Thursday, March 29, 2012

Jaha Jakaré Hápe: Its not the size of your stick that matters...

*Let me preface this blog by first apologizing to my mother, my limbs, and once again, animal rights activists. I would appeal to the fact that food ethics are quite different considerations in this part of the world, but I have used that excuse several times already. Instead, I will own up to the fact that I wanted to have an adventure and the following events unfolded in such a manner as to satisfy that desire almost completely. My rational inhibition is no match for my thirst for adrenaline--a disposition that I keep telling myself I will grow out of, but that only seems to deepen with time...

    Several days ago, while drinking tereré with my neighbor, Don Jervacio, I was invited to diner with him and his family the following evening. I agreed happily and asked what we would be having to which he nonchalantly responded in Guarani, “Ja’uta jakaré” (translating directly to mean: we are going to eat crocodile). I was intrigued for several reasons:
  1. Crocodile is delicious (for those who have never tried it).
  2. This is yet another exotic Paraguayan food to add to my increasing repertoire.
  3. I had no idea how he had managed to get a crocodile. In my calculation the nearest source of water is quite far away, indeed.
    Needless to say, the conversation ensued as to the how, where, why and what of this uncommon (or so I thought) culinary morsel. The answers were simultaneously amazing and unsettling. Unbeknownst to me, my community is flanked by a huge expanse of wetlands (called estero in Spanish). Guido Almada (my village), the surrounding communities, and the single 30 kilometer dirt road that leads back toward civilization (and paved roads) occupy a hill that rises only slightly around the flanks of a huge, perpetually waterlogged marsh. My neighbor informed me that they quite regularly (for fun, mind you) venture to the slow flowing river that bisects the marsh in order to set lines for crocs.
    I proceeded to ask how far away this river was. They informed me that it was not far, only five kilometers or so. I asked how large was the crocodile they had killed. They informed me that it was a little over 2 meters (that is well over 6 feet, an animal large enough to take down a cow, let alone a person). I asked them how they managed to kill said 2 meter crocodile. They told me, by using sticks to bash its head in. I asked if I could go along next time they had a “jakaré hape” (or crocodile hunt). They laughed and said “seguaramente”. I was in.
     The next evening, while eating our diner of a spectacularly prepared section of crocodile tail, Don Jervacio told me that they would be leaving the following morning at 5:30 am to revisit the lines they had set in the swamp. He asked if I still wanted to come and I think my smile responded for me. The next day, before the sun had even risen, we began the 5 kilometer hike toward the marsh. I was wearing a flannel shirt, jeans and hiking shoes, all of which I would later regret. My companions (Don Jervacio and Don Felix, another neighbor) wore thin pants, fleece sweatshirts and ‘water shoes’ which they had sewn together from old car tires. They looked slightly elvish to me, but the creativity and practicality of these shoes could not be questioned as I would soon find out the hard way.

The view of the marsh expanding to the horizon as seen from the hilltops of Guido Almada.
    We descended from the heights of Guido Almada through some pasture land giving an excellent view of the massive size of wetlands before us. From this vista, it all just seemed like an endless sea of grass, but what these tall plants concealed I would soon discover. We passed through some woods before reaching its abrupt edge. Don Felix searched the brush briefly and presented me with his quarry: a stick roughly as wide as golf club and as long as a baseball bat.

