I made it safely to my study communities, although not without a little mayhem. The medical team in Mariscal had a meeting of some kind come up, and were no longer able to accompany me to the communities. So, to avoid wasting any further time I executed plan B. There’s an omnibus that runs from Asuncion almost all the way out to the places I wanted to go. My friends at CEDIC called the bus driver, whom we’d talked to earlier, and arranged for him to meet me along the TransChaco highway. Then I followed the bus along the dirt roads to the end of their route and on to where I’m headed.
Not too far into our travels, the bus took out a big Yacare Caiman. BIG. When I passed it on the road it’s tail was still whipping around like crazy in death throes. The bus stopped and all the men got off to get a look at it. The bus conductor brought it back to the bus and someone pulled out a machete to hack out some of the Yacare’s organs. And then they were telling me all about frying up and eating Yacare and how delicious it is. (Haven’t had a chance to try it yet, but I’m sure I will.)
I chatted a bit with some of the folks who got off the bus, and one of them turned out to be the chief of a military post that fairly close to the communities I was headed to. With classic Paraguayan hospitality he told me to go look him up if I ever needed anything.
My follow the bus plan was working really well, until I got to the second toll booth along the road we were on. (The toll booths on this dirt road are somehow related to a government development project, and the toll is 10x the cost of the tolls on the TransChaco.) After handing over the ticket that proves I’d paid the toll, the Pajerito’s engine refused to start. The warning light for oil came on. I tried it a few more times to no avail. By this time, the dust cloud from the omnibus ahead of me had already disappeared in the distance. I got out of the car and tried to pop the hood. It was stuck (this happens sometimes). I looked under the car – something was leaking under the engine, leaking a lot. I figured it was probably oil, since that warning light came on. The toll booth operator had already gone back into his house, but there were a couple of young guys in the yard. I asked them if there was a mechanic nearby. No, I’d have to go all the way back to the TransChaco to find a mechanic. I figured that, once I eventually got the hood of the car open, I could duct tape whatever was leaking, refill the oil, and at least make it back to the highway. So I asked them if there was a place to buy oil nearby. Not likely. The young men came over and investigated the Pajerito too. They thought it was water leaking out and not oil. I demonstrated again that I couldn’t get it to start. Right now I’m thinking in my head of all the things I’d need to pack into my backpack to hike out and get oil. The young guys called the toll booth operator out of his house to get his opinion too. At the same time, a big logging truck showed up on the other side of the toll booth and we had to move the Pajerito out of the road. The guys pushed the truck backwards while I steered. After dealing with the logging truck, the toll booth operator, who seemed like a grumpy sort of fellow, came over and told me to try to start the engine again. I got the distinct feeling that I was being treated like a blonde who didn’t know how to start a car. It started!! Perhaps I am a somewhat blonde who doesn’t know how to start a car. By-the-by, although my Arizona driver’s license clearly states I’m a brunette, I’m considered a blonde in the Paraguayan colour scheme.
I’d already had an earlier incident in the Pajerito where the AC had overheated the engine and the engine turned itself off. Since then, I had a larger battery installed (so that I could power electronic devices in the field) and I always keep a close eye on the engine’s temperature gauge. I’m guessing that the engine is still really sensitive to the AC (it was right in the middle of the gauge between hot and cold just before this happened) and that was my problem, so no AC for me anymore. I’m just going to have to suck it up and die of heat exhaustion.
I was back on the road again, and breathing a big sigh of relief, but my omnibus guide was way ahead of me now. The roads were in better condition than I expected, but I still didn’t want to drive too fast and hit an unexpected hole. Luckily, this part of the road was dead straight for a long time and there was little danger of turning off someplace I wasn’t supposed to. And I wasn’t too worried because the bus stops every now and again to drop someone off or pick someone up at a ranch (estancia), or if they come across a despensa (store) they’ll take a break while they unload soft drinks for the store.
