29 April 2010

Another Boat and a Homestay in Paraguay

Finally, after four days of waiting, the boat came to Vallemi. This is the main and transport for the area and the only (we discovered) when it rains. It was the Aquidaban, a larger, double decker boat than our first, similarly loaded down with everything from fruits, to live chickens, to furniture.

We had two nights and a very lazy day in which we traveled up the river. One night, we saw a lightning storm and were dually impressed until we realized that it was dumping on the very roads we needed. Sights of note along the boat trip include a very beautiful but modernly out of place church, the Alto Paraguay state capital of Fuerte Olimpo, and other, nicer riverboats we guessed from Brazil.

Arriving in Bahia Negra, brought us immediately in contact with Amilcar. We asked him where the bus station was and he ended up giving us a ride for about 200km, hosting us for four nights in the house of his family, and then giving us a gift when we left. I am telling you, Paraguayan hospitality is borderline painful.
We left Bahia Negra in the late afternoon loaded with our stuff in the back of Amilcar's pickup, after hanging with some Peace Corps colunteers during siesta. The cab was full, so we took the first four hours in the bed at the mercy of his impeccable driving. He maintained a solid 40 mph on a dangerously muddy road, spending more time fishtailing than not. It was an experience I am glad I have, though would not repeat.

After dropping us at a small dispensa in Toro Pompa (basically a grocery store for the smaller villages), he promised to return that night and take us the rest of the way. We sat down to dinner of delicious wild boar with a family there, and played with their one month old puppy. Amilcar failed to return that night, so we slept in various jimmy-rigged cots and hammocks, and woke up to more meals with the family.

When we finally left (Amilcar had gotten stuck about 15 minutes outside of town the night before), the family refused payment and gave us wishes of good luck in our travels. Finally able to enjoy the drive, rather than fear for our lives, we witnessed an incredible amount of birds; emu-like runners, large raptors, huge storks, smaller green ones, a giant brown one which made a noise like a cow, etc.

Arriving in Amilcar's hometown of Puerto Casado, we began the search which would last four days for a ride out of town. His family insisted on taking us in, and consisted of his mother, 11yo daughter, 10yo son, and an adopted 18yo. During our four day stay with the family where we were given food and drink, we caught a baby chick with the 11yo to feel how soft its feathers were, went adventuring in an abandoned factory with the 18yo, let the 10yo show me off to his friends at night in the adjoining plaza, and helped the mother with her cake-making job (though mainly in an eating-leftovers capacity).

When we finally left after giving the family a collection of gifts and food, we took the bus to Loma Plata. It is a German, Socialist Community, one of three in the area, and will probably have to wait for another blog post to receive the description it deserves. Right now I am in Filadelfia (one of the other two communities) and am about to get on a bus to Bolivia.

Somethings Interesting:

--Amilcar is actually a driver for the governor of Alto Paraguay, who we met because he owns a store in Puerto Casado. Driving on muddy dirt roads is the only way to get around besides the weekly boat, and because of his job, we could not have chosen a better person to ask for directions than Amilcar.

--My travel partner and I both recently finished 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. We decided that Puerto Casado is actually Macondo from the book, and that our hostess is actually Ursula. We were simply one of the many visitors received throughout the story.

--Puerto Casado was actually the place where I helped unload the boat on our first trip (see two blog posts back). While in the town, people would frequently shout-out to me "Fuerte, Fuerte!!", the name they had given to me that night.

--It has been surreal to be in a city of blond-haired, blue-eyed people who speak mainly German in Central Paraguay. We still somehow manage to stick out and continue to be stared at openly. While sitting here, for example, the clerk took a picture of me.

21 April 2010

Adventures and Siestas in Vallemí

So I have decided to write another blog about Vallemi, expanding on some of the points from before, because the boat has taken almost a week to pick us up.

The first night was spent on the old boat still, the Cacique II. We were able to set ourselves up on the mattresses they were bringing, and fall asleep above and below a blanket of stars; the stars' reflection in the perfectly calm water provided those below us.

