the house in order to go fishing. Her ex (Pablo’s father, Esteban) arrived and helped. I caught sight of a young chicken racing across the garden and heard Renalda shout. A black snake was chasing along the chicken’s track before Estaban picked up an iron bar and killed it. The snake was about 5 feet long, black and grey and apparently poisonous. Even though it was dead on its back, the thick gleaming black body still writhed.

SnakeAt the river, the mosquitos soon congregated to home in on bare skin or thin clothing. Renalda had company in Esteban and the two boys so I made my excuse and told them I was going for a Siesta to find sanctuary in my room to find some solitude and read and leave them fishing in the muddy, opaque river.

Both Pablo and Renalda developed a fever the next day. The following morning,  John called me on Renalda’s phone. She wanted to buy medicine and could I lend her 80000G on his behalf. I had already given Renalda 50000G for the previous two night’s lodging before riding up to the Plaza to change some notes.

After handing out 80000G, Renalda told me that it should be 90000G and I rustle up some small change to make up the difference. I was confused. She already had 130000G now. I became suspicious of the money game here. Generous and giving people but when it comes to hard cash, everybody seems to be on the make for small amounts.

WiFi at BelenIt became hotter than ever outside with no breeze. Even with the fan on full tilt, I was sweating in the room. I took the bike up to the Plaza to see if I could publish a blog I had drafted in my room and to read my emails. The proprietor said “Muy Caloro” and pointed to next door. I took my coke and sat well inside the vacant restaurant, away from the radiant heat of the street, while he plugged in a high-speed fan aiming it in my direction. The fan blasted a stream of warm air across me. It was more drying than cooling but I was still grateful for it.

The Internet connection looked promising for a few minutes before the service collapsed to a small x in the wifi indicator with all its signal strength bars lit up. I’d downloaded the headers for the emails but not the contents. there was one there about my Dad but I had no clue about what. the subject said “Fwd: Hi Dad!” and the line I could see said, “Well, that’s that then…” A WhatsApp message said “What do you think of this?” providing an inaccessible internet link. A Facebook message just indicated “Oops something went wrong!” so I closed the laptop abandoning the blog post to leave it in the same state it was the day before and moved closer to the fan while slowly sipping at the steadily warming bottle of Coca-Cola.

Arriving back at the house, the wind suddenly picked up and became dramatically cooler. I opened the door to my room hot air wafted out feeling like I was retrieving a cake from an oven. The sky was still clear but either rain or storm usually follows such a swing in conditions. I left the door open for a while to help it lose the earlier heat of the day. The bonus here too was there were no flies or mosquitos to fly in from outside since they can’t handle strong wind.

The storm arrived late in the night bringing the usual power cut but leaving the morning cool and fresh. I told Renalda I was going to Concepcion for some good internet and took off on the bike.

My reception at Las Aguas was cool. I didn’t expect a reunion celebration but at least expected a smile and a friendly greeting. I dropped John a message to let him know I was online in Concepcion. He said “I’ve just left Las Aguas. I’m at the Plaza waiting for the bus.”Pop down.” We chatted for a while waiting for the overdue bus. John flagged down a likely candidate bound for ‘Pedro Juan Caballero.’ Wrong bus. The Belen bus passed the stationary Pedro Juan Cabellero bus while John was busy with the driver and disappeared around a left turn. Hopping on the bike clinging onto suitcase and bags propped onto my racks we chase the bus into the Mercado and lose it somewhere in the grid. The bus we eventually caught sight off was the Pedro Juan Cabellero which could drop John on the main road a short taxi ride from Belen.

Victoria HotelFriday night at Las Aguas in the Aquidaban room was noisy and restless. Although it’s a private twin, for me it’s the worst room in the hostel, downstairs next to the kitchen and a bathroom, walls flaking and stained with damp patches. I’m not sensitive to decor but I am to noise. The AC took the muggy edge off the afternoon but I found it difficult to either work or rest and slung together some rough edits into the blog and sifted through some photos to add. The music and loud chatter downstairs in the hostel continued well past 3am and I laid down to hear the 4am chime of the church clock before finally dropping off to sleep. I still like Hostal de las Aguas as it’s cheap, friendly and close to the centre but I’d opt for the dorm upstairs instead of the downstairs room.

The Coffee HouseAfter finishing off the coffee at breakfast, I craved some more so I packed up and took the bike to a coffee shop I’d noticed a week before. The Coffee House wasn’t open until 3pm so I crossed the road to the old Victoria Hotel until it coincidentally closed at 3 and I recrossed the road to finish blogging at The Coffee House.

Stepping out at 5.30, the sky was blackening with angry clouds and the road was already spotting with rain. I had no rain gear but the air was still warm and I rode out of Concepcion a few kilometres to the shelter of a petrol station as it began to pour.

Petrol Station ShelterIn Bonito, chickens would congregate with me in the shelter of the picnic shelters when the rain came. It was the same with the motorcyclists here in this petrol station. there were half a dozen of us looking at each other and at the passing clouds.

Watching the sky, a bright patch slowly came my way and when the rain eased off I followed it east along Route 5 before turning south to Belen. The sky ahead now looked much worse and quickly turning the twilight of evening prematurely dark.

Belen StormThe wind was already up to gale force as I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn marker. Rain was driven under my visor onto my glasses. Visibility was poor and the wind blew me on a weaving course along the road. I knew I wasn’t far from the town and there was nowhere to shelter so pressing on slowing for oncoming headlights was my only option.

