Saturday, May 19, 2007

San Javier

This weekend I made my second excursion from Santa Cruz. Granted, not much for two months in Bolivia, but I'm getting there. I so enjoyed my time in Samaipata, experiencing the peaceful calm of small town life, and the invigorating freshness of mountain air, that I set a goal to travel at least twice a month.

San Javier is a town within the Mission Circuit, a series of towns and villages with beautiful and historic Jesuit churches that were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If I had more time, I'd take a week or so and make a loop of the towns. That would be the easiest way of doing it. But since I don't have that much time, I figured I'd spend a weekend in one town, and later, a weekend or two in others.

I chose to go to San Javier first because it's the closest to Santa Cruz, about 4 hours away. I left on a bed-bus (with reclining seats and leg rests) at 8 p.m. and arrived by midnight, giving me the whole weekend here.

I was the only passenger on the bus that got off here. And I have to admit that disembarking in an unknown place at midnight did make me nervous. Especially when I found out that no one from the hotel had come to meet me, as promised. I had no choice but to walk through the town in the still of the night to try to find my hotel. Except for on the main road, where shops sold local cheeses, baked goods and drinks to passengers and truck drivers, there wasn't a soul on the street. I reached the plaza and found it empty, dark, and forbidding. I saw the names of other hotels, but everything looked boarded up for the night, with thick wooden doors.

I couldn't find the hotel on my first try, so I went back to the main road to ask for directions, then tried again. I was very thankful when I arrived, was let in, and received my very own room and bed. I felt much more relaxed and safe.

My hotel, the Gran Hotel Reposo Del Guerrero, is simple but nice. Rooms are arranged around an attractive patio, filled with chairs, hammocks, trees, plants and wildflowers. I have my own bathroom, A/C, and more importantly in the current cold weather, nice blankets - all for $10 a night. Unfortunately for such a nice place, I think I'm the only guest here.

Most people visit the churches on a tour. And therefore, many tourists just pass by - take a look at the church and move on. I knew there might not be a whole lot to fill a weekend, but I brought books and a mini-computer and looked forward to some down time. However, I ended up finding plenty of interesting things today.

I started my day visiting the local San Javier cheese factory. I was hoping to watch the process. They wouldn't let me inside, but they did sell me fresh cheese and yogurt, produced from the milk of four local dairies.

It felt nice to walk through town - to watch the families zoom past on motorcycles, up to three people aboard, to see the beautiful thatched roofs, that fit as neatly as a hat, to see the green, tree-dotted plains and the blue hills rising up in the distance. A friendliness and a slowness moved through the air, and I immediately felt the difference. I could walk here without looking over my shoulder, I could pause to watch the toddler in the cowboy hat run across the field, or the woman giving a man in a haircut in a single-chair beauty shop.

I went to the church, not really expecting much but an excuse to spend a weekend here, to say that I saw something. I've done all the great churches of Europe and considered myself churched-out. So this church must really be remarkable, because I was impressed and awestruck.

Approaching it from the square, I thought the carved pillars of faded wood, the pitched wooden roof, the heavy brown doors, and the the ivory carvings and brown fretwork were beautiful. Like the other buildings on the center square, surrounding the ample green park, the church took up an entire block. A covered walkway ran along the face of it, making it look like a long cow shed, but a much fancier one than the building opposite or diagonal it. A wooden belltower rose up from the interior grounds, with four bells visible from the center square. So far it was nice, but nothing amazing.

It was when I walked into the attached museum, which led into the church and its property, that I realized this was something special. The carved wooden museum pieces - the sacrificial cross, the old bells, the statues, were filled with an aura of age and beauty. They had been so much more lovingly than the gilded materials in many church. It was real artistic creation and it showed.

In the grounds, I walked under wooden porticos with carved wooden columns on one side, beautiful carvings and paintings along the church exterior on the other. The chapel was a wonder unto itself. Five carved scenes, framed in gold, surrounded a golden carved Jesus. The long and wide nave was a maze of carved and painted wooden boards and columns. No board, no surface, were spared the artist's hand, not even the upper boards of the roof. Everything was carved and painting. Except for the gold frames, nothing shone or glittered. The beauty was more gentle, natural, loving.

Carved cherubs with wings smiled down from the walls, over full-body carvings of saints. Two young boys went through the pews with rags, racing each other to clean the fastest, driving along the pews as though in an Indy-500 race.

Besides the beauty of the churches, another aspect that has made the mission circuit famous is the baroque music the Jesuits taught to the locals and carried on by youth musical groups. It's a little seen phenomenon when young village natives become masterful violinists or operatic singers. From what I'd heard, the quality is very good and these groups travel widely.

The mission circuit holds a two-week music festival in the summer (that would be six months from now) and they put on concerts over three weekends in the winter. I was disappointed to hear that I'd just missed one of those concert weekends. The next would be in early July and I hoped I could return.

As I exited the other side of the church and strolled the grounds, I suddenly heard a sharp, beautiful melody. Was someone playing a tape of this music? I approached the sound - the choralic ah, hah, hahs, the operatic arias, the smooth orchestral notes. I glanced into a dusty screened window and saw it was live, a group was practicing. I felt so lucky to come across this, I sat on the grass until the practice was over, enjoying the beautiful melodies.

They disbanded with members still calling out operatic notes, with violinists walking around while still practicing chords. As I'd heard, they were young, about high school age, average looking boys and girls, with jackets and backpacks. Yet they spent their Saturday mornings practicing in a dark church room and had the ability to produce a breathtaking sound.

I stopped by the Buen Ganadero for lunch, a recommended local restaurant. For less than four dollars, I had fresh squeezed peach juice, a giant, tender cut of beef, two fried eggs, french fries, salad and rice. It was enough to last me for the entire day.

During my afternoon stroll, I found the soccer field, where motorcycles were abandoned in a group, their owners in the stalls watching the game. I found a small tourist office, where there was a museum about the Yarituses. This religious group existed before the Jesuits. They dress in masks and costumes and dance in honor of Piyo. When the Jesuits arrived, they allowed them to continue dancing, as long as they danced in honor of San Pedro and Pablo.

The woman told me that every June 29th and 30th, they dance from the church to the Apostle's Rock, a large rock a few blocks away that she suggested I visit. So I walked toward it in the afternoon, and what did I happen to see, but a group of Yarituses, in costume, dancing in a circle in front of the rock and in front of a giant, iron cow.

I happened across the opening ceremony for a new art gallery that is located within a rock, a small, subterranean, artsy place that is meant to expand San Javier's cultural offerings. The area is actually more of a rock forest than one single, imposing rock, and I walked along a path surrounded by giant boulders and trees.

As usual, darkness fell by 6:30 and I was back in my room by then. I heard the church bells chime at 7, a light, melodic sound that carried across the village. But I decided to wait until the next morning to see part of a mass. I like the quiet and the isolation that falls in small towns at darkness, giving me nothing to do but read, write and sleep. It's very calming and relaxing.

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