Getting into the field was an adventure. Getting out of the field was an adventure times 10. The Chaco can go an entire year without getting any rain, but October to December is the ‘rainy season’ and you’ll find sporadic downpours. All of the roads in the Chaco, with the exception of the TransChaco highway and the roads around the Mennonite colonies, are dirt. When it’s dry you have to keep an eye out for holes in the road, sandy spots where you can get a little stuck, and be really careful when passing vehicles because there’s a lot of dust and low visibility. When it rains everything is washed out and you’re better off staying where you are.
The omnibus comes to the health post twice a week. It arrives on Mondays and leaves Tuesdays, and arrives Thursdays and leaves Fridays. I managed to get all of the things I needed done by Monday, and I was hoping to catch the bus to Asuncion on Tuesday, but although there was no rain on those days in my part of the Chaco, the road close to the TransChaco highway was rained out so badly that the toll booth closed the road. I would have had no clue that the bus wasn’t coming had I not heard the news about the road closure from a couple of people who came in to the health post from an estancia (ranch) 50 km away. No problem; I had prepared to be stuck in the field for longer and this gave me more time to hang out in the community and get to know people.
On Thursday it was really windy and lots of clouds were blowing in, so I was a little worried that the bus wouldn’t be coming. But it arrived just before 5pm and I made arrangements to leave the next day. The guys who operate the bus (the conductor who makes the executive decisions and collects fares, the driver, and on this last trip a mechanic too) are really friendly and easy-going, and they invited me to have dinner with them. I lent them some of my cooking utensils and they built a fire under a tree and boiled some mandioca and made Paraguayan tortillas (fried eggs and onion). They had ice cold coca-cola!!!! (No electricity means to ice, no air conditioning, no fan!) Soon after eating a thunderstorm blew in. I was worried that we weren’t going to leave the next morning, but the bus guys said we would be leaving promptly at 5am.
I woke up at 4:30am to lock up all of my equipment in the health post and get my gas container out of the Pajerito. I was at the bus, in the dark, promptly at 5am but all was quiet in town and on the bus where the bus guys were sleeping. It had rained a lot the night before, but it looked like the roads were still doable. I waited patiently until 5:30am, and then I knocked on the bus and let them know what time it was. The conductor called back that they were going to wait and see what the weather was like, and I should come back in an hour or two. I came back in an hour and they said to come back in another hour or two. Paraguay time. I came back at 8am and the bus guys were packing up and getting ready to go.
The bus wouldn’t start. The mechanic and the driver were working on it, but then it started to pour again and they came onto the bus to wait out the rain. I hung out with them on the bus for a few hours, but it looked like we weren’t going anywhere until the next day.
They invited me to have lunch with them again and we used the cooking area beside the health post. The nurses had seen me come and go from the health post a few times now, and we’d done the goodbye-oh-wait-you’re-still-here thing a few times. The bus conductor made rice with what looked like chicken flavoured spam (picadillo de pollo) and mandioca. And I got lots of the typical Paraguayan ‘eat more! you’re not eating enough!’ commands from my bus driving friends (I was eating a lot!).
The sun came out after lunch and the conductor said that if the sun dried out the road enough they were thinking about driving to the military post and spending the night there before leaving the next morning. There are more luxuries in the military post and they have friends there who would let them stay in their houses, instead of having to sleep on the bus for two nights in a row. I spent the afternoon working on field notes and knitting, and heard the the bus’ engine start up around 4pm. Yes!
The bus was zig-zagging down the road like crazy, but we were making progress. We picked up a couple of passengers from an estancia on our way. We got stuck twice. The guys had to get off the bus and dig the wheels out of the mud, and then they would cut plants from the side of the road with a machete and lay them across the path of the wheels to help with traction. I tried to help with the plants, but there wasn’t much I could do without a machete of my own.
There’s an indigenous community just outside of the military post that is separated by the river and a series of small bridges. The road between the bridges is very narrow and muddy, and they didn’t want to zig-zag the bus right into the river, so we parked outside of the indigenous community and the driver and mechanic and I walked about 10-15 minutes into the military post. The driver and mechanic introduced me to some of their friends in town, some of whom I remembered from our stop during the trip out, and they made arrangements to go fishing. One of the people I was introduced to is the local justice of the peace, a really nice lady who lives alone, and she invited me to stay at her house overnight.
We made our way back to the bridges, me, the justice of the peace, the driver and the mechanic, to fish for our dinner. The conductor had stayed behind with one of the passengers to borrow fishing lines in the indigenous community, and some of the boys from the community helped us catch our dinner. We were fishing for piranhas, and occasionally someone would pull out a small catfish. The weather was beautiful and it was a really nice way to end the day.
Just before sun down the conductor determined that the road across the bridges was safe and we pulled into the military post with our catch of fish. The electricity in town had gone out with a rain storm earlier in the week, but the local almacen (grocery store) still had cold stuff in a freezer. The justice of the peace and I walked across the muddy airstrip in the middle of town (which only gets used about once a year when a politician flies in to shake hands and kiss babies) with our rain boots and flashlights to buy some cold coca-cola from the almacen and the bus guys fried up the piranhas next door at the policemen’s house.
I told the bus guys that I don’t like fish or seafood, but they insisted that I had to try it. I told them that I’d already tried piranha when I was in Peru and took a fishing trip on the Amazon river in a canoe, but they insisted that it wasn’t Paraguayan piranha so I had to try it. So I tried it. And I’ll admit, it was better than the piranha I had in Peru. It was deep fried really well and much easier to just chew the little spines and pull out the bigger spines (piranhas are very bony!). And these piranhas were much bigger and had more meat on them than the ones I’d had before.
And that was the end of day one of my travels out.