A picture of my mud covered pants and shoes following the hike. Also, for scale, I have included the all-important stick that I was given preceding the day's madness.
    This, he told me quite seriously, was a very important tool that I was to keep with me the entire time we were in the estero. It would be used for balance, for bridging small streams and deep pools of water, and ultimately, as a bludgeon for smashing the head of a thrashing crocodile. I have to admit, I was hoping for something more imposing, something with more girth, perhaps something more along the lines of a ‘log’ then just a ‘stick’, however, I had little time to voice my protest. We were soon out of the forest and had entered the marsh. Before me now, the grass grew twice as high as my head. A narrow channel had been burrowed through it by fishermen and crocodile hunters, a path leading twisty-turvy towards a river buried in the midst of this forest of unworldly grasses and reeds.
    My two neighbors plunged forwards without a moment of hesitation and I followed. The path was muddy but manageable for approximately 10 meters; it then proceeded to become knee to thigh deep mud. As Don Jervacio and Don Felix sprinted ahead like little sprightly wood nymphs, I struggled to keep pace, cursing and finding myself buried to the hip in mud (and I mean this quite literally) within a few minutes. To my surprise, I was not the last one in our little group. From my home (at this point 5 kilometers away), my dog, Lobo, had followed us. He was determined to go the whole way with our group and I was surprised to turn around and see him trotting up the trail with his tail wagging (his 45 pounds of weight falling lightly on the mud).

A view of the muddy and almost impassable 'trail' through the marsh complete with its towering grasses. Lobo is leading fearlessly leading the way.

    For about 2 kilometers, we penetrated the thick vegetation of the marsh--this was quite evidently not a place made for people to wander. The place was alive with animals, the grasses seemingly groping and grasping for stray feet and arms as if they were alive. It was like the movie labyrinth (except sadly minus gremlins and David Bowie) and I kept thinking that I may never make it out of this place. We crossed several small streams less than a few feet wide but well over my head’s height in depth. At each crossing, Lobo sat on the opposite bank crying for a few seconds before he mustered up the courage to take the plunge. I should just say this now, Lobo followed us the entire way--everything that we did, he did as well, and for no other reason that he didn’t want to let me go alone. He really is an awesome dog.
    Soon we were in the heart of the estero, at the bank of a river about 10 meters across and of unknown depth. We rested for a few minutes and ate breakfast. Lobo, shivering and eating the scraps of mandioca and tortillas, looked up at me with an unforgettable face that seemed to say, “You know I am going to follow you anywhere, but do we have to keep going?”.

Lobo giving me the "Seriously dude, do we have to keep going" look.

    At this point, I finally had a moment to look around me and take in my surroundings. We were in the middle of absolute nowhere, the wildest place that I have ever been in my life that was not part of a national park. This is Paraguay: such few people and such huge pieces of unadulterated land that are both unexplored and completely untamed. Before me, a river with huge numbers of fish and crocodiles and amphibians and who-knows-what-else. Around me, the bird life was like a living, breathing kaleidoscope--6 or more species of water foul, untold numbers of marsh-birds, wading-birds, song-birds, everything-else-birds. Snail kites swarmed and cackled overhead, feasting on an endless food supply between the grasses below. Don Jervacio tells me that I am the first American to have ever been in this part of Paraguay, into the middle of this swamp. The only other people that have come this far are the fishermen, who float out into the river on their little rafts that they build from the reeds and rushes, and the local hunters who set lines for their bounty on the edge of the river. Lobo, I am sure, is the first dog to have made it this far. Still, the day is not over, we are about to go even farther.

A view from the heart of the estero. The same endless expanse stretches forth in all directions.

    We set off again, this time in search of a river crossing. As we walk, Don Felix and Don Jervacio check the lines they have set. All are empty. When we reach the crossing (or as my Paraguayan friends called it, the ‘bridge’) I am not as terrified as I should have been. Not to worry, the fear soon set in. I began to wade across a series of tangled plants, which provided moderate buoyancy from their mass of tangled roots. Soon, however, my weight is too much and they begin to sink. My comrades urge me forward saying that this is fine and completely normal, to just go slow and keep moving.
    Then it happens. I am up to my chest in water, backpack being held over my head, still not touching the bottom of this river when the question that I should have been asking all along finally arises, “What the hell am I doing?” I realize that these crocodiles (over 2 meter long crocodiles, mind you) are not on any of our lines meaning that they are still in the water. And now I am in the water. And there is not a chance in hell that I am going to get to a hospital before I bleed out if a crocodile gets my leg (assuming I survive its attack that is). I ponder the stick that I have been given and have so far kept with me as a means of defense. My fear is not abated in the slightest. I am, for the first time in a long time, legitimately concerned for my life. I look back to the bank and there is Lobo, tail wagging, still shivering and looking back at me. We have already come this far, why not a little farther. I finish the crossing, we check the rest of our lines and find them all empty. My neighbor laughs and says that I’ll just have to come back with them some other time for a jakaré. I agree. We definitely have had ourselves an adventure and I really, really want to see one of these crocodiles.

