Thursday, 22 October 2009

35. Through the Corazón de América

By 11 a.m. last Sunday I had ridden through three countries since I'd gotten out of bed and I wasn't even hungry. From Puerto Iguazu in Argentina I crossed the bridge over the River Uruguay for a sneak preview of Brazil. Fifteen kilometres through the deserted Sunday morning Brazilian city of Foz du Iguazu, however, and I was already getting an exit stamp into my passport, this time crossing the Friendship bridge into Ciudad del Este, Paraguay's second largest city. The bridge didn't have any particularly warm feelings about it that one might associate with its name. The tall sheet metal sidings that obstructed a view down the mighty Parana river, along with the city's reputation as being a den of thieves and al-Qaeda activists, set a somewhat skeptical and sombre mood for the bridge crossing. I had chosen Sunday morning to cross as the normal chaos of the city was absent with the majority of shops closed. I got stamped in at the grubby immigration booth and rolled Rocinante around the corner to find four of Paraguayan's finest standing in a line and ready for a high-noon shootout. Money exchangers prowled in the background, waiting for the lions to finish their meal so they could scavenge the remains.

I approached the youngest officer and asked him where I might find a map. A flurry of Spanish ensued, a key was produced and a young female officer was sent off to fetch me a map. One of the other officers was filling his mate cup with ice cold water and then he held it out to me, a smile breaking across his face. As I sipped through the bombilla the interrogation began. "Do you like Paraguayan girls?", the young looking one asked. "Si si", I replied as the pretty female officer returned with a complementary map of Paraguay and a note from the Division of Tourism Security about do's and don'ts. As I appeared to have broken all the rules already I threw the latter in the bin and set off in the direction of an ATM, preconceptions once again given a sound thrashing. Riding out of Ciudad del Este, asados were being prepared by the roadside and smells of roasted meat lingered in air amidst the diesel fumes. A large SUV slowed up alongside me and its blacked-out windows rolled down smoothly. "Where you from?", the smiling driver yelled. "Irlanda", I shouted as I narrowly avoided another irksome speed bump. Then getting two thumbs up and a wish of suerte from himself and his good-looking lady passenger, I received the first of many greetings in Paraguay.

Landless people occupying soya farms

Turning south onto Route 6, I passed a number of landless peoples encampments that have occupied lands owned by the soya farmers. Paraguay has a long history of violent land conflicts and horrific human rights abuses still surround the expansion of heavily mechanised farming, primarily for soya production. All of the important theoretical debates on large-scale monocropping, genetically modified crops, and the creation and maintenance of structural social inequality, can be witnessed in the frighteningly real and raw first-hand here in Paraguay. The spread of the large-scale monocropping agribusinesses has been facilitated at an international level by lending institutions such as the World Bank, and at a national level by the government, the police and military, as well as private security companies. Evictions of landless peoples from occupied land has resulted in the killings of over one hundred people in the past twenty years of democracy, the mass burning of homes, and a violent culture of mistrust and suspicion.

La Paz, southern Paraguay

Yet things change and there is hope. The inauguration of the current president, Fernando Lugo, in August last year marked the end of a 61-year rule by the Colorado party and yet another move to the left in a South American government. Lugo has distanced himself somewhat from the continent's current high profile leftist leaders like Chavez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia and kept the focus on social justice issues at home. The former bishop of San Pedro supports the peasants claims for better land distribution and represents a real sign of hope for the 30% of the rural population that has no access to land.

"Without doubt it is possible to resurrect a country like Paraguay. We are people of hope, of faith, and I won't be the one killing that hope of the people. I do believe we will resurrect this country, a country deeply drowned in misery, poverty and discrimination. Because I do believe Paraguay could be different. I do not lack faith in this flock. Where there is a scream coming from the poor people, where there is sweat, where people are shoeless, we will be there. Because in such people there is a resurrection; if that exists there, then there is resurrection for Paraguay."
Fernando Lugo, current President of Paraguay, in a pre-election speech in 2008

With my Spanish still in its infancy, I lost most of what Arno was saying to me on my second night in Paraguay. One thing was clear, however, he certainly didn't favour the new president. Arno had grown up in Paraguay but had spent most of his working life in Buenos Aires, before returning to Paraguay fifteen years previously with his wife. Both now in their mid-60s, they ran a small shop that appeared to stock everything one would ever need. As I drank a carton of chocolate milk outside their shop, Arno asked about the trip and offered me a mattress for the night in one of the rooms he was still constructing on the roof of the shop. We spent the rest of the daylight hours tending to his assortment of animals and walking through his overgrown vegetable garden and mate fields. Later on, over a dinner of milenesa and empanadas, Arno spoke for hours about Paraguayan politics, the life of a farmer and how to run a shop. I understood almost nothing, but it was a great evening nonetheless.

