nthposition online magazine

Up the Rio Paraguay

by Laurence O'Dwyer

[ places - april 06 ]

To observe the towns and the rivers
like an architect or an astronomer;
recording the downfall of reason
with the instruments of reason.
- Franz Dassio

 

The girl in the hostel in Buenos Aires was not impressed when we told her we were leaving for Paraguay.

"There's nothing there," she said with an almost hostile expression. We were insulting her as an Argentinian by choosing such a worthless destination. It was not an uncommon reaction. Buenos Aires is famous; Asuncion is not. In a night sky we turn to the brighter constellations.

In the hull, by Laurence O'Dwyer On Wednesdays a small boat sails up the rio Paraguay. It takes two days to reach Vallemi, tangled in the bushes along the border with Brazil. You can buy a ticket in Asuncion. There is a small office at 654 calle El Paraguayo Independiente where you'll find a cluttered room with an old fan and a 1950s rolling address book on the desk. There, an old couple will swat flies and tell you to bring plenty of water for the journey.

Paraguay has few attractions, which is an attraction in itself. The first thing to note is that no one goes there. No one knows anything about the country and no one cares. Depending on who you ask, it is poor, dangerous or boring. The locals are no better. They generally walk away puzzled no matter what your answer when they ask you why you've come. There is no Machu Pichu, no Angel Falls, no Amazon jungle. For a traveller playing backpacker Pacman there are few points to be won on this route. Paraguay is famous for contraband and smuggling - little else.

In Asuncion the streets are cracked and buckled. The buildings are falling apart and the temperature hovers around 40 degrees. Sunshine is the make-up that turns a poor girl into a pretty whore. Washing lines glint with water. Dusty palms are blasted white. Telegraph wires fish for clouds in an empty sky. Grim balconies try to guess the colour of overexposed traffic lights. The central square, the Plaza de los Heroes, is lined with crafts and flowers, fruit and tea. Not green tea or black tea, but maté. Maté is the country's obsession. Wherever you go you won't be far from someone who's drinking a cup. More national labour goes into preparing this drink than any other activity.

Although a capital, Asuncion feels like a provincial town. The locals stare at you, hustle you gently and slouch back into the shadows at your first defence. A small town friendliness pervades. Conversations are as loud as the traffic and seats are lined up on the shady side of the road where old men sit for hours, waiting for the sun to set.

Conception, by Laurence O'Dwyer The nights are quiet. There are few clubs or bars. Crowds gather at tables outside cafés. The stars swim in the sky and beer is served in buckets of ice. This odd luxury is a constant wherever you go. Like a fake Rolex on a dirty wrist, it shines conspicuously. The ice melts quickly until the bottles float in the water.

Late at night a handful of prostitutes lurk in the shadows of the Plaza de Independencia. The nearby cathedral glows colonial white and the river slithers past the dark slums. The slow current drags the light into the black hole of the interior. In ones and twos, girls in bright dresses escort their clients down the steps to the metal huts that gather by the river bank.

By morning, order is restored. The Presidential Palace is surrounded by soldiers. Off-duty police sit in the park where horses are tethered to trees and riot gear is strewn in the grass. They dangle their batons, laughing in the shade. The morning river is a necklace of gold. It enters your mind as easily as clouds cross borders.

At dawn there is movement in the port. A vendor sells sweet tea. Families sit on the pier with bags of fruit while four men load the Cacique II. The sagging planks bob with the weight of the passengers as they walk aboard. Fruit and vegetables line the walls of the hold at the front. Apples, oranges, pineapples, onions, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes. It is wonderfully cramped. Ten hammocks hang from wall to wall between the crates. There are a hundred smells, each overpowering the next until it is just sweat and earth. Shafts of cathedral light pierce the darkness from the doors at either end. Smoke and oil splutter through the chicken wire as you squint at the clanking engine in the hull. The kitchen and toilets are in the rear, past a rusting urinal that's screwed to the side of the boat. Yellow urine dribbles from a tube into the water below.

Asuncion fades behind. The angle quotes the city out of context. Offices and apartment blocks give it a respectable skyline. This is the postcard view - it looks nothing like this when you're on the streets.

