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Montevideo airport, at it's busiest...

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Downtown Asunción

We headed off to Montevideo airport, and having both added in extra time for the journey we arrived with loads of time to spare. We're used to flying from Gatwick and Heathrow and have forgotten how vast those hubs are. Montevideo international airport has one terminal building, about 20 check in desks and 9 departure gates. We're flying with TAM airlines, who were very helpful at check in, ensuring they told us where to go to pay our departure tax. At passport control they commented on how much time we had to go before our flight left as if to say "there's not much through the gate, are you sure you want to go through now". There wasn't much landside either so we went through anyway. Clever marketing - you have to walk through duty free to get to the departure gates.

I'm sitting now looking out across the airport. There are no planes on the tarmac that we can see. The lounge is reasonably full but it empties when a flight to Buenos Aires is called. Paraguay is a new adventure. I'm expecting it to be similar to Uruguay in many ways but there will obviously be differences too.

The flight is uneventful - we hub through BA which we didn't expect - and go back a time zone in Paraguay. Coming in to land there was a not very reassuring sight - two planes wrecks left abandoned on the strip along the runway. It didn't inspire confidence! At the airport there was the usual paperwork and passport stamping. We had to open our main packs at customs - seems to be a standard procedure.

The main terminal was the usual melee of people trying to convince you to take their taxi. Being worldly-wise travellers (!) we ignored the lot and headed for the official remises taxi stand. Not checking the exchange rate into the local currency in advance we raided the cash point and took out 150,000 Guarani's, later finding our this was about £12.

My initial impressions of Paraguay were mixed. From the air, the houses looked more solid and modern that other south American countries, but none of the roads appear to be paved. Driving through its hard to get a sense of the place. There are more people on the streets and the traffic is heavy. There's no sense of delineation between areas of town - its all thrown in together.

We went a slightly long route so were given the benefit of a driving tour of the centre - the taxi driver was trying to convince us that he could do tours for us all round the country. Perhaps he could my my Spanish isn't good enough to really understand him and he doesn't speak English. Our shortlist of hotels was ignored by tourist info when we asked at the airport. Instead they directed us to Las Margaritas - a bit beyond our budget and a standard business hotel. Very comfy and we'll do our best to get our money's worth from the free high speed internet connection.

At tourist info in the centre of town, Oscar (very friendly, works afternoons, speaks English) gave us a load of leaflets to go through but also left us confused. Asuncion is safe and its OK to travel by bus but if we go to the shopping centre, or if we go out at night, its best to get a taxi back to the hotel not a bus. This, combined with a high police presence and armed guards in shops left us feeling a bit unsettled and out of our comfort zone as we started to amble through town. This wasn't helped by the fact that it was already dark just after 5pm.

We decamped in the bar opposite the hotel to relax, switch into the atmosphere of the place and read through the info we've been given. There were some strange characters in there but the beer worked its magic and we rationalised our feelings of discomfort. The only option for eating near our hotel (which is downtown and pretty much shuts up out of main shopping hours) is the Ridizio Churrasqueria. Its quite an experience not just for the food but also for the building - it used to be an Italian society for mutual help and support and has a church like cavernous interior.

Rodizio's is a variation on the fixed price eat as much as you can buffet formula, the difference is that the price you pay depends on how much your plate of food weighs! As you walk in you're given a ticket which is used to mark down everything you eat and drink. Its got a hot buffet, big grill of different meats, huge salad bar and buffet puddings. If you lose your ticket it costs you 100,000 Guarani's. When you pay your bill, you're given an exit ticket that you have to hand in to the door man - losing that costs you 90,000 Guarani's.

The food was surprisingly good and tasty. It made a change from the Uruguayan diet and for pretty much the first time since we'd left we had vegetables. It was also very cheap and became our place to eat every night we we're in Asuncion. Our cheapest meal cost £3.75 in total, the most expensive (which included a bottle of wine) was about £12.

Out and about in Asuncion, Stef was very tuned in to the number of police/military types there are around and the quantity and size of their guns. Its 27C at 10:30 in the morning and feels set to be a hot sticky day.

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Plaza Uruguaya

We ambled down Palma, which seems to be a main road. Outside tourist info there's a small stage with girls dancing. They are all dressed in white and perform a slow and graceful dance which, when they add carafes and wine bottles to their heads is a display of poise and deportment.

Tomorrow is a public holiday celebrating the end of the Chaco war. Its not clear if the dancing, later replaced by a guitarist and harpist, is a weekly occurrence or just due to the holiday. There's a buzz about the place. Makeshift stalls line the road selling lacework, clothes, food. Men are walking around trying to sell fake watches - so far they still go away with an initial firm "no gracias". We're not the only tourists here (there's one other couple!) but we stand our by miles. From the others I've seen here and in Uruguay its not just our appearance but there's also an element of wary apprehension which seems to mix feelings of "I'm not comfortable here" with "of course I am, I just wish I knew which way to go without having to look at a map".

