View of the shore

An aerial view of Fuerte Olimpo, Alto Paraguay, looking south down the Rio Paraguay. On the left is Matto Grosso do Sur (Brazil). The hills are called the “Tres Marias.”

Ohi heta secretos Rio Paraguay kupepe che aguera hatava che yvyguype.

There are many secrets along the Paraguay River I will take to my grave. And not because I don’t want to tell them.  I used to think it was only Guarani that kept me outside looking in, but it’s more than the language. People here are born knowing everything about this place; history speaks to them though the water and the stones and the dust.

I lived here three years but I’m as clueless now about how this country works as when I first arrived in 1999: a Peace Corps volunteer with two words of Spanish and a dim idea that Paraguay was somewhere hot and south and vaguely venomous. And where they sent me, to the wild northeast Chaco that is the watershed of the great swamp called the Pantanal, the secrets bubbled up from the riverbed and swirled around me. I’d reach out and each time they would float away.

It’s nine a.m. in Fuerte Olimpo when Lalo and I tiptoe up the skinny gangplank of the cargo launch Ña Manu. It’s now doing double duty as a passenger ferry since, during the years I have been away, the other boats working the northern Rio Paraguay have sunk, cracked in half, or been confiscated for unspecified, unsavory crimes.

Which makes the owner Doña Manuela very happy. This morning she is practically bursting out of her pink leotard with joy. For a three-hundred-pound woman she is surprisingly nimble and as strong as any man; she helps her rather dimwitted young stevedores stow sack after sack of rice and hard biscuits in the hold. We’re told the Ña Manu will leave Fuerte Olimpo punctually but this is Paraguay. And, though I don’t know it yet, Ña Manu has special guests.

When I lived here, I never took the Ña Manu. She is tiny by river standards, about seventy feet long, and the only places to sit are deadly caranda’y palm benches running the length of each side. There’s a bathroom — a box with a hole and a hose — and… oh, I don’t know, I always thought she was too dirty and spooky and creaky, though certainly Carmen Leticia (“the jewel of the Río Paraguay”) and the Cacique were no motor yachts. But at least they looked like they could carry more than two extra people and they weren’t wrapped in brown tarpaulin.

Ña Manu is basically a floating shanty. You don’t burn from the sun, you just braise in the brown oven bag. She has no set schedule, and she’d stiffed us on the way up to Fuerte Olimpo, leaving a day early from Isla Margarita where the distance across the river between Paraguay and Mortinho, Brazil is no more than two hundred meters. No other lanchas were due for days. But Lalo’s friend Eladio was taking his empty cattle chata past Olimpo to Bahia Negra so we hitched a ride and made it upriver that way. All this, I suppose, should be enchanting. But coming back to visit this country that still troubles me and that I still consider my true home, it only seems sad and exhausting.

When we pass through the tarp flap in the stern onto the main deck, I see far too many passengers. Five men sit lined up on one of the long benches on the starboard side. A sixth, younger than the rest and like Lalo, tall for a Paraguayan, sits on a perpendicular bench with his back to the wheelhouse. Lalo walks over and shakes hands with each of them. I’ve seen this before; I’ve learned to shake hands at parties and funerals, but doing it on a boat seems like only a guy thing.

Seems. What do I know? I decide to be a Paraguayan woman about it and give it a pass.

I sit down on the opposite bench next to a Chamococo woman with a baby that can’t be more than a week old. The six men have a look about them: they belong together somehow. The oldest is maybe fifty; the youngest twenty-five. They have small travel bags and most are dressed fairly formally: button-down shirts, belts, a gold chain here and there, boots. All are quite dark though they don’t look Guaraní or Chamococo, meaning they probably work in the sun, maybe cattle hands on estancias.

Other passengers arrive. All the men who just got on go to the bench and shake hands.  Mba’e la porte?  Upepi nde ha?  How’s it going?  Where’re you headed? They all know these guys. There’s a little jostling, a little baring of teeth for position — two old women with cigars commandeer the only two comfortable chairs. The doe-eyed crew scampers around trying to avoid Doña Manuela’s wrath. Husband and pilot Ramón has been found, dragged out of his girlfriend’s bed near the port and unceremoniously thrown into the wheelhouse, so we’re good to go.

