Saturday, October 9, 2010

63. Exploring the Mennonite Colonies in Paraguay! (05/01/08)

My main reason for coming to Paraguay was to see the 3 Mennonite Colonies in the Chaco (the Northern largely uninhabited region of Paraguay). The first colony (Loma Plata) was started after Canadian Mennonites on a ship bound for Argentina in 1927, decided to change their destination to Paraguay after being invited by the Paraguayan President (who was on the same boat). Filadelfia was the next colony started in 1930 by Russian Mennonites (who left the Soviet Union to avoid the Bolshovik Revolution but ironically they ended up in the center of the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay only 2 years later), and than in 1947 came the Ukranian Mennonites (who came because many were forced to fight in WWII).

 At Klein Motors I met Alveroni who was a 26 year old Mennonite from Filadelfia who was having his motorcycle fixed too. He was a very nice guy and told me all about life in the colonies and about how many Mennonites are buying big motorcycles now (20 years back only small motorcycles could be found in the Chaco). Alveroni was studying to get a business degree in Asuncion (many Mennonites come here for their university). I told him that I was leaving the next day to visit the Chaco and he gave me the name of his friend Sander to call who had an Africa Twin.

I got up at 5 a.m. and took a 6 a.m. bus to the Chaco which did not arrive until 2 p.m. (only a 500 km stretch). It seemed like we stopped at every shack a long the road. After a couple hours on the bus I noticed that everyone on the bus was Indigenous which was strange because 95% of Paraguayans are Mestizos. It turned out that the Indigenous were commuting to their ranch jobs in the Chaco.

 Finally we pulled into Filadelfia and I went to call my contact Sander. He did not answer and I figured he was probably working and that I would try back at 6. I went to checkout the grocery store (The Fernheim Cooperative). It was a strange sight to see so many white people in South America and it was even stranger that they were speaking German! lol The store was full of freshly perpared German foods like Sausage, Bread, Cheese, and Dairy Products. I tried to buy a chocolate bar at the checkout but was frustrated to find out that only small tools were accepted as barter from travellers. Hahaha, just a joke, they did everything in cash.

 It took about 15 minutes to explore the city so I was forced to spend the rest of my time practicing Spanish in the nice park where the museum was. Filadelfia most likely has the nicest scenery/ public works of the 3 colonies but I did not see Neu-Halbstadt. I finally got a hold of Sander and we met at the grocery store (he works in importing there). Sander was a very nice guy and had pretty darn good English for someone whose only study time was a 3 week program in London. He took me to meet Edward, the town´s mayor who had lived in Canada.

 Ed was a good guy and had a perfect Canadian accent because of his family´s many moves back and forth to British Colombia when growing up.  He invited me for dinner with the family (his daughter and nephew) and we went to Hotel Florida to pick up fish and chips (typical Canadian meal). Ed explained that the fish ´Talapia` was a local river/pond fish that the locals raise. At first I was skeptical when he told me it was better than Cod or Halibut but I tried it and it was really good (not quite on the level of King´s Fair though).

 We than watched the Breakfast Club in English! I felt bad for Ed´s daughter and nephew because I do not think they knew English very well (good thing there were German subtitles at least). It had been a while since I had seen B.C. and it was great for some hard laughs. After the movie ended Ed asked me more in detail about my plan to sleep in the park. I think he was confused because I did not have a tent or jacket with me. In my excitement to leave for the Chaco I forgot to get these things from Klein Motos before they closed. Ed offered that I could sleep in his guest house and after a couple minutes I politely accepted as I realized how cold it was outside.

 Ed´s guest house was quite the place. His father in law had constructed it out of wood entirely by hand. The seams in the wood matched perfectly and you could definitely tell it was built by a carpenter. It had that cozy feeling that most log cabins have. There were North American mountain landscapes paintings. As I laid down in the comfy bed I thought to myself that "This is better than any of the hotels I have stayed at so far."
The next day I had to leave at 8 a.m. because Ed and his family were off to Church. I ate breakfast with Ed and met his wife. She was nice and was interested in all of the details of my trip because she worked in journalism I think. I showed Ed and his wife some pictures and than left so that they could leave to church.

 I went to wait in the park until 2:30 pm when I was supposed to meet up with Sander and see his ranch. Trying to study Spanish for 6 hours nearly killed me! Every hour I would walk to the grocery store and all the convenience stores to try and buy a chocolate bar but they were always closed. After a while I began to curse to myself and wonder what kind society could have their grocery store closed on a Thursday. (It turned out that it was May 1st, a national holiday for Paraguayans).

Finally at 2:30 I met with Sander and we left in his truck to do Ranch work for the rest of the day. We had to pick up 2 bulls and take them to the other side of Filadelfia so they could mate with the females (1 bull per 25 females!) lucky guys we joked! It was very interesting to see how the bulls were loaded on and off the truck. Sander shared his terere (minty flavored iced mate). In Paraguay the locals prefer to drink their mate cold because of how hot the Chaco is. Doing ranch work with Sander was my favorite experience from the Chaco.

 Later we went back to Sander´s house and met his nice wife and got to see his 2003 Honda Africa Twin that was in excellent condition. We had to drop the truck off at Sander´s dad´s house and Sander told me that I could follow him in his Honda and just to make sure I did not go over 70 km. Anxiously but nervously at the same time I went over and put the key in his Africa Twin. When Sander came out he explained that it was his 1980 Honda scooter that we were going to take (I had not seen it before). I was disappointed but relieved at the same time because I did not want to take any chances with such a nice motorcycle.

 Later Sander, his wife, and me went to Christian´s house and watched a video of Sander and Christian´s trip one weekend to ride dirt bikes with their friends. The video was very inspiring and I could no believe how skilled at riding they were. It made me feel like a newbie even know I had 25,000 miles logged on the trip so far. Body protection, other than wearing your helmet sometimes seems to be non existent in the Chaco. I was not surprised though because earlier I had already learned that no one wears seatbelts in the Chaco either.
After this video we watched another video of Sander and Alveroni´s trip to Brazil which was really incredible. They visited all the nice beaches and it looked like they had a great time using their bikes on the beaches. Watching this moto trip to Brazil has made me want to keep my motorcycle and do a trip to Brazil to sometime.

Sander arranged for me to travel back to Asuncion with his dad who was leaving to buy a BMW motorcycle (not mine unfortunately). I stayed at Sander´s house for the night and he woke me up at 4:00 am to go with his dad. For the first 5 seconds after waking up I was incredibly confused about where I was but than I remembered again. I thanked Sander and headed off with his dad for the short drive to Asuncion (4 hours by car).


  1. Hi, I happened to come accross this story of your great trip to Latin America.
    Just want to point out some incorrect info. You wrote: <>
    When the first group of mennonites, the Menno Colonie (not Loma Plata....Loma Plata is the town), headed south, their destiny was already Paraguay. The invitation they received from the President was prior to this and not on the ship. After they had received an invitation, they sent a group of men to investigate the paraguayan Chaco (it was an expedition). Everything had been arranged before they set on for Paraguay.
    Any questions?
    Greetings, Sim

  2. This is the part I was refering to.....somehow did not post: The first colony (Loma Plata) was started after Canadian Mennonites on a ship bound for Argentina in 1927, decided to change their destination to Paraguay after being invited by the Paraguayan President (who was on the same boat).