After awakening, and finding a nice Brazilian owned hotel, we adventured out into this town. Some friends adopted us at our request for some beer, and took us to a river nearby to enjoy it. The knee deep water separated us from Brazil, and I took my first steps in that country (note: I don't have the $100 Visa; please don't tell your local Brazillian embassy). Some food and more beer followed at our friends house, making plans to party that night. After a siesta, we took in the local discoteca, dancing with the locals.

The days since have been less productive, mainly focused around a single event, preceded and followed by siestas and reading; the heat will only allow us to do so much. One such day again, took us to the river. This time, however, my friend found a freshwater ray. He described the most pain he had ever felt in his life, and sped off on a motorcycle in pursuit of medicine. I followed on the bed of a truck to find him writhing back in bed at the hotel. He is fine now, but the foot does swell up in the intense heat.

The following day, we got a private tour of the cement factory. Again, there is no tourist industry, so we simply walked in, announced ourselves, and they gave us a young engineer to show us around. It was my first cement factory, so I was impressed by the size, noise, heat, and dust. Reading and siestas saved us from the intense 9am heat which followed the tour.

Yesterday, our adventure was underground, giving us respite from the heat. We went to some local caves with our "guide" showing us the way; he was really just our neighbor who had been there once before, and simply shouted instructions down from the surface. Once inside, it was pretty straight forward, with a series of tunnels which all came back to a central walkway. there were some giant roots hanging from the surface, and a couple of rooms with a large enough skylight to be allow ferns growing 40 feet below the surface. Despite attempts, we did not get lost and made it back to the surface in one piece. Reading and siestas followed.

Sometime between 3 and 7pm, the boat is coming to pick us up. While it is nice to move on, it has been a real restful couple of days here in Vallemi, Paraguay.

Somethings Interesting:

--There are more donkey carts than cars in Vallemi, though motorcycles rule. Everyone zips around on one, even to ages of 11 or 12.

--The cement factory employs 500 people in a town of 15,000. The Austrian machinist we are with describes similar factories in the states with barely 50-70 people doing the same work.

--At about 40cents each, empanadas are my main form of sustenance. My vegetarian travel partner is not so lucky. I have been taught how to make them and WILL be bringing them back to the states.

19 April 2010

Rio Paraguay to Vallemí

I am now traveling with a New Yorker as we both wanted to float up the river. He speaks fluent Spanish, which is nice when traveling in rural areas. After our bus to Concepcion, we prepared for the first leg of the boat trip, a 30 hour journey to Vallemí.

This boat followed the same theme I have experienced so far in Paraguay; this is not a tourist country. The people around me are not making money off of me. I do not get fed the expensive, watered down version of a country.

For example, the cargo boat was loaded with bananas, onions, eggs, people, mattresses, refridegerators, desks, motorcycles, flour, sugar, peppers, gasoline, and some other stuff. Actually, it was two boats which were tied together, so as they could use both engines to push the same stuff. At each town, locals of all ages would come on the boat and take their alloted goods. Once the sun went down the second day, I helped out to see how difficult it was; the locals cheered me on, but I was glad it was dark and cool.

The river itself was gorgeous, and went through various transformations as the day went on. The night saw incredible stars, with perfect reflections in the glassy water. Dawn saw a fiery sky, and eerie mist floating up from the river. The day was bright and hot, but still perfectly calm and glassy. Dusk saw amazing sunsets before the bugs started attacking; these bugs included the countless mosquitos, moths, and some hand-sized version of houseflies I thought only existed in my nightmares.

Since then, we have left the boat, made friends with locals, played in the river, had days of reading, siestas, and a tour of the cement factory which employs the better part of Vallemi. All the while, the locals have been incredibly sharing, genuinely interested in where we come from, and excited to show us their country.

Somethings Interesting:

--Hammocks offer very little insulation. You have air all around you, with not but a thin piece of cloth. During the night, I require my sleeping bag.

--Their exists fresh water rays. My travel partner found this out while crossing the river to Brasil. Yes, he got stung, and yes, the only thing separating the two countries is a knee-deep river (and yes, smuggling occurs).

--The country of Paraguay is one of the only which has two national languages, Spanish and the indigenate Guarini. Spanish is stronger in the Capitol and (relatively) larger cities, while Guarini prevails in those small and remote areas.