The water swirls gently, curling in arcs and eddies. Soon the hum of the engine is silence and jungle wetland droops over uterine banks. The passengers sleep in hammocks or crowd into shade. The river widens until we are sailing in a sea, gliding through lost hours. Two girls giggle as we approach a house in a clearing. The plank is pushed out. It stabs the wet mud. A farmer in cowboy boots takes a sack from one of the boatmen while his family sits in the shade of a tree. The silence is unsettling. This is the dead reckoning of isolation. We stare at the family and they stare back. Only when the engine reverses into the current does the static ease. Once out on the water the creak of the wood and the gurgle of the engine return us to oblivion. 

The captain stands at the wheel in blue shorts and flip flops, laughing with his wife and brother. His daughter hands him a fresh cup of maté after every draught. The water is red brown. Beyond the banks a thick, impenetrable jungle extends for miles. There are no roads. The river is the only way into the rotting heart of trees and vines. For hours on end we glide past a nightmare of twisting limbs clothed in green.

Late in the afternoon the boat pulls into another outpost. Restless cowboys wait in a line before off loading bags and barrels of food. The languid air is transformed into activity. Sombreros, bare feet, ripped t-shirts and baseball hats dance up and down the plank. The passengers crowd the deck to watch guns dangling from holsters and machetes slicing open bags of wheat. Oxen wait in the grass; their bony bodies as tired as Sisyphus. A barrel of petrol is left to last. Six men roll it up the bank, cursing and shouting, while the passengers cheer them on. In the background a long whitewashed house with a metal roof marks the limit of the clearing. About thirty people live on this settlement, surrounded by swamps and boiling silence.

In evening light the river is a gel. Sheaves of glass peel away from the wet blade of the bow. A German sits beside me. Quiet and reserved, his face is sculpted from stone. Patrik speaks English in a dry monochrome voice. It takes some time before he says anything about himself. But there is no rush. It will be another day before we reach Conception. He begins in a hesitant voice, stopping himself, as though uneasy about talking so much. In Germany he is a forester, but some time ago he and his girlfriend lived in Namibia. Working for the German Development Service they stayed for two years at the Kanovlei Research Station in the middle of the bush. There they worked to preserve the culture of the last 2,000 inhabitants of West Bushmanland [1]. As the sun touches the water his voice lowers with every sentence:

They have a language of four or five clicks. It's almost impossible to learn if you are not born into it but my girlfriend learned quite a lot. They are hunter gatherers. It was amazing to watch them tracking footprints. They would poison their arrows and shoot bison or antelope. The herd would scatter as soon as the arrow was fired but they could follow the tracks of the animal they had hit. For hours they followed the trail, before they found the animal, either exhausted or dead.

It was impossible to be alone with them. As soon as they looked at the ground they knew where you were. One day I came back to the station after a trip to the nearest village. I asked one of the bushmen where my girlfriend was and he looked at me as if to say: "what kind of an idiot are you, can't you see from the footprints?" Pointing at the ground he said: "Look here! She went to the well, after that she went to the nursery and now she is at the generator." I may as well have asked if it was sunny outside.

Another time, I spotted a dog that had been missing for weeks.

"Isn't that Rauha's dog?" I said, but they didn't seem interested in catching him.

"Shouldn't we get him now?" I asked.

"We'll come back for him when we're finished in the village," they said.

Returning home, I showed them where I'd last seen the dog. They got out and followed his tracks. They were back with the dog in less than an hour.

You change living there. Occasionally people would visit and say: you live in paradise! But it was not easy. I became used to silence, to being alone. It was difficult to talk to people, to go into town. From the first day I had no problem in Namibia but I had problems when I came back to Germany. It took me a long time to adjust.

 

The sun goes down behind the jungle and night comes over the river. Stars fizz like bubbles in a coke bottle and a red moon crawls up the sky. The notes from a guitar disappear into darkness and mosquitoes thicken around a light bulb. Attracted by the music, some boys join us in the front where a drunk soldier fawns over a young Norwegian girl.

