Day three aboard this muggy cargo boat and I’m still incapable of turning around without bumping into a hanging bag of oranges, or a sack of wheat flour, or a jug of cooking oil. Crammed to the rafters with rapidly perishing produce, the Aquidaban is as colorful and claustrophobic as an Arabian souk. An unwritten rule confines pigs, chickens, and goats to the foredeck, but two plus-size rats, Carlos and Pepe, as named by the cook who ladles out the stew, have the run of the ship. The rawboned cats prowling around are wise not to pick fights.
For roughly six dollars a day, anyone can hitch a ride aboard this floating market, a 128-footer that runs a weekly route on the Paraguay River from the center of the country to its northern border. Dozens of locals have wedged themselves into the second deck. They include women and children, but most are bushwhackers: men who scrape out a living clearing trees and brush for small-scale livestock farmers along the upper stretches of the river. Some travel with their own chainsaws. Others carry machetes wrapped in newspaper. They huddle shoulder to shoulder, dulling their discomfort with cans of Ouro Fino, Paraguay’s cheapest beer. Most speak the indigenous language of Guarani first, Spanish second.
I’m with Toni Greaves, an Australian photographer. With my notebooks, her cameras, and our English, we’re conspicuous outsiders. Occasionally, I catch the men staring at us and speaking in lowered voices, as if taking bets on what exactly we’re up to. They’ll never guess. We’re looking for paradise. I’ve heard it’s under construction just upriver.
According to my GPS, we’ve crept into the southern edge of the Pantanal, a tropical wetland that’s about 30 times larger than Everglades National Park. The clear divide between the river and its banks has begun to dissolve. Floating islands of rubbery-stemmed water hyacinths grow big enough to be mistaken for solid land. Water encircles the trunks of riverside wax palms, and dark stains mark how much higher on the trees it can rise. The red-dirt roads in this part of the country are washed out for months at a time, and when temperatures as hot as 120 degrees bake them dry, they become dangerously rutted. This boat is the only reliable mode of transport serving the riverside villages.
A couple of times a day, we stop at a predetermined location, which can be as simple as a single shack with nothing else in sight but water and scrubland. A crewman shoves a long wooden gangplank out to the bank. Mattresses, motorcycles, chocolate cookies, oxcart wheels—there’s no predicting what might pass over those splintered boards to the families pacing with anticipation at the river’s edge.
One of the Guarani-speaking bushwhackers standing next to me on the foredeck can’t contain his curiosity. “Which stop are you getting off at?” he asks in rusty Spanish. Five or six of his friends—all, like him, in their twenties, with baseball caps pulled low over their brows—stop chatting and pretend not to eavesdrop. “Puerto Leda,” I answer.
He tilts back a can of Ouro Fino. I ask him if he’s heard of it. Of course, he says. He rides this boat once a month, and it always stops at Puerto Leda. But, like everyone else I’ve quizzed on board, he’s never walked ashore to look around.
“I know that some Japanese men live there,” he tells me. “They’re with the Moon sect.” He drains the can, eyeing me. “Are you?”