Sunday, September 27, 2009
The divine intervention of Bolivians.
Back in Copacabana, just as we had decided to drop Paraguay from our itinerary, we’d watched The Mission. It was that movie from the 80s starring Jeremy Irons and Robert Deniro as Jesuit missionaries fighting against the Spanish and Portuguese in the middle of the Paraguayan jungle. It was an awesome movie and got us all fired up to visit the missions. The famous missions were in the area around the borders of Paraguay, Brasil and Argentina but Bolivia also had some not too far away and since we were in the area and there was nothing to do, we decided to take a little side trip to check them out. I realized that a shirtless Jeremy Irons probably wasn’t going to be hanging out there but the missions were supposed to be beautiful and had an interesting history.
The Jesuits had come to the New World over 300 years ago to convert the Guarani Indians. It wasn’t an easy task but with the help of music and the Jesuits’ persistence the natives soon came to trust the Jesuits. The missions they built together housed thousands and were more like communities than churches. Unfortunately for the Jesuits, the Spanish and Portuguese governments didn’t like this. They wanted to keep the Guarani “uncivilized” so they could use them as slaves. But the Jesuits held their ground often fighting the Spanish and Portuguese before being expelled from the area. For the next few centuries the missions were abandoned but only by the Jesuits. The Guarani stayed on at many while others were left to the jungle.
Within a day’s journey around Santa Cruz there were a handful of towns built up around the old missions. There were tours available but they were a little out of our budget so we decided to check out the closest ones just a couple of hours away. Thanks to a wonky bus schedule we’d have to stay overnight as the bus didn’t leave until late in the evening. That should have meant a nice lie-in after last night’s silliness, except that we had to check out of the room. But we were able to recoup by hanging out at the pool all day and catching up with Brenno, Stuart and Max to find out what had happened to them. As expected they had been inside one of the “night clubs” although they admitted it wasn’t easy. They tried to bribe their way into a couple but had no such luck until the third. But rather than enjoying themselves, they admitted it was a bit ego-destroying as the beautiful Glamazon Bolivian models barely glanced in their direction. Ah, poor boys. Although judging by their slow movements and blood-shot eyes they still managed to have a good time.
At 7pm we headed to the bus station and then began to search for a bus to San Javier, the closest mission town. We walked the entire length of the bus station enquiring at every other window before finding the right bus company tucked in a faraway and dark corner. The bus was more expensive than we expected but it was leaving at 7:30 rather than 8pm. And we were lucky enough to get the last two seats. In fact, the bus was more than full as every adult had at least one child sitting on his or her lap, including the old school Mennonites sitting in front of us. They had two seats for the five of them. We were getting off at the first stop 4 hours away but the bus was scheduled to travel all night deep into the Bolivian jungle. I pitied the families until the bus pulled out of the station and the parents took over the aisles, laying down blankets and pillows in the aisle for the kids to sleep on. We nodded off ourselves, bolting awake as the bus came to a stop in San Javier. None of the dozens of kids sleeping in the aisle woke up though and it took a lot of careful stepping not to crush them under our feet as we carefully made our way off the bus.
San Javier was not what I expected at all. It was one street and at 11:30pm everything was dark and closed up tight. I knew there were pensions and alojementos but trying to find an open one at this hour didn’t look like it was going to be easy. We walked down the main street towards a pinprick of a light up ahead. It was a pension and they were just closing. But they had a room available for a third of the price we were paying in Santa Cruz and three times as nice (although the bed was rock hard). There was a private bathroom and tv even – not that we had time to enjoy it since we both crashed within minutes of lying down, hoping that San Javier was more impressive in the morning.
At 8am we awoke still groggy but anxious to begin our mission mission. It was already super hot and very sunny. Although the sunlight made it much easier to find our way around the town, it didn’t improve San Javier. The town was just a tiny village. But behind the one street was the main square where the mission was. The mission was still closed however so we set out to find some breakfast. The only place open was a small café, or rather a courtyard with a couple of tables and plastic chairs, that sold just one thing empanadas. Adrian, the breakfast purist, was a bit cranky about having empanadas for breakfast but when I reminded him that the option was empanadas or nothing he ordered two. Plus the price was right, 4 empanadas and a pot of coffee and milk came to about $2.50. As we were settling up our bill, the bells of the mission started ringing. We followed the villagers inside the doors and were surprised to find it packed. The population of San Javier couldn’t have been more than 100 but there were at least three times that amount inside the church. Rather than fight for a seat, we slipped out of the church and walked around the huge walled compound instead. The mission was being renovated so much of the pretty stuff was under protective tarps but there was still plenty to see, including the old bell tower, intricate carvings and wall paintings, class rooms and smaller chapels (but no Jeremy Irons). When the church service was over we walked back inside the church for a better look before heading out to find the bus to the next mission town, Concepcion.