"Maria! Maria!" his voice calls out. It trails off as she edges away nervously. He leans over to whisper something in her ear and she wriggles out of his reach. A horrible loneliness drips out of his sockets as he tries to put his arm around her. Frank tells him to leave her alone and he retreats into his shell, sullen and bruised.

The evil hour has begun. All reason vanishes with the setting sun. Philosophy dips below the navel and spirits creep out of the jungle looking for hosts. The stars have a terrible beauty. They rule with absolute, uncaring power, while our love makes cold laughter in the sky. Most talk in whispers as we course through the underworld. Silence is our offering to the gods.

 

"Buenos dias Alemania! Buenos dias Irlanda! Buenos dias Noruega! Buenos dias Inglattera!" The cheery boatman wakes the sleeping foreigners, pausing a moment before the triumphant: Buenos dias Paraguay!

The sun boils the water for breakfast and the boat glides silently through molten lava. Families sleep on, snoring in their nets. We take a diversion up a tributary where a boat rows out from the jungle banks to receive letters and packages. Lilly islands dot the lapping water. Where are these rowers from? There is no clearing on the banks, no houses. What are the addresses on the letters? Who could be sending these letters? The captain shouts at them and they shout back, before we drift apart.

By late morning, the passengers are getting restless. They have spent a day on board and they want to arrive now. Some time after midday, we sail under a 50 metre high bridge that spans the river like the arm of a robot. Grain towers and a supply port come into view. Houses break through the banks. A town approaches - Conception.

Around a bend bright sweating faces with tattered suitcases wait on the bank. The first person to greet us after sinking into the mud is an impeccably dressed Mormon from Utah.

"Where yawl from?" he says with a smile; his suit and tie neatly pressed.

The houses are dead in the heat. White bands of paint keep the termites from the barks of the trees and the shade of the scrawny branches is as poor as the houses. The river laps against the banks and the glare of the red road is blinding. Everywhere windows and doorways draw your gaze into the damp gloom. Eyes are thirsty for darkness. On the street men sit in chairs, sipping maté, watching Dante and Virgil trudge through the town. Ahead is the Hotel Francis with its faded Casablanca façade. It is the only hotel in town.

The street lies empty all afternoon. Not a single car. We are puzzled by the sight of German children playing in the swimming pool at the back of the hotel. Their parents fry like green olives on the deck chairs. We are the only foreigners in town. Late in the evening, scooters and motorbikes pass up and down, raising clouds of red dust while shopkeepers lean on tick-tock quiet counters. Along the main street there is a hardware store, a pharmacy and a bar with the slow crack of pool balls. Our eyes take sepia photographs. The pool players are grainy figures inside a doorway. The sun turns red, dips below the horizon and night comes with a cavalcade of motorbikes.

The street corner café is crowded. Beneath the orange lamp posts the ditches hum with the electricity of insects. Shadows crowd the doorways and the air is full of expectation. The curve of powdered bodies, the revving of engines, the flick of hair - everyone is waiting. Everyone is watching. Desire wraps its legs around the night.

Inside a bar posters of women in bikinis are tacked to the flaking walls. A small tv glows over bottles and bandaged barstools circle a pool table. The barman sits in a wicker chair with his feet on the counter, a tooth pick in his mouth. Every time he opens the fridge icy fog fills the yellow air.

A European in his early 40s sits at the counter sipping beer. He's wearing a check shirt and wooden sandals. When he hears us speak, he rolls his eyes and turns reluctantly.

"I'm from Austria," he laughs "but I don't speak English here." His eyes shine with alcohol. He does not like the intrusion and it takes some jokes from Frank before he relaxes.

"You like Conception?" the Austrian asks.

"Yes, yes."

"How long have you been here?"

"We got in this afternoon."

"What do you know about Conception!"

Stepping up to the pool table with a cartoon stride, he squints at the balls, stretches his arms and challenges one of the locals to a game. He shouts after the white ball and calls his opponent a coward when he attempts a snooker. Austrians, he explains, never play the coward shot. But Paraguayans often play this way; Irish people too.

"I have lost many games because I refuse to play the coward shot!"

