Sunday, August 05, 2007

Three more Mission churches

My hotel helped me to hire a taxi for the day. With the driver, Rober, we made a loop of the three mission churches in the areas outside San Ignacio – San Miguel, San Rafael and Santa Ana.

We headed for San Miguel first, so that I could catch a group playing flute music as part of the Seasonal Concerts of Chiquitos Mission Music. I’d read these places were remote and that the roads were bad, but it was worse than I thought. The roads were hot, dusty, red, and usually barren of civilization. We drove through miles and miles of scrub – the dry red, green and pale gold landscape colored only by a tree that had bright yellow flowers.

We passed an occasional remote community, haciendas with cheerful names like Gloria, posted over dry, colorless brush, and plenty of cows with slack throats that sagged as they walked. When we’d reach a town, it seemed a miracle, as though civilization didn’t belong there. But as I suppose should be expected, the towns weren’t highly civilized.

Our first stop, San Miguel, was actually the largest of the three. It had a plaza with some shops and cafes, a market area that sold fresh fruit and vegetables, and where kids gathered to play foozball, and an organized tourist office that sold carved wooden products to visitors and promoted their region.

Yet I struggled to find a bottle of water. When I finally find a bottle and gratefully bought it, I noticed there was sediment floating in the bottle. And then I noticed the seal was broken. Someone had probably collected the bottle and filled it with whatever water they could find. So I had to abandon that and remain with a dust-filled mouth a while later.

The church was pretty, but the sight of a man peeing off the side of the entrance didn’t make a very good impression. I caught the end of a mass, which attracted a sizeable crowd, then stayed for the flute concert. Though the concert began right after mass and was free, not many of the locals stayed to listen.

San Rafael was a smaller and more dead town – my least favorite of the three. Skinny, runny-nosed children begged there as they didn’t anyone else. There wasn’t much food selection and I had an unimpressive lunch of a chicken drumstick, cold rice and chopped tomatoes and onions of questionable sanitary quality. The tablecloths were dirty and disheveled and I had the sense that people there just didn’t take care of things very well. That maybe they were tired, maybe they’d given up, maybe they were lazy, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of pride in presenting themselves or their properties well.

We picked up a passenger there, a former schoolmate of Rober’s. He’s a truck driver and last week his truck tipped off while crossing a bridge, fully loaded with wood. I didn’t understand the details, if his hand was crushed or pierced by the raw wood, but his hand was injured and he wanted to return to San Ignacio for further treatment. So we gave him a lift.

Our last stop, Santa Ana, was the smallest village – with only 2,000 inhabitants in the entire community (including outlying areas). It looked dead – the central square a large plot of grass, and barely any people around at all. The only activity seemed to be at the small and attractive pension and restaurant Tacu, painted an attractive yellow that matched the church. The church was impressive in its simplicity though with a palm roof and an earthen floor. More than any other of the Mission churches, the Santa Ana church retains the most original architecture from colonial times. Six twisted columns stand in front of it, looking like large wooden candlesticks. The friendly keeper of the church gave us a complete tour, including peeks at the effective rat traps he’d installed and a rare organ, the last one survives from the time of colonial Jesuit Martin Schmidt.

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