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Think Tank 2022


March 2023
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Cattle Drive Spurs New Vision for Paraguay

Paraguay-2008-07-05-Cattle Drive Spurs New Vision for Paraguay


“You’re crazy.”

Not exactly the benediction we were looking for, but it seemed like those were always the first words we heard from people while organizing our “Cattle Drive for Peace and Unity,” through the rugged outback of Paraguay.

Can’t say as we blame them. When you Google Upper Paraguay’s Chaco, words like “inhospitable” and “thorny forest” dominate descriptions of the terrain. Temperatures in the summer rainy season (November-April) can reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Dirt roads, which barely exist in the best of times, are transformed by rain into a hazardous boot-sucking goo, and mosquitoes are the state bird. Weather in the dry season varies from 30 degrees at night to 90 in the daytime. Jaguars, poisonous snakes, and gators and piranha in the rivers – what more could you ask for?

We were proposing to drive 150 cattle, all of them pregnant, a distance of 170 kilometers (106 miles) over the aforementioned hostile landscape and iffy roads. June is winter in Paraguay, which is actually a good thing. Summer would be ten times worse. The drovers included people from Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Korea, Japan, and the United States. About half the 20 riders were youngish (in their 20s and 30s) Paraguayan businessmen and sons of leading political families, the emerging leaders of their country.

A cattle drive is self-explanatory, so why “peace and unity”? The drive was a run-up to the Global Peace Festival in Asunción, July 2-5, celebrating the interfaith vision of “One Family Under God.”

Working together to move the cattle was a joint learning experience. It provided an opportunity for people from the city to have a direct encounter with the country people who have very little in the way of material goods.

We wanted to help people have an intimate experience with a part of their country most had never taken time to appreciate because it’s so far from the capital, and so hard to get in and out of. And finally, the experience served as leadership education on horseback. Our text was the beautiful creation itself.

We began in Fuerte Olimpo on the Paraguay River, a couple of hours north of Asunción by small plane. The first day’s ride was the most stressful because we were all getting used to being on a horse all day, as well as getting acquainted with our mount’s individual personality. Hyun Jin Moon told us before we started, “You will understand that horses are living beings, each with a unique character. As it is with people, some are leaders; some are followers. What works with one will not necessarily work with another.”

One of our relatively inexperienced riders had trouble with a horse that constantly tried to run away with him. He could barely keep the animal under control. After a while he swapped horses with Marcelo, a lifelong rider who owns a small cattle ranch in the Chaco. Under an experienced hand, the horse settled down, and the new rider did fine with the gentler horse.

The sun was brutally hot that first day, and in its own way it helped us get our priorities straight. When we began that eight-hour ride, I had all kinds of non-essentials in my saddlebags: flashlight, jacket, mosquito repellent, energy bars, binoculars. After that first day, packing for the ride became real simple: water, sunscreen, more water.

We helped each other as we rode – sharing water, horse advice, and bits of information about ourselves. But it was around the campfire each night, staring into glowing embers under a star-filled sky, that people said what was really on their minds and we got to know each other.

Ariel, whose family owns a major sugar cane mill in Paraguay, asked Hyun Jin Moon, “We’re inspired about Paraguay, because we are Paraguayan. But we all want to know what inspires you about Paraguay.”

He replied, speaking about his early years in post-war Korea. He sees comparisons between the Korea of his childhood and today’s Paraguay. “This is a young country. And though it isn’t wealthy, there is idealism here, and a sense of family. I hope you can keep your vision.” People respond well to him because he genuinely loves the country and makes Paraguayans proud to be Paraguayan. He recognizes their potential and tells them to believe in themselves.

We were jointly responsible for the well-being of each other and all these cattle, and we were challenged to transfer this attitude to feeling responsible for our nations.

The ride was not a cakewalk. One of our more experienced riders had his saddle cinch fail while galloping. The saddle rolled with him and he hit the gravel road hard and fast as the horse ran over him. Concussion, six cracked ribs, a cracked shoulder blade and a punctured lung. As he was also one of the ride’s organizers, he had put into a place a medical evacuation procedure for just such an occasion. We got him to a dirt airstrip and flew him to a hospital in Asunción by small plane. He’s home now and recovering nicely.

Another rider was tossed onto his face when his mount came to an abrupt stop. It had simply had enough of carrying him all day in the hot sun. Scratches and a cracked rib. The injuries were a sobering wake-up call for the rest of us. We were told, “Don’t ride beyond your ability.”

But even without putting horses, hooves and horns into the equation, the Chaco has its own perils. We had a couple of medics a radio call away who carried snake bite anti-venom for one or two species of viper. I asked one if he thought the anti-venom was effective. “Sure,” he said, “if you get bit by the right kind of snake.”

At least we had roads to use. Much of the moving of cattle in the Chaco is from one place to another on your land where there are no roads at all. Marcelo pointed to the wall of thorn trees lining the road, and said, “Driving cattle through this stuff is pure hell.”

Among the lasting impressions are the Southern Cross constellation, the smell of grass and new leather, and how sounds carry extraordinarily well in the pre-dawn darkness: a cough, quiet conversations in Spanish, English and Guaraní, the unmistakable sound of teeth being brushed, somebody spitting, horses talking among themselves.