Everyone is laughing. A round bicycle reflector hangs from his shirt pocket. Frank leans over to see how it is held there but he steps back shouting: "No! No! Only one other person in the village knows how it stays up."

He loses the game and zig-zags back to his stool. For six months of the year he works in Austria fitting windows. Then he comes to Conception for three months, and for the other three months he goes to Brazil. He's been coming here for 15 years.

We stay until the balls begin to blur and the laughter dies.

In the morning the heat returns. On a walk to the bus station, the houses down the side streets are overgrown with wild bushes and flowers. Clusters of families sit in ramshackle gateways. A dog bites the heel of a scrawny horse while a farmer rubs the sweat from his brow. We sit in the doorway of a corner store until an old woman emerges from the gloom with a present of two small stools. She tells us to sit in the shade. The sky is a psychedelic blue. Flies fill a dead paradise while a man cycles back and forth with a bag of cement tied to his saddle. A trail of white powder paints a labyrinth between his house and the store. A child runs across the road, hesitating before crossing the magic line. At the end of the road the river is simmering and dehydration makes us piss gold into the sizzling bushes.

On Saturday nights scooters and motorbikes line the curb outside the Pirana Bar. This is the place to be. Inside speakers boom with earthquake beats. Boys in luminous shirts circle the fluttering dresses. Everyone glows like a butterfly. Only for the lack of a roof and the mud on the ground, we could be anywhere in Europe. Workers from the Peace Corps are drinking at a table. One is a geologist from New York. Here she works as a bee-keeper. Two of the group are leaving for home. It is their going away party. Down by the river a quieter moon shines on the banks. The beat of the disco disappears into the throats of the insects. Up the street a family whispers in darkness. Bats flit around lamp posts, darting into clouds of mosquitoes with open mouths.

 

"Forty-five degrees today," the taxi driver says on the way to the bus station. Bumping down the red road we pass three boys and a girl swimming by the banks of the river. Their bodies shine like bars of gold. At the bus station, the barefoot shoeshine boys are running around with boxes of polish hanging from their necks. Men and women sit in the ticket offices drinking maté. Work is a precious commodity. What little there is must be shared sparingly. They talk, they stare, they itch, they drink. Time rots in the ditches.

I give a pen to one of the shoe shine boys and for five minutes he is immersed in calligraphy. Forgetting his box of brushes he draws letters and symbols on his hand, inventing meanings and enigmas. He is lost in the mystery of an illiterate alphabet. At the window of one of the offices, a burly man slaps me on the back shouting: "Hola signor." The phone rings - an old style bell on clappers - dddrrriiinnnggg, dddrrriiinnnggg.

"Yes, yes, I have two tourists at the window just now. Yes! They must be rich. They're drinking water from bottles!"

The children swarm around us like mosquitoes selling sweets and cakes, bread and empanadas. Others wave straws and cans at passers-by. Our battered bus pulls in, shining like a frying pan.

Through the countryside, wooden shacks are scattered along the road. Red tractors, pigs and half-naked children mill around plots of fruit that seem to grow by themselves. Time in the shade is slower than time in the sun. Figures wait eternally for the cool of the night. After sunset we get a puncture and the bus pulls into the mud yard of a garage. Stripped to the waist in oily jeans, a man emerges from a wooden shack. His hair is black, his eyes are black, his fingers are oil, his family is oil. A spanner spins like a spur as the bolts come off. The passengers pile out to watch. A girl in pink stands beside her mother while the men look her up and down from behind. A little boy wrestles a spare tyre onto the ground and wriggles under the bus like an insect. The new tyre is on. The sky is blue with stars. All the way to Ciudad del Este Frank talks to an old Columbian who says you can buy anything "from a pin to a canyon" on the border.

We arrive to a town in celebration. Cerro football fans are waving flags, beeping horns and spilling beer. The footpaths are crammed with weeds, rubbish and lomito stands. The apartment blocks are sharp and dangerous. Gone is the slow ease of Conception. Desperation migrates to borders. People do not wave at strangers here. They walk with wary eyes.