We talked what the economy here is probably like and concluded that there's a small proportion of the population who are very wealthy but that most are pretty poor.

At Plaza Uruguay we sat in the shade to get our bearings and to decide which bus to get tomorrow down to Encarnacion, to see the Jesuit Mission ruins. Stef spied a lady selling the local drink terere - its like mate tea but made with cold water. Its only after he's bought it and drunk some tat he pondered about how clean the water was and the bombilla (straw) that you drink it through - time will tell! I couldn't work out if he really liked it but he later confirmed that he did.

A couple of German men stopped to have a chat - one was very short with an incredibly round belly (must hold loads of the local German style beer, Baviera), the other is a young chap in his mid 20's. Despite the heat they both have shirts and ties on and are carrying document wallets - everything about them shouts that they are religious missionaries. Sure enough, after making genial conversation for a while, they started to bring out leaflets and pamphlets which they left with Stef. They were Jehovah's Witnesses.

As the top end of the square a building that looks like an exhibition hall turns out to be a bookshop. It was mainly educational books but they did have Harry Potter. Next stop was the bus ticket office where they recommended we got a later bus than we'd planned to because it didn't stop so often along the way. It costs about £5 each for a 5 hour trip, just short of 300km.

This will be our first trip on a real bus. I'm a bit apprehensive about what's in store, how comfy it will be and whether it has a (usable) loo on board! I think we'll possibly pinch the spare loo roll from our hotel as its the first soft one we've come across since we left home. We checked to see how secure our bags will be. Stef's wary because he's read in one travel book that people hide in the luggage compartment and spend these long trips opening up bags at their leisure. We're reassured that the bags are effectively checked in and we're given tags that we need to show at the other end to get our bags back.

Near the bus office is the old railway station, now closed for trains (as only a tourist train runs in Paraguay now) but used as a car park. There's a couple of old carriages and the first steam engine that was used here. It's sad to see but at least the building is being maintained and used - the ticket hall is now used by a flamenco dancing association. The old carriages are from a bygone age with dark, heavy wood paneling and red leather seats. Its also a first sign that the area we're in becomes the red light district at night. Even though its only 1pm, the ladies are already out plying their trade.

Heading back towards downtown we took a different road and stumbled across the Munich restaurant. As its name suggests, it has German roots and the lady serving is definitely of German origin. They had a courtyard behind the restaurant which provided a cool shady spot out of the heat of the day. It was a real mix of a place with heavy, dark wooden tables and chairs set in a mediterranean style courtyard with sub tropical plants and a fountain trickling in the background. We decamped for a couple of hours until the breeze started to pick up and it cooled down.

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Cámara de Senadores

Whilst there we started to replan our trip beyond Paraguay. We had intended to go to Bolivia but the political situation there at the moment is a bit tricky and the Foreign Office are advising against non-essential travel. Although disappointing, it gives us options - try for the Galapagos Islands, more time in Peru/Ecuador/Canada or fit in another country.

In the afternoon we saw the main sights of Asuncion. The Catedral was shut but we were able to go into the Cámara de Senadores - the main senate house and former home of Carlos Lopez, one of Paraguay's famous leaders.. Its a large pink building and I wondered if the colour was a conscious choice to be similar to its counterpart in Buenos Aires. Inside there are a few rooms with displays of indigenous costumes and information charting the development of the city. The

Further round the Plaza de Armas is the Cámara de Diputados (the congress building) which was originally built by the Jesuits. Its has a main inner courtyard, with a sunken middle. The steps down to the middle run the full length of the courtyard creating the feeling of an amphitheatre. Set within one corner is a further inner courtyard. This has a small but beautiful garden surrounding a statue of (I think) Jesus. It's a very calm inner sanctum. The walkways around the courtyards are covered providing shade from the sun. Each door and window is the office of a different government department.

The main Palacio de Gobierno is a huge white building with immaculately tended gardens. Unlike the last two buildings, there's no visiting this one. Soldiers stand guard but are OK with photos being taken. We're becoming acclimatised to the sight of so many soldiers and guns and have found them all to be friendly when we've said hello and asked for info.

Opposite the palace is a small sector of houses that have been restored. These are part museum and part art gallery. The museum has one room refurbished in original style showing the furniture of the day. It also has town plans and postcards showing how the city has evolved and developed. Much of the colonial architecture has been destroyed in various programmes of modernising the city. The ones that are left as highly decorated and it would have been fantastic to see the city in its pre-modernised state.

