Filadelfia, Santa Cruz/Bolivia and close to death....


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Published: April 10th 2015
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So, here I am now in Santa Cruz in Bolivia since 7 days and all I have done is rest. I can honestly say that the last two weeks were very interesting as I nearly met the Grim Reaper in person. You might think that this is an exaggeration, but believe me it is not! More to that later and lets continue where I finished off on the last update.

After visiting the Jesuits ruins in Encarnacion and my arrival in Asunción there was really not much to do. I only spent another day in Asunción as it was my third time there and, while it is a pleasant city, there is really not much to do. So I just sat back and made my plans for the next 4 weeks. My plan was to go to Bolivia and from there to Peru and Ecuador. To reach Bolivia I had to take a bus through the famous Chaco, one of the last frontiers in South America. This area is so remote that in 2010 there was a tribe of Indians discovered by accident that had never been in contact with people from the outside. Within Chaco there are also some remote Mennonite communities that I wanted to visit.

Thus one morning at 6 am I took the bus from Asunción to Filadelfia in what was supposed to be a 7 hour trip that regressed into a 9 hour trip. As I mentioned before the buses in Paraguay are not the best and there are no seat reservations so it is first in, best dressed. I should note i like my window seats. Since I am the tall gringo most people here are somehow afraid to sit beside me so most of the time I have a row for myself. Not that I mind this as I have some pretty long legs to accommodate.

On the bus I met two elderly women that where born in Filadelfia and it was very interesting to listen to them about the history of the Mennonites and their settlement in the Chaco area. The only problem was that the Mennonites are a pretty religious mob and one of the woman tried to tell me how good the zombie Jesus(of whom was invented by the Romans) is and that I am obviously searching for something and she knows that it is this “God”(tablets?) that I will find. Now don’t get me wrong I like to talk about religion and stuff like that, but being hammered for nearly 6 hours straight was even for me a bit much to bear so I was happy when I left the bus in Filadelfia.

Once I stepped off the bus it was like in a bad C graded spaghetti western movie; this town was empty, sunburned and dusty as hell. OK, it was a Saturday that I arrived, so nothing is happening in any small town in South America on a Saturday. But this was just surreal. Except for a couple of Indians there was not a soul on the street and not one shop open. I arrived at my hostel and it took ages until somebody showed up to check me in…..

After I checked in I thought to take a stroll around down to see what it is all about and I can tell you that it was a very short walk. Filadelfia had about 10 000 inhabitants and 2 500 of them are Mennonites. Now Mennonites are Anabaptists from German extraction who began arriving in this area in the late 1920. Before that they came from Russia and fled the communist regime in three waves, 1928, 1930 and 1932. Originally they were to journey to Canada to join their brethren, but the Canadian government at the time stopped them to immigrate when they were all in Germany awaiting the ship to bring them to Canada. It is an interesting note here for all how the nation-state can divide the future of a people.

Nonetheless, the Paraguayan government, as they needed settlers in the Chaco, stepped in and offered them free passage which the Mennonites gladly took. Well if they would have known the environment they were about to settle they would have thought twice about it. The Chaco at that time was a disputed area between Bolivia and Paraguay because it was thought that there was a lot of oil and gas reserves (so nothing has really changed in all that time when it involves such resources). Since most of the Chaco belonged to Paraguay but hardly any people lived in it, the government offered to settle the Mennonites in the area not out of humanitarian reasons, but to prove it was occupied by people.

Can you imagine, arriving from the cold areas from Russia and a couple of months later you are in one of the hottest, hostile and driest areas in South America? Totally brutal. To top it all off Bolivia and Paraguay went to war in 1932 to 1936 over the Chaco and Filadelfia was at the front of that war. Over 30 000 Paraguayans and over 50 000 Bolivians died in that area over nothing.

Now I have been in the German towns in Brazil like Blumenau and you can see on the architecture that they were built by German people, but not so in Filadelfia. The houses and structures were like in every other town in Paraguay. As one man told me later it is because the Mennonites, while speaking German, have really nothing to do with the German culture. They were for hundreds of years living in Russia and all what they were interested at was their religion and not culture.

