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The Mission

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The Mission

Santa Cruz, 23-Jul-2010

I decided to just go for it.  After all, why not?  Being here, with the bike, this is my time so I’ll extend (again) my vacation.  I will follow Willy’s advice and do the loop through the Jesuit missions then head to jungle and reach Trinidad were Francisco gave me the contact of a local guide.

The following morning, Kilometer 25,719; Santa Cruz, 8-Jul-10 @ 11:10, I headed east through Bolivia’s lowland in the direction of the Brazilian border toward my first Jesuit Mission village:  San Jose de Chiquitos.  But yet again, Bolivia’s roads threw the first punch: a detour via a 150Km stretch of side road that passes through wetlands and farm fields.  Worst, it rained the night before rendering the road worthy of a Woodstock event.  Even trucks and cars had difficulty passing.  In some parts, the mud was packed by press machines turning it into a hard and wet clay, very slippery as if I was riding on ice.  And I saw so many accidents; at one point a fuel tanker slid and flipped upside down.  I got to the accident scene a few minutes later and only a handful of trucks were ahead of me.  People were pointing toward the tanker and shouting.  I couldn’t hear them very well but I just thought: it’s going to explode!  And so many people are close by!  Is the driver stuck?  Are they helping him?  Should I give them a hand?… or should I get out of here?  As an action thriller was playing in my head, I gazed at the tanker and paid more attention to the people.  Wait a minute!  They all had containers or bottles in their hand.  What the h**l!   These guys were filling up!  Free gas!  And here I was sensationalizing the event.  I still did not want to be here; this was so reckless and could turn nasty.  I turned-on my bike and just gunned it, storming by the tanker to continue my road.

I arrived to San Jose de Chiquitos at sunset as dirty and muddied as a pig, Kilometer 26,015; San Jose de Chiquitos, 8-Jul-10 @ 18:00. It took me more than an hour to wash my riding cloth and my bags from the mud which was sprayed on me.  I then headed out to the Plaza to see the mission before settling down in a restaurant in the plaza across from the church.  The majority of the Jesuit missions were painstakingly restored during a period of 25 years lead by Hans Roth, a Swiss architect.  To accomplish the restoration work, Hans Roth & his team actually recruited from the local people and trained them in handicraft and woodwork, somewhat similar to what the Jesuits missionaries did centuries earlier during the initial conquest lead by father Martin Schmidt.  The story of the Jesuits in South America is one of the few, maybe even unique, stories of somewhat good doing that occurred during the colonial era.  The Jesuits, lead by Martin Schmidt (Swiss), in their mission to indoctrinate the local aboriginals to Christianity, built schools teaching the holy bible but also handcrafting and art.   Music was the common link between the Jesuits (and in particular father Schmidt) and the Chiquitanos.  Both loved this art and were equally interested in the sounds and rhythms of the other.  The Chiquitanos people not only became master sculptors & painters – helping build and decorate the beautiful Jesuit churches – but they also learned to build musical instruments (harp, violin, guitar…) and to play them, mixing their music and rhythm with the mess songs & music the Jesuits taught.  The Jesuits didn’t stop there:  they introduced farming, animal domestication, European agriculture techniques,… transforming these people from nomads and hunters to settlers.   And although sadly almost nothing is known about the Chiquitano believes before the Jesuits & Christianity (on purpose?), you have to admire the astucious approach used by the Jesuits and the successful co-existence that stemmed between these 2 cultures.

My route then veered northbound to reach the next mission.  The gravel road was now more packed but very rough, with the usual wave/undulating bumps shacking violently my bike.   In the following 2 hours ride, only timber trucks and a few hoards of cows passed me.  During Jesuit time, this was a lush forest but now – and as far as the eye can see – it’s deforested and desolate.  Clear cutting, for farming and agriculture, took its toll on the local fauna and flora.  I arrived to San Rafael and parked in front of a restaurant on the main road, Kilometer 26,143; San Rafael, 9-Jul-10 @ 14:00.  There were half a dozen trucks loaded with wood also stopped there with their driver having lunch and watching the World Cup final.  I sat with them to chat and share a few laughs: Obviously they were rooting for Spain which I satirically started calling “the conquistador” :).  Actually they were more interested in my trip and my bike vs. the game (which by the way seemed boring).  During our conversation I asked them about the deforestation, its effect on the land, the threat of not having a lumber industry and jobs in the coming years.  “Tranquilo, there are plenty of trees, all the way to Brazil”… the border is less than a 100Km from here and I couldn’t see any forest during my whole ride.  And reforestation? “There’s a government program but we never saw anyone implementing it”… and no one seemed to care.  The government is content to throws the beautiful (and empty) speeches about preserving the land and these guys are more worried about bringing food to the table tonight vs. long term subsistence.

