Traveling through Paraguay was both a difficult and magical experience, for several overlapping reasons. By this point we had been told horror story upon horror story about worms, parasites, eye-burrowing bugs and a whole array of unwanted biological guests which were likely to accompany us after our journey into the campo, as unsuspecting hosts. 🙂 Well, it seems we were lucky enough on that score, but we were apprehensive enough just before stepping into the unknown and alien world of Paraguayan Campo (rural countryside). However, our foreboding wasn’t completely baseless: all of the unwanted guests described, including the eye-burrower, have made dubious homes out of all the Peace Corps volunteers we met in Paraguay. That said, the people we met in Paraguay (locals and foreigners alike) were much more generous with their time , their stories, their homes and their warmth than we would have every predicted.
Our plan when leaving Iguazu was to visit both Andrea’s and Richie’s Peace Corps campo outposts, to see where they work, what they do and meet some of the people in whose hands Peace Corps was entrusting our friends. The rain had hit Paraguay almost as heavily as Argentina, so while our plans were complicated from the get-go, it also allowed us to have an incredible campo-hopping adventure, and meet even more people. The first hop landed us just over the border, close to Ciudad del Leste, with a volunteer called Grace. Kiernan and I delayed our departure a little, to watch the opening game of the Brazil FIFA World Cup at the Hostel in Puerto Iguazu, while the other four went ahead to another volunteer’s outpost.
We left a couple of hours later, oddly speeding right through the border where we didn’t see anyone stationed, and then we grabbed some tickets at the main bus terminal for the last bus heading west. Although we didn’t have exact directions, Richie and Andrea were very explicit about getting off at mile marker 60 (km) and go from there. I asked the driver to let us know where we were near 60, but of course he admitted he forgot and we hopped off immediately around 80 in the middle of nowhere, of course. Extremely lucky for us, half an hour later another charter bus stopped to listen to our sob story and let us ride with them back to 60, gratis. Grace was stationed just a little outside Ciudad del Leste, in a Japanese community in Colonia Yguazú; all of us (when we finally got there) spent the night camping in her considerable backyard glad to be back in Paraguay. Apparently Tom, Ryan, Richie and Andrea got unexpectedly dumped at the Argentina-Paraguay border when their bus left them waiting to get passports stamped. At least they all had their backpacks on them, not back on the bus! Anyway, they made it to Grace’s safe & sound. We were not the only people staying at Grace’s, and the next morning we got our first look into the singular life of a Peace Corps volunteer by chatting with Grace and another volunteer friend: not only how challenging each situation is, but how rewarding they find it, the perseverance & determination they have as well as the way they grow and see change in their own lives. I have a lot of respect for the volunteers we met.
The next morning, a couple of phone calls and cups of coffee later, we knew where we were going after Richie and Andrea called a friend whose site wasn’t currently unreachable because of the rain and mud. We headed out still unsure how we would get there… Six of us got our boots and backpacks thoroughly rust-colored with mud, waiting for the right bus to come by, with enough space to squeeze us in. The squeezing in turned out to be more of an issue than finding the right bus – we got passed a couple of times. The ride itself was much more comfortable than I would have thought, and people were super considerate with space despite us having to stand up with our bags, tracking in mud, standing shoulder to shoulder in the aisle. 🙂 We got off on a nondescript part of the highway between Oviedo and Villarrica, with pastures on either side and a small kiosk/cafe on one side. Since it was, once again, raining, everything was closed and almost boarded up (we came to realize that nothing functions simultaneously with the rain); six wet travelers walked as lightly as possible over muddy grass, between yards and cow pastures to Alex’s house. Once there she let us unwind, take off our wet clothing and chill. Later that night we mostly hung out and played music, Andrea and Alex made deliciously bittersweet grapefruit cocktails with Paraguayan caña (a rough cane liquor), . Both Alex and Grace struck me as very sweet and warmhearted and friendly, but no less resilient for all that. Alex was then nice enough to treat us to some pizza she and Andrea put together, and the night fizzled into drinks, laughter, music, and discussions about who was going to cuddle with whom.
In the morning Alex was kind enough to let us raid her orange and grapefruit trees to stock up for our days, and we made our way out to the main road to catch a ride to Villarica, a cute little town with some colonial styled buildings almost right in the middle between Ciudad del Este and Asuncion. Since it was a quiet town we mostly watched a couple of world cup games, ate empanadas, drank on the hotel roof and enjoyed ourselves.
The one thing that stuck out was the city park where the capybara park which is better known as Parque Manuel Ortiz Guerrero. Apparently there used to be loads more but over the year they have disappeared bit by bit, mostly onto plates from what we heard. Nevertheless it was a cut rustic little park with a murky lake in the middle, some charming murals, and statues. After some searching we managed to hang out with a couple of these majestic giant hamsters on the bank as they took mud baths and did capybara things like gazing into the distance and foraging. They mostly look like dog sized hamsters, or hamster hippos, so it was a treat seeing something strange and unusual, and we all slowly took turns lightly touching their needle like coat of hair without spooking them, which was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The next day we hopped over to a little town in the direction of Richie called San Juan Nepomuceno. We arrived at a cute little motel style bed and breakfast called Hotel San Jose, took off our bags in our cozy rooms and went looking for some grub. We even had fresh terere with an ex-corps volunteer that Richie and Andrea knew in that town who had settled down in Paraguay and started a family. It was interesting to hear from an American about living here long-term, and starting a family, and all the challenges that came with it. We ended the night with everyone else putting on a music show for the old couple who ran the B&B which made them glow with laughter. It even inspired the old man to bring out his old accordion and bass, and he gave us a private show of Paraguyan folk tunes and songs from when he was young that I’m sure we’ll never hear again anywhere in the world.
In the morning we talked with the couple who were nice enough to let us leave our huge backpacks there while we made a day trip out to Richie’s site right under Parque Nacional Caazapa. So we packed up our day bags, a bit of caña, had a quick breakfast of fried chipa and cocido, a surprisingly nice burnt/toasted herba mate and sugar concoction. From here we were heading into the wild, the true countryside, and we had a lot of walking to do.