It is, perhaps, the largest single human engineering project on the entire planet earth. The volume of material moved, the amount of human labor hours used in the construction, and the depth and breadth of the technical know-how involved in its implementation is just plain staggering to the rational thinking mind. The Itaipu’ Dam on the Parana’ river in between Paraguay and Brazil provides 87 percent of all of Paraguay’s energy needs and 21 percent of Brazil’s energy needs. The amount of kilowatts produced by the thing on a daily basis is truly astronomical. You can look it up on line or go on a guided tour. The info is available and facts are facts. Even I have to admit that the Itaipu’ Dam is a pretty impressive display of civilization’s capabilities.
Nevertheless, as I stand here on the viewing platform and look out at that great marvel of modern engineering, I don’t see success. I don’t see the glory and wonder of the modern world. I don’t see the rational man demonstrating his power to harness the forces of nature and transform it into something useful and beneficial. Instead, I imagine the waterfall that once was… The way of life that was buried beneath these many many metric tons of practical and boring but useful concrete. Was it worth it? I ask the universe. Was it really worth it?
Now that I have reached the heart of South America in the northern Paraguayan Pantanal, it is time for the return journey. I am meeting Ms. B. in Buenos Aires in ten days. What is the best way to get there from here? No hurry, no worry. Sometimes in this life, we have to fight our way against the current… struggling, searching, questing, seeking… Sometimes, however, all we have to do is sit back, relax, and go with the flow. Continue reading →
Its my last afternoon at Tres Gigantes and the sun is falling towards the horizon. I’m sitting on the screened in porch when the impossible happens. A rather large green parrot, at least a few kilos in size, somehow flies through the mosquito screen and lands on the porch right in front of me. I mean seriously, I’m a little crazy sometimes and I do have an over active imagination, but this really does happen. So what would you do? I respond to this rather unusual situation in the only sensible manner. I talk to the parrot. I ask him about the meaning of the story I am trying to write. “Hey Mr. Parrot,” I say, “What’s the price of paradise?
“Paradise is free,” he tells me “you only have to pay for the civilized parts.”
According to Backpacker economics, my journey to Tres Gigantes and the Paraguayan Pantanal is way over-priced. I paid 100,000 guarani (about 23 US) a night for my mosquito proof room with ceiling fan on the side of a river when I could have camped on the grounds with my tent for only 50,000 guarani (about 11 US). I also paid another 100,000 guarani per day for three wonderful meals when I could have very easily brought my own food and cooked in the the kitchen for no more than another fifty grand guarani. In other words, I paid twice as much as I should have because I’m a spoiled lazy tourist rather than an adventurous and economical backpacker.
On the other hand, all the tourists on holiday out there probably think I’m insane because I spent a total of almost seven days traveling up and down the river from Concepcion to Bahia Negra on a crowded cargo boat when I could have just as easily flown the same route in an airplane for a few hundred US bucks. So I’m not exactly a tourist and I’m not exactly backpacker. What am I? I like to think I’m searching for the middle path, somewhere in between. I happen to enjoy both ends of the comfort and adventure spectrum. But most importantly, I like to exchange fair value with the people and places that I visit. Continue reading →
By far the most dangerous animal to humans on the entire planet earth, the mosquito is an adversary to be feared. With the biological weapons of yellow fever, malaria, dengue, and others in their arsenal, mosquitoes have the capacity to massacre large numbers of humans. They attack in swarms with relentless viciousness and they are even suicidal. If I was ever to choose an animal to symbolize all that is bad and evil in nature, I wouldn’t choose a snake, I would choose the mosquito. So the question presents itself; is it possible to be nice to a creature as horrible as a mosquito?
My first three days at the Tres Gigantes Environmental Station in the Paraguayan Pantanal settle into a routine. I awake before sunrise, have a quick breakfast and set out walking in the early morning light. It takes about an hour and a half to traverse both big loops of trails and I always see a variety of creatures among the jungle flowers. With the help of a little cannabis and the sparkling sunshine, I’d describe the experience as kind of mystical.
The ranger told me not to worry about the jaguars. They almost never attack humans. True, there was one incident recently where a guy was walking with dogs, the dogs went after a jaguar and the guy was hurt rather badly in the ensuing melee. But that was an isolated incident. No humans have been attacked an eaten by jaguars in these parts for a very long time. “Have no fear of the jaguars,” says the ranger. “But they will probably run away before you can snap a photo.”
