August 16, 2004

Paraguay: A place with no roads is no place for a bicycle.

On the way up the Paraguay rive from Conception to Corumbá I have had to deal with Phirannas, Alligators, capivaras, a crazy sex starved guarani woman, the Paraguayan Navy, the Bolivian Navy, Running out of gas on my way up river, camping unexpectedly on a Brazilian military training ground with un-exploded shells, A boat driver who did not know the river, I Kicked out of the Brazilian military fort, and paying throught the nose to keep going. And to top it off having trouble changing my American Express Travelers Cheques.
If this sounds interesting then read on.

Reaching the Pantanal from Paraguay seems so simple and obvious when you look at the map. However once on the ground the obvious becomes the very challenging once the local flora, fauna and population have their say.
The plan was to take a combination of several boats up the Paraguay river all the way to the port town of Corumbá in Brazil which claims to be the Capital of the Pantanal. This would consist of 4 days on the wooden floating market ship Aquidaban that serves all the small communties that are only accessable by river. The final port of call is Bahia Negra which is the northernmost town in Paraguay on the river. From there I would have to get creative and find something to do the remaining 150km to the road that leads to Corumbá in Brazil.

To leave Paraguay by a waterway you have to make sure to have you exit stamp from immigration before you get onboard as there are no immigration offices near the river. The best is to get this done in Ascuncion, but I did not realize this until I was in Conception 450km to the north. So the day before got onboard the Aquidaban I made a day trip to the nearest border town of Pedro Juan Cabalero 200km away to find an immigration office. The problem was that the officer at this landlocked border crossing was not accustomed to dealing with foreign travellers requireing to leave by water. In their mind if they gave me the exit stamp I normally should not be able to travel in the country. On my second attept and with a lot of pleading I was able to convince them to call the main office in Ascuntion and get my exit stamp. However for the remaining time I would be in Paraguay I ran the risk of running into a policeman that does not understand and getting a 260 000 guarani fine (about $60 Canadian).

As the boat followed it slow and sinuous path northward up the Paraguay river I started to preoccupy myself with gathering the all the possible information about a finding a passage to follow on northward past Bahia Negra. Some of the crew said it was not possible while other locals said that I would have to find a commercial barge going up to Corumbá to load up. Being stubborn and single minded I figured that one or two positive responces were enough for me to take a chance. On the fourth day we arrived very early in Bahia Negra. While the Aquidaban was unloading all of its remaining cargo I went around asking to about the possiblity of finding a boat. The local nurse said that he knew someone that could take me up. So together we went up and found out that they wanted $200 US to take me up. This was too rich for me and I started thinking that I may need to go back down on the Aquidaban to Puerto Murtinho where I could follow on by road. However by the time I realized this the Aquidaban had left and I was stranded in Bahia Negra.
The Paraguayan Naval Commander was sympathetic and put me up at the base because there is nowhere else for a tourist to stay in town. The whole rag tag crew of naval recruits then took on the task of helping me find another boat north. However if none could be found I would have to wait the entire week until the Aquidaban was back again.
As my prospects of finding a commercial ship going northward started to look dim I resigned myself to killing time. I participated in the local soccer match as a dreadful goalie. Later I went to the local dance. This was a hair raising experience as one of the girls who was on the boat had taken a liking to me and had bluntly told me that she wanted to sleep with me. I told her that she was very nice but that I preferred to remain loyal to my girlfriend whom I was meeting up with in a few weeks in La Paz. Unfazed by my rebuttal she remained on the offensive waiving a condom in front of me. With its naval base Bahia Negra has the unfortunate problem of having a poor male to female ratio. This meant that I did not get any sympathy from any of the men who were with us. If fact it was quite the opposite; I was encouraged to sample the local guarani women. I was quite happy when the local power cut out and I was able to use the few minutes of darkness before the generator kicked in as an excuse to go to bed.

After a few days I was convinced that the best option was to bight the bullet and accept a $150 US offer to take me up to Fuerte Coimbra where the Brazilian Military is based. They have a regular passage that I could then take for 10 reals up to Corumbá. Unfortunately the boat driver mislead me into thinking that he had done such a trip before. We left at 14:30 with two of his friends to keep him company on the small boat. This had the predictable effect of weighing down the boat and making our progress much slower. What should have taken three hours took five. I really started to realize how little the driver knew when we started pulling in to river side estancias to ask how much further we had to go. at 1800 realizing that we still had 1.5 hours to go we had to buy some more gas from the farmer. This extra 5 litres prooved to be barely sufficient as we ran out of gas 500m from our goal unfortunately on the wrong side of the river. By tilting the gas tank and vigourously pumping the fuel line pump we were able to move up the river to be exactly opposite the fort but we did not have enough to cross the river. We could hear the music from the bar on the other side but even with a small fire we were not able to attract any attention. So we resigned ourselves to waiting until the morning to see what could be done. Juan the boat driver and his two friends, brothers Paulo and Carlo had not brought any food or equipment to spend a night in the bush. So I pulled out all the warm stuff I had. The next morning a small skiff came around to help us and informed us that we had spent the night on the Brazilian Naval training grounds. That we were very fortunate as there are many un-exploaded shells. I had made it to Coimbra, all needed was permission to stay on the Brazilian military base until the regular passenger launch Taquari went back to Corumba two days later (Wendnesday). However that evening I was informed by a very friendly but ironically suspiciously very runny nosed military doctor who had befriended me earlier that the Base commander had decided that I could not stay. The next day was the start of a training exercise to fight the rampant cocain and marijuana drug traffiking in the region and it was deemed unfit for foreign civil eyes. So the next morning I was stuck hireing another small aluminium boat and its driver to take me up to Corumbá for another $150 US. This time however I was releaved to see that Milton was much competent. This did not stop the engine from cutting out for a few minutes at the beginning of the journey.