Belen was cloaked in darkness. It looked closed for the night but passing the Polleria near the Plaza, I could see silhouettes of people against the fire beneath the racks of spit-roasted chickens as I passed. Belen was experiencing another power-cut. I was the only vehicle on the road but I carefully made my way to the house to dry off and lay down on the bed listening to the storm before falling asleep.

I liked staying at the house but felt it was time to move on. Staying longer, I would have bought a SIM Card for internet but I didn’t want permanent access or I’d be online all the time. I value the solitude and sense of remoteness that being unreachable sometimes brings. Perhaps part of cutting the umbilical cord of Western civilisation…

Mandioca

The Mandioca two weeks later…

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The Aquidaban

The Vessel AquidabanAFTER A FEW days in Concepción, I discover that the magic of this town lies not in the architecture or its quaint echo of antiquity, it’s in the people. Laid back and easy to approach, unlike most western city folk. Walking toward Puerto Concepción, John gives me a tour of the Hotel Victoria. I feel we ought to be wearing white suits and Panama hats and waiting for a telegram of what’s new in the Empire – or some such movie scene. The manager invites us to free breakfast. Apparently, it’s rude to refuse so second breakfast it Hotel Victoriais.

At Puerto Concepción, the Aquidaban is secured to the earthy bank and bridged by gangplanks while individuals manhandle goods aboard. I was going to bring the bike but there is a bus back from Puerto Valle-mi so, Nah!. What would be the point of riding back to Concepcion? It would feel Vessel Aquidabanlike backtracking. There were four of us: Philip the genial young German heading into the Chaco to visit the Mennonite colonies, Matthew the journalist researching the Chaco wars and a charismatic 73-year-old from Swindon with a theatrical presence and sonorant voice that appears irresistible to the local ladies.

Aquidaban CargoThe Aquidaban feels like a post-war film set. A plywood edifice built over a wooden hull, laden with fruit, veg, meat, beer, steel wire, roofing panels, plastic pipes and mysterious sacks and boxes tied down under tarpaulins. Inside on the upper deck are wooden seats occupied with men, women and children and hammocks bulging with men only.

The days are numbered for this boat and its commercial future as the asphalt road Mulherssystems penetrate the remote parts of Paraguay. Trucks and buses can make the journey in a tenth of the time of the boat but there is a magic about this floating community depositing goods and people up the Rio Paraguay that will be replaced by nothing else. This magic will die with the birth of the roads. Like how the railways killed the canals in Britain.

Aquidaban CabinJohn and I share a cabin, while Philip and Matt dangle in the hammocks amongst the all-night drinkers and talkers. The weather is pleasantly overcast with occasional showers, keeping the temperatures from escalating to sweaty highs.

Aquidaban SkiffAlong the way, people are ferried ashore via the skiff that hangs on the starboard davits without the ship having to stop. For depositing cargo, the bow nuzzles the shore and lines hold her stern as close to shore as possible while goods are handballed over the gangplanks.

Barges“Absolutely marvellous!” says John like we are cast in another movie scene of a previous era. John had been here in the 50s as a kid and tells me nothing has changed except that the route that is ever getting shorter. No longer does the service run from Asuncion since the roads have carved their way past Concepción up the western side of the river.

Night on the AquidabanAfter sunset, locals start stretching out on benches and amongst the cargo. The dim sepia lighting encourages lethargy in the balmy still air smothering the river. The canteen is above the stairwell and the engine below. It’s no good asking for a menu. You get what’s ladled out of the pots. If you find a vegetable then it would have accidentally fallen into this scurvy themed fare. Meat and noodle soup or meat and rice for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I turn in after dinner and a couple of beers in the canteen when the noise of the Latin youth starts to win over the roar of the tenacious diesel tirelessly pushing us against the flow of the water.

JohnMy bunk is a sheet covered foam mattress. I kick off my trousers to use as a pillow and to help the air around my legs cool my body and promptly fall asleep. I awake at 1.30 by people moving across loose planks along the gangway outside the cabin. No engine noise and the sensation of mosquitos drilling my bare legs. Looking out of the window, two nuns in white garb beneath the bright light of a makeshift port. A bizarre enough scene to confuse with a dream. Too hot to go back to bed, trousers go back on for mosquito protection and I go downstairs to sit out on deck.

NunsBy then, we were already leaving port and the movement of the boat provided a cooling breeze. Still overcast, the near full moon shone through the silvery clouds illuminating the path of the river in shades of black, blue and indigo. Aquidaban displays no nav lights, only the warm low-voltage glow of the interior.

Breakfast on the AquidabanI awake to the muted rumble of the diesel and the thick watery air of a grey overcast morning drifting through the window. I laid in bed for a while enjoying the comfort before fueling my body via my beef stew breakfast.

At La Victoria, Matt and Philip disembark for the Chaco, A 250 Honda Tornado waits to board, Honda Tornadokitted out for a trip. Gabriel, a Jehovah’s witness from Asuncion on his way to Bahia Negra and into the Chaco. Gabriel asked for a second gangplank so he could walk on one pushing his bike up the other. No, it could be done with one, argued the crew and bystanders so instead of two people lifting a plank in place, four struggle at each end of the bike waddling up a single narrow gangplank as if to prove a difficult but invalid point.

Loading the TornadoAt Puerto Valle-mi, our berth was already taken by a boat being loaded sixpack by sixpack from a lorry load of beer, rugby style along the line thrown from one to the Rugby Beerother and stacked on the deck of the boat bricklayer fashion one on top of the other. The boat moved down the shore and the rugby team adjusted its line accordingly before we docked against the earth bank and rattled our way across the gangplank.

