The Mission


The only tourists, a European couple and I, found ourselves completing a two-hundred-and-thirty-eight year late mission to the mission.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, we had the ruins of the Jesuit mission, and the atmosphere at least of their later master, the brave jungle, all to ourselves.

Argentine coaches run on luxury and faith: seats recline bedlike, there’s onboard service, coffee and dinner; and we played bingo at a ludicrously unsafe speed. The Virgin guides, neatly cut in plastic and dangling in the middle of the windscreen or three dimensional and blue-tacked, dashboard-centre. When dangling she leans through curves and she stands steadfast when blue-tacked.

The only thing Argentine coach-people don’t do is lift your luggage in and out of the undercarriage, as there are, what might be called in Spanish, bagpickerupistas for that. Self-appointed, they cluster in fluorescent red vests, when they can be bothered, wait for a bus to pull up or prepare to depart and swoop, broad-shouldered and luggage threatening, like vultures smelling carrion. They covet pesos, focus on your worldly possessions and the attendants who serve the Virgin above are fearful.

‘I cannot be held responsible for your luggage,’ a pickerupista said as I was caught loading it myself, at least it’s what I understood from the Spanish sentence with responsibilidad in its midst. Whatever the exact translation, it was half-warning, half-threat and quite possibly a self-enacted prophecy.

Several hours later, exhausted at five a.m. the Virgin left me in village San Ignacio with no luggage mafia in sight. To celebrate I would have put on my own fluorescent vest, had I had one, and given myself a peso but it was probably enough my luggage was still with me. There was nothing to do but sit on hotel steps in the misty rainy pre-morning silence, feeling oddly secure and trusting dawn to eventually and safely arrive.  Argentina is a country where it’s easy to feel relaxed.

With daylight barely having dimmed the darkness, teenagers glided by on bicycles and called to each other; while a dog in the gutter raised its head to signal the arrival of morning.  Then a car pulled up beside me. I was ready for anything: alone, incompetent in Spanish, barely awake and yet I had the hope of the Virgin of the plastic with me and the ease of Argentina. Still, if that driver wanted trouble then trouble he’d find.  He walked up, threw a buenos dias my way and audaciously slipped a newspaper under the hotel door, which was just as well for at best I had not more than bravado and a lack of a plan.  The car drove away and Argentina returned.

By mid-morning I was settled and the heavens were being kind: the rain had stopped. I wandered, searching, up the small hill to where ordinary village became souvenir central, with woven cloth, wooden animals, crucifixes and sets of those cups and metal straws for that Argentine alternative to coffee and tea called yerba maté, for which many Argentines spend their days carrying around a thermos flask, periodically adding hot water to refresh the brew.  There were belts too, made from the leather of the world’s largest rodents, called capybaras. Shoddily clad children sought alms amidst the vendors as it was Sunday and school was out.

With the conquistadors had come Jesuits, purse-lipped and self-assured, to South America to convert heathens: that’s the history. They set up thirty-odd missions in the tri-border area, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and while many indigenous peoples were hostile the peaceful Guaraní were found to be conversion ripe. Thousands were herded from traditional lives, escaping Spanish and Portuguese slavers but not European diseases, with the survivors taught handicraft and work skills: all things Christian all things good. Over time the Jesuits grew wealthy, which concerned the local Spanish and Portuguese, and, with the resulting admixture of economics and politics, the Order was ultimately expelled from the South American continent in 1768, when the missions disappeared into jungle, a hundred years forgotten.

The Europeans picked up a guide but I preferred imagination, as facts can have a habit of obscuring atmosphere and would add little if they were in Spanish. The site was large, roofless brick and sandstone rot with tropical trees, grass lawns and cleared-jungle red soil. Strangler figs swallowed the ruins: the ferns, moss, orchids and countless other plants in that sombre stone garden were still taking benefit from long ago Guaraní toil. At the cathedral were angels, logos carved into the sandstone doorway arch that kept me dry as reborn drizzle grew into rain. There were colonnaded courtyards, rows of simpler dwellings where Guaraní must have lived and a storage cellar for supplies.

A policeman patrolled, either protecting the ruins from me and the two Europeans or protecting us from the ruins. Whatever the objective, it was achieved by carrying a gun and plucking fruit from wild citrus trees, sampling Jesuit lemons and oranges. It was the sort of duty that would make a Dhaka traffic cop weep for joy.  In that quiet place, he had all the ease of Argentina.

As I observed my first living yerba maté tree I considered pinching an old stone Buddha head from somewhere in Thailand and transplanting it there.

Somewhere in the mossy bricks was a story about how humans used to think, still do, a story of Jesuit tragedy. They must have at least partially believed they were civilising the Guaraní by displacing culture and identity, the things that really civilise. There’s Guaraní tragedy too, seduced by fancy European inventions and Jesuit words, probably they sacrificed culture willingly, understanding little of the sacrifice and less what would replace it; and knowing nothing of measles or pox, those diseases to which they had no prior immunity. 

It is not unlike that global process of homogenisation still rampant in large swathes of the world: production and consumerism, modernity, anything to be western, whatever that means; how to be still more western.  At least those were the thoughts the site conjured in my mind.

And there was nature’s rawness. However impressive man’s obsessions, constructions and plans, eventually it all returns to the jungle, with logic lines recast into nature’s curves by a strangler fig and a patch of moss, beginning a new past, with maps redrawn.





Maps redrawn... beginning a new past.... can take you here, here or  here.


This article also published in Star Magazine, here: The Mission






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