Monday, November 9, 2015

Cross-Continental Whirlwind

Finally I feel as though I am adjusted back to reality after September and October were spent in a travel time-warp.  Even though I was only gone for about a month in total, the preparation and then decompression from a journey through four countries, (I am counting Texas as its own country), feels like I had been checked-out for much longer.

My solo journey back the the US for my sister's wedding reception and a quick family visit started with a bus ride and a border crossing from Ciudad del Este to Foz do Iguazu and then a flight from Sao Paolo to Houston and finally landing in San Antonio for a couple days to visit my sweet little Grammy and my Aunt, Uncle and cousins.  Good company, micro-brews and homemade fajitas did not disappoint.  But admittedly I was a little shell shocked while driving in rush hour on the interstate and especially when trying to work the technologically advanced ice-maker in my Aunt's fridge. "Yes," I thought to myself, "I have been in Paraguay for too long."

After three days in Texas I hopped another series of flights that deposited me in the midst of the Rocky Mountains, beautiful Whitefish, MT, my home.  Glued to the window, gawking at the Bob Marshall Wilderness, as we got closer to Kalispell, I exchanged friendly chit chat with the tourist who seemed more excited at that moment about my homecoming than I was.  However, when I saw my mom jumping up and down on the other side of the glass wall that separates the two terminals from the lobby in the Glacier International Airport, tears welled up in my eyes and I ran to greet my folks with joyful embraces.

It felt so amazing to be in my element, even though I felt totally estranged from it, for the next ten days.  Spending time with my friends and family and enjoying the beauty of Montana and all her treasures filled up every waking second.  I was exhausted but overstimulated every day as I raised my red solo cup of Salmon Fly Honey Rye to the newlyweds, climbed Great Northern Peak looking into Glacier National Park (an 8,705 foot shock to the system), and caught glistening cutthroat at a family favorite high mountain lake that resulted in five stitches - a small price to pay to take Montana's mark along with me for the rest of the journey.

It seemed like that old cliche, "things change but they stay the same," applied to both Montana and myself.  It was amazing to fall back in so easily to the groups of people I had quit cold turkey for the last 16 months, but a part of me felt sad for the friends and family I had left in Paraguay, and will leave for an undetermined amount of time when I go back to the states for good in 9 months.  It's a funny place to be, nostalgic for something that hasn't ended yet.

I bid my mom goodbye at the Missoula airport and met up with a Montana friend in Denver over lunch.  From there I flew to Sao Paulo where I met up with another Montana buddy who traveled with me through Brazil and Paraguay for the next two weeks.  Our final destination was Curitiba, Brazil where we soaked in the local sites, including a national park reminiscent of a slice of Canyonlands National Park in Utah, if it were covered in jungle.

Then we hopped on a scenic train through the misty jungle covered mountains and stopped in Morrettes, a beautiful colonial mountain town.  From there we hopped a couple buses and a boat to arrive at Honey Island, or Ihla do Mel at dusk.  Dolphins rose close to the boat and we cheers-ed with a Brazilian beer to the upcoming adventure.

After 3 days of camping, hiking and enjoying the island, we made moves to return to Paraguay, but stopped first at the incredible waterfalls at Foz do Iguazu.  Although it was my second time visiting the falls, it still took my breath away, especially when we doused ourselves under one of the waterfalls entering the "devils throat" or "garganta del diablo," in a speedboat raft hybrid.

After an especially tricky boarder crossing, we spent a few hours waiting for, hands down, the most horrendous overnight bus I have taken in Paraguay (and that is saying quite a bit).  I drifted in and out of consciousness as we stopped every half hour or so and boxes were thrust in my window and over my head, then lighting struck and rain drizzled in through my window that didn't close for what seemed like an eternity.

Fortunately the hell-bus deposited us in Encarnacion, home sweet home, where we spent a few days seeing the sights. But we didn't stop for long. We headed to Asuncion, caught an Argentina vs. Paraguay soccer match at the national stadium and hopped on a small military plane to Bahia Negra, in the heart of the Paraguayan Pantanal.  After standing on top of a peak looking into Glacier Park only two weeks before, I associated the same feeling of grandeur and natural majesty with the Pantanal, only in a completely different context.  The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world, where the Amazon basin drains all of its waters, and the Paraguayan side is by far the most remote part.  We rode a speed boat up the Rio Paraguay to its confluence of Rio Negro where the murky Rio Paraguay was noticeable cut by the clear dark water of the smaller Rio Paraguay.  At that point the tri-boarder region of Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil appears, though there are no signs of civilization that would reveal it.

We spent three days at an eco-lodge and biological research station watching wildlife such as caymen and giant river otters from tree stands, photographing and identifying a handful of the 250+ bird species in the area and fishing for piranha from canoes.  We did not want to leave this incredible wilderness, so instead of flying back, my friend and I took the merchant boat back down the Rio Paraguay for two days.  The boat was a cultural experience of its own, and we felt, and certainly smelled, like wild-west pirates making our way from river-town to river-town, stopping at each port along the way to take on cargo and people and then unload them again.  Besides being able to buy weekly staples in a market in the lower hull of the boat, there was everything from a pony to a washing machine on board.  Indigenous people in cowboy garb spoke languages other than Guarani and Spanish and we played slap-jack with their kids at the lunch counter until we all took siestas as a hot and humid thunder stormed rolled over us.

Arriving in Concepcion signified our return to the land-lubber life and to civilization.  We had traveled through the Pantanal and Gran Chaco by boat, an adventure few foreigners or even Paraguayans make in a lifetime...I hope I get the chance to go back one more time!

After a stop-over at another volunteers site and a few bus rides my friend and I parted ways.  She was heading to Bolivia and I was heading home, finally, after covering thousands of kilometers swept up in a whirlwind of travel and adventure.