Have you ever been thankful for an experience that you wouldn't choose to repeat?
You go somewhere not because it will deliver comfort. You take a trip not because it's going to get you quickly from A to B. You don't do it simply because it's inexpensive. You stand in the face of logic and reason; you deliberately endure an ounce or two of pain. Your journey's aim: to satisfy your curiosity.
For all that, your experience is rich. You emerge enlightened, just a little bit the wiser.
That's the backstory of our two days on the Rio Paraguay: 36 hours plying the waters on a sagging cargo ferry and 14 hours trundling through the jungle in broken-down buses and flatbed construction trucks. Although the trip was somewhere on the devil's side of hellish, our Paraguayan journey would have been incomplete without it.
The Boat That Could
The Aquidaban was scheduled to depart at 11:00AM; when we arrived at leisure at 9:00AM, we almost turned around. The ferry's bow was piled high with motorcycles, fuel barrels, fruit crates and cargo workers. The interior – a span of about 70 feet – was now home to over 300 other passengers tucked into every inhabitable notch.
When the boat departed, we were shooed away as our seats quickly transformed into an on-board market stall offering bags of homemade ice, empanadas, and milanesa (fried, breaded meat) sandwiches. One stall over, tubes of local mortadella bologna, plastic dolls with purple hair, bras with huge cups, and bags of random prescription drugs spun from ceiling hooks. It was a market melange.
Life on the ferry settled into a routine. Some people went shopping, sampling goods in the middle aisle. To stay cool, others took multiple showers using the ceiling water spigots in the toilet stalls. The rest just walked the narrow aisles to pass time. In true Paraguayan fashion, everyone carried his own thermos of tereré, a chilled version of yerba maté served with fresh herbs. Paraguay's intense heat – 100 degrees on the water and well beyond inside the boat – seems a major contributor to this anti-dehydration ritual.
As night fell, most passengers configured themselves uncomfortably on benches and floorboards while others opted for sagging, shredded hammocks tied between salami links and bags of cigarettes. We sampled both options: Audrey slung in a hammock and Dan pretzeled on a bench along with a grandmother and her two granddaughters.
After a restless night, a stunning blood orange sunrise stirred those who could sleep; markets opened and the cycle began anew.
Another twelve hours later, Emanuel, the ice vendor across the aisle, assured us that we were only two hours away from our destination, Vallemi. He must have read the look of exhaustion in our eyes: I’m going to lose it soon.
“How often do you make this trip?” I asked.
“Every week. I leave Concepción on Tuesday. Four days later, I arrive in Bahia Negra. The boat turns around; I arrive in Concepción on Sunday. I re-load the boat on Monday afternoon and begin the trip on Tuesday again.”
And to think, we were filthy and breathless after only a day and a half.
The Bus That Couldn't
The expectation: an easy-going “five-hour bus ride through nice countryside,” as a British traveler had described it just days before.
The delivery: something much worse than the boat and another adventure for which we were unprepared.
Our bus would get stuck in the mud and blow its motor, only to be replaced by a flatbed construction truck that would suffer a flat tire and break down six times as it negotiated mud pits and mosquito clouds across Paraguay's outback, the wet Chaco. An object-lesson in how five hours of pleasure becomes fourteen hours of hell.
The truck was lined with loose wood and cement chunks. The road — if you could call it that — was pitted; mud craters formed easily from the previous night's rain. Each time we drove through a puddle, mud geysers erupted through the gaps in the floor. Luggage and coolers served as makeshift seats. Bumps and ditches sent the group sailing mid-air. Upon landing, our tailbones were bruised, our bottoms scraped. There was no way to hold fast.
As the day wore on, individual water supplies went from cool to bathwater. But bathwater was better than nothing. When our truck arrived at a river crossing, most other passengers filled their thermoses with mud cocktail. We held off, opting for a more direct path to dehydration rather than the one that stops off at dysentery first.
Twelve hours in, we reached the first sign of civilization: a village snack bar well-stocked with cold drinks. Like zombies, the lot of us descended upon the shopkeeper. One liter of juice and two liters of water later, we began to feel human again.
When we finally arrived in Concepción that night, we were in sad shape. Our clothes were filthy and soaked; exhaustion hung long on our faces. But our journey was not over yet; we had seven more hours on a bus to Paraguay's capital, Asuncion.
But that would be a joyride in comparison.
Do we wish to repeat this journey? No.
Would we do it again without the value of hindsight? You bet.
Why? That's easy. Because you never know until you try.