The bus arrived only an hour later, a modern doubledecker coach and I had prime position above the driver with full forward vista of the green flatlands of Paraguay. Two hours later we stopped next to the statue of the Concepcion at the end of the street of the hostel. I felt pretty tired, because of not sleeping well on the boat, and snoozed in the hammock on the patio of the hostel. John and I were supposed to walk into town but when I woke, I was just hungry and fancied a quiet dinner alone. It had gone six according to the church bell and I’d already waited long enough to justify a good enough excuse so off I went…

Puerto Valle-mi Aquidaban Cargo Aquidaban Cargo Aquidaban at La Victoria Aquidaban and Honda Tornado Aquidaban Cargo Aquidaban Galley

From the Left: Philip, John and Matthew

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Concepción

ConcepcionWAKING WELL AFTER dawn at Cerro Cora, nothing had totally dried but felt a little better than last night. The breeze was stirring the luminous sunlit leaves against a backdrop of tropical blue. It was still early, 8am, but already I could feel the heat building. By the time I’d packed away, I was soaking with sweat and sat in the cool Cerro Corashade of a concrete picnic shelter that seemed to channel the breeze and create its own wind tunnel. Even so, I considered staying another night to bask in the peaceful nature of the place. There was electricity here but the water for the showers was off. The river flowed fast and brown and who knows how deep. It would be hot and what would I do all day apart from hide from mosquitos?

Route 5 continues straight and smooth. Most motorcycles coast down the hard shoulder. Riders without helmets tend to travel slower because the wind around the eyes and ears gets violent with speed. I travel on the main highway glancing in the mirrors to dive out of the way of any speeding traffic. Staying on the main highway also means less of a chance of a puncture from loose debris as the car tyres keep the road swept clean. Deep potholes appear every few kilometres, usually on the nearside wheel track, so vigilance is needed for self-preservation.

Police checkpoints are frequent too. Small squads of military looking personnel stationed around road cones and huts. I slow to a jogging pace and give a gringo wave but none of them bother me. I remind myself to hide the bulk of my cash just in case I get stopped further on by a ‘fishing’ officer.

The Paraguayan air thickens with humidity and comes to the boil. I stop to take off my fleece and ride in t-shirt and jeans but there is little improvement. I start to get hungry and had already passed the disappointing looking town of Yby Yau so pressed on to Horqueta. The sky blackens from the north and the temperature begins to plummet. I don my fleece and zip it up to my neck but it doesn’t stop me shivering. Rain looks and feels imminent as I reach Horqueta and turn right to follow the chaotic flow of motorcycles over the cobbles toward the centre looking for a Cafe and avoiding collisions at the same time.

Passing the central plaza, I hang a U-turn thinking I had spotted the only cafe in Town. Raindrops drive me quickly through the glass doors. Ice cream is all they have and the small saloon is packed with teens.

The vendor didn’t understand “Vanilla” so I settled for Mint. It was OK, I was out of the rain that seemed to stop as soon as I stepped through the door. Concepción was only 40km away but the clouds looked pregnant with storm. Checking the map, Hotel e Camping Quinta del Sol was only 7km away. I decided to head for that as an option and leave the decision whether I continued to Concepcion up to the Paraguayan gods.

Hotel e Camping Quinta del SolBack on Route 5, the misty drizzle clouded my visor, blew through my fleece and cooled me to my bones as I moved through the watery air. I stopped to check the map and found I’d already missed the giant sign at the entrance to Quinta del Sol by about a kilometre. I never like turning back but felt too cold to plough onto Concepción. I swung the bike around back to Quinta to call it a day. I couldn’t face the cold damp trip and then have to search for somewhere to stay.

CampingFeliciano showed me around the enormous grounds with well-spaced picnic shelters, a farm, two soccer pitches, pond and woods. I selected the large picnic shelter tucked privately away behind a large tree and pitch my tent inside. The air was still cold and damp. Mizzle drifted in under the shelter necessitating the rain fly over the inner which tends to make the air stuffy inside. even though it’s cold. I skipped the shower and had an early night as soon as it got dark.

I stayed for 5 nights, The site was a haven of tranquillity apart from the weekends when football games were followed by party time at the picnic shelter next to me. Quinta seemed a different reality to me. Alien, Planet insect to start with. Feeling them all the time either walking over my skin or flying into me. The small mosquitos would somehow still bite my knees through my jeans. the weather would be high thirties and then plummet within minutes under a stroboscopic electric sky. the sudden wind would cave the tent in, unsecured due to the concrete base being a barrier for using tent pegs. I removed the rain fly to allow the wind to pass through. It turned out a refreshing strategy and although some moisture would find its way in during a storm, not enough to really soak anything.

Free FoodCommunicating was difficult but Feliciano and Rita were really friendly and generous and brought me food, even if I was hidden away out of sight on my PC. Everyone felt like family and I could hardly tell who were staff and who were guests.

Leaving on the Saturday was hard only because of the late Friday night music booming out of a car converted into a PA system about 50 feet away. I felt tired already and I’d only just had breakfast.

Route 5 again. Straight and repetitive. Police checkpoints, sporadic houses and trees lining the edges. A conveyor belt of monotonous scenery scrolling past deadened senses.

Concepcion, ParaguayAn unspectacular low rise town crept out of the horizon. I recognised the roundabout I’d just crossed by the map I’d checked earlier and I expected the place to be much more ‘City Centre’ like. Described as an old colonial town brought disappointment. Like a dilapidated cowboy town now paved over and the horses traded for scooters. There was traffic but not dense and it was frustratingly slow. No competing for position like most cities. The Streets of Concepciongrid system made for hundreds of crossroad that had no give way signs so the speed of the traffic made sense for life preservation. The bravest went over first and it’s every man form himself. Eye contact is a weakness. Once established, they’ll continue across your path knowing you’ll brake. Use peripheral vision and look straight ahead and the traffic swerves around you like you’re a blind man. The traffic was dominated by scooter style motorcycles. Whole families on one, toddlers on laps, teen girls on others steering with one hand, texting with the other.

