When I hit the hotel bed early Monday morning after traveling over 18 hours, it felt glorious. I left under cover of darkness on Sunday to catch my flight at Dulles, where I boarded a Copa Airlines Airbus to Panama. I was alone on the first leg of my journey, as my colleagues were all coming in from other places. In Panama I met up with Colin, one of my contacts from the International Development Bank, and Liza, a colleague from WRI I’d only talked to on the phone. We made introductions and boarded for Paraguay.
We landed a little before midnight local time. After a bumpy taxi ride to our hotel, we checked in and got settled in our rooms. I set up my gear for charging, organized my clothes and shooting rigs, and got to bed a little after 1.
Our first day started early. We went to the IDB offices in Paraguay to meet the rest of our team and film interviews with a couple of local bank representatives. I had to set up and shoot quickly, and worked with the available light I had inside the building–which, thankfully, was very photogenic and filled with lots of indirect light. Then we took them outside and filmed some interviews in the shade, which looked lovely but did little to combat the dry heat. It’s summer in Paraguay so the local temperatures were around 90˚, which made me glad I wasn’t wearing a tie.
After a quick lunch, we taxi’d over to the offices of the Sudameris Bank in the old colonial district of Ascención to film a senior bank official. Here the local architecture was against me. Many of the taller buildings have heat-dispersing shutters built on their sun-facing sides, which work well for keeping the building cool but suck for filming against, and block 50% of the outside light. All of the available offices on that floor were dark and full of shadows, so I started setting up for the worst case scenario until one of our colleagues asked if we could get onto the roof. We followed a guard up a flight of stairs and out onto a terrace, where a large portion was shaded by a raised helicopter platform overhead. The only drawback I saw was that the building’s machinery was all sitting in the open, which made sound recording impossible. Guillermo quietly asked if they would shut the A/C and air handlers off, and in 5 minutes we had silence. I framed the shot, set up the sound, and we got two interviews filmed with the skyline of Ascención in the background. I also took the opportunity to shoot some footage of the streets and Ox while we were up there.
From there we split up taxis and headed back to the hotel, where a change of clothes and splash of clean water made a huge difference. In the courtyard we had some freshly squeezed lemonade, prepared strategy for Tuesday, and ate dinner–which was excellent for a small boutique hotel.
Tuesday morning I was able to sleep in for a few extra hours, as our first interview was scheduled for 11AM. We traveled to another bank and were escorted to a spacious, airy office where my colleagues made their pitch and I got set up for the shoot. This office was on a north-facing side, so we had clear views from floor-to-ceiling windows to shoot against. Then we walked to the roof and shot a bunch of B-roll footage of the city.
After that, I tagged along with two of my colleagues as they went to meet with a representative of the WWF to introduce the project we’re working on. We met her at her house in a quiet neighborhood, where she hosted us in her garden. Surrounded by walls covered in greenery, and centered around a large, lush tree, the patio was beautiful, quiet, and the perfect setting to talk about saving the forest.
That evening we taxi’d to a restaurant recommended by another colleague. This began with a little drama. When our driver walked back to converse with the second (arguing about where the location actually was) our car began to slowly roll forward. Trapped behind the driver’s seat, I was unable to do much, but Luis, on the other side of the back seat (we were sitting three abreast) jumped forward to pull the emergency brake–which didn’t work. Then he leapt forward into the driver’s seat to push the brake down, but couldn’t reach it…while we picked up speed down a hill towards a shiny new sedan. The cab driver finally noticed and rushed back to hit the brake just before a collusion.
Our destination was called the Hotel Brooklyn, where the entrance was decorated as a speakeasy and the maitre’d gave us an introduction to the concept while we stood in a faux secret elevator. Then he pulled aside a curtain to a room decorated like a secret nightclub. Here I attempted to decipher a sushi menu written in Spanish. Deciding that raw fish might not be the best idea (and noting that most of the available rolls included cream cheese) I opted for a steak with risotto. The conversation and my companions were fantastic, and we stayed until midnight while valentine couples filled each available table, including (I was told) the current Miss Paraguay.
Wednesday morning was another early one, and I was to be picked up by the father of one of my colleagues for a tour of Ascención for some B-roll footage. Reinaldo could not have been a more pleasant companion, and he took me north out of the city proper to find some vantage points of the river, which is the main commercial artery of Paraguay. We ducked down some side roads, then some side side roads, until finally we were on dirt tracks heading through dusty residential areas toward the river.
Paraguay reminds me a lot of sections of Mexico City, in that there are brand-new buildings next to older structures that are half-maintained and fronted by crumbling sidewalks. I get the feeling that the climate takes a toll on man-made structures, so everything needs constant upkeep, and sometimes that’s done and sometimes it isn’t. The area we drove through was no different; there were sections of concrete block and tin-roofed shacks next to walled, garden-filled houses with electricity and newer cars in the drive. Reinaldo got us to the edge of the river and we hiked out to a pier, where an older man stood smoking and watching the boats pass by. I shot some footage of what I could see but got stymied by a fogged lens from the temperature differential between A/C and outside. We said our good-byes and headed further south to the bridge over the river which separates the north from the south. Stopping to shoot again, we hiked up to the apex and shot Ascención in the distance through slow-moving motor traffic.