The art gallery is extensive with rooms leading off one another. In the central courtyard there's a small group having what sounds like a very intellectual discussion/debate about something. Its frustrating that my poor Spanish doesn't allow me to eavesdrop and find out what they're chatting about.

We headed back to our hotel via a German bakery - it was closed but just the signs on the shelves had Stef oohing and aahing with remembered pleasures of those breads from when he worked in Germany. At the hotel we went for a swim in the rooftop pool. There was a warm breeze, nice after the heat of the day, but the water was so cold that neither of us made it deeper than our knees.

Next to the pool there was a small games room with a pool table. With memories of a terrible (and very long) game in Darjeeling in India, we again attempted to play. Stef's not great, I'm dismal. He won by 3 games to 2 and I have to confess that I only got those because Stef fouled on the black!! I obviously need more practice.

We're working our way down to Southern Paraguay today to visit the Jesuit Missions. I'm still apprehensive about the bus - silly as its only the same as getting a National Express coach in the UK, but we don't do buses at home - its either car or train. Stef's concerns about the safety of our luggage has got me twitchy, again daft because there's more opportunity for our bags to go astray at an airport than on a coach.

We got to the bus station with loads of time to spare. We'd expected it to be really busy and for us to be hassled - it wasn't and we weren't. All the buses coming and going, and there were lots, seemed very smart and we both subconsciously started to relax. We'd gone through the departure "gate" to stand by the platform for our bus before it was due. Just as well, it was running slightly late and it whizzed up, stopped, we got in and off it shot before people had sat down. It was the same routine at each stop. Our bags we're labeled as we'd been told they would be and we sat for 5 hours watching the scenery go by on what was a very comfy bus.

It took about half an hour to get clear of Asuncion. The surrounding countryside was very lush and green with tropical trees and plants. The earth is very red (must have a high iron content). It is again mostly flat but there are a few high mounds of rock. They seem somewhat out of place, there's not gradual incline up to them they are simply just there.

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Stef's shop

The landscape doesn't change noticeably through the journey. The bus stops every now and again. Some people get off, others get on and off we race again. At a few stops people get onboard selling snacks and drinks. The bus keeps going while they ply their wares, the get off at the end of the village/next stop and catch the next but back to where they started.

By about 4:30 its getting dark. In the distance we could see lightning - again great forks in the sky. Seems like we're destined to have storms follow us around. We're driving straight into this one and the wind and the rain both pick up in force.

At the other end, Stef shot off the bus before me. Even though they knew we got on together, they wouldn't give him my bag as he didn't have my ticket. We got a taxi to our hotel. From the lobby we both knew we were back into budget accommodation - old leather armchairs that looked like they'd seen better days and a decidedly dodgy looking guy at reception. As he started down a dimly lit corridor to our room my mind switched back to the Hotel Central in Tacuarembo and I was expecting the worst. Our room though is large and clean, if not a little basic.

Almost out of cash we found a local cash point. Stef tried to get money last night - despite the machine seeming to do its stuff it failed to hand over the cash! What's meant to be a bank on the corner is now a pharmacy. The bank next to the hotel has space and cabling for an ATM but no machine! We aborted our hunt for cash quite quickly though as the storm finally broke and in seconds we were caught in torrential rain. Rivers of water were running down the main street so we went for the other local currency - US dollars.

We left our hotel in search of the tourist info office to get up to date info on the missions and visits to them. This was a bit of a wild goose chase - Lonely Planet is out of date. Tourist info is shut and has now moved to the town hall but the relevant office was also shut. We wanted to make sure we had a guide at the ruins who could explain about the mission, otherwise we'd simply be walking around fallen down buildings and would come away none the wiser. Without knowing what would be at the site itself we went to a local tour operator - and promptly got fleeced! They charged us US$45 for a private car, entrance and a guide. The latter two we could have paid for ourselves at the gate to the ruins so we in effect had a very expensive taxi and probably paid double what we needed to.

Its been raining heavily overnight and the whole area looks like there's been heavy rain for days. The rivers (rusty red water) are very high and the fields look saturated. This is bad news for us as it means we'll only be able to visit the Trinidad Reduccion, Jesús is only reachable if the weather is good.

Trinidad is a huge site for the main mission complex. As well as this they has a further 14,000 acres of land around it. Some of the buildings were still intact in the 1930's and apparently there are photos of them in old copies of National Geographic. At the time they were lived in by German Swiss settlors. When they moved to a different site they took the roof tiles and parts of the stone walls with them.

