Archive | September, 2009

The 5 people you meet on a Paraguayan cargo boat – The Generous Carnies

20 Sep

This is part of a 5 post series where I tell you about my cargo boat trip to Concepcion through the people I met.

The Generous Carnies

Carnies, you know the carnival folk, the people that travel around with the carnival, the people that have small hands and smell like cabbage. Well the carnies weren’t actually on the cargo boat, but I did meet them on my Concepcion mission.

The cargo boat arrived late into Concepcion, greeted by a waiting crowd that was going to continue on the boat further up the river. I made my way through the staring smiling faces and up the hill to the red dirt road leading to Concepcion’s main street.

Evening was fast approaching and my search for a place to camp was not looking to promising. In a stroke of luck the Paraguayan travelling carnival was in town, an expo where the farmers show off their prize bulls and the kids ride on the dodgem cars and Ferris-wheels etc (New Zealand’s equivalent of the A & P show).

I enter the carnival grounds walking past sweating workers, working hard to erect tents and stalls for the coming opening day. I approach a group of men in their mid 40’s, sitting around a table behind a dodgy truck mounted pirate ship ride. I start talking to them, and they ask me if I’m selling jewellery, or if I’m friends with the tattoo guy. I tell them how I’m travelling around Paraguay and have just arrived on the cargo boat and I’m looking for a place to camp the night. I’m welcomed with a “no problem just put your tent over there by ours”.

After I’ve set my tent up, my new carnie mates Peter, Andres and Nelson offer me a gas bottle as a seat and invite me to sit with them. I find out that they are popcorn sellers, and travel around with the carnival pushing their popcorn carts through the fairgrounds selling 25 cent bags of popcorns to the excited kids. They tell me about their families back in Asuncion, and Andres receives a call from his wife telling him that she’s missing him but hopes all the preparations for the coming week long Concepcion expo are going well. As Andres is talking to his wife I think to myself, “how do these guys support a family travelling with the carnival selling 25cent bags of popcorn“.

They are happy, laughing, joking, and enjoying the camaraderie of their carnie mates that stop by the picnic table to meet their strange new kiwi friend named Hap. It was such a beautiful moment, they didn’t have much to give, but they generously gave of themselves, showering me in welcoming warmth. They wanted me to have a good impression of their country. They offered me cheap whisky and fed me chicken stew and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

As I sat on a gas bottle behind the pirate ship with the music blearing from the sound check on the PA, eating steaming chicken stew out of a up, I was thinking about a quote a read in Shantaram “the most beautiful act is the generosity by the poor”.

The 5 people you meet on a Paraguayan cargo boat – The relaxed passengers

17 Sep

This is part of a 5 post series where I tell you about my cargo boat trip to Concepcion through the people I met.

The relaxed passengers

Paraguayans are some of the more relaxed people I have met; sometimes they are so relaxed you wonder if you should check for a pulse!

The above photo to me sums up Paraguay, terere and hammocks. Terere uses the same green mate herb that I talked about in Argentina and Uruguay, the only difference in Paraguay is they drink it with ice cold water. Visiting Paraguay you would think that Paraguayans are born with their terere thermo attached to them. The definition of useless, a Paraguayan with one arm, they wouldn’t be able to do anything as with their good hand they would be holding their terere – and there are no second hand stores here either. I love the terere culture, it’s all about sharing, hanging out, relaxing.

A lot of my time on the cargo boat was spent drinking terere, talking with the passengers or swaying in the hammock in which I also slept. I spent a lot of time listening to mate above. He was proudly telling me about the flaura and fauna that we passed on the eroding river banks of the river. Although he wasn’t drinking terere he was drinking “tres leones” whisky, and why not, he was a ranch hand going back to work for 8 months in isolation.

At one particular travel moment I remember, from my hammock I looked around me at my surroundings, the pile of eggs big enough to feed Africa, rice, tomatoes, oranges, flour, potatoes etc, the family sitting there, the crew sitting down drinking terere. A classic Paraguayan song crackled out of the small cell phone speakers, all the passengers from 10 year Antonio to a uniformed police officer to the grandmother pictured above were perched on hammocks, sacks of onions, lending against poles, talking and laughing. It was a setting without generation gaps, without societal gaps, everyone harmoniously enjoying the trip.

Even when the thunder and lightning filled the night sky, storm updates blared on the captains two ways, and the boat boys were battering down the hatches and scouring the river banks with a spot light for a strong tree to anchor the boat until the storm passed, the passengers just carried on their relaxing. They seemed oblivious to the storm, probably enjoying it.

