Like we said at the end of the last post – we left our bigger backpacks safely stowed at the Hotel San Jose where we’d spent the night… and we were taking to the road. We were heading to Richie’s outpost, footing it until we could hitch a ride. When it rains the buses don’t use that road since it’s all dirt road (which turns into rust-red mud), and bridges are sometimes planks placed open a drop, wide enough for the wheels to find them. Later, when we got the bus out, it was an interesting, slightly scary adventure but impressive that the drivers can navigate the roads with the amount of confidence they have. It kinda reminds me of stories my brother told of taking taxi-buses in Mozambique 😉 Anyway, we had minimal supplies with us, prepared for the next two or three days and walking into a clear day, with the sun shining happily on our backs. Six people hitching a ride is not easy, but we hadn’t been walking for a long time at all when a guy pulled up and let all of us hop into the back of his truck. We were quite conspicuous – a group of foreigners traveling in a pack, three of the four guys had long, exotic hair and all of them were sporting thick, luscious, wild beards. Apparently this is quite out of fashion in Paraguay, since for them grooming (and cropping) your hair is a sign that you take care of yourself. No-one was hostile though; people stared openly, and smiled for the most part, some even waved from the cabs of trucks, or from horseback as we passed them.
We had a final walk up the last orange-red dirt road to get to Richie’s community, and his house; not super taxing, but definitely a steep climb. From the top you could see into the wooded distance, and when the sun set later that day the most beautiful rose and purple shades stained the sky. Well, before it was quite dark we visited a couple of families in the community – the guy who runs the closest convenience store slash emergency supply depot, where we availed ourselves of a particular brand of caña that could burn away anything going down your throat and digestive tract. 🙂 Richie introduced us to the head honcho, the community leader and his wife; she shared some chilled terere with us as Richie and Andrea chatted with them, and sometimes translated what was going on to both sides of the lingual divide. Richie’s outpost is in the Caazapa National Park, in San Francisco, Paraguay, but even so they still have deforestation problems. I didn’t see any particularly bare areas, but we stuck pretty close to the couple of families in Richie’s community; we did see a really old school charcoal oven, almost in the middle of a cane field – a squat little igloo of a building with smoke rising constantly out of the cracks in its adobe walls. After we put down our smaller day-backpacks, we had a stroll around Richie’s patch of earth – he has a productive chili crop that feeds into his personal and seriously potent chili paste. His shower is an upside down soda bottle, where you unscrew the cap to release water stored in this cut-off top (or bottom) of the bottle. Very creative, but also challenging on a cold day (I’s guess) when a hot shower is both a pleasure and a comfort.
Peace Corps is not in the comfort business though, and while I’m sure they don’t intentionally make life difficult for the volunteers, some volunteers are very much out there on their own. Some are closer to comforts (like Grace, who has a brick house, a full shower and lives quite close to a bigger city), and others (like Richie) are deep in the rural countryside. Inside his hut, and in addition to his sleeping and cooking areas, he also has a blackboard with Spanish phonics and basic conjugations chalked out. This is one of the responsibilities he enjoys since most kids there only speak their home language (Guarani); by the way, among other languages Richie speaks both Spanish and Guarani. In fact, his Guarani is so advanced that he has a radio show, broadcast to a couple of communities in the area, where he spreads information on health, hygiene and better eating habits. Oh yeah, I haven’t mentioned that Richie is a health volunteer, so those radio shows and his example of taking care of a vegetable garden form part of his outreach. The people out there in the campo don’t just consume terere, they know their terere and they interact with it… What I mean is, they don’t just buy little bags of pre-mixed herbs and concoctions, they know every ingredient they put in there because they mix the terere themselves, often from their own backyard! Like the American woman who had been living in Paraguay for years, they know the names of every wild and domesticated herb and plant that grows on their land, plus their medicinal properties. It’s amazing!
Other vegetation that is abundant there are a plethora of orange trees; as far as the eye can see there were short trees dotted with a variety of species of oranges. We frequently picked a bag full of wild oranges to munch on during the day. Their being wild meant they didn’t always look the same, and they certainly had a variety of flavors. The next day while hiking out of the campo again, on the way to Tavai (more on that later;) that we picked some oranges and promptly made scrunched-up citrus faces at the first lemony bite – they were so sour! We were not the only ones enjoying a burst of vitamin C, though: one farmers cows went crazy for any bit of orange we tossed their way. They aren’t tall enough to reach the fruit themselves, but they could smell if any of us had a couple in our hands and their tongues stretched out impossibly long to try and get at them. In the same field as the cows, the guy had a couple of shed-climbing goats and a tethered monkey. I’m not entirely sure why he has a monkey, or why it’s locked up, but well… yeah. After that we visited another family friendly to Richie, and got a chance to relax as they shared some of their terere with us, and the guys played them some music while the Paraguyan turkeys circled us suspiciously. We were lucky and got to do a huge walk around the park and got a good feel for the area. Fast-forward to later we relaxed and made some grub, and of course broke out the instruments and cana. We then decided to take the concert outside to the super clear night sky! We could see stars and constellations that the other Northern Hemisphere guys didn’t quite recognize (truthfully even I hadn’t been able to identify any of them, despite being a Southern Hemisphere gal). We actually slept comfortably on Richie’s floor, stretched out on air mattresses and curled up in our sleeping bags;
The next morning we packed up, and had a nice walk out with the local schoolchildren following us curiously. The trek back down to Tavai from Richie’s was thoroughly wet and muddy – I think all our boots were covered in rusty earth, and lucky not to have slid down the hill, staining our pants too as some parts were quite treacherous . Parts of the trek was just concentrating on hopping and skipping over streams, laughing at the stumbling preson ahead of you or whoever stepped in a bog last. Finally in Tavai, our hunger and tiredness were chased away by the most welcoming grandma-looking lady running an eatery a couple of blocks away from the radio station. She made us hamburgers and pizza both before we ambled over to Mbatovi FM, here Richie would not only do his weekly radio show (together with Andrea), but he also asked all of us to participate 🙂 Each of us introduced ourselves(in Guarani), shared a bit (probably the first time any Paraguayan had heard Afrikaans) and they guys and Andrea played some music – it was awesome! We winded down at the local bar and then made our way to the hostel we were occupying for the night. I do mean ‘occupy’ – between the six of us we took up all three of their rooms. 🙂
Unfortunately we never got to Union, San Pedro where Andrea is stationed, but at least that didn’t mean that we were denied her company – it was awesome and instructive being able to ask her and Richie about life in rural Paraguay, the differences and similarities between their communities and experiences. The last I heard they were planning on making a documentary with another Peace Corps volunteer, about (in their words) “Paraguayan quirkiness and hospitality, and hoping to approach communities at random, speak with them in their own language, learn about them and their community and simply go from there”. Good luck, guys!! It sounds great!
As for us we caught the first bus in the morning back to Asuncion to send off Ryan and Tom and make some tough decisions.