In Filadelfia you find some very small, but neat, museums that explain pretty much the history of the town and people. The museum staff are more than happy to explain everything and show you around. Again it struck me on how harsh it must have been for the people to arrive here where there was absolutely nothing- but the harsh environment. From this they built a thriving community that supplies most of the milk products into Paraguay. Nice….

Now I mentioned at the start of this update that I had some rally bad health problems in the weeks before I arrived in Filadelfia and it all converged in this town. When I was taking a bus about 10 days before from Asunción to Ciudad del Este I must have caught a bug as I was coughing all the time and breathing became difficult. As I am not a doctor-runner I thought it was just a cold or something of that nature. However it soon developed, that in Filadelfia I went to the hospital and saw a doctor. They made a quick check up, put me on some oxygen, gave me some tablets, a clap on the shoulder and send me on the way. I was feeling a bit better so I didn’t think much about it and arranged my way to Bolivia. What a mistake that was….

From Filadelfia I had to take a bus to Mariscal Estigarribia, the official border town in Paraguay but still about 200 km away from the real border. When I arrived the bus stopped northwest of the town and I had to walk to the immigration office which was about 1 km away. What a walk it was; my breathing was so bad that I had to stop every 100 meters to rest and just catch air. I felt like shit. Finally, when I arrived at the immigration office, I was told that the bus to Bolivia will leave at 4 am in the morning. Outrageously for US$20 I was informed I could sleep in a room beside the office . I was in no condition to argue and tried to sleep, but it was impossible. When the bus arrived at 5.30 am in the morning I was lucky that I had a seat beside a fellow from Estonia, Mark, and he was in many ways my savior.

The trip on the Chaco highway was pretty terrible. The roads, if you can call them roads, are sealed but mainly are potholes connected by tar. The 200 km took about 8 hours and the bus broke down repeatedly. The heat was unbearable and the landscape was just dry and hostile. Here I was unable to breath. Just to give you an idea on how I felt during the following; take a deep breath and don’t breath out, than take another one; and then try a third one. Well I was on the third one all the time. At times I was in a panic stage as I really didn’t know what to do; here I was in the middle of nowhere and had this condition. To top it all off I ran out of water and they was nothing on the bus….. When we arrived at the Bolivian border the first thing I did was get water so I could get some fluid into me.

I arrived at 1 am in the morning in Santa Cruz and by then my condition was so bad that I could not lift my backpack or walk 10 meters. Mark, who has just met me 20 hours before, helped me with the backpack and we made it to the hostel. There I was placed into a tent and I don’t blame them as by then I was unable to move, white as a ghost and coughing like made. I just lay there until morning and I can tell you that my thoughts were not the best ones for I have never felt like this before. I thought I was about to die.

Luckily the owner of the hostel was a German and when he heard about my condition he drove me to a lung specialist who immediately did all sorts of blood tests and X-Rays on me. I was given 4 different injections that morning, a whole pharmacy of tablets and other medicines. When we returned that afternoon the doctor said that I was very lucky that I didn’t die on that trip as I had a severe bronchitis infection that had made the way into the lungs and the lungs had fluid in them.

So here I am now since the last 6 days and all what I saw from Santa Cruz is the lung specialist, the hospital where I get my daily injections and my tent. The tent is actually very nice and I did not bother anyone with my condition. The first 3 days after my arrival I made sleep my only occupation. That was how troubled my body was! I am progressing and I can tell you that I feel like a very lucky man. Lucky because I met Mark on the bus who helped me, Thomas, the owner of the hostel, who brought me to the specialist (also driving me around like a private taxi to all the places I have to go) and that I ended up here in Santa Cruz, which has one of the best hospitals in the South Americas. Wolfgang, a good friend of mine from long ago in Deutschland and a pharmacist, told me that the doctors here were not stuffing around and “were blasting from all cannons” with the application of medication. He also confirmed that I could have easily died on that trip.