It’s a six-hour trip downriver from Olimpo to Isla Margarita, which isn’t so bad compared to the thirteen it takes to get upriver. From Asunción the capital to Olimpo, and then up to Bahia Negra, it’s five days.  Sometimes there are buses that go halfway up the river. But this time I don’t have five days to get to Olimpo.  I don’t have, like I’d always had before, all the time in the world.  This time I’m just a tourist, and Paraguay has responded with washouts and road closures and river transport dropping like flies. So Lalo met me in Asuncion and figured out a way for us to loop through Brazil and come out at Mortinho and only have the thirteen hours up to Olimpo by boat.  And now we have to get back downTo get me home. He does this for me because he still loves me.  He treated me like shit when we lived together in Olimpo.  He is atoning.

Lalo waits for me to visit every year.  Who knows what he does in the meantime. He’s a good guy, big and sunny and friendly; everyone likes him. When we’re in Asuncion people think I’m the Paraguayan and he’s the European, so fair-skinned and healthy and well-spoken. But a little lost, like me; a few too many vices. So he is destined to live on cattle ranches and on the river, looking and calculating and waiting for the next opportunity. One of the reasons I come back to Paraguay is that Lalo no longer considers me an opportunity.  I’m just a woman he knows, who loves this part of the country as much as he does, who needs help getting to its farthest corners, because she doesn’t, after all, really belong here.

Cargo vehicles wait for the arrival of the cargo boats at Fuerte Olimpo, the main port. The rocky and steep terrain of the town above the main road makes it impossible for any vehicle other than a donkey cart to pass. (In the water are camelotes.)

An awful lot of Policia Nacional seem to be making this trip.  Lalo is staring ahead, grinning, knowing I’ve figured out that something’s up. One of the policemen I know; the other two are new to me. So much time has passed. This was my home, this inhospitable web of marsh and palm forest where nothing grows except what is meant to grow. Yet people live here and their life is hard. My life was hard. And I still miss it. Whatever it was.

I’m staring at the six men. There’s another one; he could be a crew member but I’m not sure. If he’s not, he has a future in crime with his slits for eyes and too big jaw. Even his teeth look criminal. And almost immediately after we shove off, I have to pee and must squeeze past this character to get to the bathroom, such as it is. He politely locks me in, because the door will not stay shut from the inside and I think, surely there are worse ways to die than in a shit-filled toilet on a cargo boat in the middle of the world’s largest continuous swamp. But he lets me out and shows me his teeth and I go back to my bench where there are seven other passengers now, not including the cops.

We’re all facing the five men on the opposite side, except the young one facing the stern. A cop comes over and rather roughly pushes him to one side so the cop can sit down.

Finally Lalo can’t stand it anymore. “Do you know who they are?” he asks me.

I want to punch him. Do I know who they are. Christ.

They are the cattle thieves, Lalo tells me, cuatreros who have finally been caught after two years of robbing their neighbor, Lalo’s employer, Don Miguel Arevalos, whose estancia is about thirteen kilometers outside of Olimpo’s centro. The chase and capture has been covered widely in the national press.

With the thieves, in a relatively clean, yellow oxford shirt, is the would-be buyer of the stolen cattle. The oldest man — the one with the gold chains — is the leader, but it is the youngest who looks the most worried.

He’s “lo más famoso,” says Lalo. “Because he hasn’t fallen yet. The others have all been caught before.”

But they are all, I think, a little too jolly. No one’s guffawing, but they’re joking and drinking tereré and chatting with the cops. Everyone seems to be friends here.

“You don’t get it,” says Lalo. “Everyone robs. Everyone. These guys just rob more.”

The police, while they have a boat, don’t have a budget for gas, so they use public transportation to take prisoners to Concepción, where they will be arraigned and stand trial. It seems that Big Jaw’s going down for attempted murder with a knife. He is presently roaming the decks, gabbing with the crew. None of the passengers looks particularly alarmed. “He’s sorry he didn’t kill the guy,” Lalo adds, and from the way he says it I know he’s not speculating. He knows this for a fact. And there it is again, that thread of connection that Lalo’s attached to, that all Paraguayans are attached to — a word on the street, a nod, a glance — it all moves past me and beneath me unnoticed, like the piranha and dorado passing under the boat’s hull in the brown water.

