Table of Contents    |    Chapter Three    |  |    Chapter Five

The Daily Grind
A Cyc-o-path Loose in South America
A Motivational Book About Cycle Touring Through South America

A Book by Ranger Bob Bob Lutsky

"Whatever you try to control - controls you"

Chapter Four

Paraguay - Heat, Bugs And Mate (Mah-Tay)

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We got up early, packed up all our stuff, which was scattered all over the hotel room and set out into the tropical rain. I was happy as a as duck on a pond, but Stuart was a little less enthusiastic about starting out in thunder storm. I reminded that the weather can only improve so off we went down along the Paraguay river just down stream from the falls. We crossed a huge bridge with that seemed to be overflowing with cars, trucks, busses and pedestrians. I zipped in and around the traffic which was barely moving and was more reminiscent of a mall parking lot. Stuart was a little more cautious and ended up falling quite far behind me. I stopped halfway across, 200 feet above the water, and looked out over the lush green valley with the chocolate brown river marking a clear division between the two countries. The rain continued to fall so I thought I would wait for Stuart in the customs office on the other side of the bridge. I put my bike up against the wall and got in line. Much to my surprise surprise the Paraguay customs officer was the most efficient I've ever seen and the line moved by at lightning speed, relatively speaking. With sharp, precise, confident moves, he grabbed the stamp and put a stamp exactly in the center, said "you have 30 days" and handed me my passport. Wow it took 2 minutes. Seeing all those cars who will be in line most of the day to cross I never expected such efficiency. Just another example of the royal treatment I felt I received throughout my trip, one of the many advantages of traveling by bicycle . I waited for Stuart for what seemed like a long time. Retracing my steps, I started asking people if they have seen a gringo cyclist, 6 foot 5 inches tall, hair down to his butt, dark sunglasses. Needless to say he couldn't be missed. Somehow people missed him. It was the fifth person I asked who said he had already gone by. Swell. This means that some how he missed the gigantic arch at the end of the bridge and the sign with 6 foot letters saying welcome to Paraguay, not to mention all the customs officers about. A technical and physical tour de force, I don't know how he missed it! I frantically went into the city, Ciudad Este, which was as hectic as an outdoor mall with a half price sale. In fact, that's exactly what it was, for it was only a few days before Christmas and things in Paraguay cost half as much as they do in neighboring Brazil.

The city is basically an outdoor market, and Stuart is at large without a stamp in his passport. After about half an hour of panic I spotted him and we were equally angry at each other. I at him for not seeing what I thought was an obvious meeting point and him at me for not waiting on the bridge for him to catch up. We all have our own thinking and thought processes but all excuses aside, perhaps I should of made more of an effort to stay very close together during this very congested and stressful area. Sorry Stuart. When ever you are traveling with another person, always have meeting points set up in advance just in case you inadvertently separate. On a long trip you undoubtedly will at some point. Constantly update your meeting points, times and dates. For example, if I couldn't find Stuart, we had the plan of meeting at the main Post office at noon, 3 pm and 6 PM on the day we separate. If for some reason that doesn't work we know we both plan to be in such and such a city the first week of January and have the American express office as a mail drop and contact point. Again these must all be expressed and agreed upon before you start out. Also, when cycling in rural areas, we each have our own pace, and one may be miles ahead of the other. The rule is the lead cyclist must always stop at all forks in the road unless its completely obvious and whenever you stop for a break or even to go into a shop ALWAYS leave your bicycle by the road CLEARLY visible to the people behind you. If you don't want to leave the bike, then use some large, obvious marker, like a fluorescent tarp, to mark your location. This might seem like an obvious precaution but you would be surprised how many experienced people I've ridden with who forgot or overlooked this and sadly we never met up again. I would keep riding thinking they were in front of me.