At midnight we sit on the footpath drinking litros of Pilsner, drowning "completos" in mayonnaise and ketchup. This is the groin of Paraguay. Torn and dirty, it looks at itself in the mirror and knows it is ugly.

Come morning the road to Brazil is lined with money changers. They stand or sit on stools waving at the passing cars. Each one has a calculator and a money belt. A car pulls over and winds down the window. Exchange rates are tapped on the little screen until an agreement is reached and money is handed over. We ask them how to get to Iguazu Falls but no one knows. One after the other, they shake their heads, shrug their shoulders. No one will help you for nothing here.

The road dips down a hill to what must be the border. Giant billboards show Japanese and American women holding cameras and mobile phones. Approaching the Ponte de Armistad, another city looms across the gorge of a river - Foz de Iguazu. A line of taxis drivers shout: Brazil! Brazil! Catarata de Iguazu!

Herds of people and cars pass the checkpoint. Police stand around looking bored. No one is stopped. It is an open border. On the far bank Brazil beckons with orchid heat and cheap high rises. The advertisements grow thicker and larger. DVDs, iPODs and MP3s dwarf the street. The placards on the front of the buses bear three destinations - Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Pesos, Guarani and Real are accepted. Everyone is good at maths.

From the centre of town another bus takes us to Iguazu National Park where we join the tourist superhighway for an hour. A thousand cameras record every second of the plunging water. We worm our way back across the border before chronophobia sets in. It is late Sunday evening.

The markets in Ciudad del Este are closed. Shutters are down. The streets are desolate. The taxi drivers and money changers are gone. The bins are overflowing and packs of dogs forage in the rubbish. Back on the main street we wait on stools for another roadside lomito. Trays of eggs, bread and meat rise behind the cook. He flips the sizzling meat and lines up bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise while two homeless men bed down under a dusty palm tree. Three street kids, all girls, run back and forth, high on crack. The beer stall across the road is a family run business. A black haired girl leans over the counter doing the accounts with a pencil in her hair. Boys whistle at her and she looks up giggling. Her little sister dances barefoot on top of a coffin freezer, swinging her hips like a go-go dancer. Everyone stops to watch and clap. She jumps down and runs across the road to the crack kids and the bums. She finds a giant beetle in the grass and runs back to show her mother.

"Mira! Mama! Mira!" she shouts, holding the insect in the palm of her hand.

The moon has arrived early. It parks quietly in the blue sky while we settle into the plastic chairs to watch it all. A taxi driver walks over to us. With red hair, red beard and a pot belly, he tells us that he's the son of a German immigrant. He also tells us that Ireland is close to Russia.

"Si, si. Very close to Russia. I know, I know."

He moves nervously, slapping mosquitoes between the palms of his hand.

"Paraguay is crazy. Much poverty! Street kids taking crack and glue. It is impossible to be proud. These kids are fucked. Look at them!" He calls one of the girls over. She laughs with a dazed expression.

"She's always on crack. Fucked!"

These are the springs and wires of a border town.

 

It is cool inside the morning empanada store. Better to be in here, than out on the street where it smells of tar. The owner tells us that he's from Conception. His hands and face are covered in flour. He kneads the dough into long strips, cutting them into sections for meat and cheese empanadas. As he talks, clouds of flour rise around him. He moved here with his family 10 years ago. He is interested in Europe. He wants to know about the borders and whether we are from the north or south of Ireland.

"How long have you been in Paraguay?" he asks.

"Una semana"

"And where have you been?"

For each town we mention, he tells us if the fishing there is good or bad."Conception - muy malo por pescado. Asuncion - malo tambien. Ciudad del Este - bien, muy bien por pescado."

It is Monday morning. The markets are busy. A two kilometre tailback stretches from the border to the junction at San Blas. We catch a chicken bus to the German colony of Hohenau. Among the locals are three passengers stand out - a German boy and two older German women with young children on their laps. The faces of the women are shrivelled like raisins. They have lived here all their lives.

The driver has a young helper who fills his cup of maté after every draught. He hands the cup back and forth like a chalice. Out the window, the wooden shacks are endless variants of the same portrait. A family sits in the shade, dogs and horses move sluggishly through dried mud.

