Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pilgrimage Season

pilgrimage n. A journey to a sacred place or shrine. A long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.

December is the month of pilgrimages in Paraguay. Second only to Good Friday, December 8th is the holiest day of the year in Paraguay, the Day of the Virgin of Caacupe. Caacupe is a city located about 2 hours by bus from Asuncion and is home to an old and beautiful cathedral that houses that most famous virgin statue in the country. On December 8th, religious devotees come from all over the country to praise her at the morning mass. They come on foot, by bus, by motorcycle, by car, by bicycle etc... But mostly they walk, that is what makes it a true pilgrimage right? The very definition of a pilgrimage is to suffer for a long duration of time for an “exalted purpose or moral significance”. Many people, in fact, begin their journey a week in advance from the north and walk every day to make sure they arrive on time. Some crawl, some carry crosses, I hear...

Caacupe is about a 4 hour bus ride from Fassardi. I have no idea how long it would take to walk there, maybe two days? So to compensate for our distance from the beloved virgin the citizens of Fassardi and the surrounding towns have established a shrine to the virgin which they have deemed the “virgincita” or “little virgin”. So, instead of walking all the way to Caacupe, Fassardenians walk 5km to the virgincita next to the river. A lot less suffering with the same religious benefits!

When anything really important happens in Paraguay, it must happen at the crack of dawn. So of course we had to start our pilgrimage to visit the virgincita at 4 am. I set my alarm clock for 3:40 am and was all set for my very first pilgrimage, expecting to “suffer” the 5km with my all fellow Fassardenians in the dark. I hoped to see someone doing the pilgrimage on their hands and knees and maybe another carrying a cross on their backs like Jesus, just like the stories I have heard volunteers tell about the walk to Caacupe.

I set off at 4:15 with my next door neighbors, the family that has told me all about the pilgrimage to the virgincita. They say they make a promise every year to her to make this sacrifice. We start walking, all alone. Its dark and very quite. Only the few customary fire works are set off in the distance, but still I am surprised to see we are the only ones undertaking the pilgrimage. I was expecting the street to be filled with quite religious walkers. With no cars on the highway we walk right down the middle. My dog, Maddie, trots along side us. Maddie had been walking on three legs the past five days from a cut on her foot, however, this morning she is walking along normally and happily. Liz, the 17 year old, jokes that Maddie is making the pilgrimage to thank the virgincita for curing her foot and to pray for good health next year. Everyone laughs. Its just like this family to joke during a religious pilgrimage.

I am not Catholic, but I always thought a pilgrimage would be a somewhat severe and internally thoughtful experience. I thought people who embark on a religious pilgrimage would be very pensive and stern. Well, that is not how Paraguayans do pilgrimages. In fact, nothing about this walk in the dark down the highway feels very religious to me. Gustavo, the 16 year old, is playing the latest reggetone and top 40 hits on his cell phone. They ask me to translate the songs in English, one of which just repeates the lyrics, “Party all the time”. Its pretty much the music genre selection for any Paraguayan event, whether it be a 7 year old’s birthday party, a new year’s eve party, a Sunday, or a fundraiser for a mayoral candidate, so why not for a pilgrimage?

We make it the all the way to the river without seeing another human being, in the dark, down the middle of the highway. Once at the river we go to the little structure that houses the statue of the virgincita. Her altar has been freshly painted bright blue and decorated. The decorations remind me of a little kid’s birthday party, with brightly colored streamers and balloons.
About 10 people stand in front of the altar and are singing religious hymns in Guarani. We join the group. Every once in a while someone lights a candle and places it in front of the statue or offers flowers.
After about 10 minutes everyone is tired of signing and they sit down on the benches next to the altar and begin to chat. People also complain that my dog smells, which she really does. I don’t know what happened between my house and the virgincita but the pilgrimage made her very stinky.
Elisa, the mom, hands out candy from her purse to everyone on the benches. The teenagers wander off and sit on the bridge over the river. An oxcart shows up and starts setting up a food stand for the events that will take place later in the day. That afternoon will be a big party when everyone will come on their motorcycles, play in the river, drink lots of alcohol and sit around in the shade (Adam and I attended last year).
Elisa and Venancio, my neighbors, decide praying time is over after 15 minutes of visiting the virgencita, they gather their brood of teenagers and we set off again back to Fassardi.
By now it is almost 6 am and the sun is bright in the sky and hot. Now we pass many groups of people walking on their way to the virgincita. I guess they didn’t feel it was necessary to get up so early, only my neighbors. Although I will say now it is getting hot and we are sweating, at least the pilgrimage on the way for us was pleasant and cool.

