Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Minas Tirith, only minus the Tirith

A couple of weeks ago now, my roommates and I decided to use one of our free weekends to travel to a smaller city northeast of Montevideo called Minas. As you might be able to tell from the name, the city first began as a mining town for gold, silver, and copper (oro, plata y cobre). Now it is a city about the size of Kalispell (30 thousand residents) and has an huge economical range: from tourism to mining and logging (paper industry), from cattle ranching to eucalyptus farming. It is also the home of the bottled water company Salus which is what we usually drink if you order water at a restaurant in MVD. The appeal here is the spring found in the sierra de (small mountain range of) Minas.
It may not seem like much to you sitting at home, but one of the most interesting aspects of the trip was buying bus tickets to the city. We certainly got to practice our Spanish and may have heard a little laughter from the desk worker as we walked away. The actually morning of our trip came the next Saturday with us awaking before 6 am to catch the 7 o’clock bus. Mark ended up feeling sick and ended up not going, so Josh and I had to trudge on without our compañero fiel (faithful friend). The bus trip was uneventful, besides a crazy dream where I thought we forgot to get off the bus and were being taken to some random place, and we arrived at the Minas station around 9:15.
At the station, we first bought return tickets back to MVD and then asked for some information at the tourism office about where some things were that we had researched. After that, we decided to walk around: a lot. The city itself doesn’t have very big blocks so it seemed to us as if we made pretty good time walking around. We saw the little museum they had, which was built in the home of Lavalleja, one of the leaders in Uruguayan independence. We also walked around and saw a cathedral and the Plaza Libertad which stands in the center of the city in memorial to Lavalleja. On our way to a rather large statue we encountered a cemetery. We went inside and I was exposed to something I had not been expecting. The cemetery was enclosed in concrete walls and contained the tombs of various people, some more ornate than others with incredible statues and carvings in the rock. But, stacked on all the walls and all the rock tombs were stone urns holding the ashes of people. There must have been thousands of them! The whole mood of the area was very somber and surreal, aided by the effect of the cloudy sky and the weather threatening to rain. Continuing on, we arrived at the huge statue of José Artigas astride his horse. Supposedly it is the largest horse statue in the world, and I would believe it: it was enormous! After walking all morning, we were ready to take a break, snap some pictures and eat lunch in the shadow of the statue.
We had wanted to visit the abandoned gold mine north of Minas and possibly get a tour of the old shafts, but we found at the station that was no bus that went out that direction. Not to be denied, we hiked the four kilometers to the mine. Along the way we encountered vicious dogs (whose bark was worse than their bite due to the chain that kept them from getting too close) and swear that the grossly exaggerated the seeming closeness of the mine to the city. We hiked a long way…only to find out that the mines were closed for the day! We were able to go into the entrance and cool down after the hike and later found an ant trail about 25 meters long or more beaten down by thousands of ants traveling back and forth between their food source of new leaves and their den. Can you imagine an ant trail about a centimeter and a half wide? Then we began the trudge back to Minas in the hot sun (yes mom, I put on sunscreen). About halfway a car containing a man and what seemed to be his son pulled over and offered us a ride. Although it took Josh and I a while to understand out what they were saying, we gladly accepted the ride after we finally figured it out. They were very helpful and friendly and told us a little more about the surrounding area on the drive home. What’s really funny is that they thought we were French tourists! Too bad I’ve forgotten most of my French from High School...
Safely back in Minas, we decided we deserved to celebrate with some ice cream, which was very good, by the way. I ordered dulce de leche (which is a Latin American version of caramel, but better) and chocolate chips. The clouds finally opened up and poured on us on the way back to the terminal, but it was welcome after that long hike. We were just grateful not to have to slog back to the city in it. For the rest of the day, we had rain off and on, but worry not, my friends: Josh and I were both prepared with rain jackets and Josh’s umbrella.
Next, we caught a bus out to Cerro Verdun, a hill (cerro is Spanish for mountain/hill) were the Virgan Mary is supposed to have appeared. They’ve set up a long, wide path up to the top with monuments at regular intervals depicting the twelve stages of Christ’s crucifixion which may or may not be familiar to some of you. It was very powerful to reflect upon, especially because of the mood we got from the surrounding weather. At the summit, people place plaques on the statue of Mary thanking her for watching over them and their family as well as answering their prayers. Also, many Catholics of Latin America, and maybe beyond that, travel to this place every year in mid-April as a sort of pilgrimage. Last year close to 120,000 people came to pay their respects the Virgan Mary, many of them completing the hike entirely on their knees! There would be a lot of bloody knees on a day like that…
On top of the mountain/hill, we encountered many, crazy juxtapositions. The large statue of Mary stood in contrast to the communication towers situated just behind her. We could see into the valley and see mining and farming in close proximity. And the whole statue itself stands in crazy the middle of a secular society. It is very interesting to think about a country like Uruguay with many non religious people and with a strong separation of Church and state, still with people willing to climb to the top of a mountain on their knees and place plaques thanking Mary for answered prayers.

1 comment:

Karen said...

OK, I'm convinced. I'll go to Minas if I can, either this Saturday or in April when all the pilgrims go to the Virgin Mary.

Good article. Now back to researching for Machu Picchu prices...