StreetsThe city of Concepcion is the biggest small town I’d ever seen. Hexagon slabs give a smoother ride here than Corumba, Brazil but are rucked up and rugged in some places. some suburbs have only dirt road. The main routes keep their smooth and wide asphalt.

HorseI made my way to Hostel Las Aguas., just off the main road but far enough to be away from the traffic noise. Ioverlander had it down as a camping hostel but I was denied that option and instead, took a bunk in the 5-bed Dorm and unloaded the bike stacking the luggage in one corner. Manuel speaks a little English and points out roughly where the centre is in relation to the port on the bank of the River Paraguay, carrying on eastwards to the mercado area. As far as attractions go, there is one museum but that’s closed at the weekend.

Setting off over the grid of the city in the warm morning air revealed not much to look at. Overgrown plazas, rutted cobbled streets, dirt tracks, small stores and family homes.

Puerto ConcepcionThere’s no tourism in Concepcion. The port area on the river looked in ruins although it still shows signs of activity, small ferries taking people across the river. The abandoned commercial building hints at a city in decline but really it’s the effect of the developing national road system Puerto Concepcionstealing the trade from the river.  The people here are cheerful and friendly and the modest looking town bustles with activity and commerce.

Parking my bike at an intersection I walked south and found a huge Hotelhardware store. I dipped in an bought a padlock to replace one lost in Bonito and an extension lead. Returning to my bike I became conscious that all the intersections look the same and I wasn’t sure how far I walked or even certain I was heading in the right direction. The sun was overhead and gave no clue on my orientation. Two blocks further, I spotted it. I had walked further than I thought and realised if I don’t note the street names of the intersection, I’d have big problems locating my bike in the thousands of others parked at hundreds of intersections just like this one.

Hostel de las AguasFlicking on the air conditioner and snuggling down on a soft mattress had been a forgotten luxury after the camping mat and concrete base of Quinta and despite the racket of fireworks and badly played brass band music somewhere out on the streets, celebrating the ousting of a corrupt local official, I slept soundly.

At dawn, the church bells told me what the time was, 6am then five minutes later, 6am again. In case you missed it the first time. The bell strikes a single beat for half past the hour.

ChurchAfter the 9am peel and the snooze reminder 5 minutes later, I went down to breakfast to find a guest at breakfast. “Habla Ingles?” “Si.” A gringo journalist from New York, here in Concepción to research and write about the Chaco war with Bolivia. I asked him about the facilities and topology west of the River. He told me the same as Manuel yesterday. Nothing much there, even at Pozo Colorado. Some call it “the green hell,” the Chaco. Flat humid wetlands stretching to the western horizon with barely an elevation change of half a metre. Sure it would be interesting to see but not hundreds of kilometres of it.

My eyes now look east of the river and southwards to Asunción.

Relaxing in my room one afternoon, There’s a knock at the door. Manuel is there and an  old Englishman is behind him. “Hello, I heard there was an Englishman in Goncepcion arrived on a bike from Peru, I hope you don’t mind me interupting but I’m interested in your story…” His excitement was contagious and it was refreshing to speak with no  language barrier to someone from Swindon, only twenty or thirty miles from my old foreclosed home in Wiltshire.

John, is his name and he grew up in Paraguay in the 50s in one of the Bruderhof communities that settled in the Chaco with help from the Mennonites and later moved to Itacurubi del Rosario. I was as interested in his story as he was in mine. After a cup of tea and a good old fashioned chat, we exchanged WhatsApp numbers and promised to meet again… perhaps take a trip up the river on a supply boat slowly being killed off by the new roads… or perhaps stay a days at his home in the rustic village of Belen…

Streets of Concepcion

MercadoConcepcion Plaza

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Cerro Cora

Cerro Cora, ParaguayTHE STORMY DAY at Pousada Zamora was followed by bright, dry morning sunshine. Young people were at breakfast. Leonardo, Marisa’s grandson took an interest in the bike and my trip. He could speak a little English so I was a little later leaving than I expected. The forecasted thunder looked absent if not late arriving. In the United States, they’d call it “partly cloudy.” And I set off with my rain gear firmly packed away.

Jardim, Brazil.The roads are straight and smooth and farmland stretches to every horizon. Gigantic silos dwarf the Juggernauts waiting to be loaded with whatever’s in them. Villages are few and far between. Vista Alegre looks like a frontier town but presents me with a modern fuel station just at the exit before releasing me onto asphalt bisecting more flat farmland.

Ponta Pora condenses out of a steady accumulation of farm buildings, stores and warehouses so as its hard to notice when you’ve actually crossed the city limits. I pass a couple of hostels along the busy street and dip into Tompell to ask the rate. It’s 80R and not as nice as Zamora. I say I need to go to Migraciones and might be back later.

Tompell Hostel, Ponta PoraI need some WiFi to search for accommodation and soon reach the giant malls that the Brazilians invade for cheap tax-free electronics. The border is simply a line on a map – invisible in this merging of two towns. there is no border control at all and the malls stand with their toes on the border beckoning the overtaxed Brazilians with their quality discount fare from China. Burger King embeds itself in a parade away from where I can watch the bike and McDonalds ideally placed is bulging with impenetrable queues has a strong WiFi signal radiating across the car park, unfortunately, locked down by a password.

