Norma seemed really pleased that I was so interested in their life in the Chaco and made me a typical breakfast in the morning: tortilla, Quinoa pancake and a lighter version of yerba maté. It was a lot to eat but I made an effort to finish it all!
It’s nice to know where your eggs come from…
I didn’t really want to leave this peaceful place where I had learnt so much, but finally I packed, paid less than £6.00 for accommodation and food, took some more photos and hit the road.
This little boy is the son of the Guaraní couple but I didn’t understand his name.
Another little fellow…
The Ruta 9 was still long and straight…
Learning from yesterday’s experience, I stopped at the next filling station – but again, they only had 85-octane fuel and not the 95-variety. The onward journey promised to be interesting…
The next garage was 100 km further north-west at the junction to Loma Plata. They had 95-octane petrol and while filling up I saw something very intriguing: road signs in German! In the midst of the wild Chaco!
I hadn’t made my mind up how far I wanted to go that day, but there was surely time to follow those inviting signs to Loma Plata. Along the perfectly tarmaced road I saw more traces of German settlements.
Yes, I had heard about the Mennonite Communities in South America but I didn’t know who they were, why they had settled here in the Chaco and how they were living today. So when I came to Loma Plata, amazed by the German street names, German shops and German tidiness, I stopped at the local museum to learn more about the history of the community.
That’s Franklin Klassen, the museum’s attendant, reflecting both the Prussian and the Canadian traces in his ancestors’ history in his name.
When I asked him in Spanish if I could visit the museum, he replied in German and then took a lot of time to tell me the saga of the Mennonite colony.
In the 1760′s Catherine the Great of Russia invited Mennonites from Prussia to settle north of the Black Sea in exchange for religious freedom and exemption from military service, a precondition founded in their commitment to non-violence. After Russia introduced the general conscription in 1874, many Mennonites migrated to the Americas. The members of the Colonia Menno (of which Loma Plata is the largest town and administrative centre), settled first in Canada until a universal, secular compulsory education was implemented in 1917 that required the use of the English language, which the more conservative Mennonites saw as a threat to the religious basis of their community. 1743 pioneers came from Canada to Paraguay in 1927 and turned the arid Chaco into fertile farmland over the years. Today Loma Plata is home to a thriving agricultural co-operative with an impressive dairy production. The main language of the community is still the German dialect Plautdietsch although everyone speaks Spanish, too.
The early settlement efforts are well documented.
A bible in Gothic print from the first pioneers – the Fall of Man
A children’s catechism
Franklin Klassen’s parents both played an important role in the development of the health service in Loma Plata: his father was the first local pharmacist and anaesthetist; his mother worked as a nurse in the only hospital in the area; it was built in 1947 while the other Mennonite colonies Fernheim (Filadelfia) and Neuland were still reluctant to employ professional medical care which they regarded as interference with God’s will.
Although I found some of the rules and decisions difficult to agree with, I was amazed by the enormous achievements of these pioneers. The conditions under which they survived had been incredibly tough and still, their faith gave them the strength to endure all the hardship and pursue their visions until, after decades, they had transformed the desert into prosperous farmland. This sculpture commemorates their endeavours.
I spoke to a few more people in the garden and then, although I had only ridden 130 km / 80 miles that day, the temptation of staying in a place where I could speak my own language for a while became just too much to resist. Usually I go home only once or twice a year so the prospect of a German environment was a luxury which I don’t enjoy very often. Herr Klassen recommended a reasonably priced hotel and a few minutes later I arrived at the Hotel Mora (Sandstrasse 803, by the way), being welcomed by the Sawatzky-family.
They had rooms for PYG 80,000 (£11) or PYG 120,000 (£16.30) but I was absolutely happy with the cheaper ones: en-suite, air-condition, breakfast and all immaculately clean. After fixing the internet connection I was even able to use the PC at the reception and inform Possu that I was still alive.
While updating my SPOT message and uploading photos I got talking to Annette, a member of the hotel staff. She had grown up in Frankfurt am Main, met an Argentinean, moved to South America, got married and had two kids with him. Her problems started when they divorced and the father was given custody of their children – possibly because she as a foreigner couldn’t provide the support of an extended family over here. Annette’s ex-husband then moved to Paraguay and she followed to be closer to her children, who she only saw once in a while though.
As she was not a member of the Mennonites and had no intention to become one, it was very difficult for Annette to find a decent job and somewhere to live in Loma Plata. Although she was a qualified banking professional as well as a management assistant for the hotel industry, she could count herself lucky to have secured employment as a chamber maid at the Hotel Mora. Her salary was correspondingly low and she wasn’t really integrated in the community. Her parents, although seasoned travellers, had not visited her once in the seven years she had been living in Paraguay. It was quite a sad story but Annette was still radiating the amazing energy of a woman who would never give up and always try to find a way.