Before I caught up with the bus I caught up with a herd of cows on the road. The caballeros herding them told me to just drive right through the cows. That was easier said than done. Perhaps because some of the bulls were the same size as the Pajerito, they weren’t too intimidated by me. Eventually they went off to the side of the road and I got through.
I think it was another half hour from that point until I caught up with the dust cloud behind the omnibus. This was just before we hit a marshy part of the Chaco. Everything is dry, dry, dry, and then suddenly you come across marshes. There are sketchy little bridges built along these marshes. Planks are laid out lengthwise for your tires to run along, but these bridges are designed for vehicles much larger than mine, and these horrible, large, rusty nails are sticking out of them. I was convinced that I was going to pop a tire. But I made it across all of them just fine. Someone had run over a big snake (more than 5 ft long, I think) just ahead of one of the bridges. So cool!
We stopped in a fairly big town that was a military post. There were only four men left on the bus by the time we got to this stop. One was the bus conductor, one was the bus driver, one was the chief of the military post (that I mentioned earlier), and one was heading to the end of the line like me. A river runs right along the town and they encouraged me to go take some pictures. And then they told me a little bit of the military history of this location in the Chaco war; 35 Paraguayan soldiers took on 3000 Bolivians at this place. The men took the road kill lizard off the bus and one of them skinned it while we waited. Then they hung the skeleton with the meat attached up to dry. Originally we were only going to hang out there for half an hour, but I think we ended up staying an hour. The bus conductor headed towards the river with a towel and came back with wet hair from a swim. The bus driver and the man headed to the end of the line invited me to join their terere break.
About an hour further on was the end of the line. The road gets really rough about 30 minutes ahead of the end of the line, and I’m pretty sure that it was at this point I broke a tube thingy under the Pajerito (I think it’s the catalytic converter, or at least somehow related to the exhaust system), since I’d just done a walk around of the Pajerito at the military post. Like every great Canadian do-it-yourselfer, I duct taped it back together, and the Pajerito seems to work just fine in spite of all the dust that probably got in there.
I’m not really sure how fine it is, since I arrived in town with very little gas left. My original plan was to fill up when we reached a particular town that I know has Nafta Super, but it turns out that the military post where we lounged for an hour earlier was that town. Now you ask, how could you miss that?! Easily. Paraguayans change the names of their towns like they change their shirts. Where we stopped there was a big sign proclaiming the name of the town, and this name was not the same name from the map that I’d memorized, so I thought that the town with the Nafta Super was a bit further on based on the number of kilometres I’d traveled thus far. (It also turns out that the town at the end of the line on my trip has three different names, and different government agencies use different names to refer to this same location.) A very frustrating system. And furthermore, the military post doesn’t actually have Nafta Super, it has Nafta Comun and the Pajerito won’t run on anything less than Nafta Super.
It was always my plan to leave the Pajerito with the health post and take the bus back to Asuncion to wrap up my paperwork with the ethics committees, but now my plan includes dragging along my gas container so that I can bring Nafta Super back with me. Hahaha! I hitched rides to the study communities with the local nuns to take care of arrangements.
There’s no electricity in this part of the Chaco (although the poles for electricity have recently arrived – they actually go all the way to the outskirts of my most isolated study community – they haven’t been turned on yet and there’s no telling when that will happen). Any communication happens either by someone bringing a message into town with them, after traveling out to where there are cell phone signals, or by tuning in to one of two radio stations that broadcast messages for the indigenous communities. Neither the nuns or the nurses in the health post at the end of the line were expecting me, but they managed to pull things together and help me out with accommodation. One of the nurses said they heard “somebody” was coming, but they didn’t know who, and they thought I might be part of the Doctors Without Borders team (they sent a message ahead of me with a friend of theirs). The nun that my friends at CEDIC at talked to in Asuncion also apparently didn’t get a chance to pass the message on. I’m going to be living out of the health post for the next couple of months and commuting to my study communities daily (~1 hour each way) unless I can find some safe local accommodation and save on gas.