If you have followed our ramblings on the Epic journey this far, then you know we made a lot of memories. One that stands out to me for sheer terror was a brutal assault we suffered in the Argentine Chaco.
We were attacked by monster mosquitoes.
You will be able to relate to this if you have tramped through southern swamplands, desperately swatting the little devils in order to stay alive. Or, if you have gone fishing in the Canadian north woods in summer, when clouds of ravenous no-see-ums chew on every inch of exposed flesh. Only if you’ve suffered like this do you truly know about life-threatening insects.
Take my word for it, Chaco mosquitoes are the world champs of biting bugs.
We narrowly escaped death-by-suction one day when we drove 20 miles into the bush to photograph a historic and now abandoned chapel. We had no sooner stepped out of our minivan when squadrons of thirsty mozzies zeroed in at Mach One speed. Black and beefy with bodies shaped like buffalo, these creatures did not hum, they screamed like fighter jets.
We beat a hasty retreat to the minivan, diving inside just in time to escape serious bloodshed. As we took photos of the sacred building through the windshield, hundreds of the crazed kamikazes slammed against the glass, trying to get at us. It was pure Alfred Hitchcock horror.
I am fully aware that you will consider all this far fetched exaggeration, unless you have visited the Chaco and personally confronted its malicious insect population. For example, the Juanita beetle secretes a poison on your skin that blisters into a moldy infection. Biting gnats, indifferent to repellent and small enough to penetrate window screens, leave red wounds that itch for days. Another bug resembling rye seed swarms around light bulbs to drop dead en masse onto the dining room table, or between the keys of your computer or, most annoying of all, down your shirt.
I’m convinced the bugs are partly responsible for giving the Chaco its name. “Chaco” comes from a Quechua word that means “a place to hunt.” Anthropologists think Native Americans named it for the rich variety of game present in the region. Personally I believe that the earliest humans went to the Chaco only to hunt, but had better sense than to make their homes there.
Three countries, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina share the Gran Chaco, an area equal in size to South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas put together. These are three of the flattest states in the U.S.A. and that is exactly what the Chaco is. Except that the Chaco is flatter, so flat that no rivers flow through vast stretches of its plains. Rain stays put at the very spot it falls from the sky, pooling ankle- or knee-deep for days and weeks at a time. Farm families must endure flooded gardens, outhouses and living rooms until the hard clay soil allows the water to slowly seep underground.
Granted, rain is only an occasional occurrence. If it rains, farmers can produce cotton, soybeans, sunflowers and melons in the Chaco. But drought is the norm. Some last as long as six months, others as long as three years. Summer temperatures can reach 120°F for days on end. Farming the Chaco, you can imagine, is not for the meek or weak.
Nobody even tried farming here until about a hundred years ago. Chaqueños, as inhabitants are known, have faced up to their severe environment with severe realism, giving names to their towns like Rio Muerto (Dead River), Monte Quemado (Burnt Brush) and Pampa del Infierno (Plain of Hell).
By the way, there’s a great little diner called The Two Brothers where you can stop for lunch in the Plain of Hell. But you may not want to stay for supper….
As you can guess, Chaqueños are some of the toughest people on the planet. They are also among the most hospitable. We found this out while spending a week with the Borke family, pastors of the Church of God in Coronel du Graty. Actually just Barbara, Ben and I spent the week there. Molly and Lindsey decided to forego the whole Chaco experience and took off instead for Buenos Aires.
The congregation in Coronel du Graty is composed chiefly of descendants of farmers who immigrated here from Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. German speakers in the main, they considered the Chaco something of a promised land compared to the countries plagued by war, poverty and political turmoil that they left behind.
Hard-working and thrifty, Chaqueños are also generous. Once they heard the pastor was hosting guests from out of town, homemade pickles, potato salad, cakes, cookies, and sides of pork and goat appeared for the table. We passed a remarkably pleasant week, sheltering from the heat and bugs in the Borke’s comfortable home and enjoying frequent barbecues in their shady backyard.
When it came time to leave, Molly and Lindsey rendezvoused with us at the bus station in Saenz Peña for the overnight trip to the Bolivian border. Though less than 24 hours in duration, their Chaco experience lived up to expectations, as this entry from Molly’s journal attests.
We left Monday afternoon to embark on a very looong journey. Around 2:00 a.m., we arrived in a small town and were informed that we had just missed our connecting bus. The next one did not arrive until 7:30 am. In any other town, this news would not have been so bad, but we had just arrived in the creepiest (literally) bus station we had seen yet.
Large beetles covered the parking lot in a carpet of black, squirming bugs that crunched under our feet. You literally had to dance to keep from having one climb up your leg. As we looked on in dismay, a stray dog lapped up a few of them in an attempt at a nutritious dinner.
Fortunately we still had two hammocks with us. Dad and Lindsey found a place to hang them. Mom and I lay down on a sheet on the concrete platform far from the beetles, hoping to catch a bit of shut eye. Ben stayed awake most of the time, diligently keeping watch over our bags and logging our adventure in his journal. I awoke to a swarm of white gnats and many curious eyes watching me from across the street.
Lest I leave the impression that the Chaco produces only insects, you should know that it contains nearly 3,500 varieties of plants, 99.9 percent of which have thorns. The legendary quebracho tree yields hardwood so tough that, like diamonds, it shatters to pieces if not cut correctly.