--I continue to be openly stared at, especially by children. In the town where I helped them unload, I was resting with the adults and a pack of kids was staring at me from no more than four feet away. I barked at them, causing them to run off giggling.

15 April 2010

Iguazu Falls, Scripps, and Paraguay

First and foremost, I got accepted to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, my number one choice for Graduate School. I have wanted to attend Scripps since I first heard about it and chose Oceanography as my career path. Even with the distractions afforded to me with traveling, I have had many a sleepless night worrying about this acceptance. I will be in San Diego for the next 5 years as I pursue my Ph.D in Physical Oceanography.

Anyways, other than that, I have been to Iguazu Falls, and crossed in to Paraguay. The falls were incredible, gigantic, powerful, and even scary. My first witness of them as of the Devil's Throat, the largest of the series of falls. It was quite an experience to walk along the platforms and get to a lookout where, because of the thundering water, you had to scream to the person next to you. The mist was incredible, drenching everything.

After the initial adrenalin high, we settled in to a day of amazing waterfall vista after vista. There was a boat ride, too, that took me into and underneath the falls; incredible experience as well. The day ended with a pleasant hike to the only location in the park where you can swim beneath a waterfall.

Since then, I have passed into Paraguay, a country which is the epitome of how I pictured South America; very kind people living happily in small houses built on dusty roads. I spent a night in Asuncion, taking care of some visa stuff and breathing in the sites. From there, I came north to Concepcion and am about to board a boat to spend a few days on Rio Paraguay. I don't expect internet again for awhile.

Somethings Interesting:

--In honor of being accepted to Scripps, I have shaved my goatee into a handlebar moustache. While I believe it will grow on me, my initial reaction has been disgust.

--I am far from the standard travel itinerary of backpackers in South America. Here in Paraguay, I have been openly stared at, probably because of my height and clear foreign appearance.

--Traveling for six hours in Paraguay on a bus, I was witness to two separate, very large brush fires. The bus did nothing but keep on driving.

08 April 2010

Buenos Aires

After a trip to the local Parque Nacional, I boarded my bus early and left Ushuaia. The first 24 hours weren’t bad, but at about hour 28, three babies sat down within two seats of me. I was surrounded by laughing, crying, jumping, and poking. 10 hours later, alter they got off, I had a set of seats to myself and settled in for the last 12 or so hours until arriving in Buenos Aires.

It is difficult to describe the time spent in Buenos Aires, because while doing so much, you accomplish nothing. I have to admit, it was a bit of a culture shock at first. Coming from Patagonia, I recently know early nights and mornings, very few people, and lots of nature. BA is very beautiful, but in an obviously different way than for example, Torres del Paine

The main thing that Buenos Aires has been for me is meeting tons of people. It is a major starting or ending point, so everyone has interesting stories of travel or are excited and anxious for the travels to come. It has been standard for me to converse until the early morning. So far, I've been to a couple bars, one discoteca, and hosted an asado (BBQ) at the hostel.

Adventures during the day have mainly been constrained to failed attempts at getting a visa for Paraguay. The Consulado has had 4 different addresses in the last 5 years, though this has made for some excellent selfguided tours of the city. Walking around it feels like San Francisco, but different and warmer.

There are plazas everywhere celebrating various people; Christopher Columbus has one, as does Louis Braille, and many people whose names and likenesses I don't recognize. One of the nicest places I have been is the Cementerio de la Recoleta, a huge cemetary with exquisite tombs beneath incredible angels. The tombs are all above ground, making the whole place some sort of morbid maze.

I got my Visa today for Paraguay, and will get on an overnight bus this evening. I plan to cross near Iguazu, the waterfalls which Niagara almost rivals.

Somethings Interesting

--From Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, I had 3 sunrises, 2 sunsets, 7 meals, 2 books, 5 movies, and 51 hours, 33 minutes.

--I have been told my Spanish is very good. The secret, I think, is to have the same conversations over and over (i.e. "Soy de California", "un estudiante", etc), get good at them, and then talk really fast.

--I think it has to do with the "Argentinian time" (e.g. late), but the time spent in lines is absurd. Sometimes, 20 minutes for an ATM, over an hour for a human at the bank, the consulado was the worst. Makes for good reading though.