The gorgeous river buried in the middle of the nearly impassable marsh. The animal life was almost as astonishing as the near pristine state of this ecosystem, especially in the early morning light.

    By the time we get back home, I am absolutely covered in mud. My clothes will never come completely clean. Lobo is even dirtier, his hair matted and crusted with dried mud, tail still wagging. As I attempt the fruitless task of cleaning myself off I realize several things. First, this is a brilliant and amazing country, still wild and free like the West was for the first pioneers. There are so many natural resources here, it is almost unimaginable. Second, I am no longer a Peace Corps volunteer, I am a neighbor. Don Jervacio, Don Felix and other families are not people I work with but people I live with. They invite me into their homes, help me when I have problems, laugh with me, share their food, their hospitality, their yerba, their tobacco and their smiles. They are my friends. Thirdly, I have unintentionally adopted a dog that will follow me everywhere. Lobo may be the mangiest, surliest, dirtiest animal I have ever met, but he is my best friend out here so far from my friends back at home, and he will stand by me through anything, no matter how insane it may seem. I am home.

From home,
little hupo

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Day at Salto Cristal

    My day starts early, or at least earlier than usual. I climb out of bed at 3:30 and mindlessly sip a cup of coffee before leaving my little brick house to catch the only local bus by 4:30. For roughly an hour, this little ‘engine that could’ dips and bobs across the amorphous mud-holes and obstacles along the 30 kilometer dirt road separating my village from the main ruta. When we finally reach the highway, the paved road allows us to finish the next 30 k in roughly half the time. I am in the city of Coronel Oviedo by 6 am. At the bus terminal I disembark, buy a quick breakfast of tortilla so’o (more or less fried dough with meat inside) and mandioc, and then catch the next possible bus to Villarica. This bus heads south, away from the flat expanses and lightly undulating hills of the north, and into more textured territory of the Guira and Paraguari regions. The sun is peeking now, I can finally tell the difference between the night and the dawn; the latter is lazily approaching. It reminds me through its flickering between the eucalyptus trees that it there is no rush. No rush at all.
    On the horizon, the goddess appears in the form of purple mountains silhouetted against the pale morning sky. She is lying on her side, sleeping despite the rising sun, those distant hills composing her endless curves and the seductive pitch and slope of her feminine figure. Her features are hidden, masked in the dark velvet shadows, so that one can only discern the boundaries of her physique, the highest ambition of this folded land and the threshold between earth and sky. The silk sheet draped across her sleeping body is crumpled slightly, causing the only small inconsistencies in her otherwise perfect disposition. A fold here, a fold there. These mountains appear divine, like distant ghosts as we drive southward in this virgin morning light.
    After reaching Villarica, I have a bit of a wait until I can catch my next bus to La Colmena--almost, but not quite, my final destination. Around the bus terminal, vendors toss out their curious lines into a sea of traveling fish, hoping with varying levels of confidence to catch a bite. Beggars with strong indigenous features navigate the labyrinth of bodies with their children in tow (and often one on the hip as well) pleading for alms or food.