Well Stuart got his stamp and we headed of into the zoo of activity. Despite the rain pissing down, people were selling everything you could imagine, from televisions, radios, CD players, refrigerators and even hair dryers, at first this might not seem unusual but you must consider this is a country where very few people outside major cities have electricity. After asking around I discovered that Paraguay is a black market tax haven, so everything is cheap. Some stuff smuggled in from Bolivia is even cheaper, and with neighboring Brazil and Argentina being so expensive mobs of people come over to shop. People in Paraguay also buy large quantities of stuff, transport it to Brazil and Argentina and set up outdoor markets there to sell things for profit. There is not much work in Paraguay and people are very poor. Its good to see people taking advantage of the capitalistic entrepreneurial ideas of the West to sell these Western products.

Ciudad Este (city of the east) in eastern Paraguay, about a 7 day cycle from Asuncion, the capital city, on the other side of the country. We are just south of the tropic of Capricorn at about 25 degrees south latitude. It's summer and in case I haven't mentioned it, it's still HOT! 40 degrees Celsius or 104 Fahrenheit. The first thing we did is buy some local currency, the Guarani, which is about 2000 to the dollar. Then hit the market for bananas, carrots, apples, yogurt, cookies, chocolate, bread, cheese, pasta, sauce, rice and 2 liters of water each and we're out of here. Most people travel by bus to cities and stay for several days while we can't wait to leave cities. our trip is spent mostly between cities in small communities with local people. The places most travelers miss. As the bus goes by, I see them watching a film or sleeping. For us, traveling by bicycle is a completely different trip than hitch hiking or taking busses and trains. That's not to say I never visit cities, just that about 85 percent of my trip is in small rural places where people are very curious and have more time and interest in the strange gringo traveler.

The road out of town climbs steadily and to compound the problem of not having enough oxygen, we get to breathe in the rich, black exhaust smoke from the steady stream of trucks and busses. The road is paved but mud from the sides of the road has flooded across and all the trucks passing are constantly showering us with gratuitous amounts of red clay-like mud. As we pass up over the hill the rain starts to fall rather heavy so I take off the rain jacket and let the deluge wash away the mud and sweat and tears. The rain is so heavy now that I can hardly see where I'm going and I lost track of Stuart about a mile back. I cycled for about an hour to the point where the road splits and waited for Stuart. Straight goes to Asunsion, and left, our intended route, goes south parallel to the Parana river, down stream from Iguasu falls. We figure it will take about a week to get to the town of Encarnacion on the Argentine border. It's only 200 miles, but with the incredible heat, we plan on taking it slowly.

Stuart finally caught up to me at the crossroads just as the rain stopped. We headed south down the road towards Encarnacion and stopped for lunch at a restaurant about an hour later. We were hot and grimy and desperately in need of some relief. Through my travels, I have become quite skilled at having a complete shower in a sink and took advantage of the restroom in the restaurant. I even managed to do all my laundry in-between courses of the meal. Naturally I allowed other people to use the facility while I was washing - I just wait outside until they are finished. It goes without saying that I clean up after myself, often leaving the place significantly cleaner than I found it. Stuart did the same. It's amazing how much mud we were both wearing.

During a great meal of soup, chicken, rice and soda, we were entertained by the reactions our laundry created. Our laundry was hanging from every imaginable perch in the restaurant and it was drawing some strange looks from people passing by. Most actually felt sorry for us or at least found the situation amusing. I doubt that our underwear hanging out around the dining area would have been met with such a patient understanding back in the states.

We headed further south into the country side and away from populated areas. In Paraguay, through all cities and towns there are speed bumps everywhere. This got to be annoying even on a bike, for nothing is more upsetting than to have to stop or slow down especially on a long decent. Outside the towns the speed bumps are on the shoulders forcing us out into the traffic at 50-100 yard intervals. The purpose of these is to prevent people from passing on the right and to keep the speed down in towns. This eliminates the need for police to control the traffic. The main problem is that every once in a while a truck or bus would be right next to you as a big speed bump appeared and your would be forced over the bump. This actually serves as a good test of the sturdiness of your bike, racks and bags.

The southern part of Paraguay is rolling hills no more than a few hundred feet high. Most of the population lives in the fertile, lush green regions in the South. The Northern half is more barren and flat. At this time of year it resembles Death Valley, California with 120 degree heat. There is only one road that goes across the Northern region towards Bolivia and I heard that if you are on this road you must be smuggling something. This thorny, hot and extremely isolated region is known as the Gran Chaco. We don't have much time to spend in Paraguay, so we won't be venturing down this road although I hope to return one day to cycle it.