Reinaldo offered to see if we could get into a slaughterhouse up the road, so we drove north and parked in the shade. He tried talking his way in, based on the fact that his farm is part of the larger co-operative that owns the operation, and because he’s kind of a big deal in the Paraguayan banking system. The guards were unmoved, and a skeptical representative came out to politely decline our request, so we jumped back in and headed into the city.
Along the whole route, I peppered Reinaldo with questions about himself and Paraguay, and he seemed delighted to answer my questions. His story is pretty common for the country; as the descendant of Ukranian immigrants directly after the Second World War, he grew up in the Chaco on land his parents carved out of wilderness. He was educated in Paraguay and went to the Netherlands to go to college (during the height of the dictatorship that gripped the country for 35 years), where he met his wife, and they returned home to raise their family when the country returned to democracy.
Our time up, he returned me to the IDB offices where I thanked him profusely for his time, and I got set up for our next interview, with the head of the IDB in Paraguay. We shot a couple more interviews while we were there, and then headed back to the hotel for a break before dinner.
This evening, dinner was at another hip restaurant, this one focused on a hippie surfing vibe. We gathered around a huge table, ordered drinks, and laughed over the events of our trip. Much of our group was leaving the next day, so it was great to catch up one last time before splitting up.
Thursday morning we met our driver, Callixto, from the WWF, who showed us a map over breakfast and then bundled us into a shiny snorkeled 4Runner for our trip northward. We picked up Nick, a former Peace Corps volunteer and current WWF employee, and headed out of the city. Over the bridge and up into the Chaco, we drove for 160 kilometers until we hit a small intersection marked by a roadside stand. Turning off to the west, our journey took us another 60km over dirt roads out into the wilderness. Here the previous day’s rainfall had made the road muddy in places, and apparently Chaco mud becomes impassable quickly. We’d waited a few hours before leaving to allow the roads to dry out, but Callixto had to do some careful driving through axle-deep stretches every few kilometers.
The Chaco itself is beautiful country; completely flat, hectares of palm trees rise from lush grass that covers the land. The forest is not forest as we know it in the Northeast; it’s a mixture of tall grass, brush, palm, and deciduous trees on both dry and wet ground.
We stopped abruptly at the entrance to a ranch and navigated the road to the main buildings through increasingly deeper pits of mud. I found myself wishing I’d shipped the Scout down for the opportunity to drive through some of this stuff; as it was, our air-conditioned 4Runner made its way through with few problems. Reaching the ranch, we were greeted by the owner, his friend, and the foreman, who hydrated us while I broke out the drone and assembled it for flight.
All the literature I’d read claimed there would be no problem switching hemispheres, and I was able to get clear signal with the handheld GPS I’d borrowed with the drone. But no amount of time or fussing with the drone itself would get it to acquire satellites. I’ll explain: The drone is equipped with an on-board GPS system that it uses to identify its location. If it senses any problems–it’s out of range, the batteries are dying–it will take over control and return itself to the spot where it landed as a fail-safe. So flying without satellites is for the expert pilot in the best of cases. A wind sock posted at the edge of the field I was in showed there was a southwesterly breeze at 20′, so I figured it would be stronger the higher I got.
I took it up for a brief test flight with no satellite connection, and it immediately turned north. No amount of input could get it to turn around, and it continued heading into the wind away from me. I got it turned in the general direction of the cattle pen but worried it would spook the livestock–which it did–turned it away from a pond, and crash-landed it in some high grass. Had it been mine, or the company’s, I would have taken it back up to try and get decent footage, but I didn’t want to lose or break it on Eric. I called him on Colin’s phone and talked through it with him, but we had no answers. So it got packed back up and we went to Plan B.
Edit: Doing some sleuthing, I pulled the GPS coordinates from the handheld I brought and plugged them into Google Maps. Doing some more sleuthing, I think I found the approximate location of our ranch, which was here–about 30 miles’ difference. So I think something is very fishy with GPS in the southern hemisphere.
Our hosts then took us up a road to see a field being cleaned of brush, and we left there to see another example up the path. About two kilometers in, we got stuck up to the axles in mud that was half earth, half manure. Our hosts reversed back to our location to try and pull us out but got themselves stuck as well. So we waited for the bulldozer we’d just filmed to come and pull us out. It was at this point the reality of just how far we were from ANYTHING became clear. I recalled a story we’d been told about what the Mennonites in that area do when someone has been bitten by a rattlesnake; because medical care is so distant to everything, and the roads so primitive, the solution to buy time is to USE A TASER ON THE VICTIM. From what we were told, the shock to the system does something to slow down the reaction to the venom, long enough for medical aid to be reached. (Later on we were told that a a car battery works well in a pinch).
