Mind Games: Cycling Paraguay & The Gran Chaco
“Paraguay is an island surrounded on all sides by land.” ~ Augusto Roa Bastos, Novelist
The idea of success and perseverance to a goal is only as difficult as our mind will allow. There is only one obstacle between us and our goals. The mind. This is what prevents us from making the best decisions for ourselves, finishing or starting that project and following our dreams. When I sat down to write this post, my mind wouldn’t let me continue. It said you have no good ideas, there are other things to worry about and no one really cares. I was in a bad mindset. There was only cannot and excuses. I gave up for days and the page lay blank. It’s not that I didn’t think I had a good story to tell, it was the inner slob pouring out. I was not in a mindset to feel the inspiration I needed.
However, it’s all in your head. You are only going to be successful at what you do, if you allow your mind to break free. Dreams, abilities, strengths and weakness are all linked to our internal perceptions of ourselves. One moment we could feel like we can conquer the world and the next we have trouble getting out of bed. Sometimes laying there I feel like this. I think that home is so far away. There wont be anything interesting to see today. I convince myself I feel tired, hungry and thirsty. These are all just excuses of the mind. When you get out there and start taking action, things begin to fall into place. The same goes for this post. The same goes for setting new goals for ourselves. The same goes for getting out of my warm sleeping bag and putting another day in on the bicycle. Ignoring the distractions our minds create for us and getting on with things is one of the most important tools for achieving new boundaries of personal potential. Without a clear mind on your side, you are lost.
“Gratitude is the least of virtues; ingratitude is the worst of vices.” ~ Paraguayan Proverb
I entered Paraguay via a ten minute ferry ride across Rio Iguazu from Argentina. I thought this would save time and a huge hassle at the renowned tri Argentina, Brazil & Paraguay crossing. All three countries meet at this point near Iguazu Falls. I found the ferry and immigration post easily enough, but was wrong about the time saver part. Not to bore you with Visa legality problems, but I will say I have an undeserving 600 Peso mark against me should I ever return to Argentina. There is also a border guard I am less than fond of now. In some places corruption prevails and no amount of truth will save you.
It was not the best way to leave Argentina, but soon all was forgotten and I was off riding in Paraguay. I sorted out some new country business and took the day to see the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It was pretty impressive to say the least. Paraguay is not known for their sights. They have almost no mountains, it is terribly hot, landlocked and extremely flat in most areas. It is skipped over by most travelers and who cannot even say why they didn’t go. However, this was the country I had been dying to see since I arrived in South America. Some may wonder why I was so excited, but it was the sheer fact that I knew nothing that interested me the most. Very few tourists visit here and I was thrilled at the opportunity to cycle from one end of the country to the other.
At first when I got rolling the road had a similar feeling to the one behind me. Hill after hill in extreme humidity. Stopping every few minutes to wipe my face and stare at another impending hill. I took lots of breaks on my three day ride to the capital of Asunción. The people were very friendly and I was already happy with my choice to come. I often dove into air conditioned gas stations beat red to cool off and snacked on empanadas. Learn about and see delicious empanadas receipes HERE.
On my final day into the capital I had to push myself very hard. I was exhausted entering the city with buses spewing black smoke and stopping all over the road. It was very typical of entering many capital cities on my trip, but I was almost out of steam. In Paraguay they drink mate, the same as Brazilians and Uruguayans, but instead of hot they drink it ice cold. Smart if you ask me. Many people carry around jugs of ice water to go with their stimulating mate. One man likely seeing I was struggling up another hill, stopped his car and filled my water bottle with some of his ice cold water. It was exactly what I needed to get me through the final push to my hosts house in downtown Asunción.
When I arrived at Silvia’s house I was greeted by her amazing mother, who instantly began to feed me delicious foods. For the next few days I got caught up on my things, ate up to my ears, explored Asunción and shared stories with my gracious host. I also did a presentation on my ride at Canadian School and met another Quattrocchi. This was quite possibly the most extended and random of chance encounters on my trip, but one of the most interesting. Not everyday you meet someone with the same last name as you in Paraguay. I certainly had never met anyone with an uncommon name such a mine that I wasn’t related to. I ate a pile of cheesy fries and we shared stories about our lives and family histories out of Sicily.
Saying goodbye to a nice host, comfortable bed and security is never easy. However, setting out into the infamous Gran Chaco of Paraguay was even more difficult. It didn’t help that every person told me I was crazy. I had 850km of completely flat, semi-arid and mostly empty landscape ahead of me to the first town in Bolivia. Taking a photo goodbye I felt that same old tough feeling which is hard to describe. A sense of adventure welled up in me for the next stage, as did a longing for some normalcy in my life. Something predictable to hold onto is always a sneaking white rabbit for the long distance cyclist.
“Paraguay is a well-kept secret of South America; and its music is a passport to international recognition.” ~ Berta Rojas, Paraguayan Classical Guitarist
(Click below to listen to some of Berta Rojas beautiful classical guitar)
Setting out into the ‘Green Hell’ of the Chaco, as it has been dubbed by some, I quickly discovered it was very green but not as hellish as I thought it would be. The road was completely flat. I have been promised flat roads countless times on my journey, but they were all lies. This was the first time it was completely true. After the road behind, no amount of isolation could dampen my spirits.
On my first night into the Chaco I was looking for a place to camp. However, the sides of the road were all full of very tall grass or marshy land. The houses had disappeared and were taken over by massive cattle ranches that stretched way back into the distance. I could see disinterested cows grazing in between the palm trees to keep shade. It was very hot and I was ready to be off the road. Seeing an inviting looking ranch sign and a bench I pull off the road. I saw a man walking around a very long driveway back to the ranch and decided I’d ask to camp. I waved at him and after a moment he noticed me and began to approach. It took him about 5 minutes to get closer to me as I didn’t want to trespass before given permission so I remained there smiling. As the man got closer I realized he wasn’t carrying a stick, but a large shotgun. He had a bulletproof vest on and looked hardened. At this point returning to my bike and pedaling away would have been a poor choice and I knew at once the answer to my camping request would be a big fat no. I asked anyways and got the answer I was hoping for. No.
I bid a smiling farewell as he pointed down the road and claimed there was another place to camp. I tried not to look back as I rode, but he watched me until I was way out of sight. Whomever owned that ranch clearly did not want to be disturbed. I shrugged off my first failed attempt at camping and the next ranch welcomed me with open arms. I set up camp and fell into deep sleep until the rooster crowed the following morning. I awoke to a hoard of ants in my tent and danced like a crazy to shake them off me and out of my tent.
My days over the next week took a similar form as I plied across the flattest road to ever exist. Ride all day until a small village or gas station presented itself, stock up on supplies, mentally regroup and head back out into the green flat yonder. On one night one of the worst storms I have seen since Ethiopia descended upon me. It poured rain all night, blew my tent to pieces and I had a fitfully nightmarish sleep. Dreams of being swept away filled my moments of unconsciousness and my tent filled up with water. In the morning outside looked like a typhoon had hit and I was a personal disaster. I packed up my sopping wet things and set off to just get moving. My eyes kept closing on the road which had not seen a turn in a few days. The Chaco was now living up to the reputation I had heard of. However, the birdlife and butterflies were stunning. At times I found myself riding in nothing but butterflies. I felt like I was in some obscure Disney movie and the bottle trees looked like they were out of a Dr. Seuss book. I kept thinking of my favourite children’s book, ‘Oh, The Place You’ll Go’ and tried to remember the words as I rode. Back teaching Kindergarten in Sanya I used to read the book to my kids every few weeks, simply because I loved it so much.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ~ Dr. Seuss, Writer
Just when I thought that I was riding my bike into the back end of nowhere, civilization began to emerge. Shops with more than just stale crackers or aging empanadas emerged. I was entering which can only be described as a civilization within a country. The Mennonite towns began. Back in the 1930’s Mennonites avoiding persecution came to Paraguay from Russia, Germany and Canada. They came with the promise of religious freedom and to colonize Paraguay’s empty western frontier. To read more about the successes, struggles and history of the Paraguayan Mennonites CLICK HERE.
I rolled into the Mennonite capital of Filadelfia and found an organized society. Roads were on a grid system, the co-op was bursting with good food and everything seemed to run smoothly in the dusty town. Out of nothing these people had built their own society with functioning banks, a post office, nice hotels and a museum. I decided to take a peek at the museum for curiosity sake. I was given a full tour of three sections of the museum and a colonial house from a nice lady. The motto of the town was printed on one of the the walls as “The common good before personal interest.” When the lady asked me where I was staying that night, I told her I would camp somewhere outside town. She insisted I stay and sleep in an empty nearby classroom instead. Always one for strange vagabond sleep locations, I was thrilled. A nice man named Norbert was the grounds keeper and gave me Wi-Fi. He was sleeping in a dormitory next to the classroom and we made some jokes about being neighbors. “Keep it down in there!”, I banged on the wall. He was a lighthearted man. Before going to sleep I scratched ONE ADVENTURE PLEASE on the chalkboard, while a nighttime driving school class took place next door. I could smell my shoes in the corner of the room as I drifted into sleep.
I said a slow goodbye to the nice people in the morning and set out on the last few hundred kilometres to Bolivia. After a days ride I encountered the number one worst section of road on my trip. Straight well maintained road degraded into the most bumpy, patchy and completely destroyed piece of road I have ever seen. There are no nice words for this stretch of road which was once flat tarmac. I am told that it was only good for the inauguration and deteriorated soon after with all money scooped off in corruption to build a mirage. When inquiring about the state of the road one man just said, “Ask the President.”
