adventures in Argentina, week two

In which we cross the Panara, visit Colon, attend a conference, take a ferry and don’t ride the elephants.

Monday, March 1
Today we drove east 10 hours, away from the mountains, to Colon on the Uruguay River. The land is mostly flat and almost entirely agricultural—mostly cattle and some crops, like soy bean.

Near Rosario we crossed the Panara River, bordered by a large region of swamps, rivers and islands, perhaps 30 miles across. The highway was built on a man-made dike, 60 feet across and maybe 20 feet or so above the water line. It reminded me very much of the Everglades in Florida where I was raised and made me homesick.

A friend Ivan met at an air show had arranged a small apartment for us. We met him on the highway and went by his home to meet his wife and son. He teaches shop in the local high school. Gerardo is both passionate and resourceful.

Passionate is something I notice because I can’t understand what they are saying. Most Argentines strike me as very expressive and animated. But he is tall and dark and lean, and the arc of his arms must approach 7 feet. I felt like he used all of it.

His face was shining as he talked about his French ancestors and the contribution they had made to the history of the region. But he and his wife were both as justly proud of the home and furniture they built together.

Literally. They picked up stones from the fields to build the foundation, and built as they went along, over 5 years. It’s difficult to get financing for a home here, and many people build their own homes here, but few as young as Gerardo and Angela.

I watched, I listened and I prayed, desiring for Ivan and Kim a church full of passionate and resourceful people like these.

Tuesday, March 2
Colon is a tourist town, and looks exactly like what you expect a tourist town in Argentina to look like. We had dinner late last night in an old hosteria, a colonial brick building with a courtyard and candle-lit tables along the sidewalk.

Tree-lined cobblestone streets along the Uruguay River, at least a quarter of a mile wide, create the perfect picture of genteel leisure. Katie and I want to come back some day and rent a room there and sit on the balcony and have tea.

It was a stark contrast to the rolling open plains of Uruguay that we crossed all day. When we’d driven 600 kilometers, almost 200 miles, we had only passed through two towns.

This, and the plains before Rosario yesterday, is gaucho country- rugged land with rugged people. Horses were roaming loose in a street in Colon. They are tethered by the roadside, with large herds of cattle resting under trees in the field along the highway.

The mythic gaucho looms larger in this culture than the cowboy does in the American west. Its notions of chivalry and honor are deeply embedded.

When we pulled out from the apartment where we stayed last night, a young man warned us that we might be fined if we had a trailer hitch and were not hauling anything. So Ivan found a tire store in some guy’s garage.

The man loaned him a wrench to take his trailer hitch off and didn’t charge him anything. It was gauchada. A favor. Something a gaucho would do.

Wednesday, March 3
We’re at conference now, in La Tuna, Uruguay. The missionaries from Uruguay and Argentina in this mission meet once a year to encourage each other. Their children play together and the adults sit quietly under the trees, talking and praying about their successes and their failures.

Their field and mission leaders interview each couple, a sort of annual report, and they also try to engage their teams, usually two or three couples in the same city or region, to think strategically. It’s not as simple as it sounds. The mission recruits people for their individual strengths, which includes persistence, and that makes strategic planning something like herding cats; there is unity of purpose but not necessarily unity of process. It’s good to come together and be reminded of the big picture.

For our part, Katie spoke at their ladies tea. Having cared for four people at end of life now, she talked about adapting our pace to the limitations of those we serve. It’s humbling to think about whether you could teach veteran missionaries anything, but I expect we all run ahead of God from time to time. My contribution has been a 3-day seminar on communication skills, easily summarized in Ephesians 4:15: speak the truth in love that we might grow up. In the end, our motives matter, even when you are trying to hammer out a strategy for your team.

But these problems are all manageable. When you sit is a concrete block building in Southern Uruguay and listen to 15 missionary couples sing hymns the walls themselves reverberate with the glory of God. These are people who know whereof they sing.

“Be thou my vision,” they sang the first night.

There’s a strategy we can all get behind.

