Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Virgen of Urcupina

During the week-long festival of the Virgin Quillacollo, pilgrims walk the 14 kilometers from Cochabamba, Bolivia to Quillacollo. There, they ascend the nearby Calvario hill, where the Virgin supposedly appeared, and use hammers to break rocks that represent money. People carry the rocks home with them, as a loan from the Virgin. These are said to help people earn money during the year. They must bring the rocks back the following year or bad things will happen to them.

When I went to the Calvario hill myself, I saw that pilgrims weren’t the only people to come collect rocks. People of varying levels of faith and physical strength, some with no faith at all, joined the gathering. By 9:45 a.m., when I took a taxi there, traffic was bumper to bumper and the hill already teemed with people. The land below was made into impromptu parking lots, charging $1.25 for 8 hours parking. Yellow and blue tents dotted the hillside, making it look like a shantytown.

I followed the crowds and moved slowly through the dense masses. On either side of those ascending the hill, vendors sold fake money – “Dollars! Bolivianos!” they called out, “$1000 for one boliviano!” – models of houses and stores, and toy cars. These represented people’s wishes for the next year (notably I didn’t see any dolls or babies, I guess this isn’t a fertility rite). People bought these items on the holy hill, carried them with them as they collected rocks or obtained benedictions, then took them home until next year with the hopes that they would become reality.

The website of the Virgin’s festival warns of the dangers of seeing the festival as an opportunity to ask for more and more material goods. It urges people to renew their compromises with the demands of the faith, especially the call to love one’s neighbor as one loves thyself.

However, the popular impression is that the religious faithful are in the minority. “Twenty percent of the people who go there are faithful,” my taxi driver estimated. “The other 80% are there for the celebration, to drink and have a good time.” A banner hanging over the toll booth entering Quillacollo read “Let’s Celebrate Without Excess,” and urged people to avoid too much alcohol and to take care about sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.

Celebratory materials – hats, confetti, streamers and notably, firecrackers – filled the hillside. Indigenous men wearing woven hats with earflaps burned herbs over charcoal, sprinkled on some streamers or confetti, and enjoined people together with rope as they gave benedictions. Then there was the food – cotton candy, ice cream, giant vats of chicken parts cooked in oil, donuts, chicha, beer. The scents of sugar, bouillon and fermentation mixed with the scent of earth and wool.

The further up the hill I moved, the more consistent became the pops, bangs and plumes of smoke from firecrackers, like shots of gunfire ringing out all over the mountain – or like dynamite breaking apart the rock and revealing riches. Dust from breaking rock floated into the air and settled on my tongue.

As I reached the top, I realized the land was divided into pits. Families would select a pit where they’d hang out for a while. There, they used the hammers available for rent to bang apart the rock. They poured beer onto the ground and drank the remainder. They used their confetti, streamers and fireworks to light off a signal of thanks. Sometimes they used the services of a nearby drummer or band. Forming into a circle, they danced to the music.

Locals had warned me to go in the morning, had told me people became drunk, and the environment dangerous as the day went on. At 11 a.m. I already saw some drunk people and could feel how the population was likely to slowly lose control as the sun grew hotter. All around me, I could hear the hollow bang of hammers against rock, with the sudden grapeshot of exploring fireworks. I walked through scents of beer, of sweet fried food, and foul sewage, coming from homemade bathrooms constructed from sticks and flour stacks, manned by entrepreneurs with stacks of bright pink toilet paper.

After taking in the sights, smells and sounds of the experience, I left. The city of Cochabamba was virtually abandoned. An official holiday was declared. The taxi drivers on duty told me almost everyone had gone to Quillacollo. On some streets, there were more dogs than people, with up to ten large mutts hanging around the streets, like so many gangs.

No comments: