There are 3 countries in South America for which citizens of the United States need to buy a visa: Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. On this trip we are, unfortunately, bypassing Brazil. The visa is expensive itself (like $150 US) and then traveling in Brazil, according to my research, is even more expensive than traveling in many places in Europe. We just can’t afford it. Regrettable as there is much to see, do, and experience there. We’ll just have to make it back another time (World Cup 2014?).
Bolivia was on route and we could justify paying for the expensive visa ($135 US) because traveling there is so cheap. The visa was the biggest single cost we had for the whole country. Plus, there were so many amazing things to see there we couldn’t miss.
Then there is Paraguay. Paraguay calls itself the heart of South America, but to other South American countries, and especially among travelers, it’s more of an unknown. Whenever we told people we were headed to Paraguay the response was usually, why? Well, to be honest the plan to go there started with a promise to visit our great friend and Peace Corp volunteer Tess Duffy, but by the time we found out how few people were going to Paraguay, we were also excited to get a vacation from the gringo trail.
In the 1,000+ page tour book of all of South America’s 13 countries, Paraguay gets 29 pages. There aren’t any travel books devoted entirely to Paraguay either, I looked. I guess it’s understandable- Paraguay really doesn’t have much to see in the way of tourist attractions. BUT, it certainly has plenty to see. Once we finally got our visas in Bolivia, we took a 24 hour bus ride from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. We were there for a couple days and then headed straight out into the ‘campo’ to find Tess in her site.
Tess lives in what we came to call ‘the shed’ (Karl let that one slip our second day there). It’s not much but Tess doesn’t seem to wish it was anything more. Four walls and a roof surround the bedroom, guest bedroom, kitchen, pantry, dining room, library, and office (the bathroom is just outside). A bit tight for three, but we made it work with no problems, even without running water (the well is close by) and the power going out a couple times. Not a large area to have to clean, but with the large gaps in the wallboards and the dust of the campo, sweeping twice a day is almost essential. The shed is on land owned by Tess’ neighbors and is surrounded by farm/grazing land, a soccer/volleyball field, a few large citrus trees and about the best vibe you could ask for.
Some of you already know the beauty that is Tess Duffy, so you can maybe skip this paragraph. For the others, well, you should know Tess because she is among the coolest people in the world. I met her at UC Davis where she studied International Agricultural Development. She graduated last June and was soon off to Paraguay for the Peace Corp. I’ll leave it at that, but if you want to get to know her you should email her because I’m sure she would more than love making a new friend. She is keeping a blog of her time in Paraguay, which can be found here.
We spent quite a while in Tess’ site with her, meeting all the wonderful señoras she works with and drinking tereré (Iced Yerba Tea) with them. We also spent time visiting the English class that she teaches, stealing some honey from hardworking bees (Tess is part of the agriculture sector specializing in beekeeping), losing in soccer to her little host brothers, and getting a taste for the local cuisine. I’m quite certain that while we were there we did a great job of distracting Tess from her Peace Corp duties, and certainly threw off her campo sleep schedule (in bed by 8 and up by 6? Yeah right!), but we had a very enjoyable visit and hopefully didn’t make too big of a dent in her work.
While visiting Tess we were very fortunate to meet a rather large group of other Peace Corp Volunteers (PCVs). After all the PCVs I’ve met on this trip, and the last trip in Africa, not to mention being raised by 2 veteran PCVs, I can safely say that they are some of the coolest people on the planet. It must just be the kind of people PC service attracts, and maybe the grueling application process they go through.
Tess and a handful of her nearest volunteers come together once a week in a small town called La Colmena to host a radio show (Mondays, 8-9am on Radio La Colmena 88.1- be there!) where they talk to the community. The impressive part is that they try to do the show entirely in Guarani (the local, native language). Everyone speaks Guarani around the area with most people speaking Spanish as well (a nice gringo back-up). Karl and I picked up a couple native words (like in the title of this post), but it made communicating with the locals an interesting challenge.
One of the Mondays after the show a big group of PCVs took the day off to join us in a trip out to Salto Cristal- a nearby waterfall and swimming hole. The water was cold but bearable, the tereré and sandwiches at the base were delicious, and the company was a pleasure to be around.
After seeing a good amount of the campo (from Tess’ site as well as Rachel’s- another PCV), Tess took a vacation to join us on a trip to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina. Just about where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet, the Iguazu River pours 39,000 cubic meters of water per second over more than 200 individual falls. The largest among those, La Garganta Del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat), simply defies comprehension. The whole area, called Iguazu Falls, is a huge tourist destination in South America. Stats don’t do it justice, nor do my pictures, nor will any words I use to describe it- you’ll just have to go there yourself. It was a bit strange to come straight from the campo, back to gringo-land but we weren’t there for long. Just long enough to see the falls, visit an animal sanctuary with ailing local animals, and meet a fellow traveler Laura who was headed to Paraguay ‘because no one else goes there’.
After convincing Laura to come with us, we headed back into Paraguay and made straight for the campo once again. This time we were headed to Renee’s site (a friend of Tess’ from PC training) for her birthday celebration. There we met a bunch more volunteers, all as awesome as we expected based on the others we’d met. We all helped out in the preparations for all of Renee’s host families to come celebrate with her. We (they) even slaughtered a pig, the main course on most special occasions in Paraguay.
From there it was back to the capital, saying goodbyes yet again, and preparing for our long haul back to Peru. A month in the tranquility that is the Paraguayan campo absolutely flew by but we loved every minute of it. A special thank you to Tess for letting us crash at the shed for so long and for showing us the beauty of Paraguay. Also, a thank you to Peace Corp Volunteers in general (shout out to the ones we know: Tess, Rachel, Ivan, Herre, Claire, Connie, Abbie, Barb, Renee, Amelia, Kevin, John, Jimmy, Liz, Jess, Tall John, Kayla, Dave, Gail, Mary, Mom, Dad) for spending two years of your precious lives doing good for the sake of doing good.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. I can’t write about our time in Paraguay without mentioning Niké, Tess’ campo dog. I will admit being extremely annoyed with Niké’s constant need to be absolutely everywhere that Tess went (even when Tess was very adamant otherwise) the entire time we were in Tess’ site. However, I finally came around when Niké ran around 6km behind a truck that picked us up and drove us at probably 30km/h to La Colmena. By that point we were so pleased with her that we brought her into the concert and onto the dance floor. Love you Niké- stay passionate!