Park Bench Residents, San Jose de Chiquitano

Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: -18.1789, -63.8752

Brazil to San Ignacio Bolivia 7. - 18th October

How did we come to be living on the park bench for the day (hopefully not the night)? It's a long story and a few miles down the road from where I left the last blog so I will pick up from there first.

Our excursion from Bonito was worth the effort of getting it set up. We started early in the morning and went to Barraca das Araras, a huge sinkhole where red and green macaws nest in the cliff walls. It is a kilometre walk through the woods to circumnavigate the sinkhole. It was raining so the macaws that did not have the sense to stay in their nests looked very bedraggled.

Then we were driven on to Rio La Prata. Here the organisation, if not the communication, was excellent. We were put into groups of a maximum of 9 people and given a time for our snorkelling. The groups are taken out every half hour so that once you leave the centre you do not see other people. Then we were equipped with a shortie wet suit and neoprene boots and had to put our clothes in a plastic bag. We were taken in an open truck for a couple of kilometres to a spot nearer the river then we marched just over 2 kilometres in our neoprene boots finally reaching the entrance point where there is a deep pool within the river. We entered the extremely clear water (temperature 24 degrees) and had a lesson in snorkelling without moving hands and feet as once flowing in the river there would be very shallow parts, only about half a metre deep, where we had to take care not to kick up silt or disturb the bottom. We were also told that once out of the 'pool' area we could not stand up for any reason! It is good to know they are protecting the environment in this way. Also, insect repellent and sun screen were not allowed.

After demonstrating competence the group was allowed to start off in single file down the river which at it's widest was about 10-12 metres and 3-4 at the narrowest points. Visibility was 25 metres plus. The fish were a real surprise, plentiful in number and variety, and huge. Some as big as 1 1/2 metres long and a metre tall (if fish can be tall?). There were spotted ones, striped ones, plain ones and the large ones were a beautiful deep powder blue or, most exotic of all, gold, their scales giving the appearance of gold thread running along their body. I never dreamt that river fish could provide such variety or colour. We snorkelled for 1 1/2 kilometres.

Apart from the fish the other interest was watching spring water seep up through the sandy bottom. The sand wriggles and writhes as though it is alive but no bubbles are visible. This is the source of the water and why it is so clear.

Where the river narrowed the current increased and at one point our instructor had to grab each person's hand as they shot past to haul them out and we walked around the rapids for 500 metres or so and rentered the river once it had calmed down. Someone asked why the variety of fish was so great here and the instructor gave a very comprehensive and detailed answer but unfortunately not to that question. It was fun watching the look of bewilderment on the faces of the group because they realised this at different times as they caught up with his English. Most were not native English speakers. No-one pointed out his error and on we went.

From Bonito we took a 7 hour bus journey to Corumba where we were met at the station. When I had spoken on the phone to Roberta, our host in Corumba (thankfully an English language teacher) I thought she said, "look out for the Greek man, he will help you", but at that point it had been noisy in the office so I could not believe I had heard correctly. Jim went on line and googled 'Greek man at Corumba bus station' and up he popped! An elderly Greek man who has lived here a long time, hassles backpackers at the bus station, and was deported back to Greece but eventually turned up again at the station - no-one knows how. We spotted him as we approached and as soon as the bus stopped he proudly pulled out a sheet of paper reading Jim & Sue in large print. He delivered us safely, along with a German couple we had been talking to who had no accommodation booked so came along with us. He volunteered to carry a bag but soon relented and shared it with Jim as he said we must be carrying gold or I had a lot of shoes. As we walked everyone shouted a friendly, 'Hello Greek' to him. He is well educated, speaks 5 languages and has lived in many parts of the world.

Corumba was one of the largest ports in Brazil at one time despite being hundreds of miles inland, and down by the port the flat, flooded Pantanal stretched away in front of us. The waterway eventually connects to the River Paraguay and then the Plate, as we call it in English.

There is not a lot in Corumba but it does have very good restaurants, the traditional Churrescuria, where they barbecue meats and continuously race them to your table until you say stop, and a delicious fish restaurant where the Pintado Parmiggiano was delicious. It is not easy to eat heathily here as all the food is heavily salted and sweetened, and salads rarer and more elusive than the Jaguar.