Chatting with Mario, a second generation Japanese Paraguayan

I was passing through Pirapo, a small village in southern Paraguay, when I noticed something odd - there were a lot of Japanese about. I vaguely remembered hearing something about Japanese colonies being established in Paraguay and it appeared that I had stumbled across one of them. At the petrol station I chatted with Mario, the friendly owner. He was second generation Japanese, his father having emigrated from southern Japan to Paraguay shortly after the Second World War. Apart from four years studying in Osaka, Mario had spent his life in this village, although he looked forward to his retirement in three years when he planned to visit friends in Europe and Tonga, friends from his college days whom he still wrote too. Would he ever want to live in Japan? No way, he said. In Japan, everything is time. Everyone is watching the clock, rushing to the next appointment. Here, he said, the only time I have to keep is the opening and the closing time of the petrol station. The rest is up to you. An avid fisherman and hunter he showed me his rods and nets in the bed of the pick-up and then lowering the back of the front seat, the rifle and shotgun he brings with him. Just in case. Every Sunday is devoted to fishing, mostly for piranhas in a nearby river.

San Ignacio, Paraguay
Trip distance: 24, 273 km

Friday, 16 October 2009

34. Fragments from the forest

The rains finally stopped after twelve hours and almost instantly the clicks, warbles, and whoops rise to a crescendo. I stop plodding through the torch-lit mud and around the lake and squelch to a stand still. The volume and variety is truly extraordinary.

Jesuit ruins at Santa Maria

Ramshackle timber houses remind me of other scenes. Another continent. Smallholdings carved into the dense subtropical forest. Mate plants pruned short for easier harvesting. A barefoot father out with his brood. He points down a lane. I can camp down there he says.

Mural in Jardin America

I search the sky for signs of a nocturnal downpour. The father of the six children who has come to view the spectacle assures me that it won't rain tonight. Not much anyhow. After I have pitched the tent on the bald football pitch I have an intense Spanish lesson with the smiling kids grilling me on the English word for this and the English word for that. I try to give as good as I get and silence momentarily ensues while I search the dictionary. Murmurs of agreement when our seven fingers find the word. Then eruptions of laughter at my pronunciation. They are the best teachers in the world.

Slow motion

I return from breakfast to find someone in the shower of the two-bed room. A girl's belongings scattered across the bed I slept in last night. My own pushed neatly to an invisible line dividing the room in two. A half eaten English novel. Hours later we swing in the shaded hammocks, cold beers amongst the breached tree roots. Stories flowing easily.

Through the trees

Nacho maps out the local political landscape on the back of a aerial view of the town. He is attempting to reform and expand the public spaces in the vicinity of the Jesuit ruins. However, he laments the local politicians and business people who don't share his vision. He laments the degeneration of essential services. Social housing that costs four times that of privately built homes as a result of corruption.

The devil's throat, Iguazu falls

El Dorado. Silvio overhears my attempts at Spanish in the internet shop. He has worked in a hostel in Iguazu for three years. Then BA. Now he has returned to the family home and has been trying to find work for the past five months. There is none. Why not camp in his garden? he says. We go to his home, and I take a cold shower and pitch the tent. I sit reading my book. His father returns from work and I can hear an argument. Silvio returns and says I cannot stay, his father does not want me too. No problem, although it's a first. He directs me to another part of town where he has phoned ahead and arranged a bed for the night. I find the Club Social but there was no arrangement, just a query. More telephone calls to higher authorities. No, I can't stay. What about a cheap hotel? There are none. I climb back up the rough cobbles to the main street and spot a guesthouse. It's the same price as the youth hostels elsewhere, only here I get my own room and TV. I fall asleep after midnight, midway through The Aviator.

