Plautdietsch, a dialect of German that was spoken hundred of years ago in Holland, is still spoken by nearly everyone. Unlike the German communities of southern Brazil, German is still alive and well, with everyone from young children to the elderly speaking it.
Many of the older Mennonites were born in Manitoba, Canada. I asked one man if i could take a portrait of him, and he handed me his hat from Manitoba instead.
Inside the Cooperativa Chorlitzer Supermercado. The market is the main employer in the Menno Colony.
Imported German beer at the local market.
The Cooperativa Chorlitzer produces and sells dairy products across Paraguay and Bolivia. The majority of the employees are Mennonites, who work in a cooperative system, giving away part of their income to the cooperative in order to finanical benefits for their family.
The Loma Plata Public Library feels more like suburban Canada than rural Paraguay. The books are almsot exclusivly in German. The library provides free reading lessons in German for children.
The German Embassy in Paraguay provides financial help for all Mennonite public schools and libraries.
Some Paraguayans have complained that the Mennonites habor racist sentiments. Employment in the the most profitable businesses in town are exclusively reserved for Mennonites.
Many of the Paraguayans that live in Loma Plata are Guarani, an indigenous tribe of 260,000 people who inhabit large sections of Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia.
Rubens, a man who is “spreading the word of god” spends his days driving across Paraguay, working in local prisons, teaching the Bible to inmates and working on brining people closer to God.
As I waiting for the bus to Bolivia, Rubens suggested that we hang our head in prayer. He blessed me, thanking me for visiting the Menno Colony and wishing me good luck on the voyage to Bolivia. Rubens opened his eyes after the prayer, ran to his car, opened up a fresh box of Bibles and told me I needed this. He said many Mennonites in Paraguay are slowly becoming less religious, and stated that “this, this Bible, this word of God is what we need.”
As the sun set in the sweltering Chaco, I hitched a ride into town with two Paraguayan men in a mini van. They both worked as doctors in the Chaco, treating the rural indigenous communities. I asked both men about their relationship with the Mennonites. The first man responded, “You have to admire what they have done. They came from nothing and have created this (pointing to the Chortitzer Cooperative). My only complaint is that they think of themselves as superior, as better”. The other doctor responded, “well…they simply are better”.
The Mennonites have resided in the Chaco region of Paraguay since 1927, turning an inhospitable land into one of the most productive and wealthiest regions of the country. Paraguay is a landlocked country sandwiched between the giants of Brazil and Argentina. Often forgotten and overlooked, Paraguay is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Far from the capital Asuncion, the Mennonites inhabit the most remote and arid part of the country. Today, with diary and ranching, the Mennonite colonies produce 6-7% of Paraguay’s total Gross Domestic Product despite only making up less than 1% of the population.
The Mennonites are a deeply pacifist religious group that originated in Europe during the 16th century and are known for their collectivism and cooperative farming practices. Fleeing religious persecution in Europe, many of them emigrated to Canada. At the turn of the 20th century, the Canadian government implemented mandatory secular education, which angered the Mennonites who saw this as a threat to their way of life. In 1927, the Paraguayan government encouraged the Canadian Mennonites to settle and develop the remote parts of the country near the Bolivian border. This allowed them to practice their religious and culture beliefs without government interference.
Loma Plata (located in Menno Colony) is the oldest and most traditional of the communities. Most people work at the Cooperativa Chortitzer, which producers high-grade dairy products that are sold throughout South America. The Mennonites are generally viewed positively by the Paraguayans. Most seem to admire their perseverance and work ethic, and wonder why the cooperative Mennonite model cannot be implemented across the country. However, some believe that they harbor racist sentiments which translates into hiring discrimination.
After three incredible months in Brazil, we entered Paraguay at the Ciudad del Este border crossing. The Brazilian-Paraguayan border at Ciudad del Este is one of the busiest border crossings in South America, with thousands of Brazilians crossing into Paraguay to buy cheap electronics and other goods.
Although refreshingly off the South America Gringo trail, the recently constructed Urbanian Hostel was a breath of fresh air and a nice way to ease into this chaotic and sometimes difficult country.
Paraguay is country of contrasts. It is has one of the highest income inequality rates in the world, worse than Rwanda or Papua New Guinea. The rich and poor live side by side as seen here. The Chacarita slum recently flooded, sending residents to set up shantytowns on the lawn of the presidential palace and surrounding plazas.