I bumped through a terribly physical and emotionally crushing day. At some points I entered pot holes that were as tall as my bike as the only traffic, heavy oil trucks from Bolivia, carved deeper holes to find a path through the madness. At one point I was cycling just in front of one of these tanker trucks for over an hour. We were traveling the same speed forever, until he hit a flatter stretch and showered me in dust. In the heat and rocking of the road my mind began to play tricks on me. I hadn’t seen any life for hours and began to imagine a Jaguar prowling the Chaco was stalking me. In the corner of my eye I saw something move and I jerked to life in fright. My bike flipped sideways and crashed across the rough road. My leg was cut and bleeding. I looked behind to see the supposed Jaguar was nothing but a rogue cow. I laughed to myself and felt so ridiculous. Back to reality I came and pressed on until the pavement reappeared.
That night I camped out on the edge of a police booth and patched up my leg. I found some old looking empanadas and ate seven while looking like a zombie on a plastic chair as I lethargically swatted at hundreds of mosquitoes. During my dinner a tapir came out of the bushes and tried to take my dinner. With its’ weird nose and huge body it lumbered after me. Even though it was my first time to ever see this strange animal, I was not amused. The locals then joked I was eating tapir empanadas. I laughed politely, didn’t really care and escaped to my tent. I had one more day left of riding to reach Bolivia and I was worn out. Two more days to reach the first town on the Bolivian side. I told myself I could do it. My nose was burnt bright red and my energy levels were low. I was tired of the same old pasta and it was a mental drain each day to push forward.
My last day was a push to the border. I felt slightly sick and was tired of the slog on straight roads. After a few hours I had barely seen any traffic until three strange images emerged from the flat yonder as some touring cyclists. We chatted for over an hour and shared some cookies. It was exactly what I needed to make it to the border. When I arrived all of the border security were taking a day off, as it was Sunday, to play the most obscure game of volleyball I have ever witnessed. No hands were allowed. It was amazing to watch. There is no actual immigration here, it is more of a military post than anything. I had stamped out of Paraguay about 3 days before in Mariscal as protocol dictated. I had effectively not been in any country officially for the last little while. The one guard asked me if I wanted to join them and before I knew it he showed me to a nice cold shower, while the guards barbecued a delicious dinner. A nice end to a wonderfully difficult adventure I thought to myself as I went to sleep on a mattress laid out for me.
The Gran Chaco will stand as one of the greatest mental challenges of this trip. Though the road may have been completely flat, it is not for the unprepared or beginner. The Chaco will test every inch of your resolve and spit you out if you’re not careful. All of that being said, Paraguay stands as one of my favourite countries on the journey. It was the challenge I needed to refocus my future goals. I have many wonderful stories of the people along the way that I cannot fully share here now. The Chaco rejuvenated my love for the wild and seldom explored reaches of our planet. It made me remember why I started this journey in the first place. It made me feel that life pumping energy you get from exploring the new and unknown. It made me think about all that I hold dear in my life and thankful for the strength of mind to persevere. All of this has changed me into someone that is more adaptive than I ever thought possible.
As I pedaled on into Bolivia I thought, ‘Oh, the places you’ll go…’
*We are off to an awesome start with the fundraising towards the new schoolhouse in Shuid, Ecuador. In only a few short weeks we have already raised over 1/4 of the money to build the new schoolhouse. Beautiful work! A big thank you goes out to St. Joseph’s School in Toledo as well as J.L. Jordan for all of their hard fundraising. Seeing kids helping kids is one of the most rewarding parts of this experience. I would also like to thank close family and friends for getting the ball rolling as well. You are all wonderful people! Please CLICK HERE TO DONATE
**I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Last year I celebrated in India and a year later I am riding in Peru near the highest alpine lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. It is amazing where the world can take you. I am thankful for more things than I can count this holiday season. Updates on the beauty, struggle and challenge of Bolivia to come soon. Thank you for continuing to follow along!
Posted on December 26, 2015, in Adventure, Argentina, Around the World, Bolivia, Charity, Cycling, Food, Free the Children, Inspiration, Motivation, Paraguay, Peru, Thoughts, Travel and tagged Adventure, Amazing, Argentina, Around the World, Asuncion, Awesome, Beautiful, Bicycle, Bolivia, Border, Challenge, change, Charity, Cycle Touring, Cycletour, Cycling, Cycling South America, Cycling the Chaco, Dreams, Empanadas, Exciting, Explore, fear, Filadelfia, Food, Free the Children, Freedom, Fundraising, Goals, Gran Chaco, happiness, Heat, Inspiration, Instagram, Kindness, love it, Mennonites, motivation, Mountains, nature, Oneadventureplease, Paraguay, Paraguyan, People, Peru, Ride Hard, South America, The Road, Thoughts, Tourist, Travel, Travel Photos, Travelpics, values, Warmshowers, youtube. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.