Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Personal Pilgrimage

35 kilometers, or about 21 miles, that seemed like an attainable goal from the balcony our group stood on while posing for our pre-pilgrimage photo.  At about mile 13 I started to question my sanity and wonder if the fresh mango I picked off the tree for breakfast or the water I had drank that morning had altered my judgement.
Pre-Pilgrimage Enthusiasm

We hit the road at five in the afternoon, just as the sun started to dip, with plans to arrive at the Cathedral of Caacupe by midnight. As we marched along in good spirits the unrelenting rays of the sun stung our faces and we sweated our way into the night.  As soon as dusk fell we were joined on the trail by more and more pilgrims.  Thousands were making their way to either give thanks for a miracle that had occurred in the past year or ask for one.  I spoke with several Paraguayans who were walking for the health of a family member or to thank the virgin for the miraculous recovery of their sick infant or mother who was diagnosed with cancer.  Some walked for hours, others for days in converse and flip-flops with nothing more than a thermos for ice-cold terere and perhaps a baby in their arms.  Amazed by the asceticism of these light travelers, I did not regret wearing my hiking shoes and carrying a backpack full of provisions as we grew weary after several hours in.

Sunset along the Pilgrimage

Eight hours later we crested the hill leading down to the cathedral and witnessed the fireworks exploding in the distance to mark the stroke of midnight.  We missed our goal but hobbled down the hill into the crowed about half an hour later.

The sea of people was hardly navigable in our large group and we tried not to lose each other as we snaked through the crowded streets filled with vendors of all kinds.  T-shirts, crafts, wood carvings, fans, and figurines of all sizes of the virgin of Caacupe anointed the streets.  Mothers with children, grandparents and teenagers slept on the sidewalks, some with bamboo mats and a sheet, others with nothing but the clothes they wore and their shoes still on, undisturbed by the flow of activity and clearly exhausted by the long trek from their unknown starting points.  We made it to the cathedral to witness the last part of the midnight mass, where the sea of tightly packed people insisted on shaking each of our hands and offered welcoming benedictions as we stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the ceremony.
The Basilica of Caacupe

Just two streets over there was a huge festival with make-shift restaurants and bars in the streets, carnival rides and betting games of all times.  Smells and sounds drifted through the hot humid air from all directions.  Men gathered around big roulette tables placed their bets with gregarious gestures and threw back bottles of beer.  Children dodged in and out of the crowds, running to see the next diversion.
Litter Along the Pilgrimage

The dualities of the holiday were compelling.  On one side a devout religious ceremony on the other a heathen ruckus.  Along the path people spoke of the reverence they felt for the miracles the virgin had provided while they carelessly tossed plastic cups from the water stations into the ditch leaving piles of trash in their wake.  It made me reflect on the Thanksgiving party that I had attended only a week before with about 60 other volunteers, which resembled something more like spring break Cancun than a day of giving thanks.
View from the Thanskgiving Party at Hotel Triol 

Thanksgiving Ads in Encarnacion
Pondering these contradictions and the past few busy work weeks have delayed me from posting this experience in a timely manner.  As Christmas and the New Year approach I look forward to participating in other holiday traditions here in Paraguay, keeping in mind that the tendency to vacillate between opposing ideas, beliefs and worlds is a human reality and is a place I find myself in from time to time. While I will be thinking about my family and friends in the states I will be sharing the holidays with my Paraguayan host family, hoping that my presence is felt in both places.

We made it!