I start back to Tompell and find a small local cafe and ask if they have wifi expecting a “Nao” and get a “Sim.” I order what looks like empanadas from the small glass cabinet beneath the orbiting flies and grab a coke from the glass-fronted fridge before logging on sifting the web for other hostels. There’s a campsite 10km north but I want to be closer to town for dealing with the border crossing. I settle for Tompell and make my way back to cough up the 80R.

Bruna speaks no English but is charming and polite. Extras have a price here; parking, towel, snacks stacked in the wardrobe. I just take the parking and ignore the small luxuries. I have a dingy room with a bunk bed and barely functional ensuite. The window looks across a metre and half wide path to the concrete wall of the neighbouring building.

Bruna tells me there is a public holiday today and tomorrow and Migraciones might be closed.

Aduanas BrazilAlthough the hostel is close to the main road, my room is quiet and I get a good night’s sleep. In the morning, I use up all the time before the noon check-out transferring cash between cards ready to withdraw from ATMs in Paraguay. I decide to ignore the holiday warning and head to the first stop Brazilian Immigration at the airport 2km away. a solitary figure in a booth in an empty terminal is the man I’m looking for. Entrada o Saida. Saida… Asuncion. Stamp and I’m off to Aduanas near the Frontier Hotel. We fumble with language a while and I receive an exit document for the bike.

Next Paraguay Migraciones near the China Mall. Stamp Vamos and finally to Paraguay Aduanas to await their Siesta. Apparently, this side of the road, in Paraguay, is an hour ahead so it cuts an hour off my wait.

I follow a stocky cheerless lady upstairs to an office decked with mahogany cupboards like something out of the 50’s, beneath computer equipment like something out of the 80s. She asks how long I intend to stay and reply 60 days showing six fingers and she says no there is a maximum of only three months. I’d stumble on a strategy for getting the maximum allowance, so I say OK and stand quietly while the agent completes the form in blue biro before handing me a carbon copy.

Pedro Juan Caballero

Customs (Aduanas) don’t like dishing out the maximum visa period and sometimes cut back to 30 days. By cheerfully saying 6 months from now on, the agents might still feel a win by telling me “No, you can only have 3 months.”

Pedro Juan CaballeroBy now it’s mid-afternoon in Paraguay and just after lunchtime over the road in Brazil and I settle down for my first lunch in Paraguay, a schwarma on a busy pavement outside a cafe. Cerro Cora is only 40km Southwest. I read about it on ioverlander. A free campsite in a national park. and after lunch, I weave around the grid of Pedro Juan Caballero toward Route 5. Once on the road, I click up to top gear and sit on the straight flat road reeling in the miles toward Concepcion.

Pedro Juan Caballero Gas Station.The clouds to my right loom big and grey but don’t look capable of more than a threat of rain but a few specks drive me into the shelter of a gas station and cafe a minute further down the road for an Empanada and Coke. The threat comes to nothing, the clouds, impotent and silent, pass quietly overhead revealing the fluffy silver blanket at higher altitudes.

Cerro Cora National Park, ParaguayCerro Cora has a visitor centre with a little man that appears out of thin air to attend to anyone wandering in. Naturally, he speaks no English but hinting to my camping arrangement parked outside, he gets me to fill a form and shows me the map of the area. I ask who the portrait of the imposing figure is, dominating the museum wall and he points to the Spanish text beneath. I look at the picture for two seconds then leave.

Cerro Cora, ParaguayThe 4 cyclists I passed on the way in bustle around my bike jabbering in supersonic Spanish. They’ve cycled 40km from Ponta Pora and decided to camp here in the park. We chat a little best we can and they set off along the cobbled track. I pass them on the first campground, which they appear to settle for and take off further into the woods along a narrow toward the river.

Cerro Cora National ParkIt’s near feeding time for the biting insects and I quickly get the tent up in a small glade by the river. I’m glazed with sweat and the humidity prevents cooling by evaporation. My sweat feels more like cooking oil because of it. The shower block is a hundred metres away but do I really want to shower with a thousand alien species from the insect world?

I dive into the tent before dark and spray the interior with insecticide. It makes me cough and can’t be healthy but better in here than being eaten alive outside. I peel off my t-shirt and strip down and lay down to try to keep as cool as possible before quickly falling asleep. The coolness of the early hours wakes me up. My clothes are cold and wet but I put them back on hoping my body heat will dry them out. The fleece blanket beneath me is clammy too but I wrap it around me anyway. I hadn’t bothered unpacking the sleeping bag and use it as a pillow instead, subscribing to neck ache the next morning.

Cerro Cora, Camping

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Rio Tranquilo

Pousada do PeraltaTHE DAY HAD come. Monday, the virtual line I had marked in the imaginary sand. Time to leave. Seventy days might be a record stay for Pousada Do Peralta. My shiny new bank card paid the bill plus booked the Rio Sucuri tour, which I thought was close to Jardim but no, the map put it closer to Bonito, a lot closer. I’d already packed up and Pousado do Peraltaloaded the bike needing another night in Bonito and was loath to unpack again for camping another night so, while I still had WiFi, I combed the booking sites for a hostel. Bingo! Papaya Hostel downtown. And thus, I pulled up outside Papaya Hostel barely warming up the bike enough to put the choke back in. One thing for sure, after riding a bare bike around the town, the tent on the bars disturbs the handling greatly.

