Falling in Love on the Way (part one)

We had been in touch for months already, sharing thoughts and feelings about our travels. I had found out about his blog after someone had shared one of his posts on a social network: his writing charmed me and I soon got passionate about his trip. It didn’t take long before he became a sort of virtual friend and confident with whom I shared my anxieties on the road.

Joel, an Argentinian one year younger than me, had left his job in Buenos Aires just a couple of months before I had quit mine in Bratislava. He had left the capital of Argentina and started hitchhiking North; he was going up to Brazil, while I was traveling down to Chile. A few scams operated by Santander Rio obliged him to go back to Buenos Aires, and a parasite he caught in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul forced him to stay longer than expected. It was enough time though to make the impossible possible: our paths would suddenly and unexpectedly come closer. I was exploring the Jesuit missions in Argentina: what about crossing to Brazil and meet him?

I got ready to hitchhike across the border adopting the same organization that I had applied to my whole trip: a zero preparation mixed with my eternal optimism that everything was going to be alright. I opened Google Maps and searched how to get from San Ignácio to Santo Ȃngelo. The two cities stand at a distance of 217 km, which made less than three and half hours of traveling that also included crossing the natural border marked by the Uruguay river by boat. My inexperience was mixed with confidence, and I calculated that if I left Misiones early, I could make it there in the afternoon. I told Joel we would meet at 4 PM o’clock in front of the cathedral.

It was my first long-distance hitchhiking, and I did everything wrong. As soon as I reached the main road, I started walking towards the closest gas station, showing my thumb while still walking, like in a Hollywood movie. A Chilean truck stopped right away, and Ulises immediately scolded me: You cannot hitchhike uphill! Nevertheless, he took me to Santa Ana, and left me at a gas station.

I noticed a green delivery van not far from where I was standing. I walked closer to it, hoping it was heading South. The driver gave me a suspicious look, and said he wasn’t. I thanked him and turned around, but after a moment he called me back and asked me where I was from. As soon as his mouth pronounced these words, I was both certain that he was going to give me a ride and ashamed that his prejudices would disappear for the simple fact that I was Italian.

As expected, Alberto changed his version of events. Suddenly, he was going that direction, but he was just waiting for a friend. In case he wouldn’t show up, I could ride shotgun. Nevertheless, his mysterious friend canceled in the blink of an eye, and Alberto called me back. I jumped on the van, and we drove through a couple of towns, delivering his boxes. On the way, Alberto taught me how to prepare a good mate while we ate some tortas fritas and discussed about Peronism. He drop me off in San Javier, where a boat would take me to Porto Xavier, on the other side of the Uruguay river, already in Brazilian territory.

I had just started walking, when an old man who was coming from the opposite direction stopped and insisted to drive me close to the port. And because this was over 4 km away, I accepted with a smile that though didn’t last long on my lips. When the turtle-car of the old icky man left me at the port, and I finally got rid of his insistent and disgusting curiosity about my sexual life, I realized that also helmsmen like to take siesta, and that the next river crossing would be four hours later. Feeling helpless, I decided I could use the extra time to write and find someone who could get me close to Santo Ȃngelo.

I was getting to my cross-border date with a little over than a three hours delay. After a few vicissitudes, I finally made it to the bus terminal. While my heart was beating louder than a church bell on a Sunday morning, I squeezed both eyes and contact lenses and searched for Joel.

And there he was, sitting on a bench, wearing his unmistakable beret and holding a book in his hands: it was the Anna Karenina he would give me a few months later. He somehow felt my presence, looked up and smiled. I got my small pack off my chest while he closed his book, and, both friends and strangers, we gave each other that long time due hug.

I started bombing him with questions. I was dying to tell him everything about my first hitchhiking experience, but there was so much to say that all conversations were left incomplete. We spent ages looking for a cheap place to eat dinner, just to end up in a shammy fast-food. I started to mentally convert reais to dollars and couldn’t help but notice the expensive border crossing. Starting a long compromise with my new vegan diet, I asked for a vegetarian xis, which is a hamburger bread filled with cheese, eggs, peas and corn and an exorbitant quantity of ketchup and mayonnaise. And, since we were celebrating, we treated ourselves with a litrão of beer.

That night we camped on a piece of land for sale in the middle of a road filled with car dealers. Hopefully, the next day was a Sunday, so that just like nobody had seen us trespassing the fence, we also passed unnoticed the following morning. After having a bunch of dry fruit for breakfast, we walked to the same gas station where I had been dropped off the previous day, and prepared to hitchhike. In a couple of rides of little wait, we arrived in the center of Sāo Miguel das Missões.

The village, that not long before was just a random name on a map to me, now holds a special place both in my memory and my heart. We only needed a couple of days to realize that what we shared was much more than friendship. The same stars that once witnessed the indoctrination of the Guaranies by the Jesuits, were now seeing a beautiful friendship slowly becoming an intense love story.