Tereré is the most popular drink in Paraguay. It is consumed in a gourd filled with mate tea leaves, a little lemon and mint, and mixed with ice cold water. It is sucked up through a metal straw and quickly refilled. Paraguayans of all ages and classes drink it from sunrise to sunset to counter the unrelenting heat.
Whatever ailment you have, there is always a solution at the sprawling Mercado 4 in Asuncion.
Panteón Nacional de los Héroes.
Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, is filled with old world stores, where nothing much has changed in 50-100 years.
Guarani kids playing on the Rio Paraguay.
Concepcion, a few hundred miles up the Rio Paraguay, was once a wealthy port town which has fallen on harder times.
Riding the Dalma up the Rio Paraguay at sunset. To read more about our journey up the river, check out http://wearebreakingborders.com/2014/09/24/the-dalma-bums/
The Captain of the Dalma. The Captain showed me his text messages with his son who is studying and working in the United States, “he is living the American dream”.
Nick drinking tereré to keep cool in the boiling evening heat.
Hammocks are set up for the two nights on the Dalma.
Guarani Indians awaiting the arrival of the Dalma.
The Dalma being unloaded, delivering milk, grain, rice, and beer to remote communities.
Sunset over the Paraguayan Pantanal.
After spending three days on the Dalma, we arrived in the remote community of Puerto Casado. While waiting for the bus out of town, we were informed that the next one wouldn’t arrive for another week. One of the local men, Juan, invited us over to his house for some lunch. A few hours became a few days as we waited…and waited.
The second day of waiting, Juan and his friends took us out into the Chaco, which is a vast dry, woodland savannah covering Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia.
Juan runs a logging operation in the middle of impenetrable woodland. Juan checks up on how the operation is going and if anyone is stealing wood.
Getting wild after an incredible afternoon in the Chaco. Guns, beer, and nature.
On the way back to town, I got into a deep discussion with one of Juans friends about guns and warfare. Somewhere along the way I mentioned my discontent with the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. I asked Juan’s friend what he thought of it, he responded, “You gotta do what you gotta do, I see nothing wrong in war, it is a part of life, especially here in the Chaco, especially for us Guarani”. I realized in this moment that my liberal, anti-war philosophy was simply a result of my San Francisco, west coast surrounding. This mans philosophy was simply a representation of the harsh, vicious reality of the Chaco.
After another day of drinking tereré, Juan invited us to meet the congressmen of the state of Alto Paraguay, named Mini Adorno. In true Paraguayan fashion, Adorno threw an entire pig on the grill and the feast began.
After fours days of rumors about a potential truck that would take us towards Bolivia, we finally found Edward, a jolly truck driver who was more than happy to drive us half way across Paraguay. Leaving at 7pm, we finally left Puerto Casado and headed deep into the Chaco at night. Here we sat for an hour with an armed guard, waiting for more trucks to come so we could cross the Chaco at night in a convoy for security reasons.
Fires burning at night to clear the thick Chaco woodland. Edward, our driver, told us that he had once been stopped by a guy with a gun on this road at night, a plane landed on the dirt road, picked up some packages and flew off. The man with the gun told Edward, “you didn’t see anything, right?” Edward said this was one of the principle Narco-trafficking routes in Paraguay.
After 10 bumpy hours of dust, Rammstein, terere and endless conversation about the genius of Sacha Baron Cohen, we arrived in Loma Plata, a community settled by Canadian Menonites in the 1920s. More on this topic later.
Paraguay is a country of contrasts. On the one hand, it is a rich country with the fastest growing economy in the Americas, yet there’s also a gaping divide between the rich and the poor, corruption runs rampant, and political stability remains rare. For a visitor, Paraguay may not have much in terms of sights, but this hardly matters when you are received so warmly by the Paraguayan people. Complete strangers will take you in, feed you, house you, and introduce you to their family (or maybe even a member of Congress). In most countries in South America, the relationship between locals and foreigners usually involves money. In Paraguay, that relationship doesn’t exist, it’s not about money, it’s about long conversations over ice cold beer and a nice steak.
Paraguay is somewhat of an oddity in South America. Due to a strong Jesuit influence it is the only country in the New World where European culture adapted to Native American culture, instead of the opposite. This means that Paraguay is the only country in Americas where over 90% of the population speaks an indigenous language (Guarani). Unlike in Bolivia, Peru or Guatemala, the indigenous language Guarani is spoken by non-ingenous people, the middle class, politicians, and even used in the media. While many people skip Paraguay for the ruins of Peru or the beaches of Brazil, Paraguay offers a different type of South America, a South America that is well of the beaten path and refreshingly real.
