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Chasing trains in 1950’s Paraguay

At the midpoint of the twentieth century Paraguay remained a backwater in Latin America and was hardly known outside the subcontinent. Human development indicators were among the lowest in the region and even Asunción, the capital city, did not have a water supply system. The highway network was almost nonexistent, hardly any roads were asphalted, and internal transport still depended heavily on a railway from Asunción to Encarnación. Eva Bichsel (née Ramírez) grew up in the small town of Ybytymí, which, despite being on the railway line and only one hundred kilometers from the capital, still had neither electricity nor telephone. She evokes the slow-moving and unchanging nature of life in rural Paraguay at the time she lived there, as a seven-year-old child, and the strong sense of isolation felt by its inhabitants.

Thursdays, two o’clock in the afternoon, became a magical time for us. My two sisters and I waited happily for it each week during the summer of 1950. Going to our town’s railway station turned out to be the single most important event for us children, because it allowed us to feel transported for a few minutes to another world inhabited by other people, different from those we saw daily on the dusty streets of the town. An hour before the train’s scheduled arrival, we used to run towards the station along the “Zanjita Trail,” a dusty, treeless, bumpy one-mile stretch, deeply engraved by ox-drawn cart wheels, the hooves of cattle and horses and the most diverse size of human foot-steps.

This trail resembled a relief map and it made running difficult but, in our excitement, we never reduced speed until we reached the station. We usually perched ourselves high on top of a heap of cut oak stacked by the side of the railway tracks and strained our eyes towards the sandy, red plain. Suddenly, a long chain of dark dots would appear in the distance advancing rapidly and, as they came nearer, these dots turned out to be the long awaited train!

My sisters and I counted as fast as we possibly could the number of compartments until the train came to a full stop. The stifling heat of the summer allowed no closed windows and, from our position, we could look right into the compartments, which were always very crowded. We observed strange, tired faces, young mothers nursing their babies, young men stretching their cramped legs, white-haired old men and women holding large fans made out of bamboo leaves. From time to time they glanced towards the platform where a large crowd of townspeople stood staring at the passengers. We were never sure whether these townspeople were there expecting some visiting relatives to get off the train or whether they were there out of curiosity just as my sisters and I were.

We had an irresistible desire to go into the cars and ask these passengers just what made them travel, where were they coming from, where were they going, what kind of villages, towns or great cities have they left behind or were they going to visit, how long had they been sitting in that train and so on. Through our minds raced the most fantastic stories in which each passenger could fit. We were told that the starting point of the Thursday train was Buenos Aires and then rolled some 1100 kms through half of the northern part of Argentina and the greatest part of Southern Paraguay before it reached its destination, Asunción, some 95 kms from our town, Ybytymí.

We imagined ourselves among its lucky passengers and pretended we were travelling to faraway places.

We observed that some of the women of our town, dressed in long, flower-patterned skirts and immaculately clean white aprons, came to the station carrying large straw baskets full of freshly baked corn bread to sell. They carried these baskets gracefully on their heads using a skilfully rolled towel as cushion to balance their nourishing cargo. Others carried buckets full of water from the local well or freshly squeezed fruit juices to sell. Walking very erect from one end of the platform to the other they shouted “homemade bread, 5 cents a loaf!” or “water, water, orange juice, pomegranate!” Some of the hungry and thirsty passengers stretched their hands out of the windows and, in no time, emptied the baskets of bread and buckets of water. The town’s women then stood in small groups counting their hard earned cash stuffed in a cloth bag, tightly tied around their waist. They chatted happily among themselves, perhaps planning what to sell next week and how much they expected to earn, now and then wiping the pearls of perspiration off their faces.

Once the rush of activities ended, the mail sack and other cargoes were loaded or unloaded, the travellers returned to their seats and made themselves comfortable for the rest of their journey. The doors closed with a deafening clink, the train whistled loudly, and then rolled slowly out of the station. As it gained speed, it looked like a great centipede rushing through the dusty plain. All eyes followed the departing train and white handkerchiefs were waved until it disappeared on the horizon. Later, my sisters and I realized that none of the townspeople had travelling relatives or friends. Waving handkerchiefs was just a gesture, which made the people feel a bit closer to outside civilization since the Thursday train and its passengers were the only link to the world beyond our small town. We had no electricity, no telephone, no radio or television. We felt very isolated and forgotten by the wider world, except on Thursdays.

When we heard no more whistling or rattling of the train and the crowd dispersed, my sisters and I used to look at one another silently, with big question marks in our eyes. The arrival and departure of the International Train gave us an opportunity to observe and enrich our imagination, yet, it almost always left us in a pensive mood. Each one of us knew then that there were other ways of life, other kinds of people and languages and places far away and we dreamed of seeing them one day.

At about 2:30 in the afternoon the thrill was over. We pulled ourselves together and from our unique position on top of the pile of logs, we jumped down to earth and followed the crowd of townspeople, horse riders, ox-pulled carts and barking dogs towards home. After a long mile along the “Zanjita Trail” under the scorching sun, we arrived home thoroughly tired but happily waiting for next Thursday afternoon.

Extract from ‘The Paraguay Reader‘, edited by Peter Lambert and Andrew Nickson, a lively compilation of testimonies, journalism, scholarship, political tracts, literature, and illustrations conveys Paraguay’s rich history and cultural heritage, as well as its struggles against underdevelopment, foreign intervention, poverty, inequality, and authoritarianism. This chapter is from Section IV of the Reader “From the Chaco War to the Civil War.”

Read more about The Paraguay Reader here.

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