A weekend in the Chaco is a reflective experience. People find so much comfort and fear in the desert. Being so stunningly empty, it is an ideal mirror – really you have only yourself. An eight hour bus ride down a road that is the caricatured of a vanishing-point study is something deeply moving.

The first leg of our trip took us about an hour and a half north of Asuncion – just at the edge of the Chaco. The Fundacion Paraguaya owns and operates a sustainable agriculture/vocational secondary school, and we all wanted to look around a bit. Also, that night they had scheduled a party in commemoration of the Dia de San Juan, so how could we pass that up? We didn’t have any clear idea of what to expect, but were cued in rather quickly by a festive banner hanging at the school that read quite simply “San Juan dice que Si!”

“Saint John says Yes!”

The evening began calmly enough – a traditional dance by some students, and a short play by others, followed by a very modest dinner of tortilla and salad.

When we left the dining hall and returned to the main quad area we were met with a sound can be compared to nothing less than repeated, rhythmic punches to the sternum. Rented speaker stacks screamed and grunted heavy bass lines of reggeaton, club beats, and techno mixes, and the entire yard was being torn apart by a strobe light. The kids went nuts. Seems like a reasonable and appropriate way to commemorate the patron saint, no?

This continued for several hours amidst the more traditional san juan festivities. For hours the kids tried desperately to clamber up at 25-foot high greased wooden pole to retrieve the prizes which had been hung at the top. Eventually they began stacking themselves, one on top of the other, feet on shoulders.

On the ground and through the air flew “pelotas tatas,” some sort of light fabric bundled into a ball, soaked in kerosene, ignited, and kicked around the yard. They actually looked a lot like comets flying around the yard. The only other reasonable comparison would be to the turtle-shell missiles of MarioKart, for those of you who remember. The more the balls were kicked around, the looser the bundle became, until eventually the kids were basically kicking around a flaming towel. I kept waiting, horrified, for it to wrap around somebody’s head or get caught on a foot and end the festivities, but it seems san juan was on our side.

As the pelotas were being shot around, a horrifying creature emerged from behind the school building. It looked much like the sort of dragon you would see on the Luna New Year, except instead of a long tale, it had only a modest box big enough for one person, and instead of an ostentatious, brightly-colored head, it only had the skull of a bull. A real skull, complete with horns. And here’s the thing – the horns were wrapped in that same kerosene-soaked fabric, and the foot-long horns were trailing fire through the darkness. The student who was underneath ran around the field chasing people. And not chasing people as a playful classmate would chase people, but as a bull with flaming horns might chase people – to gore them. He ran to the base of the pole where students were already stacked four-high and gave an emphatic jab to the rear of the student at the bottom, causing the whole tower to come sliding down on top of itself in a fit of laughter. To summarize the evening in one great understatement, Dia de San Juan was wide-eyed surreal.

The next morning we woke up at 6:30 and trudged out down the dirt road through the rain to the bus stop. The bus ran about 45 minutes late, but the five of us piled on, soaking wet and sank into the seats. It rained for most of the drive – turning the roads to mud, and a ride that should have been 6 hours into 8. Driving through the Chaco is unnerving for it’s monoteny on a beautiful day, but in the rain it summons entirely new levels of existential discomfort.

So we sat, a rickety bus full of huddled, bundled people watching our collective breath condense in the air and rise to the ceiling. Because of the fog on the inside of the bus and the rain on the outside, it was impossible to see very far into the Chaco. The road was also a perfect line. Between these two facts, several hours were enough to make you wonder if you might actually be dead – caught in limbo between our world and the next. It wasn’t miserable, or even uncomfortable to the point that it would be considered purgatory, but when I looked down the isle and out of the windshield I had the distinct feeling that I was riding along a damp, cold, entirely ethereal mobius strip.

When we got to Filadelphia, the weather was beginning to clear. Nevertheless the roads, and really everything, were so caked in mud that dirt became an inescapable feature of our time there. Filadelphia is really nothing much to speak of. It is an old Mennonite community that has incorporated an indigenous population – meaning the people are, and look, either completely guarani or very, very German. I feel like I have been abusing the word “surreal” on this blog, but I’ll go ahead and employ it once more here. It is incredibly surreal.

Other than that, Filedelfia has a small stone monument to the defenders of the Chaco, a small museum, and a modest zoo, which has a collection of wholly bizarre creatures captured from the Chaco and held in a small, fenced enclosure. Really there isn’t much else – I’m glad I was traveling with friends.

The location of the Chaco is another story entirely. It is so remote, so far from anything, and in the middle of an area so devoid of any desirable resource or particularly arable land that you wonder if the Mennonites didn’t believe that they deserved to be punished. To give you an idea of how unfit this place seems for life, I would call your attention to the plight of some Mennonites who thought that they would raise rabbits as livestock. In the summer, they have found, it is so hot that they can’t get the rabbits to breed.

The drive back from Filedelfia was incredibly pleasant. The bus had two levels and very cushy seats. The sun was out, and when it passed through the windows it bathed us in a natural warmth. I sat down next to a friendly looking older woman who was carrying a towel on her lap, only to discover several moments later that the towel contained a month-old puppy. I cannot exaggerate how cute this puppy was. It’s paws were literally the size of my thumbnail.

The ride back to Asuncion took about seven hours, but it was comfortable, warm, and we had good cheese and good company to pass the time. The clear skies gave us a great view of miles and miles of absolutely nothing. Being able to see the nothing this time, and watching ourselves move through it, was very cathartic. I made it back to the house relaxed, refreshed, and dusty.

There were two more interns when we got back. The count is up to 11.

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