“Why did you stop work on the hotel?” I ask.
He pauses and smiles politely. “In a small place, you can have disagreements easily,” he says. “They’re expecting us to be financially independent, but that’s not easy here.” The Messiahs, it seems, don’t always see eye-to-eye on the best way to reduce their dependence on member donations. Some want to concentrate on agribusiness and scrap the ecotourism idea. The hotel is unfinished because they aren’t sure whether opening the place to outsiders is a good idea.
We walk on, past planted fields of lemongrass, oranges, mangoes, grapefruit, asparagus, sugarcane. The crops are struggling. If agriculture alone is expected to support the colony, there are some kinks to work out. The men have planted thousands of jatropha trees, which can be used to make biodiesel fuel, but hundreds of parrots zeroed in on them and ate all the fruit. During the most recent wet season, rising waters flooded many of the thousands of neem trees.
“It’s been a hard year,” Mister Date admits. “A lot of things have died because they were three months underwater.”
It’s clear that these guys have faith in miracles, and that’s exactly what’s needed here in Puerto Leda. Without one, the Victorious Holy Place seems destined to be another curious monument to human ambition and folly. But watching how hard the Messiahs work, I can’t help but admire their tenacity. The fanaticism that underlies their devotion to this cause must burn hot, but they hide it well. They’re not evangelical. They’re friendly and welcoming to those who don’t share their beliefs. They’re reflexively humble and generous and—whatever I might think of their motives—admirably tough. They’re underdogs. The kind of guys you root for.
During the last hours of my visit, Mister Date shows me something that might actually work out. “Japanese yams,” he announces, staring down at a plot of tilled soil. “They grow very large underground, up to 10 kilograms. They do well here.”
My immediate impulse is to celebrate this victory with hearty congratulations. I’m thrilled for his indefatigable yams. Maybe all the sweat that Mister Date has sunk into this plot will bear a little fruit. Maybe little victories like this can help other people in the Pantanal live richer lives. Maybe that’s enough.
Mister Date stares down at the dirt. “Unfortunately,” he says, “they taste very bad.”