Soon thereafter it was time to camp. Finding a place was easy, however sleeping was another story. The 10 million mosquitoes buzzing around my head was nothing, it was the relentless heat through the night. At 4 AM it was still 90 degrees and no sign of sleep yet. There was no movement of the air and the HUMIDITY... well you get the idea. We came up with the brilliant idea to get up at 5:30 and cycle before it gets too hot, as if it isn't already. By 6 we're on the road and at 6:30, here comes the sun, as bright on the horizon as when it's directly overhead and almost equally as hot. But the real reason this was not a good idea was at that time the bugs are in full feeding frenzy. This minus overpowered any plusses of starting early. We found ourselves stopping every half hour to rest and rehydrate for an hour.

The next few days we proceeded with equal zeal setting a record for fluid intake in 24 hours. Finally on Christmas day we both collapsed on the front porch of someone's house which also turned out to be a restaurant. It seems many houses were also restaurants or at least a place to buy something to eat or drink. People don't have a lot of options for work so they will do what ever they can to earn a little extra income. Notice how

People sell coke, tea, snacks and will prepare a meal for you even if they aren't a restaurant. A coke sells for as much as a 3 course meal and is more expensive than gasoline. Christmas is nothing like it is in more commercial countries - no Christmas trees, no hoopla, no decorations, very few presents - just family, friends and a large meal together. As a matter of fact, the past two weeks I didn't even know we were approaching Christmas.

The family we spent Christmas with had no running water, or electricity, dirt floors and a house smaller than their hearts. They get water from a stream nearby, have two small lights and a radio that is powered from a car battery. Stuart and I spent a couple of days here, resting and hoping the heat would break. Every once in a while a bus would stop and the driver would get out and fill his thermos with ice water and buy a box of cold drinks to sell on the bus. He made about 5 dollars a day gross, but with so little to buy I guess it's enough to live on. It makes a bottle of coke appear very expensive when you put things into perspective.

I fell asleep under the table in his restaurant and instead of asking me to sit up or leave he offered me a pillow and a mat to lay on. Stuart being a little more refined had his nap sitting up against the wall, but paid for it with a stiff neck when he awoke. Juan, the house owner, told me that if one can afford a TV they would buy one before installing plumbing or running water, floors or even buying a comfortable chair. They put a lot of value on being entertained and are happy to live more primitively in exchange.

The next day we cycled off leaving our Christmas companions behind. This day proved a little cooler but not much. By evening we saw lighting off on the horizon. There was a big thunderstorm somewhere but we missed it. Shortly before dark we found a school in the final stages of construction and thought we would find out if we could camp inside it, to save the hassle of setting up the tents. We happened to notice there was a guy in the shower. The shower was exposed to the road since the doors hadn't been installed yet Rather than embarrass him, we waited until he was finished and dressed before we approached him. We asked him if it was OK to sleep in the school and he said we needed to ask the police chief.

We walked up the hill about a half mile to the police chief's house. We assumed that this was to verify who we were for security reasons. We showed him our passport and answered a few basic questions. He asked if we were married and we said "To each Other?". But I said I just liked Stuart as a friend.

He had us write our name and passport numbers in his note book. He also asked us if we had any souvenirs of our country and Stuart reached down into his pocket and gave him some US coins. The campsite resulting from our efforts was not worth it. There was more fauna in that campsite than in an entire jungle. Stuart went so far as to pitch his tent in the school house to provide some protection from the insects, but I went al fresco, seeing it as an opportunity to develop my resistance to the malaria.

Meanwhile, Stuart still spent have the night killing bugs IN the tent. I found that the constant buzz of mosquitoes enabled me to sleep quite soundly, once I fell asleep. Long sleeve pants, shirt and mosquito netting over my head was a definite requirement. I just laid on top of my thermarest, smiling as I listened to the beautiful music provided by the rapidly flapping mosquito wings.

