12 September 2007

In and Out of Concepcion -now with pictures

Well, I´ve used a fair few travel companies on this adventure so I suppose it had to come eventually. I´ve travelled with NASA. True. The full name of the company was NASA {something} S.A. A Paraguayan subsidiary, no doubt. And I do have photos to prove it. Other pictures will be added to this post shortly.

It was one of the earlier shuttles. Indeed it still showed evidence of 19th century design features. At least the seats were, very slightly, padded. And it got all the way to Concepcion without a puncture. That was probably because it never even approached take-off speed.

The bus terminal was well staked out by waiting carreterias; that´s horse-drawn taxi carts. A youthful driver offered his services at a reasonable price and I right-hoed. I quickly came to doubt my decision. The poor horse was a bony grey and the school-age driver was far too ready to use his whip on the unfortunate beast.

My chosen hotel turned out to be full, but the proprietor directed me to another hotel. "Two blocks and turn right." What I didn´t establish at the outset was that there were another three long blocks after the turn and I foolishly carried my pack suitcase style in the heat. So, all hot and bothered, I applied to the Hotel Imperial. No rooms there either, but I was passed on yet again. A tall young man led me along the street, thankfully only half a block, to a residencial that I would otherwise have overlooked. Yes, they had a room. It was expensive at 50,000 Gs per night but I took it rather than trudge round the town´s dusty streets any more.

It was a good choice. The tariff included a nice breakfast and I was made extremely welcome by Senora Esperanza, who actually spoke a few words of English and German for when my Spanish failed. And the nearby Hotel Imperial provided good, cheap evening meals.

I had gone to Concepcion deliberately to be able to travel by boat on the Rio Paraguay. The ideal would be to go North for a day, where it is wilder and the birdlife more abundant, and then head South to the capital, Asuncion.

So, in the morning I trekked to the port. No ticket office. No posters of schedules. The old man sitting in the shade just inside the port gates was confident, though. The Cacique would leave for Asuncion tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 6:00. At least that tallied with the guide book.

My one source of recent information about Paraguay, Jenny recently retired from the Peace Corps, was adamant. "Whatever time they say, get to the dockside two hours earlier." Oh noooo.
A placid moth hanging out on a Concepcion pavement.

Next call was an optician. One of the arms of my spectacles had come adrift. It´s a common problem and easy to fix if you have the tools, but I couldn´t get the shop to accept any money for the service.

The kindnesses continued. Esperanza had explained that there was a big feria, which normally means holiday but in this case appeared to be something between a fun fair and the Mystery Creek Field Days. Would I like to go? Of course I would. Her friend has a motor bike.

The friend, Abel, was a young man with a ready smile. I bravely smiled back and determined that I would not let on that I am not a happy passenger on a motor bike. Helmets are a big city thing. Concepcion has many bikes and scooters but I never saw a helmet.

In fairness, Abel drove very well and always cornered at low speed so we never leaned over very far. And the road was paved all the way to the showgrounds, which meant we had a smooth ride.

Tractors and 4x4 utes look much the same the world over. There was some moto-cross, if that is the correct name for motor bikes racing round a dirt track with lots of lumps so that they can make their bikes jump.

There is an airborne bike there if you look carefully.

In another arena Abel promised lasso work was going on, but when we got there it was all rather vague. I saw two throws miss and one that landed neatly over the target´s head. But the horseman then simply rode alongside his captive to the exit. No taught ropes and bucking steers here.

Cattle were being shown. The bovines were mostly relaxing in the shade, but I got a few photos, including this brahma bull with several rosettes.

There was indeed a fun fair, but that only got going at night.

While we were enjoying a cold drink I noticed that vision in my right eye was blurred. I´d rubbed it so I presumed my contact lens had gone off centre. This is something that happens with contact lenses. I decided that since it wasn´t uncomfortable I would leave it until we got back to sort out. Only Abel had to be seeing perfectly on the motor bike. There is, of course, a tiny possibility that the lens had come right out. As a sop to good practice I scanned the ground with the good eye. And there was a lens-sized circle on the concrete. It cost 500 Gs for admission to the toilet so that I could wash it.