Animals common in other parts of South America prowl the forests, including the jaguar, peccary, deer, tapir and howler monkey. Bird watchers come from around the world in hopes of spotting some of the 500 species of birds that nest here. The renowned British theologian John Stott eagerly accepted invitations to lead Bible conferences in Paraguay, I am told, so that he could afterward spend a few days in the Chaco indulging his passion for birdwatching.
Granted, theologians are scarce in the Chaco. So are the Evangelical megachurches so common these days in Latin America’s large cities. That is likely because there are no big cities in the Chaco.
Nevertheless, there does exist here a unique expression of Christianity that attracts interest from around the world. I am talking about the Mennonite colonies.
First, some context. About a hundred years ago, Bolivia and Paraguay fought a war in the Chaco. It seems inconceivable that nations would sacrifice their best and brightest for this desolate terrain, but that is exactly what happened. The Gran Chaco War claimed 100 thousand lives, making it the costliest combat fought on South American soil in the 20th century.
Like most wars, the reasons why it broke out are fuzzy. Borders between Paraguay and Bolivia were themselves fuzzy, having been demarcated by Spanish law during colonial times. Just which parts of the Chaco belonged to which country was constantly in dispute, provoking perpetual skirmishes between forward military posts. The conflict exploded into all-out war in 1932 with the Battle of Boquerón.
Like a lot of wars, outsiders meddled in the conflict. Bolivia’s commander in chief, General Hans Kundt, was a German veteran of WW1. His tactics caused unnecessarily high casualties and he was soon replaced. But European involvement continued. Arms dealers from Czechoslovakia, England, Germany, France and Italy supplied guns to both armies. The Chaco became a sort of firing range for field testing weapons later used in WW2.
Like many wars, its outcome was inconclusive and disappointing. In 1935, Argentina mediated a ceasefire and then brokered the 1938 permanent peace treaty. That agreement granted Paraguay three-quarters of the northern Chaco, nearly doubling the size of the country. Bolivia’s war prize was a land corridor to the Paraguay River and the right to construct a port for ocean-going ships, a dream that has yet to be realized.
Like all wars, it led to tragic loss of life and great economic hardship that could in no way justify a rationale for fighting it. Paraguay fought to acquire vast oil reserves believed to lie beneath the Chaco. But none were discovered when the war ended. For Bolivia, the Chaco War set in motion a decades-long cycle of political instability that hindered the country’s economic development and social progress. The disaster led Eusebio Ayala to lament, “It is unfortunate that two poor nations would use their limited resources to destroy each other.”
It was in this period of war that Mennonites started their colonies in Paraguay. Mennonites are known mainly for their plain ways, plain clothes and fabulous home cooking. Yet they, too, are acquainted with conflict and loss. For centuries they suffered unrelenting religious persecution in Europe.
Their troubles go all the way back to the Protestant Reformation. The most radical of the reformers, they adamantly objected to the custom of infant baptism. This earned them the derogatory nickname “Anabaptists” and led to the death of thousands of martyrs. Their insistence that the church be separate from the state invited the wrath of princes and priests alike.
But it was their commitment to pacifism that caused Mennonites the greatest grief. Community leaders negotiated agreements with one European ruler after another exempting their men from going to war, only to see subsequent governments nullify the compacts. When that happened, they faced the options of bearing arms, serving time or worse. So communities uprooted themselves and moved on.
Eventually Mennonites cast their eye on the New World and its infant democracies. By and large, they found these countries refreshingly tolerant of their ideals. Paraguay accepted the first group of 1,740 Mennonite colonists in 1927 and settled them in the deep Chaco. They were the first persons of European descent ever to live there and attempt to farm the land. Initial hardships claimed more than 120 lives; 60 families gave up and returned to Canada. Yet the colony survived and eventually thrived. Known today as Filadelfia, it is the largest and wealthiest population center in the deep Chaco.
More Mennonite colonies took root in the 1930s and 40s, as word got around about the cheap land and unfettered lifestyle. Paraguay allowed the colonies to establish their own schools and teach classes in German, a hallmark of the Mennonite community. The colonies multiplied and flourished.
Economists affirm that Paraguayan Mennonites today enjoy a quality of life on par with Spain’s. Their achievements have benefited the entire economy of Paraguay, propelling the small country into sixth place among the world’s beef exporters. The 40 thousand Mennonite colonists are less than one percent of the population, yet account for seven percent of the country’s GDP.
What is their secret? "Without faith in God and Jesus Christ, this would not have been possible," Patrick Friesen, leader of the agricultural cooperative in Filadelfia, told a visiting journalist in 2012.
There is yet another secret to their story. Paraguayan officials initially encouraged Mennonites to colonize the Chaco in order to counter Bolivian incursions into the region. They calculated that they could legitimately claim ownership of the Gran Chaco only if they settled it with their own citizens. The fact that the chosen settlers were pacifists was not lost on Paraguayan officials. That made them an ideal buffer between opposing armies, a sort of non-violent, peace-keeper force.
It must have worked, because Bolivia and Paraguay have been at peace now for nearly a hundred years. Perhaps that is also due to the fact that Mennonites have built colonies in Bolivia on the northern edge of the Chaco, in effect creating a double buffer of peace keepers.
It occurs to me that this expression of Christianity is just what the Chaco needed. Taking into account what Jesus said in the Beatitudes about peacemakers, I reckon the Mennonites have been a real blessing to the Chaco.
And if any place on earth could use a blessing, this hot, harsh, dry hunting ground is certainly one.
Next time: At home in the Llajta