Thursday, August 23, 2012

In which I go to Encarnacion and the Jesuit ruins

From Ciudad del Este, I took the bus to Encarnación in the south. For the first fifteen minutes of the trip, a pitchman tried to sell his wonder drug, which, as far as I could tell, was nothing more than aloe. He praised its many virtues and told us that it could cure kidney problems, liver problems, acne, blood problems, female problems, heart problems, feet problems, and any other problem that a human being could have.

I ignored him and looked out the window. The Paraguayan countryside is green and gentle. Hills roll softly and lines of poplars divide one farm from the next. Red barns and silos dotted the countryside and occasionally, bearded farmers in round black hats and overalls riding in horse-drawn carriages appeared on the highway. They were Mennonites, wearing clothes totally inappropriate to the climate. I was sweltering in my sundress, but the Mennonite women I saw displayed no discomfort despite their long calico dresses, aprons, and head kerchiefs. The Mennonite children looked like miniature adults -- the girls in the same long dresses and aprons with their hair up in buns and the boys in overalls and straw hats, but they got to go barefoot.

Encarnación is a nondescript town. I checked into a hostel and ate lunch, then walked through town. I was looking for the movie theater so I’d had something to do that evening after I’d seen the Jesuit ruins. I asked the dueño where I could find the movies.

Downtown, he told me.

I traipsed down the block and found the main street. No sign of a movie theater, but the street was several blocks long. After three blocks, I stopped in a store to ask. Oh, the clerk told me cheerfully, it’s just two or three blocks that way. She gestured languidly in the direction I’d been heading and I optimistically set out again.

Six blocks later, I reached the end of the road, Still no theater. I stopped in another store. Oh! You’ve already passed it! I was told. I turned around and walked back. A few blocks later, I did find the remains of a theater. It had been boarded up quite some time ago, it appeared. I guess no one had thought to tell me that yes, the theater existed but it no longer showed movies.

The Handbook claimed there were nice Jesuit ruins to be found at Trinidad, twenty minutes from Encarnación. I found the local bus to Trinidad and asked the driver to let me off by the ruins.

A girl sitting behind the driver spoke. “You are going to see the Jesuit ruins?” she asked.


“My cousin Aldo works there. Tell him I said to let you in free!”

The driver let me off on the side of the road and pointed to the top of the hill. “Up there are the ruins.”

I walked up the dirt path past small wooded homes. Children shouted and played in the yards. In front of one house three naked children waited their turns to wash under the handpump.
At the top of the hill, I found the ruins. Three acres of emerald-green grass dotted with clover spread in front of me and large trees lined the perimeter. The setting sun cast a golden glow on the stonework of the ruins. The sound of crickets was all I heard.

I found the entrance booth. “I’m supposed to ask for Aldo,” I said to a young man sitting there.

“I am Aldo,” he said.

“I met your cousin on the bus.”

“Which cousin?”

“A girl with long dark hair.” As if that distinguished her from the rest of the Latin women I saw.

“Oh!” he said. “Claudia!”

I decided not to tell him she’d said to let me in for free. The entrance fee was only two dollars.

“You are American?” he asked.


“But you speak Spanish so well!”

“I’ve been living in Chile for two years.”

“Oh! Are you a Peace Corps volunteer?”

“Yes! How did you know?”

“Hardly any Americans come here. The ones who do are from the Peace Corps. Do you know Cindy? She was a volunteer here three years ago.”

I had to confess I didn’t, but asked if he knew Stacey, who had been in Trinidad two years ago. “Of course!” he said. “Everyone knows Stacey!”

He looked around, then whispered, “I won’t charge you an entrance fee. Cindy told me about Peace Corps and how you work for no money. You come in for free here.”

I was not above accepting his offer and thanked him. The ruins were serene. Here, the Jesuits had tried to protect the Guaraní people from the Brazilian slave traders. They’d established plantations where they’d farmed and taught various trades to the Guaraní. Under Jesuit stewardship, the plantations throve and annoyed the other farmers, not to mention the slave traders. The slave traders had manufactured stories of Jesuit malfeasance and had succeeded in having them expelled from the country. The ruins of Jesuit settlements are scattered throughout southern Paraguay and northern Argentina.

The Trinidad ruins are some of the better-preserved ones, but even there, what remains is only a quarter of the original buildings. The rest has been stolen. Paraguay does not have the funds to post guards, so anyone can haul away the stones and columns hand-carved with scrolls and human figures.

I climbed to the top of the wall and watched the sun sink until Aldo came and told me that they were closing. I climbed down reluctantly and walked back to the highway to wait for a bus back into town. There were a few houses and a small garage where I was waiting. Two men watched and laughed as a young woman cut the hair of a third man sitting on a stack of tires. A few children laughed and squealed as they chased each other. I felt very left out as I watched this everyday life happen around me. Traveling alone is great because you don’t have to worry about when someone else wants to eat or where she wants to stay or what she wants to see, but it’s very lonely as well. You find yourself wanting to say, “Look at that!” or “Can you believe?” and not having anyone to say it to. That’s why you have to write a book.

I finally got back into town. Even though I’d not been able to find a functioning movie theater to entertain me, I did not want to spend another boring evening in my room, trapped by the lack of sunlight, so I went into the café at the front of the hostel. The TV was blaring with some action movie dubbed in Spanish. No one was watching, so I asked if I could change the channel. The dueño said sure, then told me that they had a library of videos if I wanted to watch one of them. I hurried over to the shelf, hoping for a romantic comedy, but all I found were low-budget versions of Stephen Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies made by actors who were just this far from breaking into the big time and who were determined to show that they could draw blood and gore as well as the next kickboxer. I decided that maybe sitting in bed and reading wasn’t such a horrible fate after all.

That night was horrible. I had an interior room with a window only to the hallway, which was brightly lit. I kept getting out of bed to turn off the hall lights, but then someone would turn them on again. Southern Paraguay is humid and my room showed it: The walls were mildewed and the room smelled dank and musty.

The bathroom was down the hall. It was tiny and the cover wouldn’t stay on the toilet, which wouldn’t have mattered except that was the only place besides the floor -- which was gross -- that I could put my soap and shampoo while I showered. The shower was not set off from the toilet and sink. The water came out a few inches to the left of the toilet and soaked everything in the room. There was no window, so it took a long time for everything to dry. I had to use the toilet in the middle of the night and sat without looking at the toilet seat. It was soaking wet. Someone had just showered.