After a couple of days we went back into the Pantanal to Santa Clara which is more of a cattle ranch that accommodates visitors than our previous Lodge at Lontra. It had more space for us to walk about on our own as well as providing the usual boat trips and horse riding through delightful pampas areas, grassland with low level trees and shrubs. We saw huge groups of peccaries in the woods.

When we went for a walk our guide (whom we had already decided was more than a little disturbed) insisted that everyone walk in flip flops or bare feet! We refused as did a couple of others but a young American girl and a 23 year old Swedish guy, Axel, went barefoot. The guide marched us round at a furious pace, not allowing time to spot things, then he suddenly had a tantrum shouting, "I cannot spot everything, you all have to help!" It took everyone all their effort keeping up with him. He was very strange. Then he did find peccaries and pink spoonbills and clapped his hands and frightened them away. Jim nearly killed him as he had just lined up his camera shot.

We walked for nearly 3 hours. After one hour the American girl was in agony with spots of blood all over her feet and Axel had a big splinter in his foot. We had crossed rough grassland and marched through woods full of fallen branches, twigs etc. They were as crazy as the guide.

Eventually we returned to Corumba to be met by the Greek Man again. He gives his name but no-one calls him anything other than 'The Greek'. I don't think he has taken to art yet but with that name he might.

The house in Corumba was a traditional home with the extended family living there and a big courtyard inside the high fence and gates. We enjoyed sitting in the cool under the trees and although the house was not as much frayed at the edges as dilapitated to its core with broken tiles, dodgy electrics, moulding mirror etc. it was a very comfortable place to live. It must have been a beautiful home at one time but the climate causes terminal decay without a huge amount of maintenance. The only problem was that to gain access it was necessary to hammer on the 3 metre high metal gate. No-one rushed to the door ever, and if it was a warm afternoon and they were having a siesta it might take half an hour to get in.

The last afternoon we had only just returned to our room (which was just as well as we were still clothed. In a room with only a fan it is necessary to take clothes off quickly) when we heard the downstairs door burst open with a crash, a great commotion on the stairs and a voice started shouting, "Jeem, Jeem, I have found your friend, I am bringing him to you right now, are you asleep?" No-one could have been asleep after an entrance like that! It was the Greek and he was almost dragging Axel in by his collar. Axel looked a little shocked by his forced arrival at our room. The Greek had put 2 and 2 together (realising we had both been at Santa Clara) but Axel had not believed he was being taken to 'a friend'.

After the due greetings we explained to Axel that we were taking the train at 13.00 the next day from the border. He said with the confidence of youth, " I am going to cross first thing in the morning to take an early train". The Greek collapsed into guffaws (honestly! The first time I have heard anybody 'guffaw' but he did). When he finally recovered enough to speak he said very seriously, "Axel, this is not Stockholm, or Paris, or London, there is only one train a day from the border and many days none at all". Axel recovered well and chirpily said, "fine, I will go with you".

So the next day we crossed the border and waited at the station for the train. Jim had booked tickets online but had booked the wrong date, (not as silly as it sounds because of the weird system). He had realised and sent an email asking to change the date or cancel the ticket but we had not received a reply. So I went to the ticket office to explain. The clerk (in his late 40s) took me inside probably realising I was not going to be an easy customer. He spent half an hour trying to sort it out, eventually saying the original would be cancelled and we would start again. Thankfully there was no queue as we were early. He did give us a discount for being over 60. Then with new ticket in hand I returned to Jim who instantly spotted mistake number two. I had assumed that the clerk knew where we were going from the cancelled ticket so
Uniform for Mennonite menUniform for Mennonite menUniform for Mennonite men

Came to Bolivia in 1950s from Canada looking for religious freedom. Originally from Germany and Netherlands but persecuted by Catholic and Protestant Churches so went to Canada.
had not repeated that our destination was San Jose de Chiquitano. Unfortunately he had booked for us to go all the way to Santa Cruz instead of half that journey to San Jose. The money was not an issue as the tickets are so cheap but Jim was concerned that they lock the big bags in a storage compartment and won't release them until your official destination.

