Last week, I attended the Bolivian province’s meeting of “young” friars. This is a meeting of friars who have been solemnly professed for less than six years and is intended to support the friars as they transition from formation to a life in solemn vows. Although I am in my seventh year of solemn vows, I was invited to attend the event and went eagerly because it was held in a part of Bolivia to which I have never visited. The meeting was held in a town called Puerto Suárez, which resides in the extreme southeast corner of Bolivia — very near the Brazilian and Paraguayan borders. In fact, the Franciscan parish in Puerto Suárez extends down to the point at which the three countries meet.
Going by Train
For the trip to Puerto Suárez, I first traveled by bus for four hours from the town of Camiri, where I am stationed, north to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. There, the next day I set out by train the travel across southern Bolivia to Puerto Suárez.
Trains in Bolivia are not like those in the U.S., much less like those in Europe or Japan. The tracks are old and rickety. The train bucks around constantly. We left at 7 p.m. for the 14-hour trip. The idea is that one sleeps all night and arrives at 9 a.m. the next day refreshed. Well, that’s the idea. Unfortunately, I found I couldn’t sleep at all because of the bucking of the train.
The train itself is one of the best in Bolivia. It is called the FerroBus, and is sort of like a bus. There are only two cars and it makes only three or four stops and so makes the journey a short 14 hours. (The other trains on this route take 17 hours.) Having taken a train across the U.S. during my vacation last year, I was glad to be able to take a train in Bolivia to compare the two. In my analysis, Amtrak wins.
We met for two days at the friary of the church of La Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). The church is manned by two Austrian friars, who received us very graciously. Unfortunately, we were 12 friars, and there was a lack of guest rooms. My “guest room” turned out to be a straw mat on the floor of the parish office. But, having been unable to sleep on the train, it didn’t bother me a bit.
In the morning session, each friar shared something about his ministry, where he is stationed, something about the fraternal life in the friar community, problems he has encountered, and so forth. It was interesting to hear these reports and to see the support shown to each friar by the other friars there.
For lunch, we went out to a seafood restaurant. Since Puerto Suárez is on the Paraguay River, there is a wealth of seafood. We shared a number of plates. My favorite was the deep-fried alligator meat. Don’t look at me that way. It was good.
After the meal, we had a short tour of the town of Puerto Suárez. The best part was a small lake formed by the curve in the river. This river, by the way, is one of the few rivers in South America that flows west into the Pacific. Most rivers in South America flow into and form the Amazon River, which flows out into the Atlantic Ocean.
In the afternoon, we heard a presentation on spirituality and discussed various minor topics. In the evening, we went out for a Brazilian churrasco (Barbecue). This consists of an unending supply of beef, pork, ribs, sausage, and so forth, along with fried yuca and salad.
Day Two: Mutún
For the outing, we headed south from Puerto Suárez to visit, first, the world’s largest deposit of iron ore at a place called Mutún and, then, down to visit near the point where Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay meet.
Mutún turned out to be much more than simply a huge mine.
Shortly after we passed the mine, we passed over the top of a hill and just as quickly the scenery changed drastically. We left the rich, green Amazon basin and were suddenly in the semi-arid area called the Gran Chaco. The town where I live, Camiri, is near the western end of the Chaco. Here, at Mutún, we were at the eastern end of the Chaco. In the other direction, looking eastward, we could look down into Brazil and the Amazon Basin.
Near Mutún, we encountered an area where the pastor had discovered ancient stone carvings which date back to 3,000 B.C.E. Most archeological interest in Bolivia is in the Andes, but the pastor argued that there should be a similar interest in the lowlands of eastern Bolivia.
After leaving Mutún, we travel basically due south, heading in the direction of the next town down, Puerto Busch. After about an hour and a half, we stopped and headed back to Puerto Suárez for our meeting with the teenagers of the parish. The landscape of this part of our tour was very lush and green. We saw deer, alligators, and a number of different birds. Below are are some photos of our excursion. Click on any to see a larger version on Flickr.
The Return: The Road from Hell
We were to drive along the same basic route as the train, but in this case we were heading basically due west from Puerto Suárez back to Santa Cruz. The journey started out nice: the road was flat, smooth, new and well constructed.
After eating lunch in a small town called Roboré, the young friar who had been driving suggested that I drive for a while. I should have been suspicious. But, being a nice guy, I agreed. We continued on our journey, but shortly after passing the town of San José de Chiquitos I found out why the road was so nice. It is brand new. And only half finished.
Shorting after leaving San José de Chiquitos, we hit the construction of the second half of the road. For the next six hours, we bumped along a half-built road, sometimes taking long detours into muddy fields, and always seemingly being trapped behind large trucks traveling in the same direction. When I suggested having someone else drive for a while, no one seemed to want to drive. It was a brutal and long drive through billowing dust and constant mud. After arriving back in Santa Cruz in the evening, I was exhausted.
The journeys to and from Puerto Suárez were tough, but the visit itself was very nice. We had time for fraternal sharing, and I got to visit a completely different part of Bolivia. In all, it was a good meeting, and I am glad I was able to attend.