Round About Pirapo
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
STRANGE ADVENTURES IN THE WILDS OF PARAGUAY-A NIGHT IN A COUNTRY HOTEL-PARAGUAY'S ONLY RAILROAD, AND ITS STRANGE PASSENGERS-WOMEN WHO PEDDLE RAW MEAT AT THE STATIONS-COUNTRY SCENES - TENS OF THOUSANDS OF ANT-HILLS -A LAND WHERE ORANGES GROW WILD-ODD FEATURES OF LIFE OUTSIDE THE CITIES.
HAVE you ever heard of Pirapo ? It is a little town at the end of the railroad in southern Paraguay, 156 miles from Asuncion, and about 70 miles north of the Paranâ river. Vast pastures surround it, for it is right out on the prairie, so that droves of cattle wander through it and graze in its streets. Pirapo has, altogether, not more than 50 inhabitants. It consists of a-half dozen mud huts, roofed with gray thatch, a frame rail-road depot about 15 feet square, and a hotel with walls of mud and poles and a roof of corrugated iron.
I spent last night in the hotel, sleeping in a room with three other travellers, but, thank fortune ! with a bed to myself. And such a bed; it was of a kind common in Paraguay, a canvas cot upon stretchers, with a pigmy pillow, so small that I feared it might get into my ear and so hard that it almost bored a hole in my head. My room-mates were a German cattle-buyer, a Paraguayan gaucho or cowboy, and Mr. William Harrison, the resident agent of the New York Life Insurance Company. The German coughed all night, the Paraguayan snored like a fog-horn, and Mr.. Harrison at intervals cleared his throat and denounced the others for keeping him awake. It was indeed a restful time. And still it was a good hotel for Paraguay. The meals were cooked by a young Italian who looked like a butcher, and who shuffled about the table in his bare feet, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The meals were served in courses, and we had a table cloth and napkins. Our early breakfast was merely black coffee and dry bread, to which I added a couple of oranges. Dinner consisted of a vegetable soup, boiled beef, stewed chicken and rice, a kidney saute, and a dessert of peanut candy. We had excellent bread, but no butter. Wine was furnished free with the dinner.
The landlord of the hotel was also a storekeeper, and his store will give you an idea of how things are sold in the back-woods of South America. The store-room was twenty feet square. It was walled with shelves filled with the goods most in demand by the Paraguayans. There were cottons from England, bottles of mustard, bitters, and liquors from France, and as many sardine boxes and canned meats as you will see in a mining store in the Rockies. There were sugar, rice, and bread, hats, shoes, and umbrellas. There was kerosene from the United States and a pair of scales made in Vermont. A large part of the business seemed to be in liquors. On the floor in the rear stood two barrels with dripping spigots: one contained a cheap Italian wine, which sells here for thirteen cents a quart; the other held calla, the native sugar brandy, which is so powerful that a full glass would intoxicate an American toper. It is sold for thirteen cents a quart, so that for about two cents enough can be bought to make a man intoxicated.
Paraguay has but one railroad, the only one of its kind in the world. It was built by an English syndicate under a subsidy from the government, and it is managed by the English to-day. Its cars go at such a pace that a dog tied to the rear of the train might keep up without trouble. The train waits long at the stations, and when it stops for meals it does not start until the last of the passengers has finished drinking his coffee. The prices of the tickets are low, differing according to class. The first-class cars are much like ours, in that there is an aisle running through the centre, with seats on each side; the seats are cushioned with wicker, and are not uncomfortable. The second-class cars are much the same; but the third-class have seats under the windows like those of a street car, with benches running back to back through the centre of the car.
In our train the third-class cars were filled with women and men, most of whom were smoking and chewing. There were more women than men, and more smokers among them. Some of the girls were very pretty, but almost all, from maids of six-teen to little tots of six, had cigars in their mouths. At every station I saw women smoking cigars, and women peddlers came to the car windows and offered me bunches of cigars at the rate of a cent apiece. I noticed that most of the girls had fairly good teeth, which were often discoloured by the tobacco they were so disgustingly using.
At many of the stations the coming of the train was the event of the day. As the whistle blew there would be a rush to the depot. Crowds of women peddlers would take their places on the platforms, some with oranges, others with vegetables, and others still with beef. Think of selling raw meat at a railroad station! At nearly every stopping-place butcher women appeared at the trains with great baskets of raw beef, which they peddled out in chunks to the passengers. Many of the meat peddlers had cigars in their mouths and they smoked as they sold; other women offered us laces, and a few had baby clothes and pieces of embroidery. There were also shoe-peddlers and peddlers of cakes and sweets.
During the journey we almost, lived on oranges. The common fruit of this kind is as fine as any raised on the Indian River; the skin is so oily that if you squeeze it bubbles of oil will stand out upon it, and if you touch a match to a bubble it will go off in a flash as though it were powder. Oranges grow wild in Paraguay. They are so plentiful that the people live upon them during the season, and it is not uncommon for a man to eat twenty-five in a day. They are exceedingly cheap; I have had ten offered me for a cent. At the station at Santa Clara, above Piparo, I offered a "medic)," a native coin worth three-fourths of an American cent, to an orange peddler, saying in my poor Spanish:
"Quantos oranges por un media, Senorita?"
