Tradition and Confection

Trip Start Aug 19, 2010
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Saturday, April 23, 2011

A good friend once told me that one of the joys of traveling is observing other people, wondering about how they live their lives, wondering if they also look at me and wonder how I live my life (footnote 1).

I suppose this is particularly evident during religious holidays and festivities, during those times when tradition is involved.  This is when massive numbers of people get out and gather together, giving you grand examples and manifestations of local customs.  I was in Arequipa during Semana Santa (Holy Week, for those of you who are Castellano-illiterate).  I'd heard of parts of Ecuador and Bolivia where Semana Santa was a huge deal, but for better or worse, I found myself in Arequipa.

I asked around - agents at the tourist offices in town, the front-desk-girls at the hotel I was staying at, people on the street - about what kinds of things happen during Semana Santa in Arequipa and most of them told me that in comparison with the rest of Latin America Arequipa's Semana Santa is fairly quiet and tame.  But, each of them added, the highlight is Vierenes Santo (Good Friday) when people from Arequipa and the surrounding towns take to the streets to visit at least 13-14 churches around the central part of town (I didn't get confirmation on this, but I was thinking that the fact that they have to make a sort of mini-pilgrimage to that many churches is somehow related to the stations of the cross).

I was told that the festivities start around sundown, when the churches, most of which are normally closed to the general public, open up and display their finest wares and decorations specifically for Viernes Santo.  Some even open their reliquaries to exhibit whatever precious holy objects are housed within them.  I made my way to the center of town just as the sun was waning behind the mountains surrounding the city.  I decided to start in the big church in the main square.  When I got there, I realized that all the folks I talked to earlier weren't kidding: there was a huge line waiting for the gates to open.  When the gates finally did open, a flood of people crammed into the church in a mad rush.  Some looked like they intended to stay for mass (by rushing to secure seats for themselves and laying down coats in adjacent pews to save them for friends and relatives), while others looked like they just wanted to pass through to complete the first leg of the circuit.  I entered through the doors on one side of the cathedral's nave. I tried to stick around for a bit to have a closer look but got swept up in the stream of people who were just passing - and pushing their way - through. 

It was such a melee that I started to feel overwhelmed by it all.  It was chaotic and noisy and confusing.  I'd look one way and see a little old lady, stopped in the middle of the rushing stream of bodies, wildly crossing herself and looking like she was having a rapturous experience, all the while oblivious to the commotion around her - and the traffic jam she was creating by stopping in the middle of the aisle.  Then I'd look another way and see a young father, with a toddler on his shoulders, pushing his way through as fast as he could; his kid is hitting him on the head and yelling at him to slow down so he can see the display at the altar, but he seemed undeterred in his mission to get through to the other side as quickly as possible as he coaxes forward the people in front of him with his elbows (his hands are otherwise occupied holding on to his kid's ankles).   And then I'd look in yet a different direction and see a mixed group of 4 or 5 teen-aged, too-cool-for-school kids who were too busy paying attention to each other that they never once look up to the altar or even cross themselves; there were no adults with them so I suspected that they convinced their parents that they were old enough to make the religious pilgrimage on their own, but really, they just wanted the chance to run freely around town with their friends all night.

Before I knew it, the stream of people had thrust me out the doors directly opposite those from where I entered.  While I wanted to stick around to see the beginning of the mass, I was kind of relieved to have made it outside.  One down, 13 more to go.  I didn't have a map with me, so I wasn't quite sure where to go next.  Fortunately, the path onward to the next church seemed clear: all I needed to do was follow the streets where vendors had set up shop.  The route looked like a flea market, with folks hawking candles, religious-themed trinkets (some were fashioned from dried fruits and vegetables), sweets and confections, hot tea of all varieties, and anything else you can think of…socks, batteries, TV remote controls. 

I finally made it to the next church and the next and the next.  The experience each time was the same - it was messy and confusing and rushed.  It amazed me each time I saw someone looking like they were having a transcendental, ecstatic experience amidst all of the chaos because I myself was too busy focusing on not being pushed into candle-laden tables or shrubbery.

