Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Pilgrimage

I had heard about December 8th nearly from the moment I got to Paraguay. December 8th is the day that thousands of Paraguayans walk from their homes to the city of Caacupe (the capital of the department that I live in) to attend special masses and to pray to the Virgin of Caacupe. Many people make special prayer requests and then do the walk as a show of their faith. Those who live very far away start walking as early as the 5th of December. Not living that far from Caacupe, it occurred to me that it would be something I’d want to do – just for the experience. As it got closer, I sort of lost the desire to take part. Later, I thought, well, of course, I should do this at least once. I asked my friend Julie if she was planning on doing the walk and she told me a group of friends from her town (Altos) were planning on going and she was going to go along, and that I should go along as well.

The plan was to leave Altos around 6PM and to walk (about 5 hours) through a neighboring town, taking shortcuts through the rural parts of that town. I was relieved at this plan because had we walked along the main road it would have taken us about 13 hours instead of the more reasonable sounding 5. We departed on time and despite the sun’s presence, the heat was not unbearable. The sun quickly went down and we found ourselves in darkness as we walked along dirt roads that were dusty, uneven and filled with holes, frogs and other creatures of the night. I had brought along my headlamp – or thought I had. When I went to get it out of my backpack, it was nowhere to be seen. Undaunted by this setback, I took out my cell phone, which has a small little light embedded in it. We used this to light our way though it only barely showed us where the road had potholes and such.

There were 7 of us in the group, two couples and three additional women including myself and Julie. The third woman, was my constant companion and we chatted endlessly about the US and Paraguay and our plans for the summer. We stopped around 8:30 and took a break, drinking and eating and basically trying to replace some lost energy. We were around the halfway point then and though we weren’t exhausted, many of us were definitely starting to feel our muscles tighten up and some were already tending to blisters and sores on their feet.

We marshaled on and finally came to the main road (an asphalt road) where we passed hundreds of people who’s destination was evidently the same as our own. There were also police lined all along the roadway, helping direct traffic and ensuring that the crowds stayed under control. The high spirits and energy that we had started out with were definitely depleted and though we were close to our goal, it did little to help us quicken our steps.

Some in our group hoped to see a bit of the midnight mass so when we were about 20 minutes away from the Cathedral in Caacupe, and it was only 11:30, we decided to take another break. Some in our group refreshed with beer others, myself included, were contented just to people watch. Already at this point, there were people who were camped out and sleeping on the sidewalks and alleyways. As the time for the mass approached, we continued on our way. The closer we got to the church, the more the crowds intensified. In addition, vendors selling everything from street food to “the Virgin of Caacupe” t-shirts and tank tops lined the way. To Julie and I, it seemed more like an evening street fair than a holy or religious pilgrimage.

We arrived at the church and I was astounded at how many people there were – not just people milling about or those trying to take part in the mass, but hundreds
sleeping along the roads, sidewalks and steps of the church. Julie wanted to try to take some pictures so we pushed our way into the crowd just outside the church. We all went in together, like a train of school children – each person holding tightly to the shirt of the person in front of them. This was one of those occasions where being a person of small stature came as a huge disadvantage. Not only could I not see anything, I felt incredibly claustrophobic in the mass of people around me. People were pushing both to get closer to the church and to escape the crowd in front of the church. I felt myself being pushed from every direction. Our group finally made the decision to leave and the pushing then intensified. For 5-10 seconds at a time, I found my back and chest constricted virtually cutting off my breath. Scared and frustrated, it was with an immense amount of relief that I was able to finally escape with my friends back into the streets.

One of the guys in our group then began chatting on his cell phone. It turned out he had a friend who was willing to come to pick us up. I was VERY relieved. The buses after all were going to be standing room only – and the trip home would take at least 40 minutes. We were all so tired, I don’t think any of us were up to standing on a bus for that long. The problem was that most roads were closed to traffic, so we’d have to walk a bit out of town to be able to meet up with our ride. When we got to the meeting place, it turned out that the police were not letting any traffic pass by. We would have no choice but to get on a bus to go further down the road. The bus we got on was beyond packed and I’m not sure why were allowed to get on. The driver pointed at a place that I could sit, in the US we would call this place the dashboard, but here in Paraguay, I suppose it was an opportunity not to stand! I insinuated myself into the nook in the dashboard and we headed on down the road. After about 15 minutes we arrived at our new meeting spot. That too, however was blocked off. Yet another bus ride (this one much less crowded) took us to the place where we finally met up with our friend’s friend.

I was so happy to finally see an end to the long evening that I barely noted the size of his car. It was made to seat 5 and we were 7, not including the driver. We all piled in, five in the back (three across the seat in the back and two of us sitting on laps) and the final two sharing the front passenger seat. Not comfortable, but at least we were on our way. It was around this time that I chuckled to myself (probably giddy with exhaustion) and thought about Murphy’s law. It was now about 1:30 in the morning and I was figuring, if all went well, I could be asleep within 30 minutes. Of course, all did not go well. Within a few minutes of getting underway, the driver complained about something and the next thing I knew, we were all out of the car looking at a flat tire. Two of our friends, along with the driver, worked on replacing the tire and within another 30 minutes we were once again underway. A few minutes into the drive with the new tire, we stopped at a gas station. I thought this was weird as the gas station was closed. Two of the guys we were with argued this last point and one finally said something like, nah, the guy is sleeping in there. Well, I figured that we needed gas or to check on the tire or something – especially if it was worth waking up the attendant. But no, what we (apparently) needed was beer. Oh well, it was just one of those nights….

We finally arrived back to Julie’s place around 3 am. Funny – it took us 5 hours to walk to Caacupe (on foot) and nearly 3 hours to get back (with a car). Going to see the Virgin turned out a lot different than I had imagined and it was a much longer night than I could have ever anticipated. I was glad (as I nearly always am) to have had this unique experience but for once in a long while, decided that once was enough and this is one Peace Corps volunteer that will not be walking again next year!

1 comment:

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