The site was occupied for around sixty years. In that time the buildings changed from wood and adobe constructions to sandstone and brick. The stone came from a quarry less than 1km away. Initially there was a small church, two houses for the local Guarani people and one for the priests. At its peak, the mission has a population of 5,000 people. To accommodate them, more buildings were erected, twenty one houses for the Guaranis, three for the priests plus a whole series of workshops and schoolrooms. The pattern and layout of these is still clearly visible.

The most important part though is the church. The walls are about 30m high and about 1m thick. It took 8 years to build. When the Jesuits left the site it was taken over by Franciscans who failed to maintain it. The rook collapsed and the site was not restored until the 1900's, Despite being open to the elements, the interior carvings are still well preserved.

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Inside the old church

One piece to survive intact was the baptismal font, which dates from 1782. The pulpit was pieced together like a jigsaw from 150 pieces. Your can still make out the altars and carved decorations of angels playing musical instruments. Four large panels surround the main altar, their frescoes now long gone. The entrance to the crypt has been excavated. It was used to store the mummified (by the Guaranis) bodies of the missionaries when they died, before they were taken back to their home countries in Europe.

The church was also the burial site for some of the main Guarani chiefs. Flagstones differentiate which were warriors (decorated with bows and arrows) and which were peace makers (sets of balancing scales). The belief systems of the Guaranis and the Jesuits were very similar so the Guaranis benefited from the protection, education and comparatively good standard of life within the mission without sacrificing their traditions. The Franciscans who took over the mission, introduced a much harsher regime. This caused many of the Guaranis to go back to their villages and ultimately led to the downfall of the site.

In the priests quarters, there are still the original mosaic floor tiles. Some wooden carved statues were also recovered. These are now located in one of the original buildings on the site, which has been restored and is now used as a catholic church. The central square is big enough to accommodate the full 5,000 population for weekly massess and festivals. There were also large scale weddings with up to 40 couples being married at one time.

Back in town, we went to the bus station to buy our tickets for the following day. We want to go to Ciudad del Este, not for the Iguassu falls (saw these when we went to Argentina), but to go to the Itaipu dam. We had a real problem understanding the lady at the office. The window implies there are three buses a day, 2:00, 7:30 and 1:30. We want to make the most of the day and want to go on the 7:30 bus but she only seems to sell tickets for the 1:30 bus. It seems that this is to prevent us having problems if we book for the earlier bus, oversleep and miss it. She assures us there is no problem with coming in the morning for the early bus and changing our tickets. Time will tell!

We were up early to get the 7:30 bus to Ciudad del Este. bad news at the bus station - no bus, apparently its broken down. Odd though that no-one else is waiting for it so we think we were given duff information yesterday. Stef lost his rag and started getting shirty with the woman from the bus company. We considered options. Neither of us wanted to hang around Encarnacion for 6 hours or arrive at Ciudad del Este in the dark. We opted to change plans and head back to Asunción.

The bus was more what we had expected (the one on the way down had been a "business class" bus). This was the standard fare, still very comfy but not quite so plush. I slept and dozed pretty much all of the way, being woken a few times by Stef for pictures or cash to buy chipas - a local snack which is a bit like a cheesy bread roll and quite nice.

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Oscar

We started to get more of an impression of the countryside on the bus trips. In Uruguay, there were wide open spaces, plantations and a few large scale estancias. Here it feels like people have their own small holding. Along the road there are lots of demarcated sections of land with small cabins. We don't know for sure but have the feeling that its a subsistence lifestyle with people in the countryside growing what they need to survive and no more. We've hardly seen much livestock and no "gauchos" on horseback, a common sight in Uruguay.

The other main difference is the overall appearance of the country. Uruguay - clean, well maintained, no litter. Paraguay - litter everywhere and generally less well kept. More and more we're drawing parallels with India. There's lots of people walking the streets trying to sell sweets, fake DVD's and "Rolex" watches. Kids come up to us begging for money and there's a general feeling that life for most is a bit like a jumble sale. It will be interesting to see if this is just in the south of the country or whether the Mennonite colonies of the north are the same.

At Asunción we decide to go for one of the mid range hotels listed in Lonely Planet rather than heading back for the luxury of Las Margaritas. The taxi that took us there rattled and coughed all the way. The driver had trouble changing gears (I think the clutch has gone) and it sounded like bits were falling off it all the way, especially when we went over bumps. It did the trick and delivered us to Hotel Sagaró. We looked at a few rooms and chose the best. Stef was very uncomfortable with the room and the hotel - it had a bit of a seedy feel to it and reckon it probably has a second trade in hourly room rental!! Within 30 minutes we'd decided it was too bad to stay. With a "sorry we've changed our plans" at reception we left and went back to the luxury of Las Margaritas - budget conciousness went out of the window but we just didn't feel secure in the Sagaro.

