Going to the Chaco

This is part 2 in a series of short expository pieces where I aim to colorfully describe a few important aspects of the Paraguayan experience.

Sitting cramped in the passenger cab of a dusty old 4×4 bumping along the potholed road out of Asunción, I stare out the window as small skin-and-bones shops pass. A few more minutes, and no more shops remain. My host family’s “man of the house” is in the driverseat, his domestic servant and all-around-handyman Roberto in the passenger, myself and the two kids in the back.

Now the landscape, in place of man’s creations, has shifted to a flat uninteresting cracked highway complemented by low-growing thicket on either side of the road, with row after row of palm trees and other unidentifiable tropical plants. An interesting mix of succulent vegetation with desert scrub mixed in. A transition zone before the thick trunks of palm trees are replaced by scarecrow twig bramble, with angular thorns.

Palms outside Asuncion

Palms outside Asuncion.

A few more hours of unremarkable passage through the now chest-high thick bramble and we’ve come to the first turn we’ll take off this otherwise snaking (now dirt) road. Potholes become more and more frequent, and now we must slow down to avoid hitting what I like to call mini-X games ramps that send the truck off its four wheels for a brief moment before coming down to earth again in a way that is not kind to your lower back.

Sunset in the Chaco

4 hours outside of Asuncion.

Not too surprisingly, my friend owns this road and maintains it. Otherwise, it would take between 14 and 16 hours to drive to his ranch instead of 6.

Around the time it is completely dark, we are absolutely in the middle of nowhere. No lights. The stars are so bright. As we have reached softer ground, the whole truck in covered in dust. We get out to stretch our legs and, ahem, relieve ourselves and I am struck by a feeling unlike I have ever felt.

This is not civilization out here. This is how man and beast have lived for centuries. Put your ear to the ground and you can hear our planet breathing. Yes my friends, this is the unforgiving wild.

After 7 hours cooped up in the back of the truck, it’s nice to finally arrive at the ranch. We creep up the dusty path fraught with various greenery and emerge into an oddity: flat cleared land. We step out onto the chalky soil and begin to unload the essentials: water, food, and clothing. I am struck by the silence of my surroundings. I can hear my breathing, my footsteps are pronounced as if I were walking on crunchy autumn leaves. I’m also struck by the brightness of the moon in comparison to the dark maw enveloping us. A couple dogs that live on the ranch come up to jump on us and scamper around with carefree tongue wagging. Luis’ sons get out a soccer ball and we spread out and play by the moonlight.

As we get everything in, it becomes painfully obvious that a great deal of sweeping lays ahead. The shack that we will be living in is by no means sheltering us from nature. Each wood panel lacks an airtight seal with its neighbor, and the dust has crept in. We sweep off the stove, the chairs, the couch, the beds, and the linens are taken outside to be shaken out.

My friend’s brother and his son arrive a little later (conveniently after we’ve done all the work) and they begin to have what I’d call an impromptu “man time”. All the men suddenly have their pistols out on the table, showing off their steel sheen and ornate carvings, of course accompanied by drinking and cigarette smoking. They talk automobiles and politics as I struggle to understand and keep up with the conversation. I’m offered one beer and when my Spanish isn’t up to the rapid-fire interjections, I’m left to my own devices. Eventually everyone is off to bed. I put on a couple extra layers to protect myself from the cold desert night.

Disoriented and burning up, the first thing I am aware of as I wake up in the morning is the intense heat. I immediately strip off the extra layers and go for some water. What a change in temperature!

Outside the magnitude of the dust that I got a taste of last night truly hits me. Why they haven’t planted some sort of grass to combat the wind-stirred dust problems, the world may never know.

The kitchen shack from the outside on the first morning. Note: this is not where we slept.

My friend’s brother’s Hilux got a nice sand bath on the drive in.

After breakfast of empanadas, the ranch hands get the horses ready for our ride out to the tajamar, or the watering hole where we will be doing some hunting. I get stuck with the old crotchety horse and get ready for the ride. We start out on what I soon learn is about an hour and 45 minute ride to the watering hole.

On the ride, we pass myriad low-growing spiny shrubs and whip sharp thorny trees. It is oppressively hot and dry. We stop a few times to let the horses rest and drink some water ourselves. Oli and I talk about the passing landscape seemingly without landmarks, but the horses know the way and plod on to the unseen waypoint.


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