Wednesday, June 8, 2011
San Bernardino to Pedro Juan Caballero – 300 miles
Heading north-east, we quickly left the populated southern part of the country and began the climb through the sparse, less frequently visited areas of Paraguay. This is the border of the Chaco region which gets extremely hot in the summer months but now in May is cool and pleasant. The first part, low Chaco is known as arroyos (streams) and esteros (marshes). This primeval terrain of swamp and palm forests is a boon for bird-watchers and definitely cattle-raising country with herds of Brahma studding the landscape. We pass acres of swamp, covered for miles in water hyacinth and marsh reeds clearly visible from the road. Due to its remoteness, this area has attracted a number of diverse unusual immigrant communities over the years. The best known are the Mennonites, a strict Protestant sect who settled from the 1920’s onwards. They are famous for their carpentry skills in furniture making and still speak a dialect of German known as Platt Deutsch. A more bizarre story occurred in 1886, in the settlement town of Nueva Germania, north of Coronel Oviedo. Elisabeth Nietzsche, the fanatical and (some say) crazy sister of the philosopher Nietzsche with her equally crazed husband developed a plan to found a pure Aryan colony. This venture went awry (Thank God) when they had to endure the realities of the countryside, other indigenous settlements, dense vegetation and intense heat accompanied by monsoon type rains. The ensuing anger of the colonists they had brought with them led to her husband committing suicide and her return to Germany where eventually she embraced Hitler as her leader. Her story is told by Ben Macintyre in the book “The Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche”, if you are inclined to know more. Our night on the road we spent in Liberacion. The shock here was that our refrigerator has stopped working. After finding propane in Asunción we had gone shopping for meat, chicken and the like for our freezer and now none of it has frozen. Since there is nothing that can be done on the road, we give all our perishable foods to an older man and his family. The looks of gratitude and words of thanks from them almost made up for our own loss. Just one more item to deal with on our stay in Peruibe. The final leg of our trip in Paraguay is to the border town of Pedro Juan Caballero passing Parque Nacional Cerro Cora. The national park was the scene of the last battle in the War of the Triple Alliance and the death of “El Mariscal Lopez”. This was a disastrous war for Paraguay in the 1860’s against Brazil and Argentina in which, it was reckoned more than half the population was killed and only about 30,000 adult males survived, causing Paraguay to be rebuilt mostly by women and to become for a while, a polygamous society which the Catholic Church chose to ignore. There are also caves in the park showing pre-Columbian petroglyphs. We passed many interesting rock formations scattered throughout the landscape dating from this same period in geologic history. As far as border towns go, Pedro Juan Caballero is clean and safe and we park overnight in the lot of the mega duty-free store “Shopping China” which we will browse in the morning before crossing back to Brazil. As always on my last night in a country, I think about its history, the people we have met and the experiences we have taken from our time spent there. The most striking difference in Paraguay is not from the Spaniards occupation but the strong ties that have remained with the Guarani lifestyle and beliefs. In many areas more than 70 percent are completely bi-lingual. The music and poetry of the Guarani is hauntingly beautiful even if you don’t understand it and the modesty and humbleness of the Paraguayan nature show none of the characteristics of the Spanish. They are a gentle, peaceful people who show an almost reverence in the love of their country, their history, their wars and their soldiers. The country is a reminder that the first Spaniards who came here, seeking refuge from the misery and war of the settlements at Buenos Aires wanted not to dominate but to find a Utopia, a paradise. Since then the country has been ravaged by a series of wars and dictators and yet the people remain the same. Unassuming and humble but with a deep sense of unity. And so with the sounds of the harp and guitar of the Guarani music in my head, I am also humbled and glad we visited this small but Utopian country.