A trip to Animatronic Jesusland

Of course I knew that when it comes to religion, the Christian faith is a major player in Argentina. But I was not ready for Tierra Santa, a regular religious Disneyland. The place is just one big stage for some of the most absurd scenes I have ever seen performed in front of me. A surprisingly flexible interpretation onto the greatest story ever told.

“Walk around Jerusalem in Buenos Aires.” During my research of things to do in Buenos Aires, I come across this simple, but startling phrase. It describes a religious theme park in the Argentinian capital, right by the harbor. I am puzzled, trying to picture a biblical amusement park. Do they have an Adam & Eve tunnel of love? Will they invite me to take a ride on the Golgotha roller coaster? With these bizarre thoughts lingering around, I decide to give it shot.

ImageNothing could have prepared me for what is waiting just around the corner from “Puerto Madero.” No, there are no roller coasters or ferris wheels. Instead, what is waiting for me is a Roman soldier, standing proudly with his gladius sword in his hand. Over my head, two angels are guarding the imposing Tierra Santa gates, blessing my entry. I cannot help imagining the angel’s clarions playing as I enter the Holy Land. Inside, I have to rub my eyes. Am I still in Buenos Aires? Palm trees and a sandy beige tone wherever I look.

In this surreal atmosphere I walk on until I reach an intersection. Should I go left to Bethlehem? Or maybe I should go right and witness the Nativity. I like to do things in order, so I start at the beginning, with the birth. The sign is pointing to a dark tunnel. After all, Jesus was born in a cave. Or was it in a barn?? Oh well, anyway, what I didn’t know is that Moses, Adam and Eve, Abel and Chaim, basically all the Old Testament stars and starlets, were there as well. They are definitely here now, stucco statues pointing the way in the eerie light. At the end of the tunnel, I see a lot of tourists getting ready to see a show. I’m told by a member of the tribe of Judah that I’m about to witness a reenactment of Jesus’ birth. I sit down in the back, stretching my legs after the walk, curious as a cat.

As I hear the first notes of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, I realize to my surprise that the reenactment involves no actors. It is all stucco statues once again, but this time they come to life. The three kings, Jesus and Mary, even the donkey, they all move in a robotic, articulated way. Jesus was born within five minutes, it seems. At least that is how long the show lasts. On my way out, the Judah man tells me he is a Boca Juniors fan, and that I should not miss the Resurrection later that afternoon: “We have Resurrections every hour.” I think to myself: “Jesus was just born – does he have to resurrect already?”

ImageI shrug and head to Bethlehem. On the main square, a few belly dancers are rehearsing for their show. Belly dancers in Jerusalem? Oh well, I’m honestly here to take it all in. Tabula Rasa, as a wise man once said. On the other side of the square, on the steps of a big plaster temple, Jesus is being whipped vigorously by a Roman legionnaire. I can’t stop looking at this statue tied to the column with its hyper-realistic expression of pain. I’m so absorbed that I almost trip over a drunk man and his bottle, right there on Bethlehem’s main square. I decide to wait for the Resurrection. Why not? At least I can kill time by observing the Last Supper, an imposing and powerful display of sound and lights, with statues gravitating like moons around planet Jesus. I am also surprised to encounter Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II and… Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi who, as far as I know, was everything but Catholic. But I guess it must be part of this whole new ecumenical image of the new Catholic church, a message of peace, of the healthy fraternizing of all religions.  The message is one of peace… it doesn’t matter where it comes from.  I like it – well done!

ImageA huge statue of Jesus also catches my attention. Colossal in scale, his huge hand blessing me makes me feel so small. Like I am David and his hand is Goliath. But then again, we are kind of on the same side.

Moving on to Mount Golgotha. I stand in front of a huge hill, the top of which I see Jesus on the cross – and an Argentinian flag. I am in Argentina after all. All around the Golgotha, the hyper-realism continues. All the statues of Christ are of an astounding agony and torment. People around me seem hypnotized by them. Right next to me, a family is doing the sign of the cross non-stop, visibly impressed by the scenery. A chill, not too big of a chill, but a chill, runs down my spine. I climb down the Golgotha hill and head towards an amphitheater where the Resurrection is taking place.