After some morning bread and jam and another cold shower, this time fully dressed so that we had some cooling effect, we started cycling off across the oven of southern Paraguay. Later that day we stopped at a restaurant for lunch and had our first encounter with the wonderful tradition of Mate (Mah-Tay). The owner of the restaurant came out with a chalice made from a gourd with a wide mouth at the top, filled three-quarters full of a loose-leaf tea called Yerba. A long steel straw with a flat spoon-like base with holes in the base was stuck in the cup. The straw was called a bambijo and it is used to filter the tea as you drink with it. He also had a thermos full of tepid water (never boiling for it scalds the tea) which he poured into the Mate cup. Tiny bubbles surfaced on top of the tea. The Mate is passed to one person who slowly drinks it and passes the drained cup back to the Cebador (host) - Not to be confused with a Mate-dor. The cup is refilled with more tea and more water and passed on to the next person. The old used Yerba is not emptied. As the Mate is passed, it is very traditional to make eye contact and hold it until the pass is completed. It is polite to accept at least two rounds of Mate and when you have had your fill, you indicate that you are finished by saying "Gracias". It is very improper to ever set the cup down during this procedure. Often times the mate is left in over night or until the next usage. Mate originated in Paraguay and is drunk frequently and somewhat religiously across Paraguay, Uruguay, Southern Chile, and Argentina. I have never heard of any other place that is known to practice this tradition. The taste is very bitter and some people (although never in Paraguay) will add a little sugar to each Mate. The most wonderful aspect of the Mate ceremony is that it is an excellent social communication. The participants are completely focused on the Mate and are never distracted from the experience. It seems more sacred than the British tea tradition and they drink more Mate the British drink tea.

Almost everyone we encountered that were traveling by car carried Mate, a thermos, a tea kettle and a small stove with them. In poor areas, people would simply make a small fire and place the kettle on the hot coals. They sure do take their Mate seriously in these here parts.

It's unfortunate that Paraguay has so little to offer geographically and it's far from everywhere and very expensive to fly into. As a result, very few people visit Paraguay which is a country rich in tradition and pride.

People were a little more reserved than in Argentina and Chile, I found that I needed to go up to people, say Hi, initiate conversation, yet they also seemed very confident in themselves and willing to share stories and histories and culture with you. In Peru people were very aggressive - every time I stop, multitudes would gather around with a million questions.

I have always been attracted to places that very few people were interested in or knew anything about. I was more excited about visiting Paraguay than any other country for that very reason. I found Paraguay quite interesting but there isn't a lot to do there and its not very geographically stimulating however there are some interesting characteristics. For example, the first thing that happens when you meet people on street is they invite you into their house for Mate. This happened frequently and often led to intimate conversation followed by helping the family in the field harvesting crops or work on the house ( forever in the state of reconstruction ) and maybe partake in a little soccer with the kids. So in that respect there is a lot to do in Paraguay. Its amazing how close you can feel to people who you share a mate with. I found it very interesting that in countries that have a predominately hot climate like Paraguay, India and Northern Africa (Sahara region) they drink excessive amounts of hot tea.

As we cycled across the southern part of Paraguay where most of the population lives, it's still very rural - not deserted, just spread out. There was a separate road running parallel to the main road only unpaved and in some places only a track, used primarily to walk or cycle between houses. Also there were many one room school houses some had 2 rooms, very primitive yet sufficient. Most did not have electricity or running water, but all had a path about 100 yards long leading to an outhouse, (2 or 3 holers). They consisted of a piece of plywood with holes cut in them and a wooden door with a piece of wood to wedge under the door acting as a latch to prevent the door from swinging open. No sink or running water. Each school room had a chalkboard that was so old that they had white blotches and lines everywhere that could no longer be erased. There was one long table with about 8 or 10 chairs along one side of it. I wish I went to a school like This. I wonder If independent thought, the importance of thinking for ourselves is taught in these small school rooms? Most people I met seemed well informed about their country's political situation, but feel undirected in ways to orchestrate change.

One night just after sunset we stopped at one of these 2 room school houses to cook up dinner and possibly camp. As we finished dinner two guys from the neighborhood came over with flashlights to see what was going on, find out who we were, and to make sure we weren't causing any damage. I asked them if it was OK to sleep here and to use the outhouse. They told me they would be honored to have two gringos from the states attend school in Paraguay! They even helped us move the table and chairs out of the way so we would have plenty of room to stretch out. They also made of point of saying we could sleep as late as we want because school is out for summer vacation.