Those who know me (and those who read me) will know what traveling solo meant to me. Freedom, adventure, independence in making decisions just for myself, owning nothing to none, neither time, nor explanations or commitment.

Nevertheless, I had indeed, in the past few months, been thinking about a companion – a dream-nightmare that tempted me as much as it terrified me. I was surprised by the strength of my feelings, and at the same time I was scared for what that meant. Losing the freedom I had so much craved, was it the worst idea in the world?

Here is where I was wrong. When I thought that I’d lose my wings, I realized that Joel was actually adding his pair to mine, and that together, we could fly even higher.

Those were some of the happiest days of my entire existence, and I hope, in these few lines, that I will be able to transmit all that I lived and learnt in the green gaúcho fields of the state of Rio Grande do Sul.

My first contact with the South American giant had not been through its postcard-style beaches. It had been, instead, through the ancient Guarani reductions, where Jesuit missionaries played the good guys while forcing the indigenous people into evangelization. Local guides like to talk about how conversion and “civilization” of the native people in self-sufficient communities happened in respect of their language and culture, a completely new approach for those times. They often underline that had they fallen into the hands of a different order of the Catholic Church, in the best case scenario the indios would have become slaves. It was, nevertheless, a forced conversion that lasted from the 17th century until the expulsion of the Jesuit order and the subsequent withdrawal of the reductions at the end of the 18th century.

As if I was some sort of archaeology nerd, I was now exploring the Brazilian Jesuit heritage after I had already visited the Guarani reductions both in Paraguay and Argentina.

Once we arrived in Sāo Miguel, we walked to the tourist information office. Here, a very nice man called Dori suggested we left our beloved Ospreys with him, and promised he would get us free entrance to the Light and Sound show later that night.

Every evening from 7 PM according to the season, the ruins of Sāo Miguel wear their most colorful clothes, and the voice of the Church mingles with that of Mother Earth in a captivating reproduction of the history of the reductions. And because everything tastes better when it’s free, we enjoyed every moment of that show, a creation of man and travel, in a wonderful and cold night of mid November.

Not only did we fall in love in Sāo Miguel, but with Sāo Miguel. It took us five days before we finally managed to leave the town. We spent those five days camping next to the Guarani ruins doing little more than lazily exploring the village and spending time together, discovering ancient missionary springs and improvised tea rooms.

Missionary spring in São Miguel

On our first day there, Dori had informed us about the existence of the so-called Caminho das Missões, a route that links the ancient missionary paths that used to connect the Jesuit-Guarani reductions. It was a 324 km long way that started in Sāo Borja and ended up right in Santo Ȃngelo.

Pilgrimages are something I really love. Far from doing them for religious reasons, as I am a convinced atheist, just the fact of walking for days or weeks, passing from open countryside to tiny or bigger towns, has some kind of mysticism to me. I love the fact of going back to the essence of things, and only worry about walking, eating and resting. After I hiked the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the Barborská Cesta in Slovakia, I keep dreaming about hiking the Via Francigena, that connects Canterbury to Vatican City, and therefore going back to my roots. You can therefore imagine how excited I got at the idea of finding out about a similar pilgrimage here in Brazil, and how my excitement increased when I realized I was not the only one.

Map of the Caminho

There was no need to talk to know we were on the same page, so that we spent the next few days trying to get information about this route. We soon discovered, though, that this Caminho is somehow private, and that an agency of the same name has its monopoly on it. For the exorbitant price of 2,000 Rs, the agency accompanies (the few) groups of tourists and provides all sorts of comforts and support. Nobody seemed to understand that we had no intention of paying that amount of money to follow someone who would tell us where to sleep and what to eat: we wanted to go on our own. So, since the agency would not even provide us with a map, we decided to start walking and simply ask for directions on the way.

We managed to leave São Miguel on November 17th. Two nights before our departure, we had met Marioni and Vianei, a couple of professional folk dancers, who invited us for dinner at their place. We spent a lovely night with them, and said goodbye with the promise of meeting again.

We started our hike backwards with the blessings of half of the town. We decided to leave São Miguel and see if we could make it to São Borja, finding out about the way step by step. Because we left super late, we only managed to walk a few kilometers before night fell. A lady we met on the way suggested we camped in an old abandoned club. The clouds were getting grey with rain, and it would be good to have a roof.

Looks like it’s about to rain

We easily found the building, and got rid of our backpacks with some relief, just a few moments before it started to pour. We set to explore the place, which was, unfortunately, completely locked. Only one room was open, and it smelt as if it had been used as a pee spot for a while. We also found some stinky but still functioning toilets. We set up our tent and started to look for some wood to make fire. We cooked a delicious polenta while the rain was hitting hard on the tinplate roofing. The first day on the Caminho had been short, but already filled with emotions.