Pousada do Peralta“Compact and Bijou” the real estate agents would call Papaya Hostel. Small, in other words. To be fair, I’d seen smaller hostels but this one had so many more facilities compacted into its footprint. The main thing for me was It had my top requirements: secure parking to save me unpacking, power, wifi and free breakfast all for 35R, ten less than Peralta.

Papaya HostelThe Senhora on reception wore a stoic face with a disposition of busy-ness and my attempting to pay for the dorm felt like I was being a minor inconvenience. I only had 50R notes and she needed 35 but had no change so told me to pay tomorrow. the receptionist led to the small courtyard, paused, looked up at the balcony and shouted “Horsey,” making me jump A a stocky woman with a cheerful face emerged from an upstairs doorway and beckoned me up to the rooms. ‘Horsey’ helped me choose a bed and locker in the dorm she was currently cleaning.

I secured the gear that wasn’t already bound to the bike and relaxed in the cafe area connected to the internet while the afternoon rainstorm passed. I wasn’t really doing anything, virtually treading water in cyberspace. When the rain stopped, I wandered into town looking for a bar to toast farewell to Bonito and welcome the next leg of my Sao Jorgejourney after being so long stranded by circumstance. Bonito is surprisingly short of good bars open on a Monday so I found myself back at the Sao Jorge. It looked half closed. The bar shares the long wide entrance to the Hostel and nestled quietly in the shadows at the back of the building. At the entrance, a young guy sat at the desk behind a laptop and a girl was standing next to him. Their faces a reflection of work instead of pleasure.

“Cerveja?” a line I cast out baited only with scant hope. “Nao,” said the Senhora. “Sim,” said the Senhor and returned from the bar with a cold bottle of Stella Artois for a nice round 11R. A young couple with small backpacks had just arrived at the desk and were trying to make themselves understood in English. I squeezed by to the improvised patio on the pavement and brushed the raindrops off the wooden chair around one of the tables to sit down outside in the fresh post-storm air away from the stuffy, dark interior.

The couple struggled to communicate with the concierge before the young man disappeared down the road. I asked “Having trouble?” the young girl said, “Oh my god, it’s so good to hear an English accent, you’re the first we have come across here.” I told her I knew the feeling well. The tour they were on didn’t accept card payments and told them to pay at the hostel afterwards. The hostel couldn’t charge their card either so her partner had just gone to fetch cash from the ATM at Banco do Brazil a block or two away.

Rio SucuriJames and Holly were Aussies only just engaged a week or so back on an earlier leg of their trip and, as it happened, had completed the Rio Sucuri tour that day. When James returned we shared a drink and experiences on the road. The air was cooler after the storm and the couple were still wearing their wet gear from the tour. They were the same age as my sons but felt more like my own peers. Apparently, I shared James’ father’s adventurous spirit.

When they heard I was booked on the same tour, James tentatively brought up an invitation for me to smoke a joint just before floating down the river tomorrow. This felt like a scene from a video game where every odd thing has meaning. For what purpose was that invitation? I didn’t know but I accepted anyway and slipped the nicely rolled joint into my wallet.

After a solid night’s sleep in a soft bed for the first time in months followed by a filling breakfast, I was riding the rough rust-red dirt track to Sucuri. Hot Brazilian air ruffled my t-shirt and should have felt cooling to my bare arms. It’s a slow dusty 20km that makes the journey over stony potholes and loose corrugations feel longer than it should.

VinicioThe Rio Sucuri Farm is beautifully well kept. Vinicio welcomed me warmly in English and directed me to a safe parking spot in the shade for the loaded bike. I was two hours early so I could relax, perhaps take an early lunch, reflect and then smoke James’ joint.

I was about to settle in the hammock under the tree when I was invited to join the tour that was about to leave directly. I suppose I could have declined but I quickly retrieved my lighter, which had only ever seen a candle and a campfire, packed up the loose ends on the bike and lit the joint before walking and puffing across the lawn to join the group. The joint was small in size and mild in its flavour and was finished just before joining the group gathered at the reception. The challenge was fulfilled and I was already feeling lightheaded.

The tour itself was well organised a dozen of us led through the woods wearing wetsuits and crocs. The musical Portuguese words didn’t educate me at all on the flora and fauna around us, although Paulo and Thais occasionally translated. Rather the language blended with the cannabis to lull me into sleepiness.

Rio SucuriWhen we reached the river, there seemed to be no rush to get in. Instead, people were standing around chatting. I’d wait in the shade rather than the water. I wasn’t too hot and I’d start to feel impatient if I was ready to go waiting for the rest of the group.

Rio SucuriDrifting down the river, the water felt cold as it seeped between skin and neoprene and the sun did its best between the dappled shade of the overhanging trees to warm my back through the floatation jacket and wetsuit. the chill was getting to me when we reached the end of the drift

Thais, Paulo and Robbie.Paulo and Thia were unofficial translators on the tour for me and a young scot named Robbie. They told us later that they had just got married and were on their honeymoon. This was a happy revelation and reason to celebrate in good company. We enjoyed lunch together and agreed to meet at Gruta Azul since my GPS route took me back to Bonito before Jardim.

Some of us swam in the swimming pool although Vinicio apologised for the smell because a Tapir had bathed in it the night before. “It’s not dirty, it just smells a bit…”

Rio Sucuri ParkingAfter the bus took away my new friends, I packed up the bike and started back to Bonito as far as a fork in the road sporting large blue signs: left Bonito, Right Jardim! Jardim won the toss and I turned south down the dusty red track. Although it was late in the afternoon, I could feel the radiant sun on my skin, my t-shirt billowing in the breeze as I carved a dusty trail between open fields and farmland. After so long being static, I enjoyed the mixture of sensations between freedom and adventure and the feelings of doubt and anticipation that uncertainty brings. It seems they go hand in hand. If there is no uncertainty, there is no adventure.