     Barefoot and wild-looking, the homeless orphans (either literally or practically) dodge between herb-stands and food booths with no seeming purpose other than movement for the sake of itself. Taxi drivers bombard those waiting for busses, hoping to convince one or two that a quick shot across the city or across the country in an unreliable, unmarked car is a better bet than a bus that may never show. Through this madness, my fellow Peace Corps volunteers appear like sore thumbs. It is funny how easy it is to pick out Americans even in this tumultuous mass of humanity. Within an hour, our connecting bus arrives and we find ourselves in La Colmena by 10 am.
    To reach the our final destination, the waterfalls of Salto Cristal, we must first solicit a local truck driver to take us up into the mountains. After finding a local willing to make the trip (and on faith we take it, that he will also make the return trip to pick us up at the end of the day), we pile in the back of a pickup and start the drive. The road leads up through a winding pass and to the peak of the ridge that is visible from the streets in La Colmena. After this, the land sort of levels off into rolling hills of sugar cane and forests. The right combination of twists and turns is impossible to remember along these dirt roads, so we really are at the mercy of our driver. We reach a small farm house seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The falls are on the property of the house owner, so we offer him several dollars to allow the group of us to visit for the day. He agrees and we descend the trail leading to the base of the waterfall. Eventually, the trail disappears and we begin scrambling down a near-vertical rocky crag on all fours. When we reach the base of the valley, we follow a small river for several hundred yards until we reach our prize.
    Projecting straight from the earth before us is a massive hundred foot waterfall. The water flashes off the slick rock on the summit above us, its source lost in the haze and sunlight. It cascades down the scraggly face of the cliff and enters a crystal clear pool of water before us. The pool must be 30 feet deep minimally, as none of us could touch the bottom despite our best efforts and despite leaping from a platform on the cliff face roughly 20 feet above the surface. Layering is easily visible in the sedimentary rock that composes this formation. It is the unique properties of this stone that has given rise to the near perfect conditions of the site: a shallow shelf that extends to the edge of the basin, a deep central pool and a steeply rising, yet easily surmountable rock face.
    We spend the day swimming, sipping wine, smoking cigars and leaping from whatever heights we dare into the water below. This place is buried within the forests of Paraguay and access (as we have seen) is extremely difficult. We have our fun but always in the shadow of concern that an injury out here would mean extreme amounts of pain for a very long time before medical services could be reached. Still, we tempt our fates a little--what is life but just that?
    As the sun looses sight of us over the imposition of the waterfall and the day begins to fade, we retreat once again up the rocky gorge to our driver, hopefully awaiting our return. The return trip is gorgeous as the setting sun seems to mourn our departure. I smoke one final cigar as we descend from the mysterious heights of these sparsely populated mountains. The sugar cane is being blown in the gentle breeze that has been forced up to these peaks somewhat reluctantly by the persuasive means of altitude and pressure differentials. This huge monoculture ocean surrounds the Salto Cristal, that jewel of natural beauty buried deep within its sweet, perennial waves. My skin prickles from the an entire day of full sun. It is half with joy and half with pain that I feel the sun’s kiss until well into the night as it lulls me to sleep with quiet pulses of warmth.

from Salto Cristal,
little hupo

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dear Neighbor: Could you please not kill the pig right outside my bedroom window at 6:00 am?

