`I saw the existence of the train as the real patriotism of their people that is really far away from institutions and even flags. The train was, and still is, their real flag. And this stands for every remembrance, no matter if it is the boiler of a locomotive, a brick of a station or a story told by any peasant.`
Almost a year ago I was with a big group of friends (other volunteers) when we met 2 Spanish guys who were traveling through planning for a trip to bike the length of the Paraguayan train rails. We invited them to dinner, which turned into beers and stories, and when they asked for advice on where to pitch their tent, we assured them that on our tile floor was just fine!
A few weeks after that meeting Pablo biked the Paraguayan distance. Here is what he had to say about his journey-
What impressed you the most on your journey?
The thing that impressed me the most along the way in Paraguay is the feeling of ownership that every person that was anyway involved with the train still mantains. There is a kind of legend about how the train was, but this is still as important for their current life, as it is with the Paraguayan Great War (La Guerra Grande or the Triple Alliance War). It is a sort of event that affected a much longer time than the one it really lasted. So the general lack of infrastructure and movement possibilities underlines even more the importance of a rail system that bring people options to share their goods and prevent isolation. The solution is motorbikes. Invididual and cheap transportation. But it is unsafe and unable to bring goods to markets, i. e.
What was your favorite station?
My favourite station, that’s not an easy question. According to the space and current emptiness, San Salvador, the ancient railway junction, is really impressive to see now. There, Francisco Báez, an old locomotive driver is the key to understanding the past times. Sapucái is really nice, especially the way they tried to preserve the heritage with the English Village nearby, too.
But my favourite, the really charming and sad story happened to me in Isla Alta. There, a random neighbour that finally hosted me (8 of 9 nights people who I had just met took me into their homes. I had never seen such hospitality, even across Latin America) told me that the issue was not closing the railway, but the uninstalling of the rails. I asked why and then he told me that the government had sold them to a Chilean businessman. He came and brought every rail to an Argentinian buyer, and the very few isolated peasants lost their last emergency exit. The local bus comes so scarcely through those muddy paths (once every 2 days, if it doesn’t rain) that in case of necessity, a grandpa who has health problems at night, for instance, as ex railway workers, they knew how to set a hand-motion little carriage on the rails and push it to Coronel Bogado, the closest hospital. And now they simply can not.
Well, preserving is not putting the rails down again. But, I realised how important the railway was for them. Every single person assured me that their railway was the very 1st in Latin America. This is not true, as New York, Cuba, Chile and a pair of other areas had it first, but it became a truth for them. And sadly, it really was the last steam train in the continent, and this is not romanticism, but lack of investment and poverty. Anyway, I saw the existence of the train as the real patriotism of their people that is really far away from institutions and even flags. The train was, and still is, their real flag. And this stands for every remembrance, no matter if it is the boiler of a locomotive, a brick of a station or a story told by any peasant.
Help preserve the stories– https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=13-526-009
Pablo Zulaica Parra is a Spanish author, journalist and photographer who, through a combination of train and bike, has traveled his way through 30 countries. He completed 30 interviews with Paraguayans about their train system and is in the process of trying to publish a book as a result of his work. You can learn about his other projects here- http://pablozulaica.wordpress.com/