I took off by half time to visit San Rafael before continuing my road to San Miguel, Kilometer 26,199; San Miguel, 9-Jul-10 @ 16:20.  There, the church was closed and the couple of locals sitting on the church’s steps told me the father is probably watching the game :).  I thought to myself the game will be over soon and the father will come back to his cloister so I lingered around with them talking about my trip and listening to their daily life stories.  17:00 came and the father was nowhere to be seen.   On the other hand, an hour separated me from San Ignacio and sundown; I definitely do not want to ride these roads at night so I just saddled up.  San Miguel mission will not be seen :(.

Kilometer 26,239; San Ignacio, 9-Jul-10 @ 18:10: San Ignacio is the defacto center of the Jesuit mission towns and is a striving city.  Its church has been completely reconstructed as a facsimile of the original one, with only the altar and a few paintings & angels being original (restored).  As it was Sunday I headed to the church for the night mass and what an exhilarating experience it was.  The whole town seemed to converge to the church with faithful overflowing into the streets.  Music filled the air, the choir led the singing and the faithful were the chorus.

The Bolivian family were I was staying were extremely nice and Doña Selva a very sociable person.  At night, I joined the many locals who gathered around the hostel small garden and hammock to “charlar”.  As for Don Pepe, he provides tours to the national Park Noel Kemph.  A quick look into my Lonely Planet and it rates the park as a “real Amazonian highlight, spectacular scenery… broad spectrum of flora and fauna…fabulous place to explore…”.  I am in!  Where do I sign?  But Don Pepe quickly squashed my excitement.  The cost is horrendous: U$D500 for transportation, mandatory guides+cook are U$D40/day, + food, + equipment,…  I guess it was good while it lasted.  Ah well, I will still ride to Trinidad for my jungle tour with Francisco’s friend.  Next morning, I saddled up and as I was about to leave, Don Pepe, boasting a wide grin on his face, stopped me.  There’s a family also interested in going to Noel Kemph and will be coming to town tomorrow.  Great!  I parked my bike back in the garden, left all my stuff on it and went touring the city while Pepe “Limon” was organizing the trip.  When I came back late afternoon Pepe’s smile was gone.  Warrup?  Pepe couldn’t find/rent “movilidad” (i.e. transportation); the trip was off.  As I was already committed to go to the park I went to the main Plaza and asked around about tours to Noel Kemph.  Everyone told me to go see “Papio” the only other person who goes to the park.  Sure enough “Papio” picked up the challenge and was preparing for tomorrow’s departure.  Great, I am going to the park!

It was a 6 day tour through an incredible diversity of flora.  We started by hiking through regular woods, then into a forest previously exploited for lumber followed by a palm forest which turns into a thick tropical forest and finally Amazonian jungle.  We then climbed a small hill and exited on the “meseta”, a terrace like pampas doted by oasis and crisscrossed by small streams.  And that’s just on the first day 🙂  We saw tapirs, monkeys, giant rodents, dears and a multitude of birds, hawks, eagles, parrots… not to mention numerous insects.  The forest was littered with termite mounds and ant’s nests – on the ground and in the trees – (leaf-cutter ants (sepe), red ants, giant black ants,…) to the great pleasure of the armadillos which feasts on them.  Of course, most of the animal you only see from afar (it seems in Parque Madidi you can see them closer), but as I mentioned to our guide Candido: seeing an animal free in his habitat, even from a distance, beats a close look through the grills of a cage.  The park is now administered by the local community (La Florida) and I believe it’s the best way to preserve it.  They have deep knowledge of these areas brought down to them through the generations but they also witnessed firsthand the damage corporation and themselves have done and can do to the park (as employer of these corporations or as exploiters of the land):  Deforestation (and in particular targeting a particular species of tree for wood, the Mara trees for example), overfishing, mass killing of local wildlife (currently they do not have enough fish to sustain them, the tapir population is dwindling, the local wolf population is down to less than 10,…).    Today, the only industry that survives is tourism and the community knows all too well why we come here for.  By preserving the park, they preserve themselves.

Once back to San Ignacio, I stayed 1 more day with my Noel Kemph new friends to visit the Jesuit missions I previously missed (remember, San Miguel was closed and Santa Ana was out of my way).  I was then ready to head back to Santa Cruz, a 2 day trip taking me through the final 2 missions of Concepcion (Kilometer 26,421 Concepcion, 20-Jul-10 @ 16:00) and San Javier (which by the way are “not as beautiful” compared to the other missions).  In Santa Cruz, Kilometer 26,720; Santa Cruz, 21-Jul-10 @ 18:10, I chilled for a couple of days with the biker boys (went to the Suzuki dealer again as they allowed me to use their premises & tools to check and clean my bike.  And good thing I did: 1 of the huge chassis bolts was ¾ of the way unscrewed due to all the vibrations!  Amazing what these roads can do.  Even the mechanics were completely flabbergasted by this bolt sight.  But my Suzuki is just perfect, it takes all the punishment these lands (and me) throw at it and does not complain :).

Tomorrow I will start heading north again… can’t wait to reach La Paz.

Ride up!


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