After passing through my fourth or fifth church, I decided to stop and sit down.  There was a stretch of road next to one of the churches that was lined with food and drink stalls.  I stopped to sit on one of the benches and asked the round lady across the table from me for a serving of whatever she had cooking in a broad pot.  A plate full of mystery meat then appeared before me.  It looked and smelled flavorful; I dipped my finger in the sauce so I could have a taste and it was proper spicy, which was an exciting change from all the bland food I'd been eating for many weeks before.  I dug in.  To my surprise, the mystery meat ended up being entrails.  I knew this right away because I chewed and chewed and chewed and the rubbery, square piece of mystery meat refused to break down in my mouth.  When I was finally able to get it down, I asked the round lady if this dish was traditional for this particular festivity.  It instantly became clear to her that I was a Tourist McTour, and she let out a sigh followed by an unconvincing yes - in my head, however, it sounded more like she was saying "sure, why not".  She didn't seem like she wanted to chat, so I just got back to the arduous task of chewing through the rest of the spicy viscera in front of me, taunting me.  It probably took me another 10 minutes to chew through the remaining 3 pieces of mystery meat on my plate.

I moved over to another bench off to the side, where warm, steamy drinks were being served.  I was offered either a fruity drink or a milky drink (I now forget what the drinks were called).  I opted for the milky one.  The woman at this stall then asked if I wanted her to prepare the drink with a spirit of some kind. I thought about it for a second, but was convinced when she said that it would help that much more for warming myself up for the rest of the cold trek through the city.  She then grabbed a kind-of-dirty cup and plunged her entire hand, up to the wrist, into a vat (more like a recycled paint bucket) full of the milky drink and topped it off with a shot of clear liquid from an unmarked bottle before serving the still-kind-of-dirty cup to me.  It was actually pretty good: a little sweet, a little herb-y, a little cinnamon-y.   I could sense that the woman at this stall was a bit more chatty than the last, so I asked my generalized question again about whether these drinks were traditionally served during Holy Week.  She mentioned that, for the most part, yes, but the drinks were also served on other, non-special days.  I told her that it seemed odd that people were gulping down these spirited drinks as they were going from church to church.  I tried (but I don't know why) explaining that, to me, it seemed like it was some strange version of a pub-crawl - like the whole event could be seen as some kind of holy, Peruvian church-crawl.  Unfortunately, as good as my Spanish had become, I still lacked the ability to describe the concept of a pub-crawl properly, so my ramblings were met with uncomfortable, that's-nice-but-I-don't-understand-you nods and smiles.

I made it to maybe a couple more churches before stopping - I'd already gotten the point of it, so there was no need to jostle my way through a half dozen other churches.  I headed back to the main square, stopping at (i'm not going to lie) several other drink stalls, and picking up whatever treats looked particularly tasty, along the way.  By the time I got to the square I was close to making myself sick from all of the chocolate-covered confections I'd consumed on my way back to the main square.  I sat in the square for a while just observing what was going on and watching people live their lives.  The square was now full of people of all ages, sitting around eating cotton candy, watching street performers reenact the arrest of Jesus, and chatting with each other.  After a little while, I had an uncharacteristic-of-me thought: it's Good Friday - these people should be more serious about their traditions and the masses that they should be sitting in on rather than just hanging out having fun in the square.  Anyway, I don't know why I suddenly had that thought because I know why most people were out having fun rather than sitting at mass.

In all the hoopla that went on that evening, I doubt any of the Arequipenos looked at me and wondered how I spent Holy Week in my own home.  But if any of them were able to experience my Holy Week as I was fortunate enough to experience theirs, they would see many of the same things if they looked hard enough.  They'd certainly see the devout who come to Holy Week services for the right reasons (maybe having transcendental experiences just like the little old ladies I saw).  But for the most part, they'd see empty, mechanical gestures and...fanfare.  They'd see twice-a-year churchgoers going to services because they feel like they have to or it's tradition that they have to (just like the throngs of people I saw plowing their ways through church entrances and exits, madly trying to complete their 14-church circuits).  They'd see children kept entertained/occupied through Easter egg hunts (just like the kids I saw getting sweet treats from their parents in between churches possibly as rewards for making it through leg after leg of the circuit).  They'd see people squirming in their seats watching poorly-rehearsed cantatas and pageants retelling the story of the crucifixion and resurrection (much in the same way people were watching disinterestedly the reenactment of Jesus' arrest by street performers in the main square).  They'd see tables upon tables of potluck food in 'fellowship halls' (just like the food piled up in stall after stall on the streets).

You get the point.

The one thing that might disappoint Arequipenos about 'Merrican Good Friday, however, is the lack of those damn milky drinks.  I know that I'd enjoy Easter week a hell of a lot more back home if I could sneak a few of those bad boys in between hymns and prayers.

***

Footnote 1: LC, I hope you don't mind me loosely-quoting you and I hope I conveyed the basic gist of what you said to me so long ago - btw, you do have some of the most interesting and self-reflection-inducing insights. But I guess you already know this, no?


***

Reading list: Didn't read.

Playlist: This.  This new album is actually pretty good.  I was a little concerned that this was going to be crappy.

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Until next time.
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