So that is all for now. I will spend another 3 days here and when the doctors give me the all clear I will get back on the road. The lessons I have learned is to never ignore health problems again; I might think I am bullet proof but, alas, I am still a humble Germanic. All should note that travelling in areas like this makes it possible for one to pick up bacteria which are far from healthy.

The last two day were actually very good and my health is improving. After diagnosing exactly what bacteria I have I was given the right antibiotic and I am on the mend now. Today was the first day I ventured into town and visited the markets. This reminded me why I love traveling so much; the colors, noises, people, smells, etc. It is a great world we are living in. Love it.

As for people commenting to me that traveling in areas like this is dangerous and why the hell am I doing this I have the following to say. It doesn’t matter where you are and what you do, life is always a challenge. If one wants to live a protected and safe life you are doomed to do nothing at all. And then you get a heart attack…. The bacteria I picked up I could have picked up in Australia or Europe as well. It doesn’t matter where one is, there is always some sort of danger lurking around and if one is not careful, accidents and diseases can happen. Such is life. So I will continue to do what I do and just be a bit more careful, as much as I can.



Thanks for reading to the end again and as usual, please leave some comments. Wherever you are, have a good time and enjoy life to the fullest; you never know when it will end.


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10th April 2015

When I was in Santa Cruz about twenty years ago, it was still practically impossible for a single traveller to cross the Gran Chaco from Bolivia to Paraguay by land. The South American Handbook stated: "We have received no reports from people, who have been travelling through the Gran Chaco by land". So you achieved something which was still impossible for me twenty years ago. Congratulations! Regarding your health problems, I can say, that the greatest danger in remote, isolated and largely uncivilized regions are not robberies, wild animals or the loss of documents or money, but a serious illness. You were lucky enough to get a good medical treatment in Santa Cruz - a rarity in this part of South-America. Santa Cruz is known for its good medical institutions - many Brazilians study medicine in that town.
11th April 2015

Glad to hear you survived...
and that you will take the first signs of illness more seriously next time. I like you itinerary and look forward to reading your blogs...all the way to the end.
12th April 2015