ImageA crowd is already waiting. And there’s this electrifying tension in the air you feel when a mass of people is collectively waiting for the same thing. After an eternity of minutes, Händel’s Messiah starts blasting out of the loudspeakers. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” The crowd lets an “awwwww” of admiration go when the tip of a giant head starts peeking out of Mount Golgotha. At first the black hair, then the forehead until the whole face is slowly revealed. A huge statue of Christ is steadily popping out, literally resurrecting from its stucco sepulcher. Once again, the angel’s clarions play in my head, as the 14 meter tall statue rises in all its splendor. I can’t help having mixed feelings about all of this. A massive articulated Christ, coming out of Mount Golgotha? So, when Christ resurrected, he was reborn king-size? I wonder what my old Catholic grandmother would think if she saw this? Would she be impressed and amazed? Or would she think it’s sacrilege? Well, people here seem to love it. A true climax is reached. The crowd is cheering and applauding… a robotic Jesus statue.

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Leaving the Holy Land I can hardly feel my footsteps. My thoughts take over. What did I just see? Religious folklore at its best, I guess. Something I’m really not used to see, a modern variation of the austere Catholic Church. Oh well, I’m traveling exactly to see this, novelty and human originality in all its nuances and extremes. I have experienced many absurd stories so far, but also several stories of strife, of ecological awareness, of people making a difference. Today I give you another precious episode from the world of the bizarre.

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The Future is Bottled

In Argentina, I meet a hero. A trash collector, looked down on and called a “cartonero,” he actually is an ecological soldier passionate about recycling, but not because it is fashionable but out the pure necessity to survive. And he has restored my faith in humanity.

Alfredo is greeting me by the door, smiling. Ever since we first made contact, via email, he has seemed to be smiling. He has opened his doors in Iguazu, and so I have crossed the entire country of Brazil to get to Argentina to get to know  him and his very special initiative.  As I follow  the maroon, rust-colored dirt roads leading out of the town of Puerto Iguazu, I see very few houses, but the one I’m about to find is one of a kind. It is entirely made up of plastic bottles.

The story is simple. Out of necessity, finding himself out of work, Alfredo had to live off trash he collects. Like many Argentinians in the beginning of the 2000s he became a “cartonero.” I don’t think his smile can really turn into a frown, but  there’s a hint of  bitterness when he remembers those times: ” We didn’t even have  resources to provide for our families. I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t able to fulfill  this basic task of providing  food for my family, I just couldn’t.”

And with all his  stubbornness and will power he fought to find a way out. Just like many extraordinary things, this project was also born by chance. His daughter wanted a doll house for Christmas. And when Alfredo realized he couldn’t afford it, he decided to build one. This was the start of the development of an extraordinarily inventive construction technique.

By putting together plastic bottles, particularly soda bottles, he invented a kind of brick which is both cheap and ecological. His mission is clear : “We are convinced we can find social solutions to the humble that are also ecological. Like removing trash from the streets and thus avoiding that the planet is transformed in a huge trash yard. At the same time, this is a technique that can be easily learned by anyone.” For the past years, Alfredo has refined  his product to make it more resistant. He considers himself a kind of Mad Trash Scientist. He is thankful to have received technical advice from certain visitors, but mostly he did it himself. For instance, one of the criticisms he received was whether the bottles were fire-resistant. Of course they’re not, but they’re certainly not as inflammable like wood. In any case, Alfredo developed an anti-fire system by simply filling them  with water or dirt, so that when the bottle wrinkles with fire, the substance inside will put it out. Ingenious, to say the least. Alfredo tells me that there was of course criticism, the fire proof being only one of them. But what about the life span? The answer lies in the material chosen. He chose a particular kind of bottle, not the mineral water one, but the soft drink bottle. The plastic is thicker and it’s covered by a solar filter, to protect the drink. “This fact is very helpful, because the bottle’s shape stays untouched when exposed to the sun. If the bottles are covered, I’d say that their life span could be practically eternal. When we make the walls, we note that the bottles get dry, but they won’t get wrecked. So, if we cover them with, let’s say, 1cm of plaster, they won’t be exposed to the sun and thus last forever. If they’re not covered, I calculate that they could last for 150, 200 years.” I cannot help but be amazed how such  simple processes can be so effective. But there is still more  to keep me in awe.

As I’m taken around the “Bottle House,” Alfredo continues his story. His grin opens up even more as he speaks. His speech is well-measured and precise. Quite eloquent, I would even say. His objective now is to disseminate his construction technique to whomever may need it. He literally makes tours all over Latin America to teach the poor communities how to build houses made out of bottles. So far he’s helped to build 59 houses all over Latin America: “We bring our tools, build a model of the house and teach them the building technique. Let me just tell you, a house, to us poor people, is a cabin, a compartment of 4mx5m, 3mx5m, 4mx8m, all depending of the economic situation. That compartment is divided in two, normally by a curtain. On one side you have the dormitory, where everyone sleeps. On the other side of the curtain you have the common room, the kitchen, the living room, dining room, all in one. It’s not the conventional house with several rooms separated. What we teach is how to build a model that can be expanded by adding one, and then another, and then another. We want to teach them that it’s possible for them to have that conventional house, given  a bit of tenacity and hard work .” A viable solution for housing problems around the world.