We heard rumors of a treacherous three day ferry up the Rio Paraguay. It was mentioned briefly on a obscure travel websites by a few very determined travelers, but concrete information was scarce. We arrived in Concepcion in the evening, only to find out that ferry was broken and no longer operating. So we inquired about the Dalma, a small boat that was in the process of being loaded up with everything from stacks of beer and soda to huge wooden beds and closets. It is a supply ship that drops off various goods and necessities to remote Guarani Indian communities located in the swampland along the river where no roads can penetrate. We were told it was only traveling one day up the river to the small town of Vallemi. Craving adventure, and keen on experiencing an antiquated way of travel that is quickly disappearing, we decided to take it.
Early the next morning we boarded the fully loaded boat. It appeared that the cargo had multiplied over night. Every inch of space was filled with people and supplies. We situated ourselves in the only available space next to the engine room on a couple water barrels. The main deck was filled with women and children crammed onto hammocks like sardines. There was one small bedroom with a bunk bed that looked like it was straight out of a WWII era submarine, but that too was filled with supplies.
Then there was the engine room, which billowed out smoke and heat, constantly broke down and resembled the scene of mechanical open heart surgery gone wrong. Most of the food supplies were stored underneath the main deck in the hold. The bathroom was barely large enough to fit a grown man, and the toilet seat lay on the floor, submerged in an inch of filthy brown water. The walls were caked in grease and bugs of all shapes and sizes.
The kitchen was just as small as the bathroom. The first night a lovely woman cooked huge servings of beef with rice, eggs, onions, tomatoes and a hint of garlic. Rickety stairs towards the back of the boat led to the upper deck, where the furniture, captain’s quarters and all of the men sat baking in the sun. A heated exhaust pipe greeted all those ventured upstairs with a healthy dose of exhaust, soot, and ringing ears.
The river was wide, but the ferry hugged the shore to avoid the strong currents. This time of year the water was high, breaching the low banks and half submerging the vegetation along the river bank.
As night fell we passed by fires set by the Guarani burning bright in the jungle. The flames jumped up and lit the forest and the night sky for miles around. Around two in the morning we approached an abandoned building on shore. The white facade shown brighter in the starlight as we approached. Two figures stood on the shore dressed in white, starring at us as the metal hull scraped along the river bank. Three Indians jumped in the water with their bags held over their heads, climbed on shore, joined the two mysterious figures and disappeared into the night. Maybe it was a dream, maybe it was reality, we’ll never know.
We were awoken around 6 am by a light rain and quickly packed our camera and sleeping bags. To keep from falling right back to sleep we began drinking terere with the locals who appeared to have been up all night. Terere is Paraguay’s national drink. It is consumed in a gourd filled with mate tea leaves, a little lemon and mint, and mixed with ice cold water. It is sucked up through metal straw and quickly refilled. Paraguayans of all ages and classes drink it from sunrise to sunset to counter the unrelenting heat.
Day two was hotter than the day before, it must have been over a 100 degrees, but the the humidity and lack of shade was the worst part. Our first stop was Puerto Itapucu-mi, a blasted out town of shacks and dirt roads. A crowd of locals anxiously huddled in the shade awaiting their weekly supplies of beer, soda, large bags of grain, salt and suger, vegetables and fruit of all types and occasionally a new motorcycle.
We tried to speak with some of the children in Spanish, but all we got were responses in Guarani. Back on deck, as the afternoon approached, so did dark clouds on the horizon. Heavy winds began to rock the boat as the sun set. To our dismay the cook had already been dropped off at her village, so there would be no dinner. A slice of bread and a chunk of salami had to suffice.
The captain of the ship told us to take refuge down stairs, “because this ones coming fast and strong.” The boat made a sharp turn to the closest point of land and the men on deck tied us to trees so we wouldn’t be blown back down river. We secured hammocks and waited; dosing off to the soothing sound of rain as it started to pour down onto the metal roof and watching as lightning flashed in every direction.
We had been forced to sleep down below on the second night due to the rain, so we hardly slept because the boat was constantly stopping and dropping off the last of the supplies.
We ‘awoke’ to a far emptier, lighter and faster ship and by late morning we arrived at our final destination of Vallemi. After 51 hours on board we said our goodbyes to the crew and stumbled onto shore, relieved to have finally made it and in desperate need of a shower. The owner of the hotel we stayed in asked us where we were coming from and how we got here. We told her we took the Dalma three days up the river. She turned around and looked at our greasy, exhaust covered faces and laughed.