We later learned that they were both teachers here and told us that it was difficult to teach with so little materials. Sadly, most kids don't finish school because they are more valuable on the farm or helping their parents in their business. Another reason may be that there are not many opportunities to put a good education to use around here.

The two guys appeared to be quite impressed with my self inflating air mattress. When I unrolled it and opened the valve I held it up to their ears so they could hear the air being magically sucked into it to inflate my bed for the night. Like almost everything we had they wanted to buy it and would ask if we would sell it and how much did we pay for it. Understandably a lot of people tend to make their living buying and selling commodities. Its the country of import and export on a small scale basis.

One of the teachers disappeared and in 15 minutes returned with Cake and Mate. They taught all grades 1-9. Apparently there was another school for the older kids, but most don't go on after grade 9. In Bolivia, very few go on beyond grade 4. They both liked their jobs very much and agreed that Paraguay was a very peaceful place to live. Communication was a little sketchy without having the language but with a dictionary and sign language, we seemed to communicate quite well. Very few people from Paraguay will visit the United States, or even leave Paraguay. The currency, called the guarani is old and very worn out. Like our currency, it's made of cloth but because of the excessive wear, it's down to the consistency of a tissue. The government cannot afford to print new notes and it lasts so long because people are so careful with it for no-one will accept a torn note. This may sound like too much information, but I actually used a 1000 guarani note to wipe my butt and it was as soft as quality toilet paper and it was all that was handy at the time. I still had not developed the habit of keeping a supply of toilet paper at all times. No matter where you are, even if you are lucky enough to find a toilet, you can rest assured that there is very little chance of finding toilet paper. Now after 9 months of traveling South America, that habit is thoroughly engrained in my behavior.

My South American tummy had still not established itself. On several occasions I was surprised to get more than I had bargained for when going to pass a little innocent gas. Then of course you have to find somewhere to execute cleanup procedures. When I finally got home again it felt great to fart without fear. What can you do if you have to fart? You can't hold it in indefinitely, but you can't really run to a toilet, assuming there is one to be found in your vicinity, every time you need to fart.

If you're uncomfortable with this type of dialog, then you're highly unlikely to enjoy the side-effects of foreign travel. To leave it out however would deny you the full pleasure of trying to relate to the full experience of being "out there" as opposed to a ride through your local neighborhood. While we're on the topic of bathroom duties, urination breaks can add up to a lot of wasted time and lost momentum. So to avoid this, at least for us guys, when you're riding along a road with a gentle downward slope, it's a good opportunity to whip out the old willy through the cycling shorts and have a pee while you're cruising. Over the years many hours have been saved by not stopping for such a trivial chore. I always wonder what people along the road think when they discover this mysterious line of liquid in the middle of a dry desert road. At first they might think that it's leaking from a car or the back of a truck, but upon careful examination, that can't be true because it jumps all over the place like an seismograph printout during a 7.5 Richter earth quake because there's certainly no such thing as holding that baby steady while you're rolling.

Meanwhile, back at school - in the morning our friends invited us over for eggs and toast and we offered oatmeal and Mate. After breakfast and more stories about our adventure, we set out at about 10:00 am - Just in time for the HOTTEST part of the day. As we set off down the road, sweat pouring off our faces, we were inundated with thoughts of getting to a cooler region as fast as we could.

By this time after 3 weeks of cycling we both know where everything is in our Panniers and we are reasonably fit. We both have had enough of the heat and bugs, were ready for the serious stuff, were ready for Patagonia!. So after a short conference we both agreed to pick up the pace down to Buenos Aires.

The next three days offered slightly cooler conditions with temperatures just under 100 degrees. We covered about 30 miles a day and arrived at the big commercial border town of Encarnacion. This town is located about 220 miles down river from Igasusu falls and 180 miles due south of the capital city, Asuncion. Paraguay is not especially difficult to cycle, most of the roads are paved and relatively flat and absolutely no wind. It took us 8 days to cover the 220 miles largely due to the excessive heat. For anyone interested in visiting Paraguay, I highly recommend that you go in the winter months of June, July and August.