    I woke up this morning to what might possibly be the most hellish sound on the planet: that of a pig being slaughtered. The death of a pig is of no more or less consequence than that of any other animal, but the drama of hearing a pig scream and squeal its last living breath away does way heavy on the heart. Pigs don’t die quietly, that is for sure. At least I know that I won’t be eating any more pork when I get home to the states. This is life in the country though--your food is growing and/or walking around one day, eating scraps from the table and rummaging through your garden, and is then being served up for diner the next. It is quite a strange experience to see an animal living, breathing and alive in the morning and then to be eating the same animal’s meat for breakfast on the same day. Sometimes it is easy to remove yourself from the equation, but a wake up call at six in the morning in the form of a weeping and wailing pig does help to keep it all in perspective.
    I have been living in Paraguay for almost 6 months now and so many things have become almost second nature. I no longer question things that I think I would have questioned when I first arrived. This perhaps has something to do with me becoming more ‘integrated’ into this culture, but I don’t want to give myself too much credit. I think that most of this is due to the fact that it would be too exhausting to continue trying to rationalize this foreign culture around me on a daily basis. Instead, one must simply accept things as they are, not because he/she is necessarily internalizing them or adopting them, but because a single person lacks the energy to challenge everything in any particular situation.
    One way I find this to be most concretely manifested is with my regards to food. For example, food safety/sanitation is almost an unheard of concept in this country. Refrigeration is too expensive for many people to afford. For the few that do own a fridge, they would be lucky to get a balmy, luck-warm out of the unit--something that would still be unacceptable for the food standards of the US.
    People cook with reused oil, with pots and pans that are blackened with years of use over an open-fire, unwashed utensils,and cutting boards that are warped and molded. The food is left out all day, vegetables become soggy and wrinkled, meat is strung up to dry in the open--easy prey for flies and the like--cheese placed freely on the table to ‘age’ (as the Paraguayans claim) or ‘mold’ as others might say. Still, despite all of this, I have yet to get sick in this country (knock on wood). After months of eating this food, my body has either acclimated to the myriad of ‘bugs’ that I have been ingesting, or I otherwise arrived in this country with a much stronger immune system then I originally expected.
    It is hard to say what comes first, the mental or the physical tolerance of a new place and a new culture, but either way, the act of acceptance is something special. Brief doses of a new culture only serve to provide the traveler with a sense of novelty, never forcing one to delve any deeper than surface level. On the other hand, the experience of living in a place for an extended period of time helps to cut back on the idealism and instills instead a dose of realism. It is through this type of living that one can really begin to understand something or some-place new. One must eat the food, no matter what sanitation standards it may seem to violate. One must learn the language, no matter how useless it may seem in any other context (Guarani certainly applies to this category--it is spoken no where else in the world but Paraguay). One must dress the dress, walk the walk, and do as their new countrymen do. One must reach the point where they are no longer living among foreigners but among friends and neighbors. I am still in the long process of seeking the latter.

From my neighborhood,
little hupo

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Stars of the Southern Sky

    God if it weren’t for music, I just don’t know. I am laying in a hammock, smoking a hand rolled cigar and sipping slowly from a bottle of Uvita de Plata, wine from the Argentinean side of the Plata Basin. I know the man who grew, dried and rolled my cigar; he is my neighbor and I’d be a liar if I said knew someone else who smiled and laughed as much as he does. He lives in a wood home with a dirt floor across the street from me. The wine is the best that this depression (no pun intended) in the otherwise thrust-skyward geography of South America has to offer--with no seaward facing hills and little topography to speak of, this wine is certainly not cut out for fine meals in the big city, but goddamn if it isn’t a great accompaniment to a Paraguayan cigar. Its like a little third-world concerto in my mouth: the rising fumes from my tobacco are the maestro, the wine, an orchestra and me, the captive and mindless audience.
    The ceiling of the world seems to me to have been put on backwards again. Cosmic orientations mean that the southern sky still provokes a gut-reaction of confusion and mystery. It’s like I am on another planet. I might as well be. I wonder how the stars looks from Titan? Here at least, I find amusement in the fact that Orion is standing on his head, his arm and sword wielded awkwardly against the opposite horizon. In this hemisphere, he is fighting perpetually with the lion while doing a hand stand. Part of me wishes he would take his job more seriously. The other part(s) of me enjoy the entertainment. This great battle raging in slow, epoch-slow motion.  Who wins in the end?
    There is an understanding and a madness that comes with immense solitude. Certainly, where I am in the middle of this continent does not necessarily equate solitude, but the storms in my soul certainly do. This world is musical theater and don’t you forget it. Authors have written for centuries and as their words have lasted, their meanings have been lost. You can only know the story by knowing the storyteller and that’s the absolute truth. On this windless night, I can smell my grandfather on the smoke-filled air surrounding me. These cigars ignite much older memories in my mind, memories of my Grandpa Gib (ironically, not my Cuban grandfather, but my Wisconsin, philosopher, farming grandfather instead). He was a great man and I am more like him than I ever thought. And not just because of the cigars.
    This is not to say that I am great, just that I think too much for my own good. I think that one day, when I have a child and if that child is a boy, I will name him Hilberto--after both my grandpa Gib (short for Gilbert) and my Cuban uncle Hilberto (the Spanish version of the same name). Right now, I am going to finish this cigar, have a few more sips of the Plata’s finest and call it a night. The humidity is condensing on my skin as the night begins to drop to a balmy and cool 90 degrees. I wonder how I will sleep tonight? More dreams of her, I am sure.

