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Our trip to San Javier

A few weeks ago we took a drive out about 40 minutes to the old Russian colony of San Javier, Uruguay. Any chance we get to check out this foreign land we live in makes me giddy with wonder and adventure! It was a beautiful drive passing through lush farmland, slight rolling of hills, green and open pastures. San Javier is located right on the Rio Uruguay with surrounding campgrounds and one of the Old Believers’ colony, Ofir.

As you drive into San Javier, you are greeted with a banner that welcomes you in Spanish and Russian. The houses are built in the fashion of old village homes in Russia. Bigger-than-life sized Matrooshka dolls are scattered throughout the city and painted in bright and detailed designs. Flowers are planted everywhere and the center park is beautifully landscaped. We stopped a couple of older ladies on the road and conversed with them in perfect Russian. They, like most of the current residents have either moved to Uruguay in their youth or have been born and raised here. They come from the group Новый Израил, (New Israel) who fled religious persecution in Russia in the early 1900s after being denied religious freedoms from the Czar. Much of their culture and religion is said to have been based off of similar practices from the Molokans and Duhoboors, as they all broke away from the Orthodox church. The New Israel group introduced the sunflower as well as other advanced agricultural techniques to Uruguay. Along with constructing their own flour mill, they created the country’s first sunflower oil plant (One of the most popular oils in the grocery store now!).

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In the late 70s, many of the New Israel’s people were harassed by the Uruguayan military as anyone of Russian descent was presumed to support the Soviet Regime. During this time many people dropped the Russian language as books, clothes and artifacts were destroyed. Thankfully a museum dedicated to preserve New Israel’s history and traditions still exists to commemorate the heritage of the New Israel branch of Russian Spiritual Christianity worldwide. The people of San Javier hold a Russian festival every year on July 27 (the date of foundation) to celebrate their heritage as they perform dances, eat traditional meals, wear traditional embroidered clothing and play music.

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Down at the river we meet a nice young couple who are fishing while their daughters are entertaining themselves in the sand. They can speak a few Russian words but for the most part pass for your average looking Uruguayan. The fish they had caught so far looked delicious! We have a plan to go snag ourselves some fishing poles this weekend and start fishing on Saturdays, hopefully the start of family tradition! I don’t know why fish is not sold in the grocery stores here.  A couple times per week a big fish truck comes to Paysandu from Montevideo,  their prices are steep! Uruguayans are lined up to pay top dollar for this fish when they have excellent looking ones to catch right here in the river. Anyways enough about my fish rant.


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Although it’s a perfectly trimmed, clean and one of the most peaceful places I’ve been to in Uruguay as of yet, there are only a few convenience stores and clothes boutiques. We walked into a junk store ran by a nice man named Raphael. He sold some random dishes, clothes, appliances, a big meat saw, shoes, toys, costume jewelry, etc. Most of it appeared to be second hand but his store was clean and the goods were in decent condition. In short, not a very convenient place to live! I’m guessing the major grocery shopping is done in Paysandu or perhaps they buy from the Old Believers in Ofir; who grow many different crops and sell their own cheese/milk/cream.

We headed over to Puerto Viejo which is a camp ground outside of San Javier, also on the river. It’s very nicely kept up with full hookups! As we sat taking it all in, we hear some music floating in the air coming from someone’s little trailer. It’s totally Spanish singing yet has a Russian-folkish twist to the melody. A group of teen boys are down playing in the water. The boys are just throwing around some old ball they found, little girls are fully engrossed in a game with a Tupperware and the sand. We are constantly amazed at how the children in Uruguay can be entertained with very little means and are so calm and behaved in social atmospheres. Everyone is very tranquil and enjoying being with each other. No iphones, no TV’s in the trailers, no magazines, no jet skis. (although sail boats and jet skis are popular in other areas of the river.) The little snack shack in the campground boasts ‘nachinki, piroshki, vareniki, and shashlik’ on their chalkboard.

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While the owner of the snack shack claimed in perfect Russian that she doesn’t speak Russian, I was skeptical!! While speaking Russian freely in the States so people wouldn’t understand us in public was a practice we too often engaged in, we have been warned not to do so here. There are too many Uruguayans that understand the language thanks to the existence of this little colony!

  • Esther Mohoff

    We too went to the town of San Javier and could not believe how clean it was. We also noticed that the residents would probably have to travel to a larger nearby city to do any major food or clothing purchases. All in all though, this city was very pleasant to visit and the main park was perfect to delight young children with the matrooska dolls and beautiful flowers surrounding them. We may take another trip and visit once more. (The drive from Paysandu was maybe only an hour or so and filled with beautiful farmlands. On the road, our drive was interrupted by a large herd of horses.)