Finally I arrive into steamy Puerto Iguazu. Home to the world's largest waterfall by volume, apparently. They must have been pretty big measuring cups. I arrive early to the falls and am the first on the lower boardwalk. A magical place. It's also a traveler's mecca, one of the nodes where travelers congregate as they travel the region. Time to relax and meet new people, time among some kindred spirits, refueling for the road ahead. I enjoy the contrast.

Puerto Iguazu, Misiones, Argentina
Trip distance: 23,815 km

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

33. Red moon rising

I am in Misiones province in northeastern Argentina, the bit that sticks like a finger between Paraguay to the west and Brazil to the east. If you've ever seen the 1986 film The Mission, this is the region that it was set in. The film, set in the 1750s, chronicles the period when the secular Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments were seeking to remove the Jesuit missions that had been set up in the area to convert the Tupi-Guarani peoples to christianity. The Jesuit's focus, unlike other missions at the time, was primarily on proselytizing but not forcing European culture and values onto the Guarani. Missions, or reducciones, were ruled by indigenous leaders and hospitals and schools were established. At their height the missions numbered approximately forty settlements and had a total population of over 150,000 people and spread across present-day Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil.

Heading north on Ruta 14

The missions were usually self-supporting and became both economically successful as well as providing some protection against Portuguese slave raiders. The extent of their economic and political independence, however, threatened the Spanish and Portuguese regimes and once the Jesuits were expelled in the mid 1700s the missions slowly died out, with the people either becoming victims of the slave raids or being absorbed into European society.

Street kids in Monte Caseros parking their horse and cart

The past week has been spent slogging along Ruta 14, the main road heading up through the northeastern Argentinian provinces of Entre Rios and Corrientes towards Misiones. The idea was straight-forward enough. After several days of rural Uruguay, we were wondering if there was something other than flat green fields and cows across the River Uruguay in Argentina. Of course, there isn't really. Once across the river and heading north we were faced with the option of braving the busy and narrow Route 14 or slogging along deep-gravel backroads. We tried both and neither were particularly enjoyable. On Route 14 a dual-carriageway is in the process of being built and for the most part we were able to ride on the new scar that tears its way alongside the existing two-lane highway. This at least kept us well away from the endless convoys of sixteen wheelers ploughing north and south along the shoulderless highway, but with holes where bridges had yet to be built and mud where the unsealed road was wet, it made for tiresome riding.

Horses in the swamp

At night Paul would read aloud from his Philip Larkin anthology and, as I cooked another delicious dinner of pasta a la julian, he would explain the rationale for combining hitching with cycling. It sounded pretty sensible really but I was going to stick to the bike and Paul was going to stick to hitch-cycling, two stubborn idealists. By the evening of day four on route 14 we were sharing a much needed bottle of beer in a petrol station and Paul was preparing to stick out his thumb in the morning. In fact, he didn't have to wait until morning as a New Yawk-accented lady asked if she could help as we poured over the map. She had grown up in the US but lived with her Argentine husband in a town up north and they were on their way home. She looked exhausted and had apparently just lost the senatorial election for the province. Half an hour later Paul and his bike were going northbound in the back of the lady's car and I was pitching my tent up behind the station.

Herding cattle

I think the only weather phenomenon that I haven't experienced in my first two weeks in South America is snow. And I know when I go far enough west I'll find that too. From freezing nights and mornings in Uruguay, to hot, humid and windy days in northeastern Argentina, to the thunderstorm that had me repositioning my tent at 4 am this morning, it has been a bit of a climatic extravagansa. As the rain poured down this morning I started reading Nadine Gordimer's, The Conservationist, and found this extract of Richard Shelton's poem The Tattooed Desert in the prologue. According to Rita Barnard Shelton's "poem offers a surreal evocation of the mis-adventures of a colonial-dogooder ... [who] ends up discovering nothing but geographical and emotional disorientation". I liked it because he was riding his bike.

From The Tattooed Desert by Richard Shelton

I must have been almost crazy
to start out alone like that on my bicycle
pedalling into the tropics carrying
a medicine for which no one had found
the disease and hoping
I would make it in time.

I passed through a paper village under glass
where the explorers first found
silence and taught it to speak
where old men were sitting in front
of their houses killing sand without mercy.

brothers I shouted to them
tell me who moved the river
where can I find a good place to drown.

Azare, Misiones Province, Argentina
Trip distance: does it really matter?