Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I said I wouldn’t do it…but I did

Last year I along with my PCV neighbor and friend Julie walked with several of our Paraguayan friends from Julie’s site of Altos to the capital city of Cordillera, Caacupe. This walk is a pilgrimage that many Paraguayans do in order to satisfy a promise made to the Virgin Mary. Last year I vowed that once was enough and that, I would not repeat the experience. My friend Joan, though, wanted to walk and told me about a group of volunteers that were getting together to do the walk and perhaps we could join them. I figured, what the h-e-double hockey sticks, it will be my last opportunity to do so – at least for the next few years.

I went to the Peace Corps Office to meet up with Joan and with a few other people that had to transit through Asuncion. We left the office around 4 PM in order to meet up with the rest of our walking team at the tollbooth in the city of Ypacarai. From that point, we would walk about 18km or 11.19 miles. We met up with our friends and began to walk around 6:30 PM. We got to a favorite PCV food-joint around 8:30PM – not great timing given the relative closeness of the restaurant to our starting point, though given the thousands of people walking right along with us, it was just about the best we could do. We all had a nice dinner and then set off en serio for the rest of our walk.

Our big group separated into two smaller groups, one taking its time (this was my group) and another one who walked at a fast clip in order to make it to the Basilica in Caacupe in time for midnight mass. My group consisted of my good friends Joan, Courtney, and Brad. We walked along, telling funny stories, people watching and just trying to be in the moment. We took some pictures and stopped along the way to buy fruit juice, chipa, and water.

We arrived in Caacupe with time to spare before the midnight mass (a total of about 5 hours walking), but decided to stop by my friend Celeste’s house to freshen up, take a potty break and rest up a bit. We picked ourselves up off the floor and attempted to find our friends who were already gathered in the basilica courtyard watching the mass. Tried as we might, we could not find our friends. Resigned to stay the night at Celeste’s house, we decided to go back and rest and try again for the 6 AM mass. We crashed, literally, on the floor of Celeste’s roomy house while she and her cousin’s sold Paraguayan style burgers, soda, and beer outside her home. The other part of our original group had satisfied their “Virgin of Caacupe” promise and left shortly after the mass. Within an hour or two of arriving back at Celeste’s home, two separate distinct groups of volunteers joined us. They had also spent the last few hours walking and were equally exhausted. While Celeste and her family provided food and drink to the horde of people in town, we compared stories and adventures from our evening and then eventually fell into deep sleep.

Joan and I awoke around 5:30 AM to find Courtney and Brad gone. We assumed they had gotten up to attend the 6 AM mass. Joan and I had lost our enthusiasm for the event and decided to head for home. December the 8th is the official day to honor the Virgin of Caacupe and we thought the sooner we got out of town the better. If the night before had seen thousands upon thousands of people walking, surely the “official” walking day would be worse. Tired and sore, we set out to find buses that would take us home. It took about an hour’s walk before we saw the first buses. To say they were full is an understatement. People were stuffed into buses so that there were people literally smashed against the windows. Some were even crammed between the windshield and dashboard. Men were hanging out of the bus doors – many remaining open to accommodate the “stair standers.” Every bus that passed our way looked the same. Another hour of walking and we saw the buses dwindle until we got to the bus terminal to find thousands of people waiting for empty buses.

Joan, now limping and fading quickly was at her limit as was I. We decided to head back to Celeste’s, rest up and figure out a new way out of town. We got back to find our friends had returned and were attempting to catch up on their sleep. Joan and I soon joined them. Beyond exhausted, I just couldn’t sleep so I went to chat to Celeste about possible alternatives for getting out of town. She made a phone call and voila, her uncle was on his way to rescue us. While we waited for her uncle to come and pick us up in his truck, we sang a few rounds of Karaoke ate some brunch and celebrated our triumphant walk to honor the Virgin of Caacupe. When Celeste’s uncle turned up, we were more than ready to get the heck out of Dodge. We found ourselves – despite the exhaustion, happily singing old sitcom songs like the tune from Gilligan’s Island and the Brady Bunch. When dropped at our desired location, we all agreed, the walk had been a success. So…the lessons learned are as follows: never say never and never judge all experiences by one bad one.

I hope you enjoyed these photos. Take care and in this season of thanks, I thank you for your support!