Northern Paraguay

A couple years ago, when I first started planning this trip I checked what was the least visited country in Latin America, it’s Paraguay. I immediately added Paraguay to the list and started reading about its history and why it’s not a popular travel destination. I did the same thing the last time I was in Europe which led to an amazing week in Moldova, so it seems like a good philosophy.

Some people would have checked if it was the rainy season before they came

Even before deciding to come here I knew there were Mennonites here, but I didn’t know anything more about them. From reading about Paraguay I learned that the majority of the initial Mennonites who came to Paraguay came from the exact same colonies in Russia that my family came to Canada from, meaning I would be related to a lot of the Mennonites here.

The presence of distant family here wasn’t a huge draw and didn’t really change my plans any but knowing I would spend a week or more driving past towns and colonies where I would mostly likely be related to the people living there was an odd feeling.

The resemblance is startling

When the Mennonites initially came to Paraguay they were basically given the Chaco region in the north nearly for free to try to settle, because it had already been pretty much considered a no-go zone for hundreds of years, even most local indigenous groups steered clear of “the green death”.

The area is still mostly a wasteland today, it’s just pocketed with small oasis areas where the Mennonites managed to get a foothold and claw something back from the Chaco. The fact that they have been able to do this, to tame some areas of this vast nothingness is a stunning achievement, I understand their effect of the economies and on society here is a bit more nuanced but I do not have anywhere near the information to make any comment on that.

Google Maps was useless, even the best paper map I could find was little help. Roads simply do not exist where the map says they do, or the reverse.

I wasn’t expecting to be all that affected by travelling through a very alien, foreign area that also happened to be partially populated by people who look like me, are related to me, and have familiar names, but I was. The eerie but also often amusing twilight zone feeling hit me over and over as I interacted with people I share a lot with in a place as alien to me as anywhere I’ve been.

According to the map this road does not exist and these town are not in these directions

These sort of subtle unusual feelings are pretty hard to get across but I’ll just list a couple small interactions I had or things I witnessed that made me smile at the oddness of things here.

  1. When I first arrived it was after hours and hours of driving the Chaco Highway, it was as strange a road and as strange a nature setting as I’d ever been in, I was loving the new everything, the new soil and animals and clouds and trees….. and then I turn into Filadelfia for the first time, the main Mennonite community, and unlike every other town I’ve been through in South America, I am suddenly in a reasonable facsimile of the farm town I grew up in. The layout, the farm equipment dealers, the vehicles, the streets, the park, the swimming pool. There was a sudden rush of that twilight zone weird feeling and I grinned like an idiot at the strangeness of it all.
  2. I found a hotel in Filadelfia to stay for the night, I walked into the lobby to see a group of people, patrons and staff, who each could have been plucked from my own church, or my own family. Except they only spoke Low German. I asked the front desk woman for a room, she asked my name, I said “Dean”, she nodded, wrote my first name down and handed me a room key. I asked “Do you want my license or a credit card?”, to which she replied “What for?”. It was straight from the Mennonite handbook.
  3. I saw a billboard outside town with a face quite similar to mine, with my last name, that my uncle eventually confirmed to be my fourth cousin, flanked by two other faces with equally familial names.
  4. I was in Filadelfia over Easter weekend so most things were closed most of the time. One night the only thing I could find for dinner was an outdoor burger grill on the outskirts of town. I sat there with my burger and beer, outdoors, watching soccer with the mostly Paraguayan group of young people also there, and felt for a second like I was back in normal Paraguay. Right up until two old 100% German looking men walked around the corner, speaking Low German, wearing Lederhosen. What is going on here, lol?!
  5. I was having dinner at a German restaurant, which was amazing, and six local toughs came in and sat down. Clearly the town baddies, they were each a various mix of German and Paraguayan and each in leather and tattoos and piercings and the like, nothing that out of the ordinary, until they all started talking to each other, in the antiquated Mennonite form of Low German. It was like meeting the Sex Pistols but they all speak Shakespearean English, it broke my brain.

There’s an episode of Star Trek where they land on a desert wasteland planet, no life, nothing but blowing sand, until they suddenly find a fully functional casino hotel in the middle of the desert, and the rest of the episode is about the crew trying to figure out how this clearly impossibly out of place casino can possibly exist on a desolate, deserted, alien planet. Filadelfia is exactly like that, except it’s real.

Also, yes, I tried ordering a “Philly Cheesesteak” in Filadelfia more than once, cuz I thought that was hilarious, no one else got the joke tho, ever.

One of two supermarkets in Filly

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