Sunday, April 24, 2011

Semana Sante, San Javier and Olive Oil

Semana Sante, or Holy Week, is the biggest holiday next to Christmas, here in Mexico.  This is one of the few times of the year in this hard working country when almost everyone takes time off to spend with family and friends.  Considering the average work week is five and a half days, with normally only Saturday afternoon and Sunday off, a four or five day weekend is a big deal and, as a result, much of the country shuts down.

Now I certainly don`t work the sort of long hours that are common here, but I decided to take advantage of the slow down and take a day off from the Office on Thursday of this past week.  I had been thinking that it had been over a year since I had taken the drive up to San Javier, and so when some neighbours, who are down for a visit expressed interest in going there the trip was on.

Although I have written about San Javier in the past (The Road to San Javier Mar. `09) there were several reasons I wanted to make a return trip at this time.  First of all, I had heard that there was going to be some sort of “market” there this week and I wanted to check that out.  Secondly, it had been some time since my last trip and I wanted to see what progress there had been on paving the 32 km. road and the electrification project that I had heard about.  So, for those reasons, combined with it being Easter week, this was the time for my overdue return to San Javier.

The Mission Church in San Javier was begun just a few years after the first one was established here in Loreto over 300 years ago.  The Jesuits were looking for better access to water and more arable land than was available here in Loreto.  The Mission building itself was completed in the early to mid 1700`s and is the oldest such building existing in it`s original unrestored condition.  Not incidentally, it is also still in active use for religious services for the surrounding area.

But the destination was only part of the reason for this excursion, the drive itself from the main highway near the town of Loreto, through the desert, into the Sierra del Gigante mountains and beyond, was a big part of the adventure.  Five years ago, my earliest trips to San Javier were over the original unpaved road which was a memorable experience – to say the least!  Then, during the first state election after I started living here, the Governor elect campaigned on the promise of “paving the road to San Javier”.  Three years later during the next election with the road now paved about halfway, the next Governor campaigned on “paving the road to San Javier”.  So, with the imminent arrival of the next Governor, I wanted to see what progress has been made since my last trip.

Paving is a big issue for this road because in early December each year hundreds of pilgrims travel to San Javier from all over the Baja and mainland Mexico to celebrate the Saint`s name day.  Six years ago when I made my first 32 km drive to San Javier the initial quarter was a rough, but adequate gravel road.  The middle half was barely more than 1 lane wide, extremely rough with blind switchbacks as the road twisted through the mountains.  The final quarter remained narrow but was reasonably straight and level as you approached the oasis at San Javier.

A couple of years ago they had managed to pave about half the distance, still short of the most challenging and expensive middle section.  So on this trip, I was excited to see the continuation of the paving to almost 20 km of the way, through most of the section skirting the mountains, just short of where the road straightens out again into San Javier.  Who knows, in one or two more elections the road may indeed be paved all the way!

Paved or not, the road continues to be one of the most breathtaking trips I have taken in the immediate vicinity of Loreto; dipping in and out of oasis valleys, past primitive rancheros through arroyo gullies carved out of solid rock over eons by occasional flash floods caused by infrequent downpours.  But in spite of this exotic terrain, one of the highlights remains the final approach to San Javier which brings you beside a broad shallow riverbed, that even now, 18 months since the last appreciable rainfall, looks bizarrely out of place in the midst of the parched land that surrounds it. 

Water – the reason the Jesuits chose this place over 300 years ago, and in the distance, surrounded by lush green palms, the domed bell tower of the Mission seems to shine as a beacon in these harsh surroundings.  It is also here that the new electrical power line that has paralleled the road in places along the trip, now reaches the destination.  Prior to the completion of this line (at a cost of over a million dollars) this tiny hamlet has only had intermittent power supplied by a small community generator.    

As we enter the main street I am struck by the subtle changes since my last visit, a few new buildings and the overall impression that San Javier has been spruced up with the arrival of power.  There are a couple of new stores and a second restaurant across from the Mission building.  I am also struck by the fact that, while there are perhaps double the “usual” number of visiting vehicles parked around the square in front of the Mission, this was fewer than I had expected during this Holy Week at one of the most significant shrines in this part of the Baja.

Following a respectful visit inside the Mission, where we signed the Guest Book full of entries from near and far and I took a few non-flash pictures, we made our way a couple of hundred yards behind the massive stone walls, through irrigated fields of onions and beans to a natural wonder.  When the missionaries arrived here over 300 years ago one of the first things they did was plant a grove of olive trees some of which still survive with trunks 30 or 40 feet in diameter!

Returning to the small square, we stopped to look at some of the hand-crafts on display and for sale, which apparently comprised the “market” I had heard about and, as we were doing this, we heard about a demonstration of crushing olives for oil that was going to take place across the square.  During the course of this demonstration I was amazed to learn that there were over 300 Olive trees in the groves around the Mission, that were tended by one of the oldest families in the community.  From these trees they harvested 20 tons of olives between September and December, some of which were prepared for eating and the remainder crushed for their oil.

Over the past several years the extended family here in San Javier had slowly relearned the process of producing oil from the olive fruit, largely based on recollections from their youth and Mexican intuition.  I learned that the harvested olives, which appear to be partially dried and withered, are crushed whole (the pit contains oil too).  Then the crushed fruit and pits are packed tightly into a small cast iron press (that was adapted from making adobe bricks) and gradually squeezed under great pressure to produce a dark olive-brown oil – two litres of oil from a packed five gallon bucket of olives and pits.

This oil is then strained slowly through a tightly woven cotton sleeve once or twice until the colour of the remaining oil is a pale yellowish green.  After sampling a little of this freshly squeezed oil I bought a small bottle of it for 80 pesos (about $6.50) and will look forward to enjoying it with a loaf of fresh baked bread!

I also visited a Dulceria, or sweet shop and bought some Papaya preserved in syrup and we found the perfect hat for my neighbours mother Molly – just the thing for the upcoming Royal Wedding?  We then headed back through the desert, retracing our earlier route and enjoying the view back towards the Sea of Cortez.  Just before rejoining the main highway, we stopped for Cheeseburgers at Del Borrachos - a perfect ending to trip.

Reflecting on it afterwards, this drive to San Javier was a good reminder of the progress that has happened over the years that I have been here.  While at times the pace of change has appeared to be slow, sometimes frustratingly so, seeing the beautiful road opening up this isolated community, making it much more accessible to many more people, and bringing with it the electrical power we all take for granted, which will accelerate the rate of change in the future.  Yet part of me misses the experience and adventure of the old road, and I am glad that was the way I saw San Javier first.

Celebrating progress – and missing what it replaces – that is a conflict that I think will become much more frequent for those of us lucky enough to be “Living Loreto”.