The second most important pilgrimage in Paraguay takes place on December 18th in Itape, Adam’s site. Adam and I attended last year although we did not partake in the customary walk from Villarrica to Itape, about 20 km. We cheated. We arrived the day before by bus and walked from his house once we knew the festivities had begun. Some people say the pilgrimage in Itape is the rural version of the pilgrimage to Caacupe. Caacupe is a big city located on a main highway and Itape is a very small town only accessible by a dirt road and one really old bus. So if Itape is the scaled down version of Caacupe, I cant imagine what it must be like because Itape on December 18th was a full on circus.

Adam and I started walking with the crowd towards all the noise, we had no idea what to expect from the second most important pilgrimage in the country. If no one told us it was the epicenter of a pilgrimage, we never would have known. It looked more like a county fair on crack. The ‘midway’ was packed with every joe schmoe who came trying to sell you anything he could carry. And just like a county fair everything they were selling was all crap, tons of ceramic Winnie-the-poohs, jesus statues, nike tshirts etc..... The vendors seemed endless. And just like the county fair there were games! There were so many strange games Adam and I had to stop to watch and figure out how they were playing. One very popular game, and almost every other stand, had a cage filled with balloons and fan placed underneath which mixed up the balloons. As the player you simply reached in, grabbed a balloon, popped it, and won whatever prize was written on the paper inside it. Adam won me a tiny plastic crocodile.
Also along the way were a discoteque and a bullfighting ring. I had seen a bullfight before in Spain but Adam had not and wanted to experience one. I asked the man at the gate if they kill the bull and he said yes. So we paid our entrance fee and waited for the show to start. However, what we experienced was not a Spanish bullfight, although it had the same name ‘corrida de torros’. This was a bull fight Paraguayan style, it was more like a rodeo. The matadors came out dressed in the traditional garb but both stayed in the ring and proceeded to jump on the bulls back, run and flip and jump on the bull’s back, do double handstands on the bull’s back, and a plethora of other acrobatic moves all involving the bull. Then they would wrestle it to the ground, stand up, hold out their arms and the crowd would cheer them on as masters of the universe. Considering Adam and I were expecting swords, blood, and 6 dead cows, and instead we got 2 men dressed in pink and sequence doing acrobats we laughed hysterically through the whole show. It was very entertaining.

After the rodeo, the games, the vendors, and the sea of people, we had enough and went to bed. When I woke up in the morning I realized I never saw the virgin of Itape, people praying etc… It was a completely non-religious experience for me and was more people taking advantage of a situation to make a buck. It’s a poor country and when people see an opportunity they will take advantage.

I don’t mean to harp on Paraguay’s pilgrimages as “less religious” than what I expect them to be, or maybe what they were in the past, or make them out to be something silly. That is what I thought at first after experiencing them but after thinking about it I have come to a different conclusion, because I know for many people these pilgrimages are still very religious experiences, like my neighbors. After looking up the definition, nowhere does it say a pilgrimage has to be a painful experience, it is just a means to an end. The end being an “exalted purpose or moral significance”. So maybe all the vendors, performers, loud music etc… are just small distractions/obstacles on the path to the higher exalted purpose. I know it is also the result of a poor country that has slowly opened its borders to the globalized economy over the last two decades and now has cheap plastic goods infiltrating the economy like never before, needing someplace to go. This is the pilgrimage of the 21st century.