The track became steadily more rough and sometimes I was launched into deep sandpits where the bike slew sideways unable to steer. I managed to stay upright as my feet shot of the pegs to scoot myself upright. My training taught me you should put the weight on the pegs to keep your balance but it just didn’t work on deep sand. Planting myself in the saddle and paddling with my feet was proving successful if inelegant. I couldn’t tell from the surface what was solid ground or not but the clue was discovered at the track edge where sand had piled up in long ridges. I could use them as an accurate indicator between which warned of a potential spill.

I joined the main road south of Bonito about half way to Jardim. I’d probably only been forty-five minutes on loose gravel and sand but I already felt weary. Perhaps it was the after effects of the joint too and not being used to riding of late.

The sun was kissing the Western Horizon and I could feel the evening mosquitos hitting my arms and legs in the warm air as I pulled into Jardim, a busy town that showed little evidence of tourism. There were a few hostels online as I recalled but I quickly needed a comfortable bed out of this muggy heat rather than wearily wrestling with tent and mosquitos in imminent darkness.

Baby Lanches restaurant. The proprietor was deploying the patio furniture ready for evening trade. He spoke no English but was suitably impressed by the laden Yamaha from Peru and served me as if I was King of the Incas. The fresh juices were cold, thick and succulent. I downed two pint-sized glasses of watermelon juice, so thirsty I’d become.

Latching onto the WiFi, Booking.com revealed Zamora only 2km away. 80R was above my budget but it had become a beggers, choosers situation. Red text flashed up. Last available, someone currently booking and I quickly entered my details and clicked confirm. I sat back to enjoy the fading twilight and chicken sandwich.

Zamora, tucked away in the nearby suburbs, was an anonymous-looking residence, save from the vinyl advertising on their patio doors. A Senhora cheerfully welcomed me in, as if I was the first ever guest and gave me an over-sweet cup of coffee from a container labelled ‘Cafe sem açucar’ (coffee without sugar.)

WindowHer name’s Marisa and she showed me all the rooms and, after I pointed to the motorcycle, put me in the triple so I could access my baggage through the window. I was the only guest tonight and thought “Nice trick with the ‘last available’ artificial scarcity tactic, Booking.com.”

GoldilocksThe room was hot and humid but the air conditioner soon brought both down in short order. The three single beds reminded me of Goldilocks and the three bears. I chose the bed that was neither too hard or too soft but just right and slept without covers switching off the air conditioner sometime in the early hours when the cold woke me up.

I slept through until 8am. That’s two hours longer than normal. The shutters kept out the silver light of morning but not the sound of the rain and the thunder. Checking the weather at breakfast, four days of thunderstorms. Not what I wanted in an 80R guest house. I decided to stay one more night. Frankly, I still felt wiped out from the tour and the ride to Jardim. I locked myself in the room promising to do some kind of blogging or video work and, instead, felt tired and depressed and surfed aimlessly on the internet.

I rested, read and slept on and off and gave myself permission to kick back and allow the wave of misery to pass with the storm if that’s what my body wanted. I’ve learned that going with the flow is the best way. Fighting feelings only increases resistance, and magnifies and prolongs the struggle. Tomorrow I would be “Right as rain!” and smiled at the irony of the phrase as I listened to the weather overflowing the guttering outside…

Thunderstorm

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Two Moons

Pantanal MoonTODAY WOULD HAVE been my 27th wedding anniversary, 5th October. Where would I be now if my wife hadn’t set me free? Where does the time go? My birthday yesterday too. Anyway, there was no way I would think I would be another year older leaving Bonito but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

The prepaid cards arrived the day before yesterday after a misdelivery to a town toward the Iguazu Falls. My Brazilian Visa expires on the 16th October so I’d already set a deadline to leave Tuesday 9th with or without the package. Giving up seemed to allow the cards to materialise.

Last Piece of the PuzzleLaying in the hammock under the trees, with the final piece of the puzzle in my hands felt instantly liberating. I could now leave when I wanted, but did I really want to? Pousada Do Peralta felt like home now. Roots were beginning to take hold. Everything I need is here and the staff feel like family. In a way, it would be a wrench to leave.

I don’t like travelling at the weekend so Monday, I’ll go Monday. The plan is to ride to Jardim, snorkel down the river and venture somewhere southbound a day or two later. I need a few items. Brazil tends to be expensive so I’ll hold off until Paraguay. Brazilians border hop to Paraguay for duty-free electronics. My Laptop sometimes refuses to start so I need a backup should it fail altogether. One option is a Bluetooth keyboard to connect to the phone. I can happily keep the blog up to date with that. The bonus would be that it can break my addiction to power sockets. The phone can be charged from the USB socket on the bike.

Digital NomadShould the laptops be cheap I could well buy a replacement. What about a camera? what about space on the bike? Yes, it’s a fine balance.

Bonito is noticeably hotter now and stripping off to shorts and t-shirt exposes me to the merciless sandflies and mosquitos. They are so small, I don’t see them around me until its too late so I remain covered as much as possible and suffer the heat.

Last week, the place was heaving with motorcycle groups. I found a wristband on the floor after they had gone so maybe there was a festival in the town. I don’t know, I hardly ever leave the pousada. All I need is right here and the supermarket two blocks away. When the bikers left all was quiet again. I had the place to myself for my birthday. I decided to celebrate for a change but discovered that Vandeia, the groundsman, leaves work at four and it had already gone three so I fired up the bike and cruised down the supermarket to quickly pick up a case of beer.

