Tuesday, 6 October 2009

33. Red moon rising

I am in Misiones province in northeastern Argentina, the bit that sticks like a finger between Paraguay to the west and Brazil to the east. If you've ever seen the 1986 film The Mission, this is the region that it was set in. The film, set in the 1750s, chronicles the period when the secular Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments were seeking to remove the Jesuit missions that had been set up in the area to convert the Tupi-Guarani peoples to christianity. The Jesuit's focus, unlike other missions at the time, was primarily on proselytizing but not forcing European culture and values onto the Guarani. Missions, or reducciones, were ruled by indigenous leaders and hospitals and schools were established. At their height the missions numbered approximately forty settlements and had a total population of over 150,000 people and spread across present-day Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil.

Heading north on Ruta 14

The missions were usually self-supporting and became both economically successful as well as providing some protection against Portuguese slave raiders. The extent of their economic and political independence, however, threatened the Spanish and Portuguese regimes and once the Jesuits were expelled in the mid 1700s the missions slowly died out, with the people either becoming victims of the slave raids or being absorbed into European society.

Street kids in Monte Caseros parking their horse and cart

The past week has been spent slogging along Ruta 14, the main road heading up through the northeastern Argentinian provinces of Entre Rios and Corrientes towards Misiones. The idea was straight-forward enough. After several days of rural Uruguay, we were wondering if there was something other than flat green fields and cows across the River Uruguay in Argentina. Of course, there isn't really. Once across the river and heading north we were faced with the option of braving the busy and narrow Route 14 or slogging along deep-gravel backroads. We tried both and neither were particularly enjoyable. On Route 14 a dual-carriageway is in the process of being built and for the most part we were able to ride on the new scar that tears its way alongside the existing two-lane highway. This at least kept us well away from the endless convoys of sixteen wheelers ploughing north and south along the shoulderless highway, but with holes where bridges had yet to be built and mud where the unsealed road was wet, it made for tiresome riding.

Horses in the swamp

At night Paul would read aloud from his Philip Larkin anthology and, as I cooked another delicious dinner of pasta a la julian, he would explain the rationale for combining hitching with cycling. It sounded pretty sensible really but I was going to stick to the bike and Paul was going to stick to hitch-cycling, two stubborn idealists. By the evening of day four on route 14 we were sharing a much needed bottle of beer in a petrol station and Paul was preparing to stick out his thumb in the morning. In fact, he didn't have to wait until morning as a New Yawk-accented lady asked if she could help as we poured over the map. She had grown up in the US but lived with her Argentine husband in a town up north and they were on their way home. She looked exhausted and had apparently just lost the senatorial election for the province. Half an hour later Paul and his bike were going northbound in the back of the lady's car and I was pitching my tent up behind the station.

Herding cattle

I think the only weather phenomenon that I haven't experienced in my first two weeks in South America is snow. And I know when I go far enough west I'll find that too. From freezing nights and mornings in Uruguay, to hot, humid and windy days in northeastern Argentina, to the thunderstorm that had me repositioning my tent at 4 am this morning, it has been a bit of a climatic extravagansa. As the rain poured down this morning I started reading Nadine Gordimer's, The Conservationist, and found this extract of Richard Shelton's poem The Tattooed Desert in the prologue. According to Rita Barnard Shelton's "poem offers a surreal evocation of the mis-adventures of a colonial-dogooder ... [who] ends up discovering nothing but geographical and emotional disorientation". I liked it because he was riding his bike.

From The Tattooed Desert by Richard Shelton

I must have been almost crazy
to start out alone like that on my bicycle
pedalling into the tropics carrying
a medicine for which no one had found
the disease and hoping
I would make it in time.

I passed through a paper village under glass
where the explorers first found
silence and taught it to speak
where old men were sitting in front
of their houses killing sand without mercy.

brothers I shouted to them
tell me who moved the river
where can I find a good place to drown.

Azare, Misiones Province, Argentina
Trip distance: does it really matter?

1 comment:

Eric DN said...

And now south america, congratulation guy

Eric DN ( biker meet in Tata, soon in algeria for 3 weeks..... only )