One of Alfredo’s  greatest achievement was in the Paraguayan city of Concepcion. He drove the 1200 kilometers in his 1985 Renault 12. When he got there, students had collected more than 18000 bottles. After ten days of work, they had made a 50 m2 house with all the rooms of a normal house. It’s the biggest he’s built and it was declared a building of national interest by the Paraguayan government. It now functions normally as a tourist information office. “This is  a house that I’m really proud of. A lot of young people worked there that learned the construction technique really quickly. And a lot of them brought the knowledge back to their places and even used it to build  green houses, for cultivation, since the material  is translucent, so that the sunlight can come in.  For me it was a fantastic experience, it gave me true joy! The people, once they learn it, they’ll never forget, it’s like riding a bike.”

To finance his ventures, he accepts donations and he opened a museum house in Iguazu. And the  bottle house construction model is not enough, his inventiveness goes even further. He came up with a lot of products that can help people all over the world. All of them are made using recycled products, from shopping bags made out of plastic stripes to children’s toys made with cans and bottle sofas – the range of this man’s creativity is immense. My personal favorite of his creations is in fact a very practical one. According to Alfredo, one of the poor peoples’ greatest problems is that they normally sleep on the floor, even if with a small mattress. “Humidity gets the best out of your health, especially for children growing up. To face this problem, he used plastic bottles to make a kind of Sommier bed. An innovative and pioneering idea that solves such a simple but serious problem.

Finally we reach the end of our tour. Alfredo is currently building his greatest project. A house built with 24000 bottles. A spacious place, with all the commodities of a comfortable home, so visitors can admire that it is possible to live well in an environmentally friendly construction.

As a curious traveller, I can’t express how lucky I feel for having found  this man. This encounter has filled me with hope and my faith in human kind has been  completely restored. Such generosity and such humbleness. At the same time such boldness and tenacity to overcome the difficulties of life using creativity, imagination, skill and talent. One can simply not be indifferent to something like this. I must thank Alfredo, not only for receiving me with kindness and patience. But for something far more valuable than that. For giving me hope that the future might be brighter.

Unforgettable moments in South America…

Today I leave South America… Looking back I can’t help but to feel blessed to have felt the land of this Continent. When I came ashore in Cartagena, Colombia I knew immediately that I would fall in love and that its people would give me something too valuable, irreplaceable in my heart – the broadening of horizons and the loving of simple things in life. From the smile of a Bolivian lady, to the wisdom of a Chilean man, passing by the eloquent chats at St. Moritz cafe in Bogota, not mentioning the heartfelt hospitality of Rio… those were fragments of time that will be carved forever on the walls of my mind. I can’t but feel… maybe nostalgic is the right word, I can’t be sad. I know Buenos Aires, that I’ll be once again walking down Av. 9 de Julio… Rest assured Medellin, that I’ll be once again lost in the maze of Vallejuelos… Don’t you worry Dona Celia, I’ll come back to your breath taking Copan building in your lovely Sao Paulo… I can’t be sad… Because I will soon set the sails of my eyes to a place I’ve always wanted to set foot upon… Australia, wait for me… I’ll soon let you embrace me… To whom my paths have crossed, and you DO know who you are, my big, HUGE thank you, for coloring my ways, for making my sceneries alive… Travelling does make me real, it’s the paradox in my thoughts…

Until next time Argentina!

Buenos Aires… The city of Gardel and Piazzolla, Tango and “La Bombonera”, of Milongas danced by the gloaming sunsets of San Telmo. A city of grandeur, of imposing traits, but also tasty to wander around. People seem to move in elegant, straight ways, intense in their strut and gestures. I enjoy the fact that the Porteño seems to be not overly nice and not overly rude… Just normal, perfect for the anonymous traveller, for the passerby. Today, the grey replaced the Blue of the skies, but the feet are restless, eager for asphalt… Time to go…

Buenos Aires, let me be yours!

After Brazil and its homey feel, your faithful scribe hits the road again. I leave São Paulo behind,
its skyscrapers saying goodbye. The idea of eighteen hours of travel is not that bad. I actually feel eager for it. It’s a little strange when you start thinking like that. But at the same time that’s the urge to move. I’m starting to get hooked on moving. Can’t stay put for too long. Iguazu awaited and its glorious falls. After that Buenos Aires. The need to be restless and the need to feel the
road underneath, devouring miles is a reality… I can live with it.. Buenos Aires, let me be yours!