We went back to see Oscar at tourist info. It was great to be met by such a friendly smile and warm welcome. He's helping us to get together some more information about trips heading up north to the Chaco. I reckon its going to be difficult but we've got a contact now for a tour company near Filadelfia. We also want to know more about options to take a boat trip up the Rio Paraguay from Concepción.

The boats on this stretch are cargo boats that just happen to take passengers. The trip will take around 2 days to get to Fuerto Olimpo. What we don't know are the options for getting back down again. With our Ciudad del Este bus experience fresh in our minds we want to be sure of the information before we set off. Oscar has promised to get some more information for us tomorrow.

We also want to do the Golden Route tour around Asunción - I have a gut feel that the tour name over-hypes what we'll actually get but time will tell. Rather than hiring a car and doing it ourselves we opt for a driver and a guide - a bit pricey but worth it for the info we should get.

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Getting all mixed up

We've already seen pretty much all of downtown Asunción but needed time to consider options before firming up plans for tomorrow. The Plaza de Los Heroes was near by and having not gone to the Pantéon on the plaza yet we headed that way. In the sunshine it had looked brilliant white. In the gloom of today it looked grey, but seemed to turn white again when the street lights came on.

The Pantéon holds the remains on notable (mainly for their nastiness) historic Paraguayans. Originally designed as a religious shrine, it has a large alter with statues. In the centre is a sunken section where you look down on the caskets of remains - its design if a copy on a smaller scales of Les Invalides in Paris. All around the walls are plaques relating to Paraguay's heroes, some of which have been dedicated by Argentina and other foreign countries.

Outside, two young soldiers form a guard of honour. They look bored and when they think no-one is watching they chat to each other. While we're inside, the guard was changed - a simple enough process but they got it slightly wrong. Not as badly wrong though as their attempts to fold the national flag when it was struck at 5pm. I'm not sure if it was just new recruits dealing with it or whether it was the old chap giving them useful instructions who was confusing them!

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Paraguayuan leafy lanes

Today we're off to explore the countryside around Asunción. Our guide, Diego, claims to be a friend of Oscar at tourist info but we got a blank look from Oscar when we mentioned this to him later. Our driver Victor sits quietly all day, clearly understanding the conversation in English but choosing not to join in (or not able to if his English is like my Spanish!).

Our first stop is a little village called Itá, famous for its pottery, especially its chickens (gallinitas). Originally only produced in black they now do different colours - white for love, black for money and grey for god health. As the first two aren't much use without the third we plumped for grey and bought the smallest one we could find. This little shopping experience took place when we pulled up outside the local craft centre. It was full of different pottery bits, mostly pretty garish and horrible. Even the gallinita we've bought is fowl (pardon the pun!) but you have to do it.

From here we went to Yaguarón to see their Franciscan Church. It seems to be the only sight in town (as with the shop in Itá). From the outside its a very simple white building with a tiled roof. Inside the roof, pillars and stairs up to the gallery are all decoratively painted. The altar is quite a find. Its elaborately decorated and gilded with statues of the Virgin Mary, God (not Jesus), saint this and that (can't remember which ones!), angels etc. Not only is it tall and wide, its also 3 metres deep. We also managed to sneak into the sacristy. This is another highly ornate room, I think more so than the church but it was difficult to see in the dim light. One the wall by the door was a highly decorated altar and chest of drawers where all the priestly robes etc are stored. They had a big conservation problem here though. Because the room is dark, bats are nesting throughout the altar and the presents they leave behind them are causing damage.

The route them took us down and through Paraguari and Piribebuy. I can't remember what, if anything, we saw in either of these - they weren't memorable places. We stopped at Caacupé. This is a pilgrimage site which was blessed by  Pope John Paul II in 1988. There's a big modern basilica, ugly from the outside and very bland inside, particularly compared to the highly decorated Franciscan church at Yaguarón.

Our next stop was San Bernadino, a lakeside resort for wealthy people from Asunción who have summer houses here. It was pretty isolated being out of season and most houses were closed. By this time though the clouds and mist had rolled in and we couldn't get a view of the lake or the valley beyond.

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JP2

The last stop in the tour was at Itaguá, famous for its nandutí lace. I'd expected to see the weaving in action but we were simply rolled into into a shop with the expectation that we'd buy. It was quite intricate but not to our taster. We made the normal polite noises expressing interest but managed to escape without buying.

The "Golden Route" tour to a degree crystallised our views of Paraguay. A big country with not a lot in it. Even the tourist high spots are tiny. I suppose for me its made me put into perspective the wealth of history and tradition that we're used to in Europe and that we take for granted. Here, any history must be based within the indigenous Indian tribes - probably not accessible to us on this trip.

