Day 205. I woke up with a start as the boy sat next to me was trying to relieve me of my wrist watch. Luckily I’m not only a light sleeper but also have a number of straps on my wrist which confused him. The look of fear on his face as he saw my reaction was great, with panic he tried to imply that he had grabbed my arm accidentally but proceeded to get off the coach at the next stop only a few minutes after the incident. Accident my arse. The coach itself had lots of legroom and was very comfortable. We had lots of stops en-route as we descended into the Gran Chaco and the temperature slowly rose. We stopped at many police checkpoints on the dirt track roads and as usual when we arrived at small towns everyone seemed to turn out to meet the coach no matter what hour we arrived.
At 11am after a bumpy fifteen hour journey we arrived in Santa Cruz. Worryingly I sorted out the coach to Asuncion almost straight away so I headed into town for a walk around as the coach was not due to leave until 6pm. I got a taxi into town as I had no idea which direction it was and quickly guessed that they must import lots of old second-hand Japanese cars as most are right-hand drive. In fact in the taxi they had actually moved the steering wheel to the left hand side but not changed the dash board around. This led to the unusual sight of the steering wheel coming out the glove compartment and me sat in the passenger side with the speedometer and other gadgets in front of me. He had no idea how fast he was going, it was really weird, then again maybe not that weird as no one seems to take notice of speed limits anyway.
Santa Cruz is quite a dull place in complete contrast to what the Lonely Planet would have you think. The Cathedral is interesting with its realistic life sized figures and the old town square, Plaza 24 de Septiembre, with its sloths hiding in the tree tops but that’s about it. It’s seriously boring, extremely hot and humid and there’s nowhere to go to just sit and relax. I was glad that I didn’t have to stop here. As I passed an Irish bar, the last thing I expected to see in a place in the middle of South America, I noticed a number of strange looking Europeans. All around town were dotted German Mennonite farmers. The men, all tall pale faced European descendants, straw hat, dungaree wearing zealots, walk about in a way which suggests that they have no interest in and completely ignore the local population, in fact they still talk in German. The women wear 1920’s style dresses and it has to be said, it did look like there had been a little inbreeding. No effort was made to mix with the local people, and the locals didn’t even give them a second thought. I however, could not take my eyes off these people. I do hope the locals don’t think that all Europeans are as rude and as aloof as these people.
I grabbed a taxi and headed back to the coach station. I spoke too soon, my coach has been cancelled as there are “mucho problemas”, arrrgggg I’m stuck here over night. What makes it worse is that I think that there isn’t really a problem with the coach at all, it’s more likely that there were not enough people for the bus to go, they will only leave once they have enough money to make the long journey worthwhile. Irritatingly I’d paid for the ‘bus station tax’ for which they wouldn’t give me a refund and I’m not allowed to use the ticket again tomorrow as it’s stamped with the date. I quickly made my way back into town before it got dark showing a taxi driver the hotel I wanted to go to. As usual the driver didn’t understand my pronunciation so he dropped me off somewhere completely different, but that didn’t matter too much as I knew the way and just legged it to the hotel. I’ve managed to get a room although I had real trouble understanding what the lady was saying other than the price. I told her that I had to find a cash machine so I could pay her for the room and so quickly ran into the town centre to find one.
I was that focused on what I had to do I wasn’t really looking at my surroundings. As I was running down one of the roads in the main square something didn’t feel right so I stopped and looked to my left where I saw a big crowd of people, a few with bottles in their hands. I looked across to my right to see a building with quite a few of its windows smashed. I’d managed to run right into the middle of a riot without even realising. Doh! With comic realisation I slowed my running down to a walk and made my way through the crowd trying to look as normal as a 6ft plus northern European can look in a small South American town. I quickly found a cash machine and headed back. I explained to the lady in broken Spanish what I’d seen and she just laughed and made gestures pointing at the main door and turning the key as to lock it. I figure that means I should stay in although I’m starving. However, I’m now relaxed and am feeling better about myself as I know that I can now deal with these difficult situations which happen when backpacking and particularly in South America. Backpacking around here is not easy, you’ve just got to realise that everything will happen eventually, just ‘mañana’.