Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Jesuit Ruins

Sounds like the title for a bad “B” horror movie doesn’t it? I suppose, some might actually consider Paraguay’s Jesuit ruins a bit of a horror considering what they meant to Paraguay’s indigenous population. A bit of the history first (from Wikipedia):

The Jesús and Trinidad Jesuit Ruins are located in Itapúa Department, Paraguay, and are religious mission that are sill preserved and that were founded by the Jesuit missioners during the colonization of South America in the XVII century. These religious missions were created in 1609 and developed for 150 years. Both Jesuit missions were declared Historical Patrimony of Humankind by the UNESCO in 1993.

The Jesuit Missions of Paraguay are considered some of the most impressive creations of the religious work of the Jesuit, and are testimony of the historical richness of the country.

Well, the ruins are located not very far from the hotel where some Peace Corps volunteers routinely celebrate their Thanksgiving holidays. I love Thanksgiving, but the two Thanksgivings I’ve spent in Paraguay, I’ve made alternate plans and have thus not found myself in close proximity to the ruins. Of course, they are on my list of “things to see before I leave Paraguay.” With about six months left of my service here, and keeping in mind that I’m not allowed to travel during my last two months of service, I’m feeling a bit of a “now or never” feeling when it comes to what I have yet to do here.

I hadn’t planned to visit the ruins this month, not even a fleeting thought. Then I had a visitor come to stay with me and she hadn’t seen the ruins either. Well, that settled that…we set out on our adventure to discover Paraguay’s infamous Jesuit ruins. We left early on Wednesday morning. We had pre-purchased our bus tickets the day before. It normally costs between 50,000 – 65,000 Guaranies to travel from Asuncion to Encarnación. We only paid 40,000 Gs because our bus would have no air conditioning. No worries, we were pretty sure we could handle it. What it turned out we couldn’t handle (well, we did handle it, but not that well) was the roach infestation that our particular bus was suffering from.

Ick Ick Ick, now if you know anything about me, you know that despite having lived in a mud house in Burkina Faso (West Africa) for a time, I am scared of bugs. Okay, now yes, I agree with you that a person that is afraid of bugs should probably not continue to choose to live in countries in which she will be forced to live in and among high bug populations. The thing is that my commitment to my work is bigger than my fear; still, I loathe bugs of all kind. Let me just add that having worked for two conservation organizations and considering myself to be an environmentalist, I understand the cycle of life and that all life is important and they play an important part in all our lives. I just wish they could play their parts far far far far away from me (or me them). But I digress….

The bus was gross and hot and the ride seemed to take forever….but of course we finally arrived. We made it to our hotel and found that..ugh…all the rooms with air conditioning were booked so we would only have a teeny tiny room with a ceiling fan. It also had no bathroom…we’d have to share that with the rest of the people sharing our common hallway. We met Jessie, the Peace Corps volunteer in Encarn and she was thoughtful enough to show us “her” town. Although she’d only been there a few months, she was already really well oriented. So our trip was starting to improve. A coffee and quick snack at a first-class coffee shop helped keep things on the right track and then an awesome dinner at a local Japanese restaurant capped off the evening. I thought our luck was changing for the better until…ugh the electricity went out in the middle of the night and the room went from a brisk 80+ degrees to balmy 90+ degrees. Just as I thought I would pass out from heat exhaustion, the electricity came back on and the fan started to cool us down again but not for long since the electricity cut off yet again and the cycle repeated itself….

The morning came and after a cool shower, we set out to meet Jessie who had decided to join us on our trek to see the Ruins. We were lucky enough to find a bus that was leaving almost immediately and within 30 minutes, we had made it to the first of the two Jesuit ruins sites left in the area. The first site was much bigger and much more intact than we had imagined. The park staff were well versed in its history and helped us to orient ourselves to what the remnants of the buildings used to be.

We saw all we could at the first site and then we moved onto the second. It was smaller than the first but equally impressive in its remaining grandeur. Before we knew it, our time was up and we headed back to Encarn. After a great vegetarian lunch at an Asian buffet restaurant, we got on a more expensive, air-conditioned and thankfully bug-free bus. The ride back was not nearly as long as our bus ride the day before but we got in later than we had planned. My only thought on arriving home was a cool shower and the comfort of my own bed. Of course, things don’t always go as planned and so we got back to discover that the water was out, that is to say I had no running water! My guest washed up as best as she could with the trickle coming out, but I decided to wait.

As I waited, I considered the ruins a bit…

I think the thing that surprised me most the intricacy of the carvings on doorways and pulpits. These were not just plain-jane (apologies to readers named Jane) brick buildings. The artistry in their layout and design were amazing. So too, was how grandiose they must have been in their day.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like back then both for the Jesuit priest and the indigenous people that were carving their lives out on these grounds. I wondered how the Jesuit priests would describe their work or their calling to me. I’ve often thought about my own work as more of a calling. I wondered how much we would find that we had in common and this really disturbed me. Surely, I wasn’t here trying to convert people, trying to convince them to adopt my own belief system or way of life…or is that the trap that I have fallen into? I like to think I always approach my “work” here as collaboration with me learning as much from my Paraguayan friends and neighbors as they are learning from me. That’s the way I’ve meant it to be but really analyzing if that’s the way it is, is very difficult.

I think one of the amazing things about living and working in a new culture and to some extent doing so with Peace Corps is that you can remove a lot of the labels that you have attached to yourself or perhaps that others have stuck you with. You are not necessarily the “responsible one” or the “little sister” or whatever else you’ve always thought of yourself as…well not as long as you don’t box yourself into that. It’s a unique opportunity to reinvent yourself…of course then you have to figure out who you really are and doing so in the context of a culture that you don’t belong to presents its own challenges. Ha ha, if you’re next question is who am I really and what have I discovered about myself here, well let me just cut you off. I’m still on this journey and my discoveries about myself while living here are far from over. What I can tell you is that maybe sometimes labels get stuck on us because they fit. I’m pretty sure I am the “responsible one,” and most people aren’t surprised that I live a fairly organized planned out life – even here, to the extent that it’s possible. Oh well, discovering who we are doesn’t mean throwing out all that is true about ourselves. I accept who I am…for the most part…do you? Food for thought people….food for thought….

If anyone out there has any food thoughts and wants to send a care package…bagels, sour-punch straws and a box of macaroni and cheese should be on your list :)

Until next time………

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