Coming back into Asunción through a different route we both again simultaneously drew parallels with India. The shops appear small and chaotic with a lot crammed into a small space. Life generally seems more frenetic. In the surrounding countryside cows wander freely, causing the odd hazard to traffic.

As you may have guessed we both felt the the Golden Route tour was over-hyped, certainly by European standards. It was useful to have a guide who could explain some of the local culture and background, but this is limited. The key message was that life in a democracy is not as good as it used to be under a dictator!

In town, we said farewell to Oscar who had not been able to get us any more information on the Chaco or boats. He gave us a CD of local music as a parting gift - we've not listened to it yet but don't have high hopes. We then had a failed attempt to book our flights out of Paraguay at the Lan Chile office and were told to come back tomorrow. I'm not sure if they had ever had anyone in there before with a One World explorer ticket.

Before heading back to the hotel we stopped at the Casa de la Independencia, the place where the independence treaty for Paraguay was signed. Unusually, independence came in peaceful times. The wars and battles over territory came later. Its a beautiful Spanish style house ("I want one" was my reaction), partly restored with the furnishings and fittings of the day. A very helpful chap chatted to us for ages firstly about the house but then about all sorts of stuff. I wasn't really sure what he was saying but Stef kept nodding as it he was following the conversation. He then asked for a small donation for the upkeep of the museum, but was also commenting about bus times and we both reckon he used the money to cover his bus fare home (as I'm here so late I need to get two buses now instead of the usual one bus).

Happy Birthday Beccie! Our first family birthday while we're away. It's strange and it makes me feel slightly homesick knowing that this will happen all year.

Expecting problems with getting our tickets changed to include a flight out of Paraguay, we'd checked the rules overnight with Travelbag, the agency we used back in the UK. We think that as there is a Lan Chile flight, and they are part of the One World alliance, we should be able to get the flights as part of our ticket. At the Lan Chile office, their systems were down so they couldn't help. I actually think they hadn't got a clue what to do so they fobbed us off to Iberia who were very helpful.

Paraguay is one of those places that its difficult to get to and from. To get here from Uruguay we had to go via Argentina. To get away from here to Lima we have to go either through Sao Paulo in Brazil, or through Argentina or through Santiago in Chile. The Chile option is the best but as the leg to Chile is a codeshare flight operated by TAM it isn't covered by our ticket. As this was a change to our tickets, all future legs had to be rekeyed into Iberia's systems so that they could reissue our tickets - something we'd not expected. We now know to leave loads of time for this if it happens again as they had loads of problems getting the information into their system - it took about 90 minutes in total and left us very tight for time to get our bus to Filadelfia.

Another decrepit taxi whizzed us back into the centre of town to get our bags and then up to the bus station. The driver put his foot down (when he could get the car into gear!) and when we got to our hotel Stef jumped out to get our bags. The taxi driver asked me how much luggage? Two pieces. Small? No large. Will they fit on the front seat? Possibly but probably not. At this his face sunk and he leapt out to shuffle the boot load of rubbish he had in the car to fit our bags in. He got us to the bus with loads of time to buy our tickets and some lunch before getting on the bus.

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Space-age travel with NASA

This trip is with NASA, unfortunately not the space agency but the speed the bus goes at it feels a bit like a rocket. Its also more what we expected from the bus. Perfectly OK but functional. Behind us there's a couple (mother and son I think) who live on a German colony in Uruguay. They were apparently put out that we hadn't gone to any in Uruguay - not on the map or in the book so we weren't to know. They're off to Filadelfia to see her sister in the Mennonite colony there.

The journey was uneventful. Outside of Asunción we drove through lush green scenery which over time thinned out and then reduced further to scrub. Along the roadside, shacks/huts made of palm leaves and mud were home to families - kids were playing and today must be washing day as each had clothes stretched out on lines to dry. As the light faded you got a sense of how isolated this area is. There are no signs of life for miles on end. The road stretches straight and flat ahead of us.

Reaching Filadelfia (it was dark) we ask the conductor to drop us at the Hotel Florida. He stopped the bus, we got off and with no obvious signs for a hotel we asked him again where it was. It was the building behind us. We'd planned to call this morning to check availability but with the delays in getting the flights sorted we'd run out of time. We didn't think it would be a problem as the country is hardly awash with visitors so we were surprised to be told they were full. Asking about other hotels in town quickly magicked up a room - not much but its cheap and has a bed.