So back I went for my second sojourn in the ticket office. It took another half hour but eventually all was resolved. I felt so bad about all the extra work we had caused I apologised profusely in my best Spanish. Not quite sure what I said but the next thing, the clerk grasped both my hands in his and kissed them most enthusiastically, declaring it was a pleasure!

The train journey was a Bolivian form of English country house party. We were the only Europeans and the rest seemed to be regulars, about 30 passengers, mainly women, with 7 train staff including one in a very smart official blazer, . No sooner had the train set off than they were all chatting, then moved to the dining car to eat and settle down to card games for the afternoon, passengers and staff. After this it was siesta time for everyone (hopefully apart from the driver) then the pattern was repeated at six, a meal, more card games and asleep by ten. We reached San Jose by 11pm but Axel continued on, expecting to arrive in Santa Cruz by 8 or 9am.

The reason we went to San Jose was to start travelling the Jesuit Missionary Circuit (7 churches in 7 different towns/villages) and visit the first church, or temple, as they are often called here. In the late 17th and early 18th Centuries the Jesuits moved into firstly Paraguay and Argentina then on to Brazil and Bolivia. The north east part of Bolivia was covered with missions and some of these have been restored which is what we hoped to visit. It is possible to tour them with a group but very few companies seem to run these trips now and they are expensive. So despite warnings about travel difficulties we decided to give it a shot.

San Jose mission is the only stone built church on the circuit, the rest are made of adobe. It is difficult to describe with words the impact these buildings make when you see them. The size and interiors match many of the great European churches and the style is a mix of European Christian icons of the period blended with indigenuous symbols and art work. Coming across one after 6 hours rough drive across scrub and semi dry jungle on unmade up roads they really do appear miraculous. The fact that they were built around the 1750's make it even more so.

The Jesuits, (often called the soldiers of Jesus) set up reducciones, or small independent states. They established armies to protect their people and lands and shared the running of the reducciones with the local indigenous people. According to the limited amount I have read they seemed to offer a relatively good life to the local people compared to the alternatives of slavery or near slavery under the Spanish. They made musical instruments and taught music which became a huge part of every day life as well as other skills involved in the building and decoration of the temples. Above one church it says, 'The house of God and gateway to Heaven'. It is easy to see how indigenous people would believe that when they walked into the wonderful building, complete with altars covered in gold, in the midst of jungle and isolation. I might have believed myself!

Eventually towards the latter part of the 18th Century there was unrest in Europe between the Church and the monarchies and because the Spanish King could see the power of the Jesuits increasing in South America (and thus the power of the Church) he forced all the Jesuits to leave the continent. The local people suffered as a result and were not as well treated by later missionaries such as the Dominicans.

I am including lots of pictures and if you are interested you can see more about the Jesuit Missions online. The blend of symbols is fascinating and in some designs there are echoes of Inca culture. Around the churches we saw and heard many music lessons and practice sessions so the legacy of the Jesuits remains to this day in more than the fabric of the churches. The churches have been renovated and are now being protected with UNESCO support.

Back to the park bench and why we are camped on one for the day. We had been told by the information office that there was a bus leaving San Jose at 7am and we went to the bus office to check. It was closed but the sign said 7am for San Ignacio so we arranged an early breakfast and taxi. Arriving at the bus office at 6.30am it was closed and other people said the bus only ran on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and of course we were there on Tuesday. After much too-ing and fro-ing we tracked down another 'office' (the front of a house) from which a bus would leave at 3pm for San Ignacio so we booked a seat and then took up residence on the park bench for 7 hours. At least it gave me time to write the blog! The bus broke down and had to have a road side 'bodge' to keep the steering together but we made it eventually arriving at our hotel just before midnight, full of apologies. The owner said it is quite normal on the bus from San Jose so he is used to it.

We are now heading towards La Paz where we hope to take a short flight into the Amazon. I have a degree of trepidation about La Paz as I have just read that the air is so thin that at the airport (because of the altitude) the planes need an extra long runway to take off and special tyres. It also says they have oxygen available for passengers. I will let you know how it goes in the next blog.

Additional photos below
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19th October 2015

Lovely looking place

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