Monday, 4 February 2013

A Monastically Gringo Howff

I wonder what the fathers and brothers of the ‘Company of Jesus’ would make of the fact that one of their rooms has been transformed into a gringo howff.  An order who adhered to abstinence and austerity, abnegation and renunciation, whilst we appear to be of the order buy and hoard, gear freak and technophile. Our bikes perched in one corner, our panniers exploded, disgorging their acquisition and accumulation across the wooden floor. The sparking plug trying to power up a reaffirmation, a temperance of coffee and mate de coca.

We’re staying at the ‘Hostal
Compaña de Jesús’, the Jesuits whose missions we visited over to the east in Paraguay. A monastery, a complex of buildings that fit together like loose jigsaw pieces. A small secluded courtyard, off which thread passages and tight alleyways, canyons where the sky is a mere strip, a line of light a few inches wide. The room was busy even before we arrived, with it’s three large beds, each with it’s smothering stack of quilts and woollen blankets, table, TV and bedside cabinets. Add our detonated collection and our cell becomes cosy, then with each succeeding day of occupation, entropic disorder sets in. A tent is easier to manage. Yet this chaotic eruption is a small price to pay for three centuries of imagined history.
Did the brother who worked or slept here, trip every night on the low half step at the door during his nocturnal wanderings, as he rose to chant Matins at midnight?  Did he curse the thin glass door that would do admirable service in a china cabinet to a latter day generation of Victorians? Did his conscience prick him for the inestimable mine deaths that plundered all the wealth of silver that he sent back to his Church and Crown in old-world Spain? Did it bother him that all his places of worship faced not the rising new day sun, but the hypocrisy of silver-rich Cerro Rico, to the mammon south? Or was he too busy persuading the rich, conscience-stricken mine owners to make a sin offering? A daughter to enter the purdah of Santa Teresa, perhaps, so that they could acquire an easy passage through the ‘pearly gates’ when their time came? And having accomplished this feat, further persuade them to endow the convent with many trappings of extravagance,  ‘A surplice of gold and silver thread for the Bishop when he visits, would be nice’.

In this building it’s hard to see
where the old stops and the restored starts, but there is an aura of calm, of peace that pervades the place, that must have pervaded throughout the centuries. A single dry leaf, caught in an eddy, rustles around the courtyard, the wind a precursor for the afternoon deluge. The dirty underside of a thunderhead blots out my small sky, the skeletal shadows of the passion flower are scrubbed away, replaced by a diffused, flat light. The threat is there, but calm remains in my quiet monastical corner. A peace accentuated and in contrast to the amplification of an event that rolls out from the plaza. I’m convinced I’ve just heard Andean pipe rap. The bugling horns of jammed and frustrated cars, the barking dogs arguing with the crumping thunder. The deluge, when it hits, blankets over all other sound, the amping speakers are shorted out.  But the respite is short lived. The klaxons slowly intrude, the traffic still constipated, whilst lost in my hermitage, I’m quiet and dry, lulled by a modern melodic canticle; the dripping water in the tin downpipe. A piece that starts with a rapid vibrato, moves to a wavering tremolo and concludes slowly, dissipating to a lethargic protracted conclusion. The second half of the concert is just as modern, but not nearly as soothing. A score that might have been composed in Detroit, Birmingham or Linwood, but no more.  Antiphonal, as two collectivos debate supremacy of one junction, verses of frustration, exchanges that nobody listens to, all to a background of a car alarm.  An habañera of auto horns that dance on and on, incessant, discordant, a nocturne that will play long into the dark.   

My spiritual, monastically minded tenant wouldn’t have known these interludes, he was too busy constructing ‘A silver bridge all the way back to Madrid’.