Returning to the town Abel asked if I had seen the cathedral. I confessed I hadn´t, so he made a detour. A very bland building. Think of a cathedral made of Duplo bricks. Next he showed me a plaza I had overlooked and we stopped to have a look at the museum. It´s not worth a long detour, but at least the town remembers some of its sons who served their country, mainly in the Chaco War. The supervising senora was properly thrilled to get a NZ signature in the visitor´s book.

Abel refused all my efforts to contribute to the petrol.

Concepcion on Saturday night was humming. Groups of young people clutching cans of beer clustered round cars with unpleasantly loud sound systems. What a pity. Comcepcion seemed such a nice place.

I determined to be at the port by 5 o´clock. One hour early was all I could face. Esperanza insisted that a 4:30 breakfast was perfectly all right. She would phone for a taxi in the morning. A taxi was a good idea because there would be a lot of drunks around the port. I declined Abel´s offer of a motorbike ride in the pre-dawn.

And at 4:30 the water was boiling for coffee and nice bread rolls were laid out. Abel was up anyway and tried to convince me that the bike would carry both of us and my pack. I declined to try it. I don´t think the pack placed in front of Abel permitted any steering. So he graciously went instead to locate a taxi, since Esperanza´s phone declined to work.
Esperanza photographed before 5am.

The taxi driver was a non-smiler, and drove very slowly. Maybe he was worried about running into drunks. And there were many of last night´s party-goers still up and about. They seemed merry rather than potential assailants, but I´m not sorry I chose the cab. The bar just outside the port gates was still well patronised, and the party animals spread themselves generously across the street. Grumpy tried to extort 30,000 Gs, but Esperanza had warned me that the correct fare was 20,000. Anyway, a young couple were hiring the taxi before I´d even got out. He settled for 20,000.

I lugged my gear into the port, where there seemed to be a lot of slow-motion activity. A helpful bystander pointed out the Cacique; a boat-shaped collection of law wattage lights in the centre of the river heading downstream towards Asuncion. Oh no. After all my dedicated getting up early I´d missed it!

Another boat, the Aquidabán (pictured), was moored tidily. This one, my informat told me, was going North. Ah ha. Maybe I can get the ideal trip including some of the wilder stretches upriver. After a deal of frustrating non-communication I finally determined that this vessel would not be getting back to Asuncion for a week, and I couldn´t afford that much time. "You get the Cacique. It leaves at 7 o´clock." And finally my early morning brain registered that the Cacique was arriving from the North. It had simply been dropping downstream to turn and moor against the current. If I´d listened to the explanation properly I would have known. I understand llengando (arriving) perfectly well.

The Aquidabán had secured the berth at the lump of concrete that passes for a wharf in Concepcion. But the Cacique was prepared. She nosed into the shallows and extended planks across the water into the mud. Passengers and freight wibble-wobbled their way across with care and no accidents.

Walking the Cacique II´s plank.

The passenger cabin was plentifully provided with wooden seats, that I noted were not bolted to the deck. In fact, it was desirable to drag them around so that hammocks could be slung between the seats.

Cacique II, showing some of the hammocks.

As predicted, the Cacique II shipped planks and truly set off downstream at 7:00. The Rio Paraguay is very wide. Even when there are multiple channels it is hundreds of metres from bank to bank. We tended to follow the outside of bends, presumably to extract maximum assistance from the current, so I could usuallu get a decent view of one shore. I was surprised at the lack of birdlife. Where the water was shallow enough for water plants I had expected herons and the odd duck but the only bird I identified was a new species of vulture. I did better than that from the NASA shuttle (2 species of stork, a heron and a roseate spoonbill).

I had a long conversation with Maricel. I think I´ve spelled that correctly. He and his motor bike were going to Puerto Rosario. He was 61, had 4 children (not a lot) and lived in Concepcion. He generously shared his tereré with me. This is almost universally drunk in Paraguay but, so far as I know, in no other country. It is a herbal tea (mate) made from yerba with added spices. It is made with icy cold water and is very refreshing. In Argentina, I´m told, the population is equally devoted to the same herb in hot water. Anyway, I credit the tereré with not needing to drink so much water that day.

Maricel advised renting my hammock early. I wasn´t tired, but I hopped in to try it, of course. And woke up an hour later. Gosh, hammocks are comfortable. This beat buses hands down.

Not all the passengers were such good company. One old chap sat by himself. Every so often he would remove his dentures and flob all over the cabin floor. He only had to stand up and spit out of the window, for goodness´ sake.

