Most of Paraguay is sparsely populated and most of the settlements are inhabited by Guaraní natives. I had an incredible opportunity to visit a few of these villages with my parents and my brother. One of the indigenous villages I recall fondly was receiving Canadian development funds for a duck ranch project. Upon our arrival in our diplomatic jeep accompanied by the Consul, Bernardo Weibe, everyone in the town came out to greet us. They had been expecting our visit for some time and were excited to show the Canadians their progress. They were attentive to my brother and I ensuring both of us felt welcome among them. The locals gave us a tour of the village, the enclosures where the ducks were kept and explained the breeding process. The possible income return would be designated to improving the quality of life for the entire community. They praised Canada's involvement yet had no idea where these generous gringos came from. This was a moment of great pride for me as a Canadian. After the tour, the women of the village had prepared a meal for us, knowing we had a long trip ahead. They prepared some of their local dishes: the famous sopa paraguaya and some gray sausages with a peculiar consistency. As we sat on our chairs in an open area at the centre of the village surrounded by every Guarani man, woman and child, all watching us hoping we would approve of their cooking. Whether we liked the food or not, we knew we had to eat, smile and swallow. We did not want to offend our generous hosts who probably had to dig in to their own rations to feed their guests, so we managed our best to consume their food. Once we finished our meal, we thanked our new friends for their hospitality and proceed eastward, continuing our adventure.
|The Itaipu Dam challenging the mighty Paraná River|
As we bounced around country roads with barely any passing traffic, the countryside took on a familiar jungle-like vegetation. I remember the song Welcome To The Jungle by Guns N' Roses was playing on our car stereo. Bernado's son had given Brian and I the newest GNR tape, Appetite for Destruction, still a timeless classic. We were heading to pay homage to the majestic Paraná River, dividing Paraguay and Brazil. This river is South America's second longest after the mighty Amazonas, extending some 4800 km. As we continued down the road, small farms and communities revealed themselves as we approached Hernandarias in the Alto Paraná region on the Paraguayan side. As we drove through this town, Bernardo explained that this place served as a labour force during the construction phase of the landmark we were about to visit only a few minutes away. Otherwise, the community consisted of farmers, artisans and other local merchants that conducted most of their business in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Most of the agricultural goods produced in the area included corn, mint, wheat, cotton and yerba mate. The latter is a tradition all in its own, particularly enjoyed by Argentines, Brazilians (primarily in the South), Chileans, Paraguayans and Uruguayans. The mate ritual is quite simple. First step: preparation. Never use boiling water or boil the leaves. Water must be hot. Proceed to pour the hot water on the leaves and let it simmer for a bit. This allows for the water and leaves to mix. After this, you may add sugar or honey if you do not like the bitter taste on its own. Sweet syrups should be avoided because they do not mix well. Now you are ready for the second part: the presentation. Tea is served preferably in a gourd called mate (sometimes the gourd is made out of hard leather, although there are more posh versions in silver) and sucked through a metal straw, usually referred to as a bombilla. Part three: consumption. The idea of this tea is to drink it among friends in a social setting. Conservation is not subject specific, but enjoying the company along with the tea is an important part of the ritual. A key for positive conversation: never talk about politics, religion or money. These conversations always lead to arguments. Often times, Argentines drink mate while playing an entertaining game called truco. I first fell in love with the mate culture through my Argentine friends during my undergraduate studies in Ottawa.