We walked down the street looking for a micro (mini van buses) but having no luck popped into a bus office to ask. Just as we were asking a bus pulled up which they told us would take us to Concepcion. It was nicer than our night bus – it had airconditionning. And the price was right so we hopped on. The journey to Concepcion took less than an hour through the hills that had once been dense jungle. Just after 11 we arrived in Concepcion and checked when the bus back to Santa Cruz was. It was either 1pm or 5:30 so we decided to to catch the 1pm one. Unlike San Javier, Concepcion was an actual town, a small one but we had to walk a little faster if we were going to squeeze in our tour. There were people everywhere and when we got to the church I realized it wasn’t just because it was Sunday but because today was holy communion for every kid in the area. Everywhere we were tripping over young girls in their white mini wedding dressed and boys in dress shirts and ties, yet none were sweating in the stinking hot sun.
The mission (photo above) here was even more impressive but we went to the museum first and got a quick history of the restoration of the missions in the area. In the early 20th century the Jesuits had finally but centuries of neglect had left the buildings barely standing. One of the priests, Hans Roth, was also an architect and he spearheaded the task of restoring them. He first built a school and workshop to teach the locals how to help him out and provide them with skills for employment. It took 30 years but the Missions were now restored and the schools and workshops are still teaching hundreds of people a year. The story was impressive but so was the work. The museum had before and after photos that showed just how much work he and his workers had put into the project. There was also a lot of history on the Jesuits in the area and I was amazed at how much one of the old priests looked like Jeremy Irons until I realized it was a still shot from The Mission. Apparently, today’s Jesuits were just as inspired by the movie as we were. There were also exhibitions on the importance of music to the missions – the workshops not only made furniture and decorations for the church but musical instruments for the locals, just as the missions had done 300 years ago.
Inside the church our awe continued. The interior had been restored but also filled with contemporary additions. On each wooden pew a different Bible story had been carved in relief. The walls were decorated with others. No wonder, the parents of the children were crowded around taking pictures of their kids standing in front of the altar. We wanted to check out the workshop but when we got there we discovered it was closed on Sunday (of course). That was fine as our time was running out. We fought our way through the crowds and headed through town to the bus company office to buy our tickets. And that’s when the bad news started.
The first company was sold out until the 11pm bus – but that wouldn’t get us into Santa Cruz until 4am. And the other didn’t have any tickets until the 10pm bus. Just our luck to head to Concepcion, during one of the few weekends when the rest of the province did. We knew we could get out of town but we didn’t really want to stick around and decided to head out to the highway to try our luck. We didn’t know what we were trying our luck at but figured a change of scenary might clear our heads. Perhaps we could catch a collectivo or taxi, we thought. We waited and waited and although we saw taxis, something (namely fear of a super high price) stopped us from flagging them down. Eventually, we saw the 1pm bus turn onto the highway. There were empty seats visible and I thought I’d ask the driver. He told us he only had room until San Javier. Since the bus was only half full I was skeptical but at least we were on board and heading in the right direction. Just outside of San Javier however, I discovered who those seats were for. There was a camping area and 20 kids and their adult chaperones piled on board with all their gear. And they had tickets for the seats we were sitting in. Luckly, the ayudante (and the kids) let us sit until San Javier where we got off on the road and wondered what we were going to do next. Perhaps, there were tickets from San Javier on the 6pm bus but just as we were about to ask at the bus office, a taxi driver approached us. He asked us if we were looking for a tour but I explained that we had just done one and were trying to get to Santa Cruz. I thought he’d drive off but instead he decided to help us. He told us about the shared taxis we could take (changing at a couple of different towns), how much they cost (half the price of our bus tickets) and explained where to stand to find one. We thanked him and walked down to the taxi stand to wait. The next thing we knew he drove up and got out of the car to flag down a tiny minivan. He explained our story to the driver and although the driver wasn’t going all the way to Santa Cruz he could take us to the San Ramon where we could connect to another taxi for the final stretch. The first taxi driver was in his car and off before we could thank him. So just in the rare chance he speaks English, is online and is reading this, I want to say thank you.
We got to San Ramon quickly and were let off at another waiting taxi. It was boiling hot but not wanting to lose our seats we stayed in the van roasting for an hour until there were enough people for the driver to take off. Joining us were a professor in the front, a woman with her two young sons in the middle and us in the back all heading to Santa Cruz. The driver obviously thought he still had room for one more and stopped a few times along the way trying to entice more passengers but none were tempted. Adrian and I were surprisingly not bothered by the delays; we were just happy not to be stranded in tiny little San Javier or Conception. Don’t get me wrong, visiting the missions had been nice but after that there was nothing to do in the town.
Just after dark we arrived in Santa Cruz and the driver let off the woman and her sons leaving just the professor and I. I assumed the taxi was going to let us off near the bus station so when he pulled up to a hotel in an unfamiliar part of town, we were confused. I asked him where we were and how to get near Parque Urbano where the hostel was, the driver waved vaguely in a direction but the professor told us to get back in the car. That was near where he wa going so the driver could drop us off on the way. Phew, once again we were saved by the kindness and language skills of a stranger. When the professor found out we were from Canada, he clapped his hands in delight. His daughter lived in Canada and he had many Canadian grandchildren he told us. Me gusto mucho Canada, he told us. Me gusto mucho Bolivianos I told him. And I meant it. Without the help of all of them today we wouldn’t have made it back to the bbq and pool that were waiting for us at the hostel.