We could, of course, wander round the boat, and my head still has several lumps to attest to the lack of headroom.

There were several stops en route. I´m blessed if I can tell how the captain could identify just which bit of mud was the disembarkation point. A young mother asked me to ferry her bag of possessions shore. She was carrying her baby, so how could chivalrous Bill refuse? But a crew member took the child and stepped ashore with the confidence of one who knows the wobble rythyms of the plank. So the mother walked across with only a handbag and Bill bounced along afterwards with the heavy sugar sack.

At one spot it was evidently too shallow to reach the bank. What I thought was a lifeboat was revealed as a lighter instead. The two passengers who needed to leave were rowed ashore while we chugged gently to maintain position against the current.

Night gently fell. From my first day in Paraguay I had seen evidence of many actual or recent fires. In cultivated areas they consume the tinder dry grass, and the trees generally seem to survive with a little scorching. After dark the number and extent of the fires became much more apparent. One was a true forest fire, with trees blazing fiercely. I saw no monsoon buckets or even whack-a-bunny fire beaters. I read subsequently in the newspaper that Paraguay has a major problem with forest fires at the moment. And there are some valiant fire-fighters; I just never saw them.

It´s because of the smoke and the dust that the sun seems so red every morning and evening. And the rainy season is still some weeks away.

Puerto Rosario came and Maricel departed with his motor bike. I settled into my hammock and slept. I woke a couple of times. I actually put my jacket on. It was cool and a breeze played happily through the windows.

The guide book told me to expect a 30 hour journey, but it´s quicker downstream. We docked in Asuncion after 21 hours at 4am. What a wretched time to arrive. There was no rush to disembark, but one guy set off with his sugar sacks on a barrow, so I followed him. There were a couple of men lounging in the port and one fell in beside us. He asked if I wanted a taxi, which indeed I did want. I thought it was odd that there were none waiting. In Concepcion the horse carts were out in force to greet the boat´s arrival.

He led the way down a street past the customs building. Always the taxis were further on. The blocks by the river are described as the place in Asuncion you shouldn´t go late at night. If you think I was uncomfortable about this you are right on the button. I was carrying both my packs and couldn´t run.

Then I recognised the street where my destination hotel was located. "I´ll walk to the hotel. It´s only two blocks." And I thanked my mysterious guide and set off with a purposeful step. Mind you, walking the dockland streets of an unknown city in the wee hours is not a pastime I recommend with or without a strange companion. It was more like 5 blocks in fact, but Hotel Embajador was there. It looked grotty but it´s in Lonely Planet so it must be OK. The entrance was a seedy flight of stairs with a locked gate half way up. "Hola." A voice answered cautiously. I enquired about a room. "No," replied the voice. Maybe they really didn´t have a room free. Maybe it´s just policy not to admit strangers at 4:45am.

I had passed a 3-star hotel on the way. This was no time to worry about cost. It was open and they did have a room. I was safely in Asuncion.

In the morning I hailed a taxi and transferred to LP´s #1 recommendation, Pension da Silva.

In the daylight I followed the route of a recommended walking tour. At one point it overlooked the river. Cacique II had not moved. If I had only asked, I´m sure I could have stayed safe and comfortable in my hammock until morning. Oh well.


Carol said...

hey great love the emotion, new Zealand is going to be so boring for you. Buy more clothes

Anonymous said...

Bill,This is your American friend Jenny.I am honored to be mentioned in your blog,probably the only place I exist online,though I must admit embarrassment because my advice turned out to be wrong.At least you did not MISS the Cacique!I am sorry you couldn't get up the river...But aren't Paraguayans lovely?!?(Their character, I mean.)I heard from Pyan friends that it is a big drought and dusty there.It's never been like this - reeks of climate change!I hope you get a nice rain this week and a taste of Paraguay's lushness.And yes, you WERE in the tropics - the tropic of Capricorn divides the country in two.

Mutton said...

By using Google Earth and your description I think I figured out where the pub is outside the docks in Concepcion. The resolution is amazing! You describe the location and we can follow your track from above. Isn't technology wonderful?

Bill Heritage said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comments. It´s good to know that there is someone out there reading this. Please pass the URL on to anyone else who may be interested.

Why buy more clothes? I do wash the ones that I´m carrying ;-)