Its full because there's a big group of Americans who have come here to shoot pigeons. We had a beer in the garden while waiting for dinner and caught up with our diaries a bit afterwards. This attracted a bit of attention (as it seems to in many places) and a German speaking guy, and what I reckon is his daughter, struck up a conversation. They live 600km away but are here something to do with humanely slaughtering pigs. As with the pair on the bus, there was something slightly strange and intense about them. It was almost as if they were excited at being able to talk to people fresh from Europe. Its also very strange hearing German as a main language.

For an area that's meant to be semi arid desert its wet, muddy and cool. Our room has a strange chemical smell - a mix of bleach, disinfectant and I don't know what! There's only one tap in the shower (which looks slightly dodgy as there electric cables running along to the shower head). I've been dreading a cold shower but Stef assured me it wasn't hot but wasn't cold either - it was more cold than hot.

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Hauptstrasse, Filadelfia

The owner of the hotel was on hand to give us some information about what there is to see and do. There's a museum, a shop selling Indian handicrafts and that's about it in town. We've given him the money for our return bus tickets and he's going to book our seats for us (at least that's what I think he's going to do with the money, Stef the German speaker isn't sure).

At the museum we were met with a "Oh so you've been sent here from the hotel then have you". He spoke English which was helpful for me and was polite but functional - seems to be a common trait with the German descendants. I think we scored points with him because we're not American, the pigeon shooters don't seem to be liked generally. The museum is officially closed. Its being renovated and updated for the 75th anniversary of the colony celebrations in July and is only due to re-open next week. He lets us in anyway later turns away a group of Americans.

Small, it has a collection of stuffed birds and animals, some relics of bits from the Chaco war and some Indian artifacts. Downstairs focuses more on the establishment of the colony. There's a display explaining when, why and how they got here. Most of the rest of the collection is of old household items and there's also a printing press. The Menno times was initially a one pager which also included news and information about family back in Europe. Over the years it has grown and is now 12 pages long with a circulation of 2,600!

The gardens around the museum have been freshly planted ready for the celebrations. It leads into the Plaza de las Recuerdos (Garden of Memory) at the back of which there's a circular patio and some strange trees. They have thorns on the outside which, from our days at Yacutinga Lodge in Argentina, we know means they are still in transition from plants to trees, and have bulbous trunks as if they are full of water (which we later find out is the case). When you tap them they sound hollow - very odd.

We ambled up the main road to a corner bookstore. All the books were in German and a fair chunk were religious. There was a group of American students in there who we kept  bumping into over the next half hour as we "did" the sights of Filadelfia. There really is nothing much here.

The roads aren't paved (although there is a pavement to walk on), they are just dirt roads. The main road stretches in a straight line in both directions as far as you can see. There are a couple of roads leading off here - again long, straight and muddy. There are indigenous Indians hanging around on the street corners, we think looking for work. The chap in the museum told us how their social structure is changing as the elders no longer have authority within the family unit. There's also unemployment and alcoholism.

Further along the main street past our hotel is "downtown", mainly second hand clothes shops, a cafe and a shop selling spit roasted chickens. Across the road is the main cooperative centre with a ferreteria (hardware shop also selling white/electrical goods), an administration department and a supermarket. Its odd seeing fridge freezers standing in the window of such an outpost. The supermarket is functional - like many places we've seen staple provisions like sugar, pasta and beans aren't pre-packed by the manufacturer. The shops buy in bulk and package them up into clear plastic bags.

I haven't kept up my track of where we've seen McCains products along the way. Knowing there's a contingent following us around I'm pleased to confirm that Noisette potatoes are doing well in the freezers of the Paraguayan Chaco. Unlike Uruguay though, I wouldn't bust a gut to do a check on distributors here.

Having exhausted the sights of town we ambled back to the hotel hoping the car we're hiring would be ready. The hotel manager, who seems to be the town's head honcho, chases the car for us and it soon arrives. He is impeccably dressed in black waistcoat, trousers and shoes with a white shirt. His shoes are spotless despite walking up and down the muddy high street.

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Chaco War gun placement in a "flaschenbaum" (bottle tree)

We have the car for 24 hours and also get a Spanish speaking guide/driver, Horatio. Our first stop was Fortin Boquerón, one of the sites of battle in the Chaco war. The site is large and surrounded by 4km of trenches. You can still see the paths from these even though they have now been almost completely filled in. We paid our entry fee and walked around the museum building - lots of black and white photos, guns, bullet casings etc. I thought it was a bit odd that the caretaker followed us around the building but I now think he was just waiting for questions. I'd thought we'd be left to wander alone through the fort but we were given a guided tour.

The guide showed us the trenches, a bottle tree (the one's we'd seen yesterday - they absorb water during the four months wet season so that they can survive through the eight month dry season) that had been hollowed out to form a gun placement and a bunker. The bunker tunnels were covered with branches and twigs to form a roof and then earth 1 metre thick was added on top to hid the bunker.