We pass an expanse of well groomed land where a security man patrols an electric fence. A sign declares that it is the property of a European multinational company. The music on the bus is the consistent torture of synthesised Latino pop. It burrows into the frontal lobe replicating a thousand aural viruses. Everyone sweats.

Stopping in the middle of nowhere, the driver indicates that this is our destination. Children press their noses against the glass as the bus pulls away. Why would anyone get out here? 

It is late evening. Fields of tall yellow grass lap against the edge of the road. There is a water tower, a petrol station and a road leading to a few sleeping shops and houses. Nothing stirs. This is Hohenau - one of the many German colonies that were set up in Paraguay in the late 19th and early 20th century. Their origins are hazy and mysterious. Many are connected with Nazis fleeing Germany after 1945.

For a few moments the mind is paralysed. We have arrived in a dream. It takes time to register the surroundings. A young German cycling down the street waves at us before turning a corner. It does not look like South America. Well tailored houses with solid slate roofs line the street. The angles are clean and straight. The air has been shipped from Germany along with clothes lines, the fields and the ditches.

The street is empty. We knock on the door of a bar and a German peers out groggily after a long delay. When we ask if he knows a place to stay he sends us down the road to the Hotel Pileau where we'll find the only accommodation in town.

"Come back on Friday," he says, eyeing Frank's guitar. "There is music here. You can play if you want."

It is hard to imagine this bar ever being full. It is dark and dusty inside. He yawns, as he explains that his cousin owns the hotel. Round the corner two women are sitting outside a clothes shop. They face the setting sun. Yellow fields of wheat stretch out to a warm horizon. The older woman is German. She tells us that she's a teacher in the local school where she teaches Guarani - the native language. She knows the hotel. Her brother-in-law owns it. It seems all the village is related. If we wait she will ring her husband and he will drive us there. Minutes later he arrives - middle aged, heavyset with shaven head and prickly beard. Throwing our bags into the back of a truck he looks like a retired weight lifting champion. As he drives to the hotel, he points out the name of the neat German road - Avenida Ossvaldo Tischler - it's named after his uncle.

"Don't worry," he says with a smile, "we are not Nazis."

The sun comes in the windows. From far away the long wave radio of history picks up a faint crackling signal.

"I worked for four years and nine months in a McDonalds in New Jersey," he says. The sentence is burnt into his brain. He says it twice - four years and nine months.

"It is impossible to make money in Paraguay. I worked in America so I could send money back to my family."

He points out his house - a red bricked bungalow. In any other village in Paraguay it would be a palace, but in Hohenau it is an average home. He has paid dearly for this respectability. Four years and nine months - he says it a third time. The memory of his exile is a pin-prick of anguish. Now he is home for good. Time ticks back and forth with measured insistence. The driveways are straight, the shops are neat and tidy, the clouds are well combed. This is a curious German biosphere. Beyond the village Paraguay returns to its overgrown, timeless self.

Dropping our bags at the hotel we walk up the road to a diner for beer and pizza. A group of Paraguayans are drinking at a table. It is dark now. The moon is almost full and the straight black road shines like a river. The air is still and sweet with grass. Dark fields sleep under a dark sky. The voices and clinking bottles come from miles away. We are so far from the engine of the world that thinking of Asuncion or Buenos Aires is like thinking of the dead.

Walking back into town we pass Herr Tishcler strolling with his wife. Under the orange lamp post they smile and say hello. A botanist could spend a lifetime tracing the origins of the flower that blooms on the end of this dark branch. It is a small miracle. Somehow we find our way. The night reflects itself in forgetfulness, until it contains every night, as pollen contains a thousand flowers within a single flower. 

On the way to the main street we pass suburban driveways, vans, double glazed windows and slate roofs. Here and there Paraguay intrudes with a shack or a pile of rubble. We drink outside the Bar-Hamburguesa stand. It is Monday night. The plastic tables and chairs are empty. There is no one here. The glass counter and the yellow walls glow with emptiness. The proprietor sorts boxes of crisps while we drink our beer. The shop fronts across the street are closed. Light flows out of bulbs into liquid dark. A security man sits down at a table. The owner joins him and the girl behind the counter changes the radio station. It crackles with white noise until music ghosts into the speakers - a slow samba from Brazil. She rests her chin on folded arms and waits for closing time.