As I melted further into my hammock waiting for the sound of the rain on the wooden deck above and the sway of my hammock to take me away, I thought………………………..I can’t actually remember what I thought, but I bet you if I could remember it would have been something profound about how relaxed the passengers were, or something like “shit, I shouldn’t haven’t drunken so much terere, I’m going to have get up and piss in about 3 hours

The 5 people you meet on a Paraguayan cargo boat – The inquisitive crew

14 Sep

This is part of a 5 post series where I tell you about my cargo boat trip to Concepcion through the people I met.

The inquisitive crew

As well as being friendly, I will remember the young crew for being inquisitive. At times I felt like a wise man telling them of the far off land of dragons and knights. They were so eager to learn of the world outside of the river, which is the only world they know.

An example of this was when I was sitting on the bow of the boat with Mauricio and Eduardo, two 20 year old boys who had grew up by the river and now lived and worked on the boat. I’m sitting with them and going through Mauricio’s cell phone telling him which country each of the time zone cities is in and showing them on the tiny cell phone world map where the countries are.

In between the crewing picking up new passengers and offloading cargo to riverside farms I was showing the crew a map of Paraguay, as I wanted to find a few things out about places. They didn’t want to show it, but it was as though the map of Paraguay was kind of foreign to them, it was like a 16 year old virgin fumbling with his new girlfriends bra strap but trying to hide it and pretend that he’s an experienced lover. Although they may not be able locate Asuncion straight away on the map, I’m sure they could tell me every curve and sand bank in the Rio Paraguay between Asuncion and Concepcion. It’s time like these you appreciate being from a first world country, having an education and the opportunity to travel.

A lot of the 30 hour trip was spent lying in a hammock or sitting on a sack of onions, drinking terere in a close knit group with the crew and them shamelessly hitting on the cute young passenger who was travelling back to the farm with her family. Them teaching me Guarani (the native language of Paraguay of which everybody speaks or at least understands, it’s the main language outside of Asuncion, the language of the people) and me teaching them English. Plenty of laughs, at my expense also, for example the boat clown (pictured below with my pack as he explains he’s going to run away and find a foreigner girl) said he was teaching me “Hello” in Guarani but instead taught me “punch me”, it didn’t take me long to figure out I wasn’t saying hello, haha.

The 5 people you meet on a Paraguayan cargo boat – The welcoming captain

10 Sep

This is part of a 5 post series where I tell you about my cargo boat trip to Concepcion through the people I met.

The welcoming captain

The amazing blue sky that can only be enjoyed in the early hours of the day welcomed me as I jumped off the bet up public bus. An unusual morning calm hung over the downtown Asuncion streets like a stillness of a jungle before the birds and monkeys awake. I had a skip in my step fuelled by a sense of adventure and the fact that I was running a little late, although I think it is impossible to be late in Paraguay.

I arrived at the concrete island jutting into the water representing the pier where I was told the previous week by some terere drinking old men that the Concepcion bound cargo boat departs every Wednesday at 7am. I walk the plank onto the boat, looking for someone to ask if it is OK that I’m onboard, and if I have to buy a ticket etc. I ask a potential crew member, a young guy with a notebook in his hand who seems to be ticking off the sacks of potatoes on which his worn tennis shoe rests on. With a smile he says “no hay promblema”, and waves in the direction of the steps going up to some sun bathed wooden white seats by the captain’s wheel house.

From my top deck perch I look over the cargo of gas bottles, motorbikes, fence posts, rocking chairs, miscellaneous sacks and even a kitchen sink that is bound for Concepcion and the farms along the way. Then a rusty blast on the captain’s horn breaks me from my daze and the Cacique starts its 30 hour voyage up the calm muddy waters of the Rio Paraguay.

Soapy water snakes its way over the deck towards my pack that is resting against my legs as the boat boys start making the boat ship-shape. The tan skinned captain that seems content like a king in his castle sees the watery snake and tells me to bring my pack and join him in his wheel house. Upbeat Paraguayan music fills the wheel house as the captain asks me all about my country and what I’m doing, and patiently rephrases questions when I don’t totally understand. Then he gets out his cell phone and proudly shows me pictures of his 2 sons and his wife, and as though we had been mates for years he then shows me a picture of his girlfriend that he has in Concepcion.

Within 30 minutes of leaving the Asuncion skyline the captain steps away from the wheel, picks up his terere and says “manaja” (you drive). In one of those special travel moments I found myself driving a cargo boat in the heart of South America as my new captain friend sips terere beside me bopping his head to the latino flavoured music with the sun beaming through the wheel house window.

During the trip it didn’t matter who was driving, the door to the wheelhouse was always open, actually I don’t think there was a door. The passengers and crew alike hung out there drinking terere, no hierarchy, or sense of “I’m better than you”. A feeling of “mi barco, tu barco” (my boat is your boat), something that is characteristic of Paraguayans, “my country is your country”.

Below is a video of me hanging out with one of the captains/drivers in the wheel house, sums it up. If the video below doesn’t work click here to view it.