One night, under a spectacular sky, Father Maldonado brought out his guitar and serenaded us with a repertoire of love songs so tenderly rendered that they made even those who don’t understand Spanish, wistful. Venus, parked just above and beside the lantern moon, was a fitting muse for Father Maldonado as he called out to God in song.

By the beginning of the second day we were all getting to know our horses. You quickly bond with someone who is willing to carry you all day on his back, under a hot sun. We originally figured on 20 kilometers per day, but cooler temperatures and strong horses enabled us to do 35 to 40 km on most days. But bottoms and inner thighs unaccustomed to saddles were another thing. Many of us spent some quality time with our Ibuprofen, but on day three when we did a full 40 kilometers, nobody died or felt they couldn’t continue, and a pride of accomplishment settled over all of us. We knew we could do it again and again, and the feeling was absolutely empowering.

After we took the saddles off each evening and took care of our horses, the urge to find a place to sit and pull into yourself, or lay down to sleep, was strong. It’s these small moments, when nobody is particularly looking, that determine whether you really do live for others or do so only after thinking of your own needs. But these evenings were times for drawing out of people words about their lives and plans for the future. Around the campfire, there were deep talks about horses, love for nature, and love for one's country.

The idea was for meals to be simple and Paraguayan. But the cooks were Brazilian, as well as talented, creative and unique. Maybe a breakfast of peanuts and hominy floating in hot sugared milk (with cloves) can be called simple, and we did enjoy it. Still, I don’t know if any nation would want to claim it as their own.

Another morning breakfast featured baby pig parts, killed and cooked by Antonio, on whose land we camped one night. Accompanying that was “coquito,” a hard, dry, flavorless breadstick that, even when freshly made, does a good job of imitating stale bread. Also, unadorned shredded raw cabbage and thick, black sweetened coffee. Deeee-LISH!

Another time, breakfast was two pieces of salty cheese, a couple of coquitos, and half a cup of coffee. It took less time to eat than it does to read that last sentence.

So we foraged a bit. Someone caught a yacaré in a stock tank (a cousin of the alligator), which the vaqueros cleaned and cooked. It was amazingly good. Juan, who is president of a university with eight campuses scattered around Paraguay, stopped at a farmhouse along the road and bought some chipa (a manioc root and cheese-like “bread”) from the lady of the house. It was still warm and fresh from the oven, and he rode up and down the line with it, handing a piece to each rider. A little country store had a couple of two-liter bottles of warm no-brand cola, which we bought and passed around as we rode.

After three days of such simplicity, the very first question anyone asked when encountering a new life form was, “can you eat it?” In the Chaco the answer is always yes. Late one night someone grabbed up a tatu bolito as it scampered across the campsite. This is an armadillo that rolls itself completely into a ball. He was a cutie, and since we had just finished woofing down chicken-fried reptile we let the little guy off the hook.

Food, which was not on anyone’s mind as much as it might seem from reading this, led to a poignant incident in the tiny and very poor village of Maria Auxiliadora (Mary the Helper) on the next to the last day of the ride. Standing alongside the road were several mothers and children waiting for us. Word of the cattle drive had preceded us, and they met us with a letter asking our help in improving their one-room schoolhouse.

Our bag lunches had candy in them, so Hyun Jin Moon, who has a house full of his own children, got off his horse and started fishing around for something to give to the kids. Then on impulse, he just handed the entire lunch to one of the mothers. As soon as he did that, all the rest of us dismounted, dug our lunches out of our saddlebags, and handed them over to the mothers.

Not expecting anything at all, and partly in jest, we asked, “Since we gave you our lunches, can you make a real Paraguayan lunch for us?”

“Yes,” they responded immediately. “Please come with us.”

We were 14 people. Their house barely had walls. It was an open shelter with beds scattered around. They had a handful of chickens and ducks in the yard and half dozen pigs in a pen out back. They butchered four chickens and a duck for our lunch. They set up a table and chairs in their living room, which had only two walls, and cooked for us a delicious meal of boribori (chicken soup), mandioca bread, and duck empanadas.

We were in heaven, but we knew they had fed us several days worth of food. These women exemplified a traditional culture in which food may be scarce but hospitality and community are always plentiful. Before we left, we gave them a contribution so they could replace their chickens, duck, and the ingredients they used for us, plus a bit extra. But we had to offer it; they asked for nothing.

Out in the wilderness of the Chaco, among people who have almost nothing, we encountered the true heart of Paraguay.

When we got the cattle to Leda successfully, a bull and nine cows were donated to the upriver Indian village of Esperanza, who had promised to raise them as public property, increasing the herd for the funding of schools, medical care, and college tuition.


During the ride, Marcelo got word that his wife’s impending delivery of their first child had encountered complications, with the umbilical cord wrapped completely around the baby’s neck. We offered to drive him back to Fuerte Olimpo, but he insisted on finishing the drive since he was committed to its vision. He was burning up the satellite phone getting frequent updates. It appeared that an emergency cesarean would be required. The operation was scheduled for the morning after we arrived in Leda.

But something interesting happened during the night. The umbilical slowly unwrapped itself from the baby’s neck inside the womb, and the child was born in natural delivery. Marcelo burst into tears as he got the news on the satellite phone with everyone standing around.