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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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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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