On day two, we woke up to a blue, sunny sky. We took our time to cook some scrambled eggs and enjoy the charm of the abandoned club. When we eventually left, we started hiking on a long, red road that took us to the village of Sāo Lourenço das Missões.

The yellow arrow points at the direction we had to follow… backwards 🙂

It seemed as we would never make it, but after walking for hours, we spotted a man on a motorcycle. Darkness was already approaching, while the sun was slowly disappearing to leave space to the moon. We asked the man how much there was left, and he cheerfully replied that we were almost there. When we showed our concerns about dinner, he told us not to worry, and that he would make sure the shop would stay open a bit more than usual.

Right before a climb that was apparently the last one (or at least we hoped so), we found a house that looked as if nobody had lived there for a while. We got off the main road and got closer to the private path surrounded by high weeds that lead to the house. We took off our backpacks and started exploring what we then confirmed was an abandoned house. Joel stayed there to set up the tent, and I my rumbling stomach and I went to look for the shop.

The shop was small, but still open, just as our friend had promised. He looked like he had made good use of the extraordinary opening time, as he was even more cheerful than before, his hands holding a glass of wine. He said hello with his red face, while the shop owner looked at me with curiosity from behind the bar. There was not much to choose from, but I managed to buy the basics to cook some pasta. And of course, a couple of beers to drink while waiting for the water to boil.

The one and only shop in Sāo Lourenço das Missões

The night was freaking freezing. More than once, we thought we heard some noise close to our tent, and we still believe that somehow the neighbor’s horse had ran away to nose around in the middle of the night.

The next morning, Joel forced the lock of the entrance door of the wooden house, and we spent the day cleaning up under a rotten roof that threatened to fall over us. We set up our tent in the place we thought was the safest, restored the bathroom and rustled up a kitchen by the entrance. We even hung a painting we found somewhere in the house and put some plastic flowers as a centerpiece.

Tea time at the abandoned house

After washing and drying our stinky clothes, we finally set off to explore the village. São Lourenço das Missões is a long dusty road lined with houses. There are just around a thousand inhabitants, but they still have both a school and a church, of course. Here lies the archaeological site of São Lourenço Mártir, an ancient Guarani reduction that used to host up to seven times the town’s current inhabitants.

An old building with a sign saying CTG –  Rodeio das Missões caught our attention. We slowly got closer to the entrance, where an elderly woman was smiling to us in a sign of welcome, as if we were old friends.

The CTG

Nice invited us to look around the Centro da Tradição Gaúcha, of which she was proudly in charge. Once, the CTG used to host the gaúchos’ meetings and fancy balls. We ran our eyes over the green fading walls of a building that doesn’t want to consign its glorious past to oblivion.

A child in a 69-year-old woman’s body, Nice immediately charmed us with her joyous innocence and her sweet smile. Hours went by while sipping chimarrão, the local infusion of Guarani origins made of yerba mate. She proudly showed us the drawings and the souvenirs she got from the many children she looked after her Mother Hen’s wing.

Nice showing us a game she had made using old deo rolls

Nice told us that when she was a kid, she used to live in a house where the floor was made of mud. Her mom used to tell her seven kids that one day they would live in a house with a proper floor. While saying this, she was proudly looking at her Cinderella feet that were almost dancing on the brown tiles of the CTG.

Our new friend invited us for dinner, and we promised we’d come say goodbye the next morning.

Chimarrão

We walked back “home” under São Lourenço’s starry sky drunk with love, and excited to finally spend a warm night in the house. Nevertheless, as soon as we went looking for the clothes we had put to dry, we realized that they were no more there. Helpless to do anything in the darkness of the night, we went to sleep, postponing the worries to the next day.

On the morning of our fourth day on the Caminho, we searched the place for our few belongings, but found nothing. The thought that someone could have stolen it from us sounded both absurd and mean, and even though Joel had smoke coming out of his ears, I tried to think of an explanation that made any sense. We spent the morning asking around in the village, and eventually came across the house of the man who had his horse on the land next to our new home. He pointed us where the owner of our castle in ruins lived.

In a village where everybody knows everybody, it was not hard to find the house of this Bugre man. It was harder, though, to admit to his wife that we had been camping behind the locked door for two days. We had to insist a bit to convince her to call her husband, who told her that he had found our stuff and thrown it to the hen-house. Grateful and with our tails between our legs, we went looking for our precious rags that Mr Bugre had no way of knowing that belonged to us.

We put on our backpacks and went back to our red sandy road, happy like children on Christmas day. It was November 20th, 2017, and it was exactly one year since I had started my trip.

The journey continues…

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