Paraguay - Memmonites and Mate

Trip Start Dec 03, 2012
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Trip End Aug 25, 2013


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Where I stayed
Estancia Iparoma

Flag of Paraguay  ,
Sunday, June 30, 2013

I thought the British were obsessed with tea, but the Paraguayans take a hot cuppa to a whole other level. It seems like everyone, from workmen by the side of the road, to taxi drivers, to smartly dressed office workers, carry a maté cup and spoon, and have a thermos of hot water close at hand. Or, if the weather is hot, they have a fatter flask for thereré, the cold version of this addictively caffeinated drink made from Yerba leaves.
 
We had never really intended to go to Paraguay - it just sort of happened. From Iguassu Falls we could go back to Bolivia via Brazil, Argentina, or Paraguay. All entailed a series of long bus journeys. Argentina is one of the most expensive countries in South America, and going via Brazil would mean retracing our steps, so Paraguay it was. Paraguay is the second poorest country in South America after Bolivia, and the least developed for tourism by a long way.
 
We took a taxi through the city of Foz Iguassu on the Brazilian side to Cuidad del Este on the Paraguayan side of the Iguacu river. The border crossing was the quickest we'd ever had - there was no-one else at either Brazilian emmigration or Paraguayan immigration. Paraguay was immediately different - more run down and chaotic, but with large billboards advertising expensive products in English. The bus station, however, was relatively orderly (compared to Santa Cruz bus station at night anything is orderly). Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, was 5 hours away, past lots of fertiliser and cement factories, tractor sales rooms, and fields and fields of cattle. We arrived in the dark and spent a while at the bus station working out our next move and changing money before getting to our hostel. That night we walked to a nearby shopping mall and had a Chinese meal at the Plaza de Comidas (food floor) - we could have been anywhere in the world!

 At this point we still weren't sure which way to go. I'd had one email contact with an Estancia (cattle ranch) in Filadelfia, a Memonite colony in the middle of the Chaco, on Highway 9, described by Lonely Planet as "one of the last great road trips" in the world. Not sure if they were thinking of busses when they wrote that... Our host in Asuncion made a phone call to the Estancia and we agreed a meeting place and time, so were good to go. Aiming for the 7am bus, we woke at 5.30 and got to the station in plenty of time, only to find the ticket office closed. 7am came and went, so it was back to another ticket office to make sure we got onto the 2.30 bus. 

 We had an enforced day in Asuncion, which wasn't too bad, apart from an eternal search for a good Chocolate Frappachino (Thomas), and internet (Paul). Eventually we found a kind of pay phone service (learnt something new) and were able to tell Estancia Iparoma about our new arrival time. We also discovered that Asuncion has better electronics shops than the whole of the rest of Latin America put together, and finally bought a new little camera, much to Tom's delight. We also had time to try some bitter maté at the bus station.
 
The trip to Filadelfia was 6 hours, mostly though remote cattle ranches carved out of forests of palm trees, and, later, the scrubby desert that is the Chaco. Everywhere was wet with standing water from the unseasonably heavy rains that are affecting the area at the moment. The entire length of the dead straight road was fenced, with a verge of about 20m, just wide enough for the occasional wooden shack. There is a big disparity of wealth here, with relatively wealthier Memmonites and Paraguayans of mixed race descent, and extremely poor indigenous tribes, some of whom only 'came out of the bush' about 40 years ago.

We arrived on time at Filadelfia but there was no-one to meet us at the bus stop so we went to wait in the local hotel. We're used to being stared at by now, but this time it was a bit weird to be stared at by blue-eyed, blond Europeans! The local Memmonite community is clearly not very used to outsiders and we caused a bit of a stir in the restaurant. Just as the elusive Chocolate Frapachino was being ordered, our ride turned up, so poor Tom missed out again. 

 We had very few expectations, as the Estancia Iparoma web site (in Spanish or German) wasn't particularly informative, and the guide books said that practically no-one ever comes to the Chaco because it is so remote and difficult to get to. Our host was a rotund, jovial Memmonite with a large pick-up truck that he drove sedately through the neat streets ("look mum they've got road signs like in England") to his house. Here we met his very welcoming wife Marylin who spoke excellent English, and were treated to a huge tray of roast beef, or more precisely, roasted bits of cow, together with coleslaw and rice. 

While we ate, Marylin explained that the Filadelfia Memmonite colony was founded in the 1930s by German Memmonite Chistians from Ukraine. The Memmonites are pacifist farmers, who move to whatever country will accept them as a community, while allowing them not to fight. Many Memmonites from the Ukraine went to Canada or America, but the Paraguayan Memmoites are composed of the 'unhealthy' ones that were rejected by everywhere else! 