Health in Bolivia X Brasil X South America
It is necessary to clarify some myths concerning Medicine in Bolívia. Of course there are doctors which are very good on what they do and others who are not - in Bolívia or any place in the world. The good side is that you were lucky to find a good doctor and that – for that region! Including Paraguay, Bolivia and other poorer neighboor countries – Medicine in Santa Cruz de la Sierra is good. But is not wonderful or international reference. The profile of boys and girls from Brazil who study Medicine in Bolivia consists of a youth from North and Northeast regions (mostly from Maranhão State) who not obtain minimum points to be approved on Brazilian “Vestibular” (is a test, a selection students in all areas do including all content taught during high school in order to verify if someone has conditions to go to university – I did Vestibular once, in 1994, to verify if I was able to study Social Communication at the University and I was approved). Courses like Medicine, Odontology, Law, Architecture, Social Communication and the several Engineers are very disputed and so the candidate must study a lot, like 16 hours a day (no joke…) because it is thousands running for 30 or 40 vacations per University… And if someone applies for the best, more renewed Universities, like University of Brasília or University of São Paulo (which require maximum punctuation on their tests, than the person sometimes studies for 2 or 3 years until being approved….. The Public Universities are more searched than the Private Universities here, because the teaching at a Public University is excellent, with professors with the best graduations, people who have, for example, PHD in Physics in Germany, for example. And so, some don’t like to wait studying for years until being approved and prefer to do Medicine at Bolívia or Cuba (to Cuba go those members from the MST, they go with a clear political purpose). That’s when their problems start. Some enjoy the teaching in Bolívia, others don’t (there are reports of students who said the professor gets delayed on classes, don’t apply enough content, approves students based in corruption…) and when they come back to Brazil in most of the cases they can’t exercise their profession in Brazilian soil…….. Why? Because the Brazilian Ministry of Education applies a test for Brazilians who went to a University abroad called “Revalida”. This test values for any area of knowledge – and in other countries the validation process is no different for foreigners. If I studied Jornalism abroad and came back to Brazil I would need to do this Revalida. The point is those who study Medicine in Bolívia and Cuba are, the majority, Reproved in this Revalida (i.e. can’t be doctors in Brazil, unless they want to be illegal and it’s a crime to exercise Medicine in illegal way). There are stories about people who spent the amount of U$ 10,000 simply because they cant be approved on the Revalida, they must travel to Brasília to do the test and with translation of documents. The thing is, students who did a graduation in Europe or USA are like 99% approved by the Revalida, while those from Bolívia are not………… If someone who did a course at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford is approved at the Revalida and a student who did the same course in Bolívia or Cuba is not………. Then, obviously there’s something very wrong and the quality of teaching in Cuba and Bolívia is not the same as in other countries…... More than this, is the myth of Cuban Medicine going down, demolished by statistics. Here are some news (in Portuguese) about students from Bolívia and Cuba reproved in Brazil when they wish to transfer their diplomas: http://g1.globo.com/mato-grosso/noticia/2013/07/ufmt-aprova-apenas-um-entre-508-diplomas-de-medicina-da-bolivia.html (UFMT, a public Brazilian university at Center Region, approved only one among the 508 diplomas obtained in Bolívia) http://opiniao.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,medicos-reprovados-imp-,661301 (on another selection, from 628 only 2 with diplomas from Bolivia were approved) http://noticias.terra.com.br/educacao/revalida-com-92-reprovados-cfm-cobra-rigor-com-medicos-de-fora,d34d67560b19c310VgnVCM4000009bcceb0aRCRD.html (92% of 884 reproved in 2013. Those who were approved studied Medicine at Argentina, Uruguay, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, France, Poland) Now imagine a person studying abroad, spending time (6 years) and money (because in Bolivia university is private, paid), coming back and being not able to have the career they chose……. Contrary to Bolívia, Brazil IS international reference in Medicine (not only in plastic surgery, a speciality Brazil is famous for, attracting sub-celebrities from the world). Brazil is reference in treatment of AIDS, transplant of medulla (bone marrow) and tissues, surgery for burnt, etc. Brazil has very good hospitals among that 6,000 that belong to the Brazilian Health System, being 24 considered international pattern centres, having the most important hospital certification in the world, given by the Joint Comission International : in São Paulo, the Samaritan Hospital, the German Oswaldo Cruz, the Israeli Albert Einstein and the Syrian-Lebanese, the Heart Hospital (if I needed, would trust much more on those, than in hospitals from abroad); Moinhos de Vento, Hospital of the Child Santo Antônio and Hospital of Clinics, in Porto Alegre; Copa D’Or, National Institute of Cancer and National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic, in Rio de Janeiro; Memorial São José in Recife, Northeast; among many others. The best countries in Latin America to study Medicine outside Brazil are in Chile, Colombia and Argentina (in Buenos Aires, not in the countryside). So, don’t believe when someone says it’s a rarity in South America………. That’s absolutely not true. There are problems in Brazil and neighbour countries, but it doesn’t mean that quality is rare or doesn’t exist. What happens is in those countries (Brazil included) there is not enough distribution for hospitals and doctors in more remote areas, rural, isolated, “uncivilized”. That is why the Brazilian government brought a lot of doctors from Cuba (and I already know about cases of medical mistakes done by them) and many hate their life in Cuba, are unhappy with the payments given by Brazilian government and so a considerable number used the program More Doctors asking for asylum in Brazil, to don’t go back to Cuba at the end of the program, while others see Brazil as an opportunity to move from here to the USA……. Imagine this situation. It is happening now. So, there is this problem concerning remote areas (few people, after graduation wish to work at a State in the North or Northeast – they prefer doing their professional careers at the States of the Centre, Southeast and South) and also the problem concerning the Public Health System in Brazil, for free. The problem in Public Health is the delay, the long queues and the bad humour and lack of specialization of doctors who receive a bad salary in public health (and wished to be working at a private hospital, with resources and excellent salary). Those who can pay for a Health Insurance Plan or a Private Hospital don’t face that reality. **Me** and everybody I know (middle class, which can also englobes low and upper middle class) have a Health Insurance Plan, paid each year to guarantee excellence in treatment. I never needed any treatment I wished abroad. Since I was born, I always was attended by doctors of excellent quality in all areas of health. Dermatology, Paediatric, Dentist, Ophthalmology, Endocrinology, Gastroenterology, Otorhinolaryngology: everything, including Psychology (excellent professionals oriented by Jung, Freud, Gestalt, Karl Rodgers, for all tastes). There are good things here and they are not difficult to find. But the person needs to know where to go to obtain those benefits.
12th April 2015