That is what happened. What made the experience so memorable however was the setting. All throughout the adventure I saw hundreds of different birds, Yaquare (alligator), Capivaras, Phirannas, and big bees nests. The spectacular scenery of the Panatal is definately worth a visit.

Posted by gwendal at 03:35 PM | Comments (0)

August 05, 2004

Paraguay: Taking the slow boat up the Paraguay River

I left Asuncion a little earlier than anticipated, in the wee hours of wednesday morning. But when the boat sails only once a week you don´t ask any questions. At 4:30 am I was on the move (Thank you Ryan for setting the alarm and giving me a shove) The bicycle was in a garage, parked behind our new friend Lorenzo´s home in a nice neighbourhood of the city. However, to get to the garage, you had to walk through the apartment below. The previous evening no one had answered the door, so I had left it to the morning. Unfortunately again, no one was home. So, with a very groggy Lorenzo we climbed down from the balcony by way of a tree and into the courtyard before the sun was up. We then proceeded to figure out a way to haul the bike up to the balcony so that I could then take it down the stairs to the street on the other side. We were triumphant and managed to arrive at the docks at 6:30am.

Click to see more pictures!

What followed felt like a part of a Tintin comic (If you are between the ages of 7 and 77, the age range the comic is rated as being suitable for, and are not familiar with Tintin and his Adventures, I suggest heading straight to your local library and picking up a copy in one of the 50 languages that the Adventures of Tintin are tranlated into). I have just spent 30 hours on a cargo ship, The Cacique II, that slowly made its way up the Paraguay river. Upon boarding, I was a little worried when I noticed that the captain was very cross eyed. But after a few hours I soon realized that he could have been blind and it would not have made much difference, as he knew every sand bank and current very well. The ship was full with cargo, basically anything you can imagine was being carried onboard, including a touring bicycle! It also took passangers and had about ten small rooms with two bunks each on the top deck and room for about 30 hammocks on the lower deck. Because of my valuables and the absurdly low prices I got myself a nice little room. All along the way to Conception we made frequent stops. By just coming along side the river bank and throwing a long hardwood plank over the side, passangers could walk down and scramble up the river bank with all the supplies they had brought with them. Sometimes there was a farmhouse in the distance but often it appeared as if they were being dropped off in the middle of nowhere. The evening on the boat was a very relaxing combination of the low drone of the engine and listening to the Guarani speak and sing songs as the sun set. I really enjoyed seeing bats swoop down and eat mosquitoes and other insects that were flying near the surface of the water at dusk. This has definately been one of the most fantastic moments of the trip to date. Hopefully I will find the next boat that will take me over three days out of Conception further north to the Brazilian Border and into the Pantanal. For the moment, I am trying to get a straight answer about getting a boat out of Bahia Negra. If there are no boats following on that will take me I will have to spend three days going back down the river to find another hot dusty road that will let me continue northward to Corumba.

Posted by gwendal at 01:34 PM | Comments (0)

August 02, 2004

Paraguay: Rolling into a mourning city

I crossed into Paraguay last thursday leaving behind Brazil and passing through the 10km gauntlet of Ciudad del Este (see french entry). With me was Ryan who I had organized to meet again at Iguazu waterfalls and Christian a Brazilian that I had also met at the waterfalls who is cycling to Chile. We had a excellent 324km of riding together with a few little adventures along the way. However everything seems to pale in comparison with the news that greeted us upon our arrival in Ascuncion. This sunday afternoon a fire broke out in the kitchen area of a large shopping mall/supermarket in a suburb of the city. There were more than 2500 people in the building when the fire broke out. As of this morning there are already more than 300 reported dead, and all the hospitals are completely full and overwhelmed. The president has declared three days of mourning and everyone we meet is in shock as inevitably in a city of just over a million people everybody has a friend or a relative who died in the blaze. Compounding peoples grief into anger is reports from a few survivors that the manager of the building ordered the doors closed to prevent looting when the fire started.

On the way to the city we had noticed all the volunteer fire trucks and ambulances coming from the countryside to the city, but at the time did not know why. Now I am completely deflated by the even, both because it happened so close and because I feel like there is very little I can do.
But I do know that the Paraguayan fire department is entirely run by volunteers because we spent one night in the fire hall in Caaguazù. We relatively sleepless friday night because it was the night they were organizing a big fundraising party.

You can read more at these websites:

http://www.ultimahora.com.py/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20040802.wpara0802/BNStory/International/

For the moment I am happy to be safe and I will prepare to keep moving in the next few days.

Posted by gwendal at 10:06 AM | Comments (0)