Three amigos sat on the porch of Peralta reception: Me, Vandeia and Gian. Better earlier with three than later with two, especially with the discomfort of the language barrier. I listened to the musical notes of Portuguese bouncing between the two staff members without understanding the lyrics. Instead, I responded to the birthday wishes on the facebook app instead of smiling blankly in their general direction.

Pousada do Peralta“Chuva” Gian announced with hands up fingers pointing down. That means rain. The sky was still clear but the air felt thick and hot. Vandeia finished his beer and sped off home on his Honda at a quarter past four and Gian returned to the Reception while I stayed racing the dying phone battery to finish my responses. The rain was transported in by heavy black clouds, growling with thunder and washed the heavy air into the ground leaving the evening fresh and clean.

Kix MarshallVery few tents come here but Kix Marshall from Kixmarshall.com arrived a week ago and we exchanged notes and took a ride out to the waterfall not so far away. The hot, dry trail billowed red dust clouds with passing traffic and we needed a swim as much to clean up as cool off.

Waterfall Formosa“Are there any piranha here?” I asked. We just shrugged, we’d soon find out. It’s the River Formosa where most of the tours are so I’d presume the most dangerous thing would be the waterfall to our right. These things can suck you in and tumble you under the water like giant washing machines without a chance of surfacing before you drown.

AustriansWilson and Rose were generous neighbours in a full-sized converted coach, feeding me grand portions of Brazilian cuisine, beer and cachaca. You’d think with names like that they’d be European but no. They hail from Guarulhos, Sao Paulo and travel around with their dog and parrot. They spoke a lot but I understood very little of what was said. Hardly any of the words I hear correspond with what I’ve practised with Pimsleur and Duolingo. I Plod on regardless. Pretty soon I’d be back to wrestling Spanish verbs again.

MacawsI’ve been here in Bonito for over two moons. I’d watched it wax and wane over the Pantanal sky, twice. Monday would make my stay 70 days when it comes to paying the bill. A lot of good people had come and gone in that time: Germans, Swiss, Canadians, Americans, Spanish, Belgians, Dutch, French, French Guianans, Italians, Brits, Austrians, Australians, Paraguayans, Brazilians, Argentinians and a Turk.

AnteaterStaying at Pousada do Peralta was as good as travelling for meeting people from around the world. The experiences here too many to mention for a blog post but I’m grateful for everybody’s company and generosity, and in all that time, I never saw one unhappy face or heard a cross word between people… even married couples…

Okan and Donna

BrutusnastradaMacawToucans

 

 

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The Kindness of Strangers

Gazin, Bonito, BrazilI’D VISITED GAZIN five times now. During that time I’d comfortably survived needing no cash. I didn’t need Western Union and their ineffectual, expensive service and so began the cancellation procedure.

 

Banco do Brasil, BonitoNow, where do you go to change currency? I know, Banco do Brazil, money is their business, they’d have some… The receptionist recognises me from before and says “No, no Western Union.” I take out the currency from my fleece pocket and fan it out to underline my need for currency exchange but no. I’m directed across the plaza to a travel agent. The travel agent shakes his head and points up the street. “Hotel Paraiso das Aguas… two blocks”

Hotel Paraiso das Aguas, Bonito, Bolivia.Hotel Paraiso das Aguas is large, spacious and empty apart from a receptionist barely visible on her low seat behind a tall wooden desk. “Senora fala Ingles?” I mimic off my CD course. The receptionist disappears down a corridor, her footsteps echoing off the hard ceramic surfaces, and returns with a young English speaking woman. I explain my plight and show her my currency. She asks me if I have Colombian Pesos and Peruvian solesAmerican Dollars before taking pity on me and phoning her husband to check my selection. She accepts the €50 but rejects the rest. This far from the border, Peruvian and Colombian currency is simply worthless paper, like Monopoly money. Their value is only supported by communal belief and their communities aren’t powerful enough to project their belief this far. I leave the hotel with 185 reais and a heartfelt “Good luck” from the young woman.

The banks back in the UK told me they could only send the cards to my home address. They also told me that they could send emergency cash, “Yay!” But I’d need my debit card to collect it, “Groan!”

Could they send the card to an Embassy? No, they couldn’t. However what they suggested they could do – something that I’d thought of but felt would be laughed all the way out of the messaging system – is change my home address to the hotel I was staying at in Brazil. Fine, do that then…

Something that initially needed ID and a utility bill, and a visit to a branch in the UK now apparently became possible because I was communicating through the online banking secure messaging system.

With the debit cards now supposedly on their way, I could relax and turn my thoughts to other things. I relayed my story to Tim and Guiliana, an American, Brazilian couple on vacation here with their young son. Tim felt so sorry for me, he took the trouble to drop by the tent the evening before departure and donated 50 reais. He had to be at the airport 3am so this was the last chance to see him.

Western Union, Gazin, BonitoClair and Carlos, a German, Brazilian couple – from the Netherlands – on vacation with their family of two daughters and a son offered to take cash out of an ATM in exchange for a bank transfer, which I gratefully accepted. Even paying had become a challenge without a bank card to confirm new payees using the Pin-Sentry security device. An obstacle overcome via my sister as an existing payee and intermediary.

The kindness of strangers exceeds my expectations here. I’ve not even had to ask for help here, It comes as a flood of offers as I share my story. Something that I haven’t experienced for decades back in the UK… you know, back in the times when neighbours used to talk and look after each other…

Lost Wallet

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Protect Your Money Abroad

What To Do If You Lose Your Money Abroad

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