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.
The downstream trip on the Paraguayan river is rather pleasant. I get a hammock at the very beginning and it only takes two days going this way instead of the three and a half it took going up. I also meet a very nice Swedish woman and a French guy who is a little like a brother from another mother. The French guy is a gardener who works seasonally in the South of France. For the last fifteen years he has traveled for four or five months each winter. Sound familiar? I’m really not the only one. There are lots of us out there. If you want to arrange your life for traveling and seeing the world, it’s not that difficult. All you have to do is give up the delusion of wanting to be rich and not care about accumulating material possessions. Life experience or things? The choice is up to you.
The French guy and I spend the trip laughing and telling stories about all the places we have been. It’s amazing the number of same places on the planet we have wandered and we seem to agree on many of the places we like the best. His enthusiasm for India gets me thinking about a return trip there for next winter. After all, it’s been more than ten years since I have hung out with the Sadhus of the subcontinent. It is certainly an intriguing possibility… But no, it’s way too early to think about next year. Much more important to focus on the now, this journey, this moment…
The boat trip ends when I make it back to the city of Concepcion and check into the Hotel Frances’. At 100,000 guarani (23 US bucks)for a room, it’s a little steep for my usual budget. But the full sized swimming pool and wonderful courtyard make it worth the money. After two weeks incommunicado, I can finally Skype Ms. B. and use the Internet. The news from the outside world is typical; wonderful and horrible, exciting and frightening, joyous and sad. In other words, things are pretty much the same as two weeks ago when I disconnected. The online “community” hasn’t missed me at all. The important thing is that Ms. B. is on schedule to meet me in eight more days.
A direct journey south to Buenos Aires would only take two days so I still have time for a meandering detour. I head to Ciudad de Este on the triple frontier with Brazil and Argentina. I’ve been to this region before to visit the word famous Iguazu Falls on the Argentinian and Brazilian side of the border. But I haven’t been to the Paraguayan side to see the massive dam and that is what I’m curious to do.
Ciudad de Este is a crazy, chaotic and disorganized place. Some sort of tax loophole or special tax status makes everything cheap so people flock there from all over in order to get deals on electronics, computers and other consumer goods. It doesn’t have nice plazas or pedestrian walkways or botanical gardens or museums like most big Latin American cities. All it has is lots of people selling lots of shit scattered around everywhere. I’m not much of a shopper so I don’t like it. But thankfully, I find an awesome hostel called Casa Alta on the outskirts of town. With its small swimming pool in the garden, balconies with spectacular views and rooftop hammocks, it’s the perfect place to escape the the full on capitalist chaos of the city center.
On my second day in town, I go on a tour of the Itaipu Dam in the morning and then visit a big Paraguayan waterfall called Salto Monday in the afternoon. The day as a whole is a perfect manifestation of the universal contrast. Seriously, the Itaipu Dam is civilization on steroids. Touring the complex, I feel like a character actor in an advertising brochure. There’s a modern high tech auditorium with a movie in the beginning, and then a luxury bus with a tour guide speaking a rehearsed script of jokes and information as we drive slowly around the road that loops in and around the dam. There are two viewing platforms where all us tourists get off the bus together and snap photos and then there are souvenirs and a cafe at the end. It’s hard not to be impressed by the presentation of information and the significance of this human accomplishment. Nevertheless, I’m not. The experience leaves me feeling empty and sterile and dead inside. Something is wrong with the whole big picture even though I can’t explain what that something is.
In the afternoon, I go to visit the big waterfall. How much fun are humans allowed to have? It’s a bit of an adventure getting there because there is no tour and I have to ride a crowded public bus. The bus drops me off in a suburb where there is no sign of a waterfall. I have to ask directions and I learn that it is still five kilometers away. Thankfully, another public bus comes by and takes me for three more kilometers so I only have to walk the last two kilometers. I’m not expecting much because the waterfall is not advertised or promoted as a tourist destination anywhere. I guess they figure that they can’t compete with Iguazu across the border in Argentina and Brazil. But wow! What a waterfall! There’s a minimal entrance fee, a small park and a viewing platform. Holy shit! Now that is impressive.
While standing on the platform and looking at the waterfall, I notice something else. A group of teenagers is on the side of the river inside the gorge down below. I want to go there…. After I leave the park, I find a narrow trail that goes into the woods from the side of the road. I follow the trail until it reaches a steep cliff. Climbing down is difficult but not impossible because there are many tree roots and rock ledges to assist me. Sure enough, after a while, I find myself on the river beneath the waterfall. There are local teenagers partying there like local teenagers everywhere (smoking and drinking). They wave hello and ask where I’m from but our interaction is minimal. I head upstream to take close up photos of the waterfall on my own.
How to describe what it feels like to stand alone in a gorge facing a massive waterfall? It’s sort of the opposite of the viewing platform on the tour of the dam. I feel invigorated and joyful and alive inside. Something is right with this picture even if I can’t explain what that something is. I raise my hands in the air and shout towards the waterfall at the top of my lungs. How good is this life!
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