Paraguay and Brazil jointly constructed a damn further down the river from Encarnacion which unfortunately is resulting in the flooding of the city. This damn is part of the biggest hydro-electric project in the whole world. I found it interesting that a country where few of its people have electricity would be involved in such a huge hydro-electric project. The people of Paraguay are very proud of this site and hope that it will facilitate the deployment of affordable electricity to everyone in the country. Unfortunately most of the electricity goes to Brazil where things are very expensive, and the profits stay with the investors. The trickle down effect is rarely more than... a trickle down.

We checked into a hotel before popping out for another Chicken, rice and soup meal. Our hotel room had no windows but we were treated to some Paraguay air-conditioning which means a fan sitting on the table with no power cord. Why there was a fan in the room without a cord is puzzling but I try not to ask too many questions. We did discover however that it was possible to give the blade a few good flicks with the finger. The blades rotated slowly and the room cooled RIGHT down.

The next day, we walked through the labyrinth of outdoor shops similar in some ways to a Turkish Medina. Miles and miles of everything you would never want or need. It's like an outdoor mall along the sidewalk. Most of the merchants are just individual people who have bought there merchandise without tax and are trying to turn a profit. This is much like Ciudad Estes near the Brazilian border - all the Brazilians would cross over to buy their goods tax free. It's the same here except people are coming from Argentina for the bargains.

About noon we went down to the river where you could see several street signs just poking their tops a few feet out above the top of the water. Next to the river was a restaurant with a lovely outdoor patio overlooking the river, but with the rise in water level, now the river was overlooking the patio. The patio was under at least 3 feet of water and the rising water level was gradually encroaching on the restaurant itself. When the water rises 6 more inches, they will be out of business which would probably happen in about 3 weeks time. Unlike in the US, it is highly unlikely that they would receive any compensation for their loss, but the people have a very good attitude and feel that it's probably good for the country for they have been promised cheap electricity from this wonderful damn. Most of the local residents rarely seem to complain and always make the best of things. We noticed that the taxi drivers found the flooded streets to be a great new service - a drive in car wash. They'd drive their cars down the road until they were submerged in about a foot of water and they'd get out and wash their cars.

It was a strange feeling to look at photos of the town before and after the damn. The two streets closest to the river are almost submerged completely. They don't even bother to remove the old structures (building and houses) and they will simply engulfed by the waters. We suspect that they'll just leave everything to create a new tourist attraction of "The Sunken City".

Later that afternoon, we discovered something else about Paraguay on a trip to the post office. We made the mistake of writing and addressing our postcards BEFORE putting the stamps on. Big mistake. Each postcard requires 4 UNBELIEVABLY large stamps that take up no less than 60% of the card. I asked her in my limited Spanish if there was a possibility of getting an electronic sticker but she just looked at me as if I had asked her to do a back flip. We met a couple of backpackers from Brazil who also had the same difficulty and we all laughed over the silliness of it all. But at no point while we were in Paraguay did we meet any tourists or foreigners to the country other than people from Argentina or Brazil who had come across to shop for the day. I wonder who was on all the flights from North America to South America because I certainly didn't meet many of them traveling.

In the morning of the 4th day, we decided it was time to leave so we stocked up with more food and supplies and headed to the huge bridge, about a mile long, that crosses the mighty Paraguay river. There was a lot of greenery floating down the river that was washed down because it was the rainy season and there was quite a swift current. The idea of jumping in for a swim was very attractive considering the 90 degree temperature, but memories of the dead piranha 400 miles upstream on the Bolivia/Brazil border dissuaded us from the plunge.

One last note on Paraguay before getting into customs in Argentina. The flag of Paraguay is exactly the same as that of Holland and Luxembourg except for a symbol in the center that says republic of Paraguay. There is no connection between the countries that I'm aware of but no-one I've met here can tell me who or how the design and colors were chosen. This will definitely make for a fine doctoral thesis.

Goodbye Paraguay and Hello Argentina.

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