Beyond the town of Hernandarias lay the Itaipu dam on the Paraná River. This massive mega structure was a joint undertaking between Paraguayans and Brazilians. The need for this dam arose in the 1970s as Brazil's population had grown exponentially and so did the energy consumption. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, two of the three biggest South American cities, were already densely populated, but such progress and improvement in the quality of life enticed further immigration to these metropolises. The Brazilian government opted out of increasing the importation of further energy products, preferring to create sustainable and dependable sources of energy. The Paraná River, particularly in the Itaipu region, was deemed an ideal location for creating an immense hydroelectric dam tapping the natural energy of the river flow. Just to provide you with a general idea of the importance of this facility, as of 2008, this dam alone supplied 90% of Paraguay and close to 19% of Brazil's energy markets. The construction of the dam – the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant until 2009, when the Three Gorges Dam in China took the prestigious number 1 rank - involved a great deal of bilateral negotiation. As Paraguay and Brazil revised acceptable flooding procedures and limits of the Paraná valley, Buenos Aires showed up to the bargaining table in alarm. The Argentines were concerned that a rise of the Parana river would increase the water levels of the River Plate, in turn flooding Buenos Aires, South America's second largest urban centre. All concerns regarding water levels, compensation for displaced people (many would see their homes disappear and were forced to relocate elsewhere) and construction targets were addressed, attempting to ensure a proper compromise. Upon our 1991 visit, the dam was already operational and the completed concrete monster was a monument to the hard work of thousands of Paraguayans and Brazilians alike. I was particularly inspired by two nations coming together to undertake a mutually beneficial project overlooking a long history of wars and rivalry.
Our plans proceeding the Itaipu dam included a brief pit stop across to Brazil. I remember feeling joy as I was returning to the country that was my first home, and listening to my first language once more. We were going to stay overnight in the village of Foz do Iguaçu, about 20 km South of Itaipu. Our accommodations were modest but in contrast to most of the area, it was a 5 star hotel. This did not seem to bother me in the least as I was blinded by excitement about being "home". It did not occur to me that my actual Brazilian home, Brasilia, was actually about 1,700 km away from where I was standing. Home is where the heart is as it is said. That night, Bernardo's plans were for our group to head out for a Brazilian dinner - Brazilian dishes were something I could not picture in my mental gourmet glossary, except for garotos and pão de queijo. I was hanging around the lobby with my Dad at our rendez-vous point and I approached the hotel receptionist to catch up on the latest current events in my country. He was extremely friendly and we began chatting about Formula One races. All I could think of on the subject was the brave Ayrton Senna, one of Brazil's most famous sons. He had won three Formula One Championships during his career until meeting a tragic end to his young life in an fatal accident during the 1994 San Marino Championship. I never had been a fan of watching cars whizzing by in a closed circuit, but as my fellow compatriot was so enthused, I felt I had to share his passion. I did not have enough time to build an everlasting bond with the receptionist as our conversation had been interrupted by our soirée. I cannot remember what we ate at the restaurant that night, which is odd, but I remember there was live entertainment. These were the happy people I remember hearing so much about. While some got up to dance samba to the beat of the animated band, others sat to enjoy their food and watch the show. You should never feel embarrassed that you do not have the right moves for dancing. In Brazil, all that matters is that you move and smile. Dance is for fun, not to impress anyone.
|Young me posing in front of the Iguaçu Falls|
In the morning, nearby the village of Foz do Iguaçu, the Parana River is broken by a major natural phenomenon and tourist attraction where the town gets its name: Iguaçu Falls. Here the waterfalls and river divide Brazil's Paraná region and Misiones, Argentina. The actual land formation separated the river into a network of over 200 waterfalls of different shapes and sizes. The largest is named the Devil's Throat. Easy to remember that name. The Guaraní natives were people of stories and legends and had these for many elements of life, including the waterfalls. The story is a little fuzzy in my mind, you can probably find it online as most things are these days, but the creation came about through an enraged God's desire for revenge on a mortal's betrayal. Regardless, watching this natural wonder and nature's grandeur was story enough for me. There is a certain similar sensation that you can feel inside while observing Niagara Falls and the hypnotism of the ebb and flow of the millions of liters of water. My Niagara Falls experience felt this way when I first visited in the early 1990s, but Iguaçu felt more genuine due to the lack of huge casinos, towering hotels and amusement parks. Sometimes, the greatest part of nature is having the least foreign elements around as they only create a distraction from true breath-taking beauty. As we concluded our visit to the national park and left Brazil behind again, I felt a certain heartache for leaving my country. The day of our departure from Paraguay to Santiago was getting closer by the minute and I felt very weird - for lack of a better word. I was leaving Brazil which was "home" once in my life, to go back "home" to Chile, yet "home" was supposed to be Canada. Either way, I loved the trip and was anxious to tell all my friends back in school.