Part 2: COUNTRY
To spicen up your mate on these chilly Paraguayan mornings, why not throw in a few tried and true yuyos! Orange peel, manzanilla (chamomile), eneldo (dill), anis (anise), or siemprevive (amaranth flower) are all good options! Or mix it up with burrito, boldo, jagua rete ka’a, ruda, or just any hearty lichen growing on a tree to flavor it just the way your 85 year old host mother prefers!
Óga Itá, Alto Verá, Itapúa
You’re at the bus terminal in Encarnación. Men in white shirts are coming right up to you and practically yelling city names in your face. “Buenos Aires?! Asunción!!! Ciudad del Este?! Misiones! Buenos Aires, Señor! A dónde vas?” You wave a hand and not taking the time to be particularly polite, you say “gracias Señor” in your sternest voice. You’re looking for a particular bus. It’s white with a big orange stripe and looks like an old school bus. PASTOREO is written in large letters on the side and a sign on the front says Obligado-Caronay-Perlita. There’s a crocheted blue and red curtain hanging in the front and small stuffed animals, including a bear wearing a Cerro Porteño jersey and what appears to be a lumberjack doll, to accompany Julio as he drives his daily route. You hop on, shaking Julio’s hand and greeting Ever, the guardia, and taking note, for the umpteenth time, of the picture of a naked chica set into the handle of the stick shift. You take a seat and get ready for the bumpy four hour journey.
The bus pulls out of the terminal and makes it’s way through Encarnación, picking up and dropping off salesmen with their chipa and juice and soda and beer and newspapers and socks and sunglasses and lottery tickets and apples and most likely stolen electronic goods. It continues up Ruta 6 for an hour and a half, passing Trinidad and Jesus and entering into Hohenau and Obligado, the United Colonies originally settled by Germans. The bus then veers into the campo, whizzing past soy fields and clapboard and picking up speed on the flat terrain. At Caronay, the district capitol of Alto Verá, most of the passengers disembark and give you a funny look. Why would a gringo keep going on this bus? But it pulls out of the terminal and moves on to more treacherous terrain, making its way to the small town of Ynambu as long as the roads are clear and dry.
At Ynambu, the bus stops briefly for a moment to drop off passengers at the gas station and you get more inquisitive looks. This is where you would get off if you were a gringo tourist getting picked up to go into the San Rafael Reserve. But you go on. And it’s worth it. The bus pulls out of Ynambu and all of a sudden it’s at the top of a hill, overlooking an amazing vista of rolling hills and dense forest and fields, either pure, bright green from soy or oats, or dotted with citrus trees. In the distance, you see two cerros so similar in shape and size that only one feminine image comes to mind. Right on the other side of those cerros is your destination, Joveré.
At Joveré, you get off at la esquina and turn right, heading back towards the cerros, walking past a large corn field, Karai Ruben sitting on his patio, Ña Elisia taking care of her despensa, Karai Hildo and his sons working in the shade of their tung forest, and finally, at the bottom of the hill, with the best open view of the valley, the Cabrera Family’s house, Chara’s host family. If you don’t stop for a few hours like I usually do, you keep walking, passing my sister Fermina’s house, where she’ll tell something mumbly in Guaraní and you just say Adios! and keep moving. After that, you walk along a long dirt road into the town of Cerro Guy (“below the hills”) and get another beautiful view of the rolling hills of the region. After passing through, you jump up to a foot path under a canopy of sour orange trees. The fruit is always rotting on the ground, giving off an odor of Orange Pledge as the ammonia mixes with the citrus. You continue through a grapefruit field, edging around two huge bulls who are giving you suspicious looks, moving downhill until you reach a dense patch of forest and a steep path leading to a small stream. A huge storm swept away the only bridge in May, so you take off your shoes and socks and maybe your pants if the water is high enough and wade across to the other side, trying to make sure that you don’t step in a huge hole and get your underwear soaking wet. After you’ve got your shoes/pants back on, you continue uphill through dense bamboo, squelching through mud and swatting flies until you’ve mad it to the top and find yourself in a field of mandioca. You go straight and come out on a road right next to a very out of place, half finished, two story brick house that no one has explained to me. You keep walking, getting chased by the scrawniest, worst dog in the world who swears you are the ultimate enemy and you walk/run past two more houses until you see a plot of forest on your left. Once you pass that forest, you see a big grazing pasture with four cows and some crazy dogs who are most likely barking at you, probably because they want you to pet them and also because you’re an intruder. Next to a few orange trees, you see a little wooden house with a big, kind of empty garden, and a white guy (probably wearing a huge red sweater and long johns and socks with Birkenstocks) drinking mate on his porch. You wave and I’ll wave back. Welcome to Óga Ita. It’s quite a journey to get here.