Problems in certain areas in South America
The larger problem I see in South America is going to remote, isolated areas, abdicating all comforts, especially if in the poorer countries – in the 3 Americas, Haiti is the poorer country and Bolivia is the second. The problem in those areas are A) the transportation; B) accommodation; C) food choice. Depending on what someone chooses to do the issue “health” is implied, can guarantee bad consequences – and problems. Hostels that are not well clean, dirty busses and food without hygiene on the streets can result in health problems of all kinds. I don’t deny this happens abroad. A girl who travelled with me to Germany felt horrible in all possible ways in Germany, headache, stomach, didn’t go out for nothing because she ate a Chinese food at the train station in Halle. At the end, for her, was like “the cheap which became expensive”, as we say in Brazil, simply because she solved to try Chinese food (I didn’t, I totally disliked the looks of the place) as she was “tired of so much boring German food” and also because she wished to save a bit more of money at the end of the travel…… She regretted totally. These situations happen abroad, yes. But the chance of this to happen at Paraguay and Bolívia are higher. In those countries is not a matter of freshness, snobbism, wishing to only see the good side of life, but of self-preservation. Is not my kind of travel, but I try to understand those who taken by an adventurous wish to go to the poorest, more isolated areas to see how the poor live - *but* the person needs to understand that if does so, is running a serious risk. Period. Those areas have no infrastructure (in this involved health, sanitarian measures). I never had those problems in Brazil because I know where to go, because NEVER eat street food and other cares….. Only time I had a problem was when I was 13 years and tried a sausage on the streets (meats are more dangerous most of the times than fruits or vegetables), resulting in a heavy allergy on my whole body which almost killed me and “closed” my throat, suffocating me. And nobody needs going to wonderful, sophisticated places in order to have a good food: there are simple places, but with hygiene – where people don’t touch food with their hands (a habit common in Bolivia, influenced by local culture). One thing is someone eating at a trending truckfood, the other is eating a suspicious barbecue at a stand. There are places, popular, here which I enjoy as the markets on the Tower TV in Brasília, but I know the sellers have a number of cares and here there is an organ called Sanitary Vigilance, which verifies the hygiene of the goods. But on the streets, there is no guarantee… Several years ago, I had a maid from a poor zone in Brasília, who told me that her neighbour sold kind of a meat close to the bus station and she told me: “I pity so much people who walk there and buy one of her goods. I see every day what she does: she cleans the food on the same water where she previously cleans the panties of her daughters”. And so…. All of this can generate a very seriously health problem. I knew people who travelled the whole South America in the past, when they were around 18. They wished to see the “Socialism”, “Guevara stuff” (by the way those amuse me a lot – they are the same whites from middle class who preaches rights for the blacks and homosexuals without knowing that Guevara was racist and totally against homosexuals LOL), but even they took some measures to avoid problems. It was not enough: at the hostels some were stole, others had heavy food intoxication and more and more…. Today they face this as a youth adventure and wouldn’t do it anymore, not because they are accommodate, but because most of the people (this is proved by Psychology) get more exigent over the years. I’m no different from this – I am aware, though, there are some exceptions who are adventure for the rest of their lives – and there were things I did when I was 21 (some I enjoy the remembrance, others not) that today at 39 I think “I don’t believe I did this. I would never do this again anymore. I don’t imagine myself doing this again”. And so I think after some age we need to take some cares, because wanting or not aging and death comes to all. We need to take care. Chagas disease, for example, common in rural areas, isolated, in Brasil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru are spread mostly in places like camping and hostels. People I know in general don’t have the interest to go to Bolívia or Paraguay because a plane ticket to Europe and USA is far cheaper for us than a ticket to neighbour countries (exception goes to Argentina and Uruguay) and because as we are from here we are very aware of the several problems involving health in neighbour countries – most of the times is not for the wish to please aesthetical sense, but for pure prudence. The Staphylococcus Aureus you got, probably in a bus in Paraguay or in Ciudad del Leste (a very dirty city from Paraguay) is more serious than the bacteria usually present in pneumonias – this is what the Brazilian doctor I talked to told me and for sure the Bolivian doctor told you). Spreads through the air and stays at the body from 3 to 20 days until the symptoms appear. The doctor here told me the treatment lasts around 15 days (and if it wasn’t diagnosed on time it would spread through heart and blood, causing heart failure). Can be contagious, if someone infected coughs by the side of someone (but around 15 days you will be ok) and that is necessary to be very CAREFUL with going to highlands in Bolívia and Peru. He told me “I don’t like to give a diagnoses for someone I didn’t see. But I would recommend to be careful in the highlands of Bolívia or Peru, cause if an individual with normal health feels the difference, someone with low immunity, coming from a debilitation will feel much more. If the person in this situation intends to go to those areas even in that situation, so I would recommend the maximum of cares, avoid extreme physical efforts, long walks, unless wish to have a bad surprise”. So, take care of yourself…………………. Even because we will meet on next month xoxoxoxo
14th April 2015
Painting in Santa Cruz

