BY SAINT JOHN BARNED-SMITH I’m not quite sure when Christian, 27, first invited me to go on a pilgrimage. But, in the spirit of “Why not,” – in which I’ve also learned how to help cows give birth, eat raccoon, and kill pigs – I agreed. I assumed we would go to the shrine of the Virgin of Caacupe, the main site of pilgrimages in Paraguay. But the shrine of Itape, located about 40km east of Potrero Pucu, is closer, and (more importantly) walkable. The night we left, I packed a couple of soggy empanadas my host mom had cooked up for me along with some lukewarm tea, and a swimsuit. I caught a few fitful hours of sleep, and at 11pm, trundled down to Ña Veronica’s house, where Christian and Hugo, 25, were sharing a few beers before we set out. The air was humid but not hot, one of the reasons that many Paraguayans make their pilgrimages by night. We decided to hike along country roads to Yvytymi, and travel from there along the new highway to Itape.
We traveled without incident over the first few hours, bullshitting and slurping down the tea I’d brought. The the sky was clear, the moon so bright we didn’t need the flashlights we brought. We passed through the flat campo of the department, passing a couple of diminutive rivers, pungent stands of eucalyptus, and a little over an hour later, the pueblo of Yvytymi, 8k east of Potrero Pucu. The moon set about an hour after we passed at Yvytymi, the stars and the occasional 18-wheeler became our only illumination. I saw Orion (which is always prominent in the skyline here), the Pleiades cluster, the Southern Cross, and what could have been Gemini, though I have no real way of knowing. My knowledge of astronomy includes a report on Orion I wrote in 6th grade, the zodiac calendar, and a childhood fascination with Greek mythology.
So we walked, and walked, and walked, calves knotting, feet blistering, knees tightening. I almost started sleepwalking at one point, until I found myself face-down on the cement, scraped up, and suddenly very much awake. “Do you still have my bombilla?” Hugo asked. (I’d been carrying his Terere thermos) And so we kept walking, pausing only once for a few minutes to gulp down the empanadas and tea I’d kept stowed in the bottom of my backpack. To the east, the sky lightened over a series of immense sugar-cane fields, mist collecting at the bottom of the foothills in the distance. Cane-workers popped out of the rushes to watch us pass by, faces haggard, calves cramping, weaving slightly with drowsiness. Finally, we saw a sign – Itape, 4km. More fields of cane, and the cool dampness of night gave way to a pleasant, then itching heat. An hour later, 7.5 hours after we left, we stumbled into the backside of Itape. We paid a boatman 5mil to ferry us across the river in a battered carnelian skiff, and arrived at the shrine of Itape. END OF PART 1
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Phawker South American Bureau chief St. John Barned-Smith just started a two year hitch in the Peace Corps stationed in rural Paraguay. You can read his previous diary entries HERE.