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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…


The Mandioca two weeks later…

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Teresa November 28, 2018, 7:46 am

    Doesn’t sound like you are enjoying it too much there, time to move on?

    • Admin November 28, 2018, 3:46 pm

      It was OK all in all. Belen is friendly and tranquil, which didn’t come across as much in the post. All this was spread over two weeks so there wasn’t much happening on a daily basis. I’ve edited the post to try to balance it out a little. Being in Belen was difficult for keeping things up to date, which felt a little frustrating. I stayed longer than I intended.

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