Memo From Mac



The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Burlington, Iowa

Test of Faith in Bolivia 
January 27, 1990

We could not hear ourselves singing "Silent Night," so loudly did the rain pound like cannon fire on the high tin roof of the stone church in Entre Rios.

A steady drip fell from a leak in the roof, onto my head and arms. Augustus Coca, the stout, round-faced Bolivian priest, doggedly mouthed the Mass prayers, to the echoing, near-empty church. It was Christmas midnight Mass, strange and lonely in the far, dark heart of South America. Just getting here had been a test of faith.

I'd come to Entre Rios the previous week to spend Christmas with my daughter Mariann, an associate of the Presentation Sisters' mission in this southeastern corner of Bolivia. She and Sister Maura McCarthy met me at the airport in Tarija, an old Spanish city, now the bustling 60,000-population capital of Bolivia's southernmost department of Tarija. They threw my bags in the "jeep" a Toyota Land Cruiser announcing that we'd head quickly for home, so as to "get at least part way" before dark.

Mariann had written graphically about the road to Entre Rios, but failed to do it justice. Clearing a checkpoint at the city limits the great South American mystery is what all the military checkpoints are for, except to employ soldiers we bounced promptly from the cobblestone city streets to the washboard-rutted gravel road. For 60 kilometers the washboard bounce never let up as the oversized tires of the 4-wheel drive vehicle pounded the road, jolting all my joints and muscles and insides.

In those 60 kilometers we dropped from Tarija's 7,000 feet in the Andean foothills down to Entre Rios' 2,000. This requires constant twisting and turning, climbing and descending over one ridge of Appalachian-sized mountains after another, hairpin curves in a road often not wide enough for two vehicles. On one side, sheer drop-offs with no guardrails, on the other, blind curves hiding any oncoming vehicle or stray cattle, donkeys or people. (There's no car traffic, but lots of trucks.)

Sister Maura a tall, spare woman, barely gray, with a face of determined serenity grips the steering wheel and works gear shift, brake pedal and horn like a grand prix driver. (At the blind curves, you just honk the horn and go around.) Maura has been here 17 years and keeps us a running travelogue for me. The little shrines at some of the worst curves are Animitas (houses of the spirit) where relatives bring flowers and food for the ghosts of those who didn't make the curve. Even at top speed on the rare straight stretches, it will take us 4 hours for the 60 km.

The road is a metaphor for Bolivia poor, undeveloped, dangerous; a bumpy, jolting history. The size of Texas and California, with 7 million people and no access to the sea, Bolivia has no real reason to exist as nation. Even Bolivar didn't want it. It was created chiefly as a buffer between Argentina and Peru. In 165 years of independence it has had 76 governments, 39 constitutions, 37 military coups. After a recent military dictatorship, the 1989 election brought a civilian government under Jaime Paz Zamora. But people say with a shrug, "Jaime Paz is president, but General Banzer still runs things."

The road to Entre Rios wouldn't exist except for the Chaco War of 1932-1935, when the army built it to carry troops and supplies to the Paraguayan front. That senseless war cost Bolivia 60,000, most from thirst and disease in the desolate Chaco the equivalent of the U.S.' losing nearly 3 million in Vietnam and left Bolivia in a state of permanent revolution.

The road to Entre Rios offered another metaphor. After dark, we rounded one of those blind curves, and Maura hit the brakes as the headlights illuminated a pile of rocks in the road. I flagged down the truck behind us, and the young driver ran to help us move the rocks. One was the size of a small table, and he grabbed one end and Mariann the other. The trucker lifted first, and the rock teetered down, crushing one of Mariann's fingers. She hopped around in agony, using a lot of the same words you do in prayer, then one-handedly helped us clear the road.

Back in the jeep, thinking of the report I expected to make to her mother about how well and safe Mariann was, I could see for the first time, in the headlights' glare, that it was not a rockslide, which had tumbled down a slope on to the road. Rather, the heavy rocks had fallen directly down from an overhang that extended nearly across the road.

How had we known, when we leaped under that overhang to remove them, that the rocks had quit falling?

It comes under the heading of faith at the mission in Entre Rios.

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