The police have brought along evidence: one saddle and two white grain bags that hold dried skins and ears, to show the brands and ear cuts. Eight cows were recovered; Lalo says Don Miguel knows of at least thirty missing. Two hours downriver, we arrive at Puerto Sastre where the buyer lives. He is let off to go home and get lunch and some clothes.  The rest are from Olimpo and have all their stuff with them. Other passengers board the boat. Motocerristas — men who cut fence posts for estancias along the river —are let on with their chainsaws and post-hole diggers, which at a shriek from Doña Manuela the hapless crew stuff into the hold. More hand-shaking. A few Chamococo come on as well, with big suruvi in grain bags. It’s illegal to fish in the river this month but no one turns in a Chamococo. They are barely alive and barely remembered.

Before, when Paraguay was all quebracho forest and swamp, they were nomads; now they’re exiled to the river’s edge with no home to get back to so they stay on the river and starve, and ride the lanchas, and are quiet. They speak a language that they know no one understands, so they simply gesture gently and smile. They smile at the cattle thieves; they could care less who took what from who. And of this whole story — of the big estancia and the thieving and the knowing and shaking hands and getting on and getting off — only I am out of place, only I am something not right.

I was living in Fuerte Olimpo when Don Miguel’s son Caludio hired a witch doctor to put spells on the corners of their land so the thieves could not enter. Neither Don Miguel nor Lalo could talk sense into him. “You have to ride out and count your herd — two, three times a week. You have to fix fences and patrol borders. Caludio wants to stay blind. He knew who was doing it; he just didn’t want to see,” Lalo tells me now. I once brought Caludio amulets from Asunción to help him with his spells. This was when I didn’t know that he already knew who the thieves were. It seems even the blind know more than me.

As we head out into the river again all the thieves open their lunches, prepared by wives or girlfriends. The cops have returned to the boat with empanadas. One of the thieves produces a cake, cut into six pieces. From the way the cake has been prepared, I can tell there was a party last night to send off the thieves and this cake is part of the leftovers. I have bananas and bread; Lalo has cheese and honey and buys a milanesa from a kid in Sastre. We drink tereré afterwards and I pray that dehydration has set in so that I don’t have to use the bathroom again.

By the time we’re well beyond Sastre, Manuela is done shrieking at the police for leaving the thieves unguarded on the boat while they bought empanadas up the road. As far as I can tell everybody finds this pretty amusing, even her.

It is about a hundred and ten degrees on the river and the lancha is galloping along at about eleven knots. My back is killing me. Camelotes crawl by, not yet in flower but trailing yards and yards of rubbery root and leaf as the upper Chaco has received about eight inches of rain this week and the river is high and fast. Twice we stop to let the crew disengage a particularly big clump from the propeller. The hum of an old diesel engine, even this one, is quiet and soothing. Above it I can hear the big green and blue parrots calling to each other in the trees. Occasionally a canoa, a small handmade fishing boat, slips out of a clump of hu negro horsetail in a small riacho, the boatmen tending some plastic bottles with hooks streaming down, baiting paku.

I can make fun of Ña Manu, I can talk about filth and discomfort, but with Paraguay on one side dark and scrubby, and Matto Grosso del Sur on the other all endless palm forest, I can’t say it’s ever been too much to bear. I have stared at this river five days at a time, over and over. I have never been bored here.

The thieves get off with the police at the second-to-last stop, Carmelo Peralta, and I have to tell Doña Manuela that they forgot the evidence. More shrieking. Much appreciative nodding by the cop who knows me. A dirty glance from the thief with the cake. I have entered the story now.

A typical cargo boat. This one is the Cacique, one of the better models. (Ña Manu is smaller.) Cacique’s route runs from Asuncion to Bahia Negra.

Ña Manu heaves herself around to Isla Margarita and anchors for the night, and Lalo and I pay a ninety-year-old man to row us across the river to Mortinho in his yellow-and-green canoa. This is the only way across. Mortinho is a bigger town and we need to catch the bus here to do the twenty-hour loop through Brazil and back down to Asunción. Brazil has roads; Paraguay has, at this moment, mud.

