The Daily Grind
A Cyc-o-path Loose in South America
A Motivational Book About Cycle Touring Through South America
A Book by Bob Lutsky
"Whatever you try to control - controls you"
Paraguay - Heat, Bugs And Mate (Mah-Tay)
Click here for map of Paraguay
(and be sure to click your browser's 'back' button to return to this page!)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.