Annette helped me doing my laundry, even the inner liners of my motorcycle suit which, due to the high temperatures, really needed a wash. Showered and changed I set off to explore the town on foot. When I was about to leave the premises Juan Carlos, another guest of the hotel, tried to engage me in a conversation, but I couldn’t help thinking that he just assumed that I, as a solo-travelling woman, would be most grateful for some male attention. Well, I wasn’t actually and cut him short: sorry, daylight is fading and I still would like to take some photos.
On my way into the town centre I met a lot of friendly people, more often greeting with “Hallo” than “Hola”. Although Loma Plata has 5,500 inhabitants, it seemed that everyone knew each other – rather like in a small village. In fact, the place still had a very rural feel to it.
And then there were those familiar street names everywhere – Hill Road…
… and interesting road signs using a traffic light scheme to clarify the rights-of-way.
Although a quarter to six, it was still very hot.
In the supermarket of the Cooperativa Chortitzer, the main social, administrative and commercial institution of the Menno Colony, I indulged in the extensive range of dairy products, fruit and vegetables. Still, having only restricted luggage space, I restrained myself to the basics: biscuits to keep me going during the day, porridge for breakfast should I be stranded overnight (for dinner I had already bought spaghetti and tomato sauce in Buenos Aires), and a cheap toothbrush to clean and lube the DRZ’s chain.
I love supermarkets in foreign countries – you can learn a lot about the habits and preferences of the locals. Happily wandering around, completely absorbed by the variety of typical goods on the shelves, I didn’t realise that it was already after closing time until a polite shop assistant asked me if I was looking for something in particular…
It was still hot outside.
Another testimony to the community’s past
On the way back to the hotel I met Juan Carlos again: would I have dinner with him? Not right now, I still had things to do on my bike and in my room, and he shouldn’t wait for me. The hotel owners, Mr and Mrs Sawatzky, were sitting in the courtyard and we started talking about their life in Loma Plata. They both had been born in the community; they had never lived anywhere else and didn’t have any inclination to travel – they learnt enough from the visitors coming from all over the world to stay with them. The two were quite doubtful if it was a good idea to travel through the wild Chaco on my own, as the road would become more and more remote and a lot of dubious characters would use the Ruta 9 being up to no good. Oh dear…
In the afternoon I had met Fritz, a waiter in a restaurant nearby, and he had suggested that I should come to dine at their place La Delicia, the delight, later. The menu looked good and Fritz showed me a nice table in the air-conditioned interior – it was still too hot to sit outside. Fritz was a descendent of Brazilian Mennonites in the 6th generation, he spoke German, Portuguese, Spanish, English and Guaraní, and he was going to be a dad the next day! How could he still be so calm and continue doing his job?!
After I had finished a delicious meal, Fritz told me that “my friend” was waiting outside and that my bill had already been paid. No way, that’s out of the question, I’m paying for my food myself, thank you very much! Still, not wanting to be rude, I went into the garden after a while and sat down with Juan Carlos. It’s the custom in Paraguay that visitors are invited for dinner, he said, it doesn’t mean anything, honestly. Yeah, right…
Juan Carlos told me about his job; he lived in Asunción, was employed by a big company and had to travel around the country solving issues with the labourers, especially with the indigenous ones. He spoke in a low voice, slurry and very fast, and although I repeatedly asked him to slow down a bit, I didn’t find out what exactly this problem management implied. Still, he as well warned me about the hazards of the Trans Chaco Highway and the people who I might encounter.
Fritz helped translating and brought me a homemade Flan, a traditional Spanish custard, for dessert – on the house and to celebrate his impending fatherhood. How lovely. Full-up and tired of the effort to make sense of Juan Carlos’s muttering, who was by then pretty drunk, I got up to return to the hotel. Of course, JC wanted to accompany me, possibly because he needed someone to lean on on the way back. He let me hold his beer while he was relieving himself against a lamp-post and then tried to give the conversation a more intimate tone.
Of course, I was having none of it, kept waving my wedding ring at him and then thanked my lucky stars that Mr Sawatzky was still sitting in the courtyard. I quickly turned to him to ask further questions about the route to the Bolivian border. Alas! I heard more unsettling stories… In the meantime, Juan Carlos had fortunately retired to his room but I still passed a very uneasy night, envisioning the perils that lay ahead…
Had I been naive and bitten off more than I could chew?