Thursday, March 4
The Annual Southern Cone Missionary Conference for missionaries with Biblical Ministries Worldwide sounds bigger than it is. But for the missionaries it is probably more important than it sounds.

All the missionaries put $40 a month into a fund for the conference, which includes missionaries from Argentina and Uruguay. Missionaries from the different countries take turns planning the conference. They also alternate between a “fat” conference and a “lean” one.

This was a lean one, at a no frills Baptist campground near Montevido in Uruguay. I joked about getting invited back to a “fat” year, where I imagined they might have wi-fi.

The first night Ivan and I went out on a fruitless search for an internet café, but the next day one of the missionary wives and Ivan’s wife Kim both found a place to check email on their own laptops.

So the second night we went out again and spent over an hour and a half looking for it. Now, it was late at night, very rural, on dirt roads that had ruts that probably show up on a geological map with names of their own. Yes, we asked for directions. But our search turned out to be focused on a few stores and a school a few kilometers past the place we were looking for. We hated admitting defeat, especially to our wives.

When we finally found it on a separate trip the next day it turned out we had passed it twice. It just happened to be closed.

So no audio tweets. Just a lesson in humility.

Friday, March 5
Skit night at conference was like skit night at any other family camp, only funnier.

In the manner of Uruguay folk tradition, complete with a singing narrator, the missionary kids skewered the furlough experience with unsettling accuracy. You wonder what would happen if Americans could see themselves the way missionary kids see then when they return home to visit supporting churches.

Airports, the missionary closet, mispronounced names—it was all there, including the home visit where the missionary kids are sent off to play with hyperactive children while their parents are engaged in conversation by their clueless hosts: “Maybe we should take a vacation and go to South America and ride around on Jeeps and elephants like the missionaries do.”

Missionaries here “earn” two months year toward a home visit every few years to visit supporting churches. It’s no vacation for the kids, spending a lot of time on the road in strange and new places. But it’s no vacation for the parent either. In addition to speaking most weekends, most of the missionaries I met here have to raise new support, looking for new contacts and building new relationships. Inflation is high here, and there is some attrition. Veteran missionaries are having elderly supporters from the States literally die of old age, while supporting churches also split or fail.

It’s a system that needs fixing. I like what our church is doing now, focusing on fewer missionaries with more support, cutting down on the number of places they have to visit and increasing the opportunity to become more knowledgeable about the missionaries they support and the cultures they serve.

I’ve been thinking about it all day, riding along on my elephant.

Saturday, March 6

The trip from Uruguay back to Argentina was uneventful, partly because in Uruguay they actually post the highway numbers at the intersections. Sometimes on the way over we would come to intersections in Argentina with no signage whatsoever. It’s harder to find Route 3 if every road you come to could be it. We drove along the coast through Montevideo, a gleaming city by the sea, and stopped for dinner at a market near the port in an old mercantile building built by the British. We met the artist of a print the Hoyts had given us few years ago and bought another one to go with it.

On the trip back we took the ferry across to Buenos Aires. I have to admit that when Kim had written about this on her blog a couple of years ago I had entirely the wrong idea. They had been making the crossing and the power went out. There was a storm so they could not go out on the deck. It was hot and everyone was sick. Somehow I imagined an African riverboat, a barge with a couple of cars lashed to the deck, people wanting to be outside where they could lean over the rail. Think Heart of Darkness.

Actually the Buquebus is a cruise lines with moderns ships that have with two decks for cars and two for passengers, full enclosed and air-conditioned with two places to eat and a duty-free shop for buying expensive chocolate and perfume. I’m sure it was tough when it lost power in a storm on the three-hour crossing, but not quite what I pictured. (We took a newer ferry that makes holds 1200 passengers and at 40 knots makes the trip in just over an hour.)

And so we cruised into Buenos Aires where a regatta of forty tall ships had assembled (in our honor, I’m sure) and disembarked into a district of fashionable new restaurants and shops in restored warehouses along the waterfront. Puerto Madero.

Uneventlful, as I said.

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