Saturday, August 04, 2007

San Ignacio de Velasco

Last night I took an all-night bus on the 11 hour journey to San Ignacio de Velasco, the northernmost town of the Jesuit Misión Circuit. I went alone, and with no hotel reservations. I felt a bit nervous about taking off on my own, especially since I heard that much of the road was unpaved and who knew what I’d find when I arrived. However, all went well. Though I’d prefer to have some company, I’m enjoying my adventure so far.

The bus, a two-story Jenecheru bus-cama, was extremely comfortable, like a business-class of buses. The seats are wide, recline so far back one is almost horizontal, and have a leg rest. There is even enough room to curl up. The most prepared came with blankets, which probably made for a cozy ride. But even without, it was possible to get a decent amount of sleep. I rode next to a Brazilian woman with a three-month-old baby.

Though the majority of the ride was in the dark, by moonlight I could see the desolation. After we passed San Javier, it was almost nothing but vast empty plains, the word pampas comes to mind – covered by a variety of grasses and brushes, small, bare, spindly trees, and occasionally, swamps. Every so often, a thatched hut would come into view. But that was it.

I could feel the bump when we descended from the pavement onto the dirt road. But it wasn’t uncomfortably bumpy. And our driver seemed to be especially careful, which I appreciated.

When light appeared, around 6 a.m., I could see the same things. Only at this time, I also saw the bright red dust of the road, the red light that rose behind the plains and then turned into blue sky, and the fine patterns of the bare branches.

San Ignacio seemed to appear out of nowhere. All of a sudden we stopped, and people began to disembark. We were in the middle of a dusty, red dirt road, a chilly wind blowing, despite the sunny sky.

I found it easier to arrive at 7 a.m., then at 1 a.m., such as I arrived in San Javier. I rolled my suitcase the several blocks to the plaza, then looked at two hotels. I chose the Hotel San Ignacio. It’s a very comfortable place in a historic building, remodeled just a year and a half ago. I have a high wooden ceiling, a tile floor, large wood-paneled windows, wooden furniture that probably comes from some of the same talented artists that carve the pillars in front of buildings here, a TV, phone and refrigerator.

After taking a nap, I strolled around town. The central few blocks are paved, but the rest of the roads are loose, ochre dust. It’s one of the largest towns in Chiquitania, with a population of about 35,000. But it still retains a small-town feel. I walked just a few blocks away from the plaza, to a man-made lagoon, and found myself alone in nature, with good opportunities for birdwatching.

Carved wooden crosses have been placed in several intersections. The central plaza is a large, spacious square, dense with greenery and decorated with statues and benches. The buildings are mostly one and two story, supported by carved wooden columns and topped with roofs of curved red tile. Motorcycles flit around town, their low roars a constant background noise, and bicycles are common.

I found a Brazilian restaurant where I enjoyed a surprisingly healthy lunch buffet of beans, rice and salad. The owner, who is from Brazil, said there aren’t so many Brazilians now, but more are coming to the area. Many, like him, are coming because it’s much easier to start a business in Bolivia. In Brazil, he said, there are a lot of requirements and taxes that serve as barriers. Others, he said, come to escape something they’ve done in Brazil. I’m not so sure the second group is very good for Bolivia, but I don’t know how they are enforcing migration rules.

I strolled through the market area, where I saw homemade dairy products, cell phones, pirated DVDs, cheap shoes, and rich-smelling leather products from Brazil for sale. I stopped in the church, the largest of the Jesuit mission churches, and caught part of a confirmation-preparation class for local youth. The church is the largest of the Jesuit Mission churches. If I hadn’t seen San Javier first, I would have been more impressed. The church is beautiful, wide, open-aired, and full of carvings. But the altar seemed a bit gaudy in its bright goldness. And unlike the other mission churches, which have been restored, this one was created anew. The original, built in 1748, was destroyed 200 years later, then rebuilt from scratch. Perhaps for that reason it seems to lack a bit of the historical sense I felt in San Javier.

In the evening, I attended a concert in the church. Both the local San Ignacio choir and orchestra and the Cochabamba symphony orchestra performed. I had the chance to speak with the impressive woman who directs the local musical group, as well as to talk to a 16-year-old violinist. They performed as part of Seasonal Concerts of Chiquitos Missional Music, a series to help draw tourists to the region. The church was about half-full of attendees for the free concert. The music was beautiful, and it’s amazing to hear it in such an atmosphere. But it didn’t captivate me quite as much as the practice session I happened to come across accidentally in San Javier, where the sounds of Baroque music flowed out of a side-building window, and I sat on the grass, a secret absorber of the sweet sounds.

The people here are uniformly friendly and helpful. I always feel much better upon exiting Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz feels too much like a fight to me, one always has to be on guard. Thugs are unable to hide for long in a small, isolated community such as this. Here I can stroll at leisure and comfortably, I can approach anyone and speak to them, I feel free to explore and to be myself.


zzizith said...

Thanks for the that good description of San Ignacio. I lived near there for nearly 2 yrs back in 1966, and from your description, it sure has changed! Wish I could go back.

shaner said...

Hey zzizith,

Did you happen to marry Carlos Roca's sister?

I lived there between 2003-05. And knew Carlos, Jose Roca, Yayo and the others. I heard a lot about you if you're who I think you are.

I'd love to catch up.

Shane Townsend
(you can find me on the Peace Corps Bolivia website- or Google me)