We want to go to Santa Cruz in Bolivia and this is the fastest way. There are barely any tourists so the chances to meet the authentic culture are high. Halfway the route live big Mennonite communities with a traditional German culture. We saw a photo report of National Geographic about Mennonites who refuse all the technology and still live very basic. We want to see this lifestyle. El Chaco is also famous for its enormous biodiversity with jaguars, pumas, anteaters, snakes and many birds. Enough reasons to accept the challenge. With ten kilograms of food and a big barrel of extra water we are ready for the green hel, El Chaco’s nickname.
North of the capital, Asuncion, the Transchaco starts officially. Hereafter the road crosses the Rio Paraguay and then we are really in the Chaco, the region that covers the complete west of Paraguay, 60 percent of the complete territory. One truck after another passes by and some of them push us of the road. ‘It seems that the first 40 kilometer are the hardest with all this traffic’ Olivier says.
The road is anything but desolate, with an endless stream of trucks carrying cattle. We didn’t count them all, but we guess that it are easily a hundred trucks a day. That’s 30 cows a truck, 200 kilogram of meat per cow, in total 600.000 kilograms of meat every day. ‘What do we find on the road?’ we ask in a local tyre repair shop, while we search for some shade under his roof. ’There is a small road side restaurant after sixty kilometers, for the rest there is nothing’ the men say, while they sip from there cup of teréré, the cold maté variant of Paraguay. Hollowed cow horns serve as the cup and are filled with ground tea leaves, hierba, which they fill with ice cold water and drink with a metal straw. Everywhere you see Paraguayans with there teréré cup and a big thermos. In this heat there isn’t anything better to do than rest in the shade and watch to crazy cyclists battling the Chaco. ‘We already have 50 kilometers. That will be 110 and it is already ten o’clock in the morning’ Zoë thinks. We put some extra sunscreen and continue our way. We don’t see much more than five small farms. The sun roasts our skin with some nice red colours and we count the kilometers until we reach 110. We really hope that the man was right about his restaurant.
Luckily the restaurant exist and with a red face, arms and legs we crash on one of the plastic garden chairs. It is only 2 o’clock but we cycled enough for the day. After 11 in the morning the sun is too hot. ‘Tomorrow we start cycling at 6 o’clock’ Zoë says while she gorges her bread. We can take a shower in a small building in the garden and pitch the tent next to the house. Just before sunset we start cooking our pasta, under the control of the proud lady, who wants to see how those cyclists survive. ‘Una locura’, madness, blijft ze maar herhalen. ’There are not to many mosquitoes’ Olivier smiles satisfied ‘in Brazil we had to run away at this hour’. He better kept his mouth shut, half an hour later the mosquito hour explodes. We can hide inside the house for the mosquitoes when the lady says ‘those toucans shit everywhere’ and she points at the two toucan teddy bears on a chair in the corner. We laugh with her joke, until five minutes later one of the toucans turns his head. The toucans are real, just like pets in their living room.
In the morning we curl up the wet tent. It was a horrible night. We have a good tent, for cold climates, but not for this heat. It was a sauna inside, but outside it was horrible as well with all the mosquitoes. ‘An excellent test to sleep in the tent in the Chaco’ Olivier laughs with half a smile. Cycling is the best moment of the day. The wind cools our body off a little bit, while the green landscape passes by. It is all but a dry desert. It is surprisingly green with a lot of water. Palm trees, high grasses and giant water plants adorn both sides of the asphalt road. This part is the Chaco Humido, the Wet Chaco. After halfway lies the Chaco Seco, the Dry Chaco. Wild animals are almost impossible to see with the high grass, but birds are plentiful. We see many new birds, like a type of stork bird, enormous, as tall as a horse. Around 9 o’clock in the morning we are halfway the daily distance. Then the sun becomes really hot, the straight roads start to torture our bottom and the kilometers go by slowly. A huge antenna is the only sign of life next to the road, sometimes ten kilometers further on the same straight road, without a single shade. The green hell is a mental challenge so far.
We stop at a small village with wooden houses and many coloured faces, an indigenous settlement. There is a small school and we ask for a place to sleep. Hector immediately offers us a meal, followed by a bucket with brown water to wash ourselves. There is no running water and the drinking water comes from a well. The children move in and watch, unembarrassed, how we wash ourselves with the brown water. Waiting until they go is no option, so we undress while they watch. Zoë puts on her dress to screen off her bottom and wash herself between the legs. The children only speak Guarani and understand a little Spanish. They giggle with our strange accent and the way we try to hit all the mosquitoes away. The primary school is the only school in the settlement. The fifth and sixth grade are together with the toddlers. They have three hours of classes everyday, and only twenty percent of them has funds to go to secondary school.
After our public shower, we go to classroom to talk about our trip. Two days ago we bought a world map in Asuncion, so we can teach the children a little bit about the world. We talk in very basic Spanish, but we are surprised by all the smart questions. ‘What kind of money do you use’ the teacher translates one of the questions. Wide-eyed they look at the European money and at our bicycles. But none of them wants to cycle around the world, when we ask this. Travelling isn’t a part of the Paraguayan blood, it appears. This is probably the reason why everybody call the Chaco the hell. They have never been there. They heard stories about the hell, about the war where more soldiers died because of dehydration than bullets, and blow up the story even more. That night hell returns for a while. We can sleep inside the class room, but when the night fall we run away for the mosquitos. We pitch the tent as fast as possible. When we finally lay down we have mosquito bites everywhere and sweat like a horse. The itch and the heat drives us crazy and we start to wonder how we will survive this the next 500 kilometer. Night number one hundred should have been a celebration. Without many sleep we stand next to the tent at half past five in the morning. ’This was the last night in the tent’ decides Olivier and we get on the bicycle for more adventure in the green hell. We leave the world map in the classroom, hopefully some of the children will think about cycling when they are older.