In Mortinho, we round a corner and sitting in front of a hotel having tereré are four men I know from Olimpo: José Belén Gonzales, a council member I worked with; his cousin Martin Suarez the veterinarian; two other guys I know but not by name. Just hanging around. In Brazil.

Lalo starts to grin. Asks a couple of polite questions that are not all that polite.

“How’d you get here?”

“Deslizadora.” Motor boat.

“Whatcha doing in town?”

“Oh … you know, heh-heh, a little business.”

“Staying long?”

“Er, no, we’re going back to Olimpo tomorrow.”

“Ya, Ya,” says Lalo, which is sort of an ‘Of course, I see,’ non-threatening, low-key, but these fellas are spooked.

José Belén looks ready to die. He can’t look at me. He never was a big help as a consejal but as far as I know he didn’t hate me. In Olimpo, I spent weeks trying to teach him and the other consejales how to read the town’s budget so they could know where the money went. On this visit trip back, Lalo informed me with a smirk that I’d done a good job and now all the consejales know how to track the money… right out of the budget.

Lalo does not do what he does best — plop down for a good long mindless chat. I have already braced myself for an hour of Guaraní. Instead he asks them in Spanish where we can find Brazilian reales since we need to pay for the bus and the banks are closed. Martin says “Oh, Vincente’s got them,” and gestures towards the corner where I see a locked door. José Belén starts to say, “But Vincente’s closed —” but Martin shoots him a look and says with clenched teeth, “No, I’m sure he’s open,” and José Belén shuts up. Lalo grabs my arm and we scram.

Lost. I am lost.

Lalo says, quietly, “Aha,” and this is what he tells me he has figured out:

José Belén owns the estancia next to Don Miguel. Each has about twelve thousand acres. The thieves are José Belén’s hired men. José Belén knows they’ve been stealing cattle from Don Miguel; there are still about twenty-five on José Belén’s property. Martin is José Belén’s cousin and knows Vincente who is a buyer. The other two are involved but who knows how. They are in Mortinho because two small chatas are berthed here and they need to ask around and hire one to take up the river, load the cows, and sell them to Vincente to make enough money to pay the thieves’ lawyer in Concepción who is on Martin’s payroll. That’s why the thieves looked unconcerned. They knew José Belén was already here, working things out for them.

“But how will a chata sneak up the Río Paraguay and load the cows?” I ask.

Lalo gives me a look that says, you know the river. You know how you can get lost in it, with its miles of riachos and twists and thickets and hidey holes. A chata can easily slip in below Olimpo without anyone noticing…unless Don Miguel and Caludio have been tipped off and know it’s coming. “Then,” says Lalo grinning, “things could get interesting.”

So we find a phone and call Miguel who is somber, then gleeful, then somber again, because Caludio will be absolutely no help, clinging to his yuyos and amuletos till he’s kicked in the teeth by a ladrón himself and left to die. But we are thanked, and defense plans are put in motion, and I will extract some small piece of satisfaction from all this. And it is that even though I knew nothing, nothing at all — I would have sat through a boat ride with felons thinking they were off to a business meeting and never been the wiser — José Belén and Martin thought I knew everything. In that one moment, all the secrets were handed to me. They thought I knew; they thought I deserved to know. And that, ultimately, is what keeps me coming back here — a nod, a recognition, a tiny opening through marsh and water, that I can slip through.

Related links:

Waterland Research Institute. Essays from a collection entitled The Pantanal: Understanding and Preserving the World’s Largest Wetland. Juan Maria Carrón provides a wonderful overview of the Paraguayan Pantanal, its people, and the dangers facing it. Also see the essay by John F. Gotlgens for a frightening look at what multinational corporations and monetary institutions are trying to do to the entire South American watershed.

International Rivers Network. For more information about Hidrovía and what the IRN and local NGO Rios Vivos are trying to do to stop this project.

Hijo del Hombre and Yo El Supremo, by Agosto Roa Bastos, Paraguay’s most influential novelist.

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