There are also two cemeteries here - symbolic but close to the original sites - one for the Paraguayan dead and one for the Bolivian dead. We were also shown small young plants that have a root system that contains water good enough to drink (the bottle tree water is no good) and other edible plants. The Paraguayan soldiers survived the war eating what was locally available. The Bolivians had to rely on supplies being delivered.

Following us around was a young puppy, just under four months old. It was big for such a young dog, with a dappled body but a jet black head. He was very playful and thumped along running in the same curved fashion as Bud, my sisters springer spaniel.

Back in the car (4WD truck) we headed for Neu Halbstadt, home to another colony. Its pretty much the same layout as Filadelfia but here we also passed houses, 3 churches as well as the coop and the supermarket.

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Interesting shower - the wires are live!

I woke this morning longing for a good hot shower so that I could also wash my hair - probably because I knew I wouldn't get one.

We set off to go and see our final colony at Lomo Plato, the oldest here. Its the same as Filadelfia - long, straight, open dirt roads with not a lot around. There's a small museum which charts the development of this colony from the 1930's onwards. It includes lots of old black and white photo's arranged chronologically with some scary looking nurses at the hospital - I wouldn't have wanted to be in their care! There's also one of a school with all the children on the steps outside. When I first looked at this my reaction was that it was a swarm of bees flying from a nest.

Back at the hotel we watched a video about the Mennonite colonies. It seems to have been produced as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations and it was quite funny seeing the 1980's fashions - it seemed so trendy then! Canadians were the first to come here, followed by Ukrainian and German settlers. It was a harsh environment to come to and there must have been a powerful community spirit to keep these people going. The Fernheim (Filadelfia) colony approach, and I support that of the other colonies, was that the wellbeing of the colony was more important than that of the individual or individual family. All had, and still have, to provide community support, in effect community service.

As they got used to the environment, they built up the community focusing early on on education. The Mennonites have well maintained private German speaking schools in the centre of town for their children. The Indians are left to state school, less well maintained on the edge of town. Next came hospitals and care for the elderly. They also built the Grand Chaco highway and the bridge spanning the Rio Paraguay just outside of Asunción which vastly improved transport connections to the Chaco colonies.

I sense that now there is a fair amount of wealth in the community. Large scale, industrialised agriculture and production are the keystones to the economy. On the edge of Filadelfia are some very smart, large houses, some with asphalt drives rather than mud - perhaps a local status symbol.

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Hours of this whizzed past our bus window

It seems like the original Mennonite values are under pressure from the modern world. While we were waiting for the bus back to Asunción we were talking to a lady who spent the first 10 years of her life in Canada but her parents then moved back to Filadelfia. She confirmed that in the past, the community elders and teachers used to determine which books were read and which films were watched (if any). With TV and the internet, the control is now with the individual. She almost accompanied this with a resigned shrug and when I asked if times were changing with the new generation she despondently confirmed "yes". She also confirmed that we're seeing the Chaco in an unusual state. They've had a lot of rain in the last two weeks which is why its so green. Normally at this time of year it would be dry and barren and in the towns, the dirt roads and everything in town become very dusty.

The whole area seems like its ripe for expansion. New shopping centres are going up, as are new car showrooms and houses. They have an interesting building technique. A frame is built from thin metal rods outlining the doors and windows. They then brick up the gaps in between the rods and fill and gaps (i.e. where the rods are) with concrete.

When it arrived, the bus looked smart from the outside but inside it was dirty, muggy, hot and smelly - a mix of body odour and strong maté tea. Quite unpleasant (for over 5 hours). It was an ejecutivo with reclining seats and was full. The TV and DVD worked and we were treated to a bad Samuel L Jackson film with some guy who does extreme sports - it was a James Bond style plot. The next film, provided by a passenger, was a Jean Claude van Damme action film. The English soundtrack (perhaps mercifully) switched off after about 5 minutes but the Spanish subtitles kept on going. The people on the bus (mainly men) were glued to the TV - seems they have a passion for watching fighting and have no interest in any sort of plot.

The bus dropped us in the centre of Asunción, supposedly at a taxi rank but the only taxi there was grabbed by someone else. This drew an expletive from Stef - we were in a part of town we didn't know, on a quiet street, it was dark and we had no way of getting a taxi. The one that had been taken had called to get us another but Stef was rightly very twitchy until it turned up (in less than 5 minutes).

Back at Las Margaritas we had a very friendly welcome. Town is very busy and there's even more police, military and security guards around. There's a conference of the Mercosur countries (South American version of the EC) and the president of Paraguay is in the hotel across the road tonight.