from the Southern Sky,
little hupo

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Peace Corps Service: 6 Months In the Deep

Life in a Paraguayan Village:

    Is boring. I know, I know, everyone hears the words ‘Peace Corps’ and thinks about adventure and seeing the world and helping people and all that jazz. Sure, that’s part of it, I guess, but that part of it has a tendency to get diluted among the monotony of everyday life. Peace Corps is not necessarily a “traveling experience”; instead (and this is the point of Peace Corps), it is agreeing to live for 2 years in another part of the world. You do not become a ‘globe trotter’ but a neighbor. For these 27 months you spend your time surviving as you would if you were back at home in the states, except nobody understands what your saying and thinks that everything you do is strange and foreign. Whereas in the US we might just blend in with the crowd as we go about our daily rituals, here people stare at you constantly and shamelessly even though all you are doing is going for a jog.
    When it comes to actually helping people, you know, that whole making-a-difference type-thing, it seems to only get more confusing. One can engage with projects with enthusiasm, zest and a productive mindset but they soon come up against a wall. Things can only move so fast. In these cultures (sorry for the over generalization), the terminal velocity of getting anything done depends on the efficiency of the system you are working within. With a government and a system that is corrupt, poor, disorganized and inefficient on almost every level and in almost every way, it really doesn’t matter how excited you are. Expectations and energy must be properly tempered and reinvested in a way that does not burn out pushing up against the wall of organizational anarchy.
    Sometimes, 2 years hardly seems like a long enough time to get anything done in this place. Other times, especially when one reads too much about history, 2 centuries seems to be equally as insufficient. When talking to a friend and RCPV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Madagascar, she relayed an amusing and sobering phrase they used to use during her service. Peace Corps motto is, “The hardest job you’ll ever love”, instead they said, “The hardest job you’ll never do”. Unfortunately, this is the reality. The well intended, super-motivated Peace Corps volunteers that we are, at this point at least, are just surviving. That’s half the battle. Sometimes just making it through our service here is enough to constitute ‘making a difference’. That doesn’t seem to cut if for me, a person driven by ideas of progress, fulfillment and changing the world. Then again, idealism always meets it match in realism. From then on it is a short step to pessimism and then ultimately one starts wearing all black, reading Poe and listening to esoteric, poorly-recorded music by underground bands in Seattle or the Midwest or somewhere like that.

My friends, I promise I will never fall into this annoying abyss, but let it be known that staying positive in this place might be the greatest feat of all. I still listen to Blind Melon and Bob Marley most every day, so don’t worry about me quite yet. I will let you all know when I start listening to The Cure more and more, then we will know it is time for me to come home. Until then, I will keep looking for the small victories. Cheers.