Interesting painting. I've just noticed the presence of both a fascio (on the right) and a phrygian hat (on the left), a typical symbol for the jacobins. Funny.
14th April 2015
Church in Santa Cruz

Bolivia has a very cool Colonial arcuitecture, specially in La Paz. They don't have the earthquake problem, like us. Good for them.
14th April 2015
Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz de la Sierra it's the zone of Bolivia that has more white population, according to statistics. Some also say it's the home of the hottest chicks in South America...
14th April 2015

Well I am glad you are OK
Hello Welf, Hi Welf, Thanks for keeping up the travel blogs. I'm sorry I don't comment often, but I do read them all and I find them fascinating, so please keep writing. I am so glad that you sought out medical care and that you have been diagnosed and treated, I hope you are better soon. Yes - I fall in the camp of wondering what on earth you are doing taking such travel risks and travelling in the countries you are going to, but then I said that before you left haha. But at least you are living an adventure - better than the mundane life of the rest of us. Cheers, Nicole
21st April 2015

Being sick on the road
Welf, so glad you are feeling better. Being a nurse my heart was pounding as I read this blog. I couldn't read fast enough to find out your diagnosis and treatment plan. Thank goodness you got the help you needed when you did or this could have been a very different outcome. Being sick when traveling is never fun but pneumonia is nothing to mess around with especially in altitude. I was sick in Bhutan but fortunately I started taking meds right away. We always travel with a small pharmacy. Eager to hear more of your wonderful adventure.
21st April 2015

Well, it was...
.. pretty frightening. To be honest I have never ever been as afraid as I was that day. The woman at the hostel said that she thought I was going to die. But all is good now. Lesson learned; first symptoms go to the doc.....
25th April 2015

Graδ' noch mal gut gegangen!!
Hi Welf ich bin sehr froh, dass es dir gut geht und das du auch dieses Abenteur gut überstanden hast. Lass dich aber zwischendurch noch mal untersuchen, denn mit Lungenentzündung ist nicht zu spaßen und man muss aufpassen, das einem nichts zurück bleibt. (Ich spreche hier aus eigener erfahrung!!! Deine Reiseberichte sind wirklich super, und eine Fotos finde ich auch ganz toll. Ein Freundin hat mir gesagt, du solltest mal versuchen einige bei NATIONAL GEOGRAFICS anzubieten ..... Take care of you self and stay safe. Big kiss your sister

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