Eduardo the tractor driver pulled us out without much fuss, and we backtracked to reach some different fields. Somewhere around here my strategy of wearing shorts was revealed as the mistake it was; the mosquitoes in the Chaco are legion, and they are hungry. Colin shared his bug repellent with us, but every half-hour required a re-application due to sweat and movement. Regardless, I was there to work, and so continued to shoot with clouds of mosquitoes covering my body. This included a boggy walk through marshland to see a stand of mostly forest, something that was neither photogenic nor worth the wet shoes and thousand bites I suffered walking to and from the spot. Each time we got in the truck we had to spend five minutes killing the swarms of mosquitoes that followed us in; I was glad I wore a dark shirt because I continually smashed engorged bugs, leaving splotches of blood on my skin. (one of our colleagues, native to Paraguay, looked at Colin’s sneakers the night before we left, shook his head, and said quietly, “These shoes are not for the Chaco.”)
At lunchtime we returned to the main house and shot a bunch of footage of the cattle in their pen awaiting vaccination; Even though I’ve seen this in person before it always takes my breath away at the size and power of healthy cattle. These cattle are truly free-range: the size of the fields in Paraguay stagger belief, and the grass they feed on grows so well on its own, there is no need for fertilizer or chemicals of any kind.
We also met the vaqueros’ horses, waiting patiently under a tree, and a small herd of semi-feral cattle dogs.
Lunch was served in the main house, which could have doubled for the lounge of a boutique hotel. Under vaulted ceilings held up with hand-hewn beams, they had prepared a meal of Picañha, which I was told was the best cut of meat, with a tomato, egg, and onion salad and sopa paraguaya, a cheesy cornbread. They sliced the meat with the sharpest Bowie knife I’ve ever held). Sated, we packed up and headed for two final fields, one of flat, seeded grazing grass, and the second with tall wide-leaved grass also used for feed. This last field was the one we’d tried to get to when we got stuck, so we had to find another way in. This required a bumpy ride in a wagon towed by a tractor (Piloted by the estimable Eduardo) over four kilometers of half-cleared dirt path. I have a suspicion that anything not used regularly in the Chaco gets overgrown immediately, because we spent most of the ride ducking low branches and hanging on as the wagon bobbled over uneven track and waded through marshy bog.
Our forward progress kept the mosquitoes at bay but as soon as we stopped they came at us in swarms. I quickly climbed atop the tractor roof and started shooting, which was helpful because they didn’t follow me that high. Once we had what we needed, Eduardo turned us around (there was a heart-stopping moment where the tractor lost purchase and he spun the wheels in the muck; Colin turned to me, laughing under his breath, and said, “Can you imagine us getting stuck, trying to shoot the last footage of the day, with all those mosquitos between here and the trucks?”) Thankfully Eduardo was on top of it, got us turned around, and we headed back to the road. The mosquitoes had followed our trail, though, and they were ten times the number we’d dealt with coming in.
After a long and painful ride back, we cheered Eduardo as we got to the trucks, said our thanks to our hosts, took some selfies, and headed for home under a low sun.
I was humbled by the gracious nature of everyone I met in country, visible in simple things like driving habits; there is no road rage in what I experienced in multiple cars on multiple days. This also became clear as we drove our way back over the hardpack and through an area of recent rainfall, where we came upon a grizzled old man working over a tiny compact, stuck in a section of mud. Callixto backed up so they could hitch to his bumper, put the 4Runner in low gear, and we pulled them through the muck for a couple of kilometers until they could get their engine started again. Saying our goodbyes as the shadows got longer, we left them to make it home.
Before the sun went down completely, we came upon a surprise in the roadway: a South American rattlesnake stretched out in the sun. It sat and pretended it didn’t see us, but had to be moved in order for us to get past. We got as close as we dared to shoot some pictures, and then scared it into the brush with some carefully thrown clods of dirt. It wound up on itself, gave us a rattle, and retreated backwards into the grass, keeping us visible. Colin then pointed out that we’d been tramping through brush, bog, field, and forest all afternoon, and never knew if we’d been close to something that dangerous the whole time. I for one was glad we didn’t have to test out the car battery theory, as I don’t think Callixto had a taser in his WWF field pack.
The sun went down pretty quickly, and Callixto got us off the dirt road as the last light was leaving; we stopped at a gas station for water and snacks, and then hightailed it down the highway for our hotel. Colin and I got back at about 10, and we got cleaned up before heading around the corner for some mediocre pizza and cold beer.
Friday my wake-up call came at 4:30 local time (2:30 EST) and a man in the creakiest, noisiest taxi in Paraguay got me to the Departure gate in 20 minutes. I sailed through customs and security, and boarded a packed flight to leave. My layover in Panama was about 7 hours, so I camped out next to a working power outlet and fought the airport’s wifi to tell Jen I was OK. About this time my mosquito bites started acting up (they hadn’t itched at all when the fuckers were biting me) and my sunburn compounded the issue, so it was with great relief that I was able to doze on the plane once we got in the air. Landing in Dulles after midnight, recovering my luggage, and getting to my shuttle was easy, but after having lugged my shit from DC to Paraguay to the Chaco and back again, I wound up leaving my phone on the floor of the shuttle. All things considered, though, if that’s all that went wrong, I’ll take it.