from Paraguay,
little hupo

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Nature in Paraguay

When it comes to natural beauty, Paraguay certainly would not be on the top of anyone’s list. The landscape of this place is often dull and repetitious, consisting of the same theme--blue sky, green grass/trees, and red dirt--with only slight variations here and there. In certain parts of the country there is a natural beauty that would compete with any in the world--for example, the vast arid desert wilderness of the western Chaco region, the dense tropical jungle areas of the Alto Paraguay, and the cascading waterfalls and cliffs of the Salto region in Paraguari. These places, however, do not represent the norm and are interspersed with huge swaths of flat land that serve as ideal grazing and agricultural land but nothing more. In the Caaguazu region, where I live, there was once unlimited expanses of forests as far as the eye could see (Caaguazu in Guarani literally means ‘big forest’). Due to intensive logging, these mighty forests have been diminished not just in Caaguazu, but around the entire country as well.
    Still, there has to be something said about the Paraguay that is left, the natural beauty that remains squeezed between the cracks of civilization. This is a country roughly the size of California with only 6 million people. The largest city and capital of the country, Asuncion, has a mere half-a-million people. The way this extremely low population density has distributed itself across the landscape has left enough space for a surprising amount of biodiversity to remain.
    In the western Chaco region (a little over half the size of the entire country) only 3% of the country’s entire population lives. In other words, about 200,000 people (more or less the population of my home town of Allentown, PA) live in an area the size of the entire state of Pennsylvania. Needless to say, plenty of room exists for animal populations to thrive. This part of the country truly is wilderness in the greatest sense of the world. In the Chaco, at the border of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, the greatest populations of wild jaguar still live. Bird species in Paraguay (especially in the Chaco) number over 600. Very little of this, mind you, is a result of intense conservation or natural resource protection, but simply a byproduct of there being so few people in Paraguay.
    In the Eastern half of the country, the same remains true, although not to such an alarming degree. Such few people spread over such a large space means that despite significant human interference, the natural ecosystems have been able to persist into the modern day. Cattle grazing, industrial-size crop monoculture, and deforestation have disrupted and destroyed huge amounts of valuable ecosystem, but at a pace and a scale which has allowed room for animal populations to adapt and survive. Locals in rural areas still regularly rely on wild game to provide protein to their diet. Animals such as Grey Brocket (Guasu Pucu) and Marsh deer (Guasu vira) as well as many species of armadillo, lizard, and Capybara (a large, marsh-living rodent type animal) are all considered regular parts of the Paraguayan food repertoire (at least in the country-side).
    When I wake up in the morning and drink my coffee, I can see over 50 species of birds almost on a daily basis. Howler monkeys call with their deep, hollow, booming voices from the forests around me. Maned wolf, bush dog, and wild-cat species such as ocelots, spotted cats, and mountain lion are all free to roam here as well, carefully avoiding areas where communities are concentrated. It is not uncommon for a rancher to find a some chickens, a pig or even a cow that has been hunted and killed in the night by any one of these predators.
    Insects, as well, abound in great numbers and in otherworldly sizes. Tarantulas burrow their homes underground, the biggest of which are large enough to fit one’s entire fist and forearm. Moths called ‘hawk moths’ (with a wingspan of almost a foot)have made an unfortunate habit of flying into my room at night and dying under my bed. Goliath and Hercules beetles (the type seen on all those crazy nature shows) are also regular visitors. These slow-moving, clumsy bugs are some of the largest in the insect kingdom and are surprising not only for their size (about the size of one’s palm) but also for their sheer mass. My new pet, whom I have lovingly named Manfred Duncan Wallace, is just such an insect; a huge black beetle with a needle-sharp, though humorously-wielded horn on the front of his (or her) face.

  The other day while hiking the local cerro (that means ‘small mountain’ in Spanish), I walked through a rather large and scary looking spider web. As I peeled the sticky, spider thread off my face, my friend and local Paraguayan began asking me hurriedly and nervously “Te picó? Te picó” (Did it bite you? Did it bite you?). I responded calmly that no, I didn’t think it had. He grabbed my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and in very grave and serious Spanish told me, “Mario, if that spider bit you, you need to tell me right away. It is really, really dangerous”. This of course, only served to put me on edge for the rest of our hike. Sometimes, when this place gets to feel too much like home, it is easy to forget that you are actually living in a tropical world where the lines between wilderness and civilization are thin, tenuous, poorly-defined and easily transcended in only a few paces.
    Paraguay is not a wild, backwards country. It is just a large place (one of the few remaining on earth) where the human footprint has made less of an impact. There are many reasons for this, most of them historical and geographical, but the result is a place that never ceases to surprise you and whose true natural beauty remains hidden by the seeming monotony of the landscape. This is not the kind of country that will knock you off your feet with monumental vistas, but it is the kind of country where, if you are not careful, some enormous anaconda will sneak into your room, smother you, and swallow you whole while you sleep. So it goes.

From the wilderness (-ish),
little hupo