"Ocho," replied the damsel, as she gripped her cigar between her ivory teeth, and held out both hands containing eight golden balls which would be worth at least forty cents in a New York market at the height of the orange season.
I am surprised at the beauties of interior Paraguay. The country is rolling and there is something new to be seen at almost every turn of the wheel. There are orange trees in the thickets and nearly every village of thatched huts has orange trees about it. There are palm trees on the plains; they grow in groves or in clumps rather than in forests. Some varieties are loaded with nuts, great bunches of little balls no larger round than a walnut, but of the same shape as the cocoanuts sold in our markets. These little cocoanuts are valuable, and the raising of them is one of the most profitable , of the smaller industries of Paraguay. They are ground up and used 'for making palm oil and soap.
Large parts of Paraguay are natural pastures, with here and there clumps of woods or forests scattered through them. It is only the hills that are covered with trees. The plains have a rich growth of grass. Nearly all the land along the railroad is taken up; it is held in large tracts, many of the farms being fenced with barbed wire. It is curious to notice the different kinds of pasture. Some fields are covered with grass, which is coarse, gray, and dead, while adjoining them are meadows as green as Kansas in June. The green fields are those that have been burnt over to improve the pasture. As soon as the dead grass is burnt off, the green sprouts come up; the burning is done by many farmers once a year. The grass is better in the south; about Pirapo it is as high as your waist, and the cattle literally stand in it up to their bellies.
The cattle of the region are of a mongrel breed. They are somewhat like the long-horned stock which we had in Texas a generation ago, and which, until within a few years, was common in Argentina. Now the Argentines have fine stock, and this will eventually be the case with the Paraguayans. Most of the stock feed out in the open without visible care; I have seen no herding, although on some of the farms the gauchos were rounding up and branding the cattle. At such times the animals are thrown to the ground and the brands put on with red-hot irons. On getting again to their feet, the cattle are wild and revengeful, and frequently attack the cowboys if they can catch them dismounted.
One of the oddest things in Paraguay is the ant; it is the only thing that turns the country upside down. You see evidences of its work everywhere. Many of the fields are covered with thousands of ant-hills: some hills are as big as a haycock and a yard in diameter; others are not as large as a sugar loaf. They are red or brown, according to the soil of which they are made. These hills dot the landscape here as the burial-mounds do China. They are found in the cultivated lands and in the pasture fields, where you see long-horned cattle eating the grass among them. Sometimes they are only a few feet apart and sometimes fifteen or twenty feet: each of these hills is an ant village; it is an ant catacomb populated by thousands. There are as many ant works below the surface as there are above it. When a field is to be cultivated the first work is to get rid of the ants: the way to do this is to dig out the ant-hills and burn them; then only can the field be ploughed. The ants even burrow into the houses, then they make their way up through the brick floors and build sandhills upon them, so that a woman may go to bed with a house as clean as a Dutch kitchen and awake the next morning to find her floors covered with great cones of sand in which are thousands of ants.
The average country house, however, has no floor but the earth. Nine-tenths of the houses outside of the cities are huts of poles, which are woven together and tied with withes or strings. They have roofs of thatch which extend out at one side, forming an open shed or room. Often the shed is larger than the closed part, for the latter is little more than the sleeping-place for the family. Many such houses have orange trees about them and palm trees waving over them. As you pass them you see that some have red walls and some walls of brown or white. At first you think the red ones are painted, but soon see that it is the soil with which they are chinked that is red. This is the colour of the best land of Paraguay. The contrast of this rich red and the soft velvet gray of the thatch is harmonious; the houses are thus exceedingly picturesque. In this respect they are much like the country houses of Japan. The larger farmhouses sometimes have two rooms, with a thatched roof connecting them, and an open space in the centre.
The Paraguayans are hospitable. You can call at any hut in the country and will be made perfectly at home. You will probably see a lot of naked babies and some naked children who are considerably older than babies, for in the back districts boys and girls up to the age of four-teen often go about naked. If you can speak the Guarani language,—the Indian tongue which is in common use among the lower classes, — you will find the people quite intelligent, though exceedingly simple and ignorant of the world. You will be given a cigar to smoke, and doubtless will be asked to take part in the puchero, or boiled beef and vegetables, which constitutes the usual meal. Your food will be cooked out of doors, and the women may have to pound the corn to powder in a wooden mortar before it is ready for cooking. When you first enter the hut, you will probably be offered a glass of brandy or cana, for everyone drinks and every village has its brandy distillery. Indeed, it is estimated that every man, woman, and child in Paraguay could drink two gallons of cana a year and not exhaust the supply.
In a visit of this kind you will learn that the people are con-tented with their lot. They are philosophers, who regard foreigners as fools, because they wear out their lives working for money.
Our first stop on the way to Pirapo was at Villa Rica, the second city of Paraguay. It lies about T00 miles east of Asuncion, at the foot of a low blue mountain range which crosses Paraguay. It has about 6,000 population and is considered the most cultured town in the country. Its better classes live in large one-story buildings, roofed with red tiles, which form comfortable homes. One of the most interesting sights is the market, where are hundreds of sheeted women buying and selling. There are scores of girls going to and fro with burdens upon their heads, not a few of whom are water-carriers bringing in water from the springs in the rear of the town. The vessels used for this purpose are of all sorts, from gourds to oil-cans.