A spiritual.. and very sunny week in Santa Cruz!
Dominique and I are heading off in slightly different directions this week. She is going to Sucre and I am flying out to Santa Cruz, to visit Fr Roger, a good friend of my family´s. I think you may remember me talking about the fabulous Bolivian airline industry earlier, yes? Well, this flight was no exception. I was supposed to fly out at 3pm, then it was changed to 5pm then to 6:30pm. No reason for this, when you ask, these things just happen! Oh well!
Finally got to Santa Cruz and Fr Roger picked me up, and wow it is hot here, abour 85 degrees. And how nice to be visiting a grown up who has a lovely house, with all mod cons. I have my own air conditioned room, a beautiful view onto the lush garden, BBC World to see what is happening outside of my rucksack world, my laundry done for me (do you know how smelly everything was after the jungle - peehew!), three course meals, i was in heaven!! Thank you Fr Roger! Check out my view - ahh heavenly!
My latest stop, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, is Bolivia´s second largest city, and has mushroomed from a backwater cow town of 30,000 to its current population of over 2 million people! Some say the concurrent explosion of the cocaine trade may not be coincidental! The city itself feels much smaller than it is, with the grand Plaza de 24 de Septiembre and the city´s cathedral, two of the finer elements of the city, showing off its cosmopolitan background. I definitely liked Santa Cruz, and it was great to see it with someone who lives there, but it did feel a little strange after La Paz, to see a Vegas like strip and a mini Statue of Liberty above "the New York Mall", in the middle of Bolivia!
My main reason for coming here was to visit Fr Roger, who has been in South America off and on for years now, and in Bolivia for the last 4 years or so. It is amazing to see how much he accomplishes in a day, and how people rely on Padre Rolegio in so many different ways. For example, as well as running a number of new parishes that have just been built, in some of the poorer barrios of Santa Cruz, where people really do have very little from a material perspective (Sunday collections are usually around $10 for over 200 people), yet they are the sunniest, warmest folks, chatting away to me, putting up with me stumbling around in my awful Spanish, and asking me what i think of Bolivia and that my Spanish isnt that bad, and their English is much worse! They were so welcoming and warm.... Fr Roger also visits the Oncology ward of one of the city´s hospitals every day. In particular, he has a close connection with the childrens ward, and while I was there, i was lucky enough to attend their Christmas party! To see these children, who have been through so much, and their families, having fun and laughing together, even if it is just for an afternoon, was a sheer delight for everyone! The children were all beautiful, and happy and glowing, excited for Christmas and what it would bring, and for an hour or two, forgetting about their awful illnesses and problems. For some, the next day would be back to the worry of upcoming operations (or not depending on what the doctors would decide), but for that one day, i definitely felt so very lucky to be with them ...
We had also decided we wanted to tour the Jesuit Mission Circuit, which starts roughly 4 hours or so outside Santa Cruz. From the late 17th century, Jesuits established settlements called reducciones in Bolivia´s eastern lowlands, building churches, establishing farms and helping the Indians learn more about agriculture, music and crafts in return for conversation and manual labour. Remember the film "The Mission"? Its based around this area of Bolivia. Sounds like the Jesuits got a good deal, but they were the biggest defenders of the indigenous people against the Spanish, so much so that they were kicked out of Spain at one point because of this!
We had a grand time, driving over 1,000 kilometers in three days in the region of Chiquitania, and visiting not only the easily treaded tour of the iglesias de San Ramon, San Javier, Concepcion, San Ignacio de Velasco, and San Miguel but also the rarely visited Santa Ana and San Rafael. Whether you are a big church lover or not, you couldnt help but be moved by the beauty of these buildings and the sheer determination, due to the influence of the Swiss priest and main architect of The Missions, the Jesuit Martin Schmit. His work was then reconstructed many years later by Hans Roth, who lovingly restored all of these churches to their exact original form. From the gigantic pillars, each one an individual tree trunk, lovingly found and plucked from the surrounding forests, and carved beautifully, to the incredible baroque gold and silver alters, to the hand painted walls and ceilings, each church was different and equally beautiful in its own way.
I was also lucky enough to visit some of Fr Rogers friends, from Padre Ramon, living at Las Piedras, where the views are spectacular and the massive stones AKA piedras, are over 5 million years old, to having lunch with Sister Martine of San Miguel´s convent, who so kindly ran through bucketing rain and giant puddles with her habit around her knees to show me that incredibly beautiful church. Also one of my fave experiences was at San Rafael, where about 15 young children were sheltering from the rain inside the church, along with a slightly older (about 85 yrs older!) nun who had just popped in to say a few prayers. As she took advantage of Fr Roger´s presence to chat away to him, the kids were very excited about my photo taking and wanted one of themselves, so of course i obliged! They were delighted with the shots, and the giggles rang out as i passed the camera around and Julio, Carlos, Fausto, Bernard, Lilia and the rest of the gang saw themselves in the pics! They also sang some Christmas carols for us before we left.. i thought i was going to cry, they were so lovely and warm and curious... it was a great memory of the mission trip!
It was also great to be with Fr Roger during the elections, so i could get the inside scoop on the different nominees, their parties, policies etc. It was quite exciting to see Evo win with 53% of the popular vote. All over the country people showed their party lines with painted houses, roads, sides of mountains you name it, Evo and Tuto, blue and red, MAS and PODEMAS were everywhere...
And lastly, Christmas just isnt Christmas without the girls at the local supermarket dressed in Santa outfits to help you pick out your cranberry jelly or mint sauce. From red leather hot pants to satin minis, it was quite a sight to behold, mind you i seemed to be the only one to notice so it must be the done thing in Santa Cruz....
So yet another fabulous week of Bolivian adventure. It´s off to Potosi and the mines next, so stay tuned!