Our hosts laughingly called themselves 'half Memmonites' as they lead pretty normal lives. Unlike some Memmonites we've seen elsewhere, they're not in dungarees, or bonnets and long black dresses, and they certainly use modern technology to the full. However, they speak German as a first language, not Spanish, and tend to stay within the Memmonite culture. Marylin had travelled to America and Europe, and worked as a psyciatric nurse, but always within the confines of the Memmonite communities, staying with Memmonite families and training and working in Memmonite hospitals. 

 After dinner we transferred to another vehicle and drove for about 30 minutes along dirt roads (no speed restrictions here) to the Estancia, which was also the sometime family home. The house had a big modern kitchen, office, and a huge central living space, with bedrooms opening into it. Paul and I had our own room (hooray! privacy!) and the kids were in a sort of multi-bunk dormitory, with space for 6 on each bottom bed and 6 more on each top bed. I still can't work out if the beds were made or not... we had to put on our top sheet and blanket, but perhaps it is usually so hot that these are not needed and a made bed is just a bottom sheet. Anyway, by now it was 11pm and we'd been up since 5.30am, so we didn't really care. 
 
Marylin was very understanding about Tom's gluten free diet, and made a type of pancake from blended cooked rice that he loved. We had them for every meal, more or less, together with minced beef, potatoes, slightly mouldy sliced cheese, home-made bread, and cakes (Paul didn't notice the copious mould until it was too late). An unsolved mystery was what happened to the fly in the honey - I avoided it but someone else didn't...  It quickly became clear that the accommodation style was more 'home stay' than 'hotel', but that was fine, we were just glad to be in this remote place, learning about the culture and people. And there was internet, which always cheers us up.
 
Our first day was spent sleeping late, playing crazy golf (yup, Marylin's free-thinking parents came back from a trip to Canada with plans and had a crazy golf built in the garden), table tennis, Memmonite pool, and bird watching. The landscape is very flat and open, with huge wide horizons and dead straight roads. Cattle graze in the huge fields of cultivated grasses from Africa and North America.
 
On our second day we had an outing to visit a project to reintroduce the Tagua, a type of Peccary. The day started with a visit to Marylin's wonderful and welcoming  parents, who live in (Memmoite) sheltered accommodation in town. Her mother played a game of Memmonite tiddly winks with us and we drank maté together. Then we drove to the bank but once again couldn't get money out, which was a worry because we had none left... And then we drove through the Chaco forest and cattle ranges to the project, only to find there was no-one there. However, Marylin showed us round, and we walked for an hour or so in the bush. Every plant had thorns of some type or another, including a nasty cactus that littered the path with spikey lobes that caught on our shoes. We saw the Taguas in their enclosure. They are quite large, and very hairy for a peccary, with white lips and a white collar. We also came across a wild (released) one close to the pens, which was promptly chased by the dog that accompanied us.

Our lack of money was becoming more pressing as we were due to leave after three nights, and had no way to pay. Another trip to Filadelfia proved that the banks weren't working once again, but we were able to stock up on snacks for our forthcoming bus trip back to Bolivia as the supermarket took Mastercard. The supermarket was stocked with everything you could want, including Nutella and lots of mate sets. We also visited a very interesting little museum about the Memmonite communities in Filadelfia and a couple of nearby towns. Back at the ranch, we emptied our bags looking for every last penny in any currency, as Marylin had kindly agreed to take Brazilian Reales and Bolivian BOBs. Then we remembered our emergency Post Office cash card that we'd loaded up at the last minute back home - later that night we tried it and it worked, which was very fortunate as none of the cash points at our next destination worked either... Interestingly, all that day there was no electricity in the whole of Paraguay, except for the Memmonite towns that have their own generators.

The journey out of Paraguay was the worst we've had anywhere. We had to pick up a bus at Mariscal, a couple of hours from Filadelfia, at somewhere between 3 and 4 am. Marlyin's (rather rotund, fiftyish, Germanic) husband drove us there at speeds of around 80mph along an unlit dirt road and we hit some big pot-holes - the most dangerous driving we've yet encountered. Although Mariscal is several hours from the border with Bolivia, it is where you have to go through border control, which we accomplished in about 5 minutes as, not surprisingly, at midnight there was no-one else around. The temperature by now was about 10 degrees C and there was nowhere indoors to wait so we slipped into our sleeping bags and all our hats, scarves and jumpers, and settled down as best we could on the benches outside. A puppy kept us first amused and then annoyed, and time passed slowly until the bus finally turned up at 4.30am.

Our delight at getting onto a relatively warm bus quickly faded when we realised there were only two spare seats, (next to the toilet) which, of course, the kids got and promptly fell asleep. I got back into my sleeping bag and managed to sleep on the floor of the bus until the tarmac ran out. The dust came up through the floorboards and covered everything, as we drove north into dry near-desert country. Another stop for Bolivian immigration took place at the actual border, and then the bus lurched down a single track dirt road for about an hour before hitting a bigger dirt road and eventually reaching Villamontes, in southern Bolivia around 2.30pm.
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