Up the road there is a petrol station where a boy sits outside, leaning back against a wall. The same tune plays faintly on the air. All night long he keeps his lonely vigil, watching the darkness buckle around a halo of street light. He waves and I wave back. I cannot make out his face. A motorbike comes and goes. The ebb of silence returns. Stars are caught in the telegraph wires and the traffic lights change colour for invisible cars. At what point the boy disappeared and dawn inhaled the darkness, I do not know.

 

From the breakfast table we can see men chopping wood over a wall. The blue flowers on the trees fill the morning with petals and bees. We come around from the anaesthetic of night and deal with simple things like spoons and jugs of milk.

At nine o'clock it is already 35 degrees. Turning left at the empanada store we take a bus to the Jesuit ruins of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana and Jesus de Tavarangue. It drops us by a ramshackle corner store where a boy walks us down a grassy lane to the ruins. A large cathedral without a roof stands in the centre surrounded by smaller churches, towers and cemeteries. Birds fly through narrow windows and the grass is loud with insects.

At the entrance ten guides are lying in the shade. They charge us entry but none offer to show us around. Their heads rise slowly and fall back to sleep again. Once in the sun you point yourself towards the shade. The old cathedral stands proud and ruined. The faces of the statues are soft and featureless. Stone mosaics encrust the walls and arches. Every stone is shipwrecked in an ocean of yellow grass.

Cutting through the fields we arrive at a Petrosol service station where the bus to the village of Jesus has already pulled in. The driver sits by the door of the little shop drinking his maté. We sit with him and he tells us about a German he knew who mastered Guarani in six months. Reluctantly he walks over to the bus and drives us down a road that is being rebuilt. Labourers stripped to the waist hammer blocks of stone. Over a wooden bridge and round a sharp bend lies a church, a plaza and a tall mast for Radio Jesus 113-117 FM. The ruins are smaller here, the heat stronger. Wandering under archways, a thin curl of smoke rises from a far away field.

Back in Hohenau there is a corner store near the hotel where two old men sit outside on the veranda talking loudly in German. Inside it is cool. Stale doughnuts and empanadas lie on silver trays. A young Paraguayan serves us. Sitting at a table we watch a toothless old German going back and forth between the counter and the back room. His skin is as pale and wrinkled as a dead chicken, his face as German as sauerkraut. Two kittens play hide and seek round sacks of flour that bear the imprint "Molino de Hohenau." Shelves rise to the ceiling, stocked with wheat and onions.

A Paraguayan sits at a table in the corner. Fast asleep, his head drops lower with every snore. The street outside is in full bloom. Blasts of colour frame the windows and doorway. Red confetti petals are thick on the ground. The two Germans give us a brass farewell. We are leaving Hohenau.

The bus pulls out of the petrol station and the village disappears behind a hill. The voice of the girl in Buenos Aires echoes in my head: there is nothing there. She was right. But I would choose nothing again and again.

The bus takes us back to Argentina over the rio Parana. On the Paraguayan side we exchange 20,000 Guarani for 112 Pesos. It is our last formal dealing with the country; a strange transaction, as though everything that has passed is contained in the 112 Pesos that the cashier puts in my hand. Freight boats glide past each other on the river. It is a graceful border. The crowded bus is full of Argentines returning home after a days shopping. Slowly we cross the two kilometre long bridge. It is evening. The police write our details into a computer - address, profession, mother's maiden name - details that become more uncertain with every crossing. The crowd pours back into the bus like bees swarming into a jar of honey. Through the streets of Posadas, the streets and faces are familiar. The smells and music are familiar. This is Argentina. We say goodbye to the ragged star on the other side of the river.

 

Notes

1 The Hidden Gifts of Nature, by Sigrid Leger, was one product of their two-year stay. Segments of this book can be viewed at: http://sigridleger.de/book/ [Back]