Nevertheless, when the jaguar crosses my path in the midst of my morning walking meditation, I do have fear… lots of it. I don’t think about trying to snap a photo. I only hope that she doesn’t attack and eat me…
The third day of my cargo boat journey is actually rather terrific. Shortly after my fruit and yogurt breakfast, I find myself squeezed on to an upper interior bench watching an older indigenous Guarani man quietly strum a guitar. The boat pulls into a small village and to my great delight I watch a different passenger vacate a hammock and get off the boat. I go immediately to see the kitchen man who is in charge of the hammocks and he rents it to me for 10,000 guarani ($2.50 US). After two days of psychological homelessness, my soul is very happy to have a tiny spot that will serve as home. Continue reading →
Finally, a chance to smoke some weed. For two days on this crowded cargo boat, it’s been impossible; too many people and very unfavorable wind. But lots of stuff got taken off the ship at the last stop and I have managed to procure a nice little nook far towards the front on the left hand side. The sun has set and there’s a nice cross-breeze. The conditions are perfect. If I’m gonna get stoned at all on this crazy journey, now is my chance. So I light up my fake cigarette and blow the smoke out towards the water. It carries away perfectly in the blowing wind. The first couple puffs are tobacco to hide the magic within. I’m anticipating that wonderous moment when the poisonous taste of unhealthy tobacco transitions to the sweet herbal taste of marijuana. But then, all of a sudden, the policeman comes scrambling across the crates towards me. I haven’t even tasted the weed yet. It’s not fair! He’s very polite about it. But he takes the burning cigarette from my hand and tosses it in the river. “I’m sorry,” he says in Spanish, “but danger here to smoke because of the cargo. If you want smoke, go back there.”
The second day on the boat journey is not as tormenting as the first. Many people got off at Puerto Pinasco so the interior of the ship has a bit more room. It’s still insanely crowded and sweaty but at least I can move through the passageways, sit for awhile in the stairwell between decks and occassionally get a little space on a bench. It’s also a good day because I have many interesting conversations with a great variety of humans. Continue reading →
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, sometimes it seems like the planet earth is a vast collection of paradises all connected together by passageways through hell. As I climb aboard the sweaty, hot, packed to the brim cargo ship and discover that there are no cabins available or hammocks available or even places to sit, I foresee a torturous four day journey with much suffering and discomfort. Do I really want to go through with this? Can the destination at the end possibly be worth it? There is, of course, only one way to find out. I wedge myself onto a temporary stool in the crowded kitchen area and take a very deep breath. Sometimes in this universe, it’s nice to believe…
It’s an overnight bus ride from Asuncion to Concepcion and I arrive at 6:00 am. I walk to the city center and find a cheap but not very comfortable hotel (40,000 guaranis). Afterwards, I go to the port to find info on cargo boats. Unfortunately, I learn that all the cabins are booked so I won’t be able to get one unless someone doesn’t show up. That’s okay, it’s possible to rent hammocks on board and I have experience on the Amazon with hammock travel and I know that I enjoy it. I pay the 120,000 guarani (about 30 bucks) and obtain a ticket for a boat that leaves the next morning. Continue reading →
Paraguayan money has lots of zeroes. I change a hundred bucks with some old dude standing outside the immigration office at the border and he gives me four hundred and twenty thousand guaranis. In reality though, all those zeroes don’t make any practical difference. It’s the same as having a different picture or different color on the face of the bills. The common big unit of currency here is the 100,000 guarani note. At the official exchange rate, it’s worth about 23 US dollars. In terms of how you use it on the streets of Asuncion to buy food, drink and various other services, it functions more or less like a fifty dollar bill on the streets of the US. So the real value exchange rate between Paraguay and the US is approximately 2 to 1. The extra zeroes are just fun and games… entertainment value. Most humans don’t understand money at all. They have been trained to believe that the numbers on their currency represent an objective real value. But the numbers are an illusion… a metaphor. Money is not a thing it is a legal right. Money is the symbolic representation of your legal right to use value within the jurisdiction of the government that issues the money. All those rabid right wingers in the states are always whining about the re-distribution of wealth. What they don’t seem to understand is if “money” or the legal right to use value and resources in the country or community was distributed in a sane and rational and democratic manner in the first place, there would be no need to re-distribute it after the fact. But it isn’t. So there is… But I digress.
It’s a 16 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Asuncion and the only time we stop is at the border. But the journey is super comfortable . The “semi-cama” seats retract into a fully reclined position. They serve food and drink during the trip and there is a bathroom on board. It’s a bit like traveling first class on an airplane (but I’ve never done that). The only hassle is the border but all borders are hassles. This one has long lines, intense heat, bureaucratic absurdities and no official money change offices so I have to rely on the unscrupulous looking characters milling about who keep approaching me to say, “cambio, cambio, change money?” I change a hundred with an older guy who looks honest enough. When I get to the bus station, however, there are money exchange offices and the set rate is 4.6 to the dollar. So basically, I lost 40,000 guarani or about 7 bucks on my little black market border money exchange. No big deal. A fair price to pay for a lesson learned in international economics. Continue reading →