Hello and Happy Easter to everybody! I write from below a huge plume of ash from our beloved volcano, who is erupting like it is going out of style. Even my complacency is starting to get rattled a bit, and I am wondering how stupid we all are to be living under this awakening monster. But it is so easy to forget, with all the sunshine and flowers and fruits and breezes.
Baños so easily resembles paradise.
Today is one of the busiest days of the year, with thousands of vacationers filling the streets and devouring the treats. It is colorful and circusy. Everyone is selling something, from coconut juice to taffy, to wind-up plastic chickies. The photographers have hauled out their dusty, crooked ponies. Gigolos are out cruising. Even brigades of beggars show up from who-knows-where to thrust out their open palms. I am enjoying being a spectator.
On Holy Thursday I joined a local tradition the procession from Ambato to Baños. Thursday night i walked with thousands upon thousands of pilgrims who made the overnight journey through 50 kilometers of mountain roads. It was absolutely, mind numbingly exhausting – at times up hills steep enough to make you grunt, then down pebbly declines that made you slip and jog. Hours and hours and hours we walked by the light of the full moon.
It was longer than a marathon. I was slow. I was like a stone in thick river full of black haired Ecuadorians, flowing past me in purposeful strides. I don’t know how they all went so fast, when my legs were on fire. Armies of teenagers passed by, turning to look over their shoulders at me and say “Gringa,” in case I wasn’t aware that I was different. Everyone passed me – the elderly, the children, the heavily laden. I told myself that it was like the tortoise and the hare, and slowly but surely I would stride by them. Then a guy with no legs passed me. And I reminded myself that it wasn’t a race.
What would bring ten thousand people together to walk all night through the mountains? Ostensibly it is a Catholic tradition for Holy week, but there was hardly a cross in sight. Actually that was kind of disappointing to me, because I had been anticipating a mass of supplicating weirdos, flagellating themselves and crawling on all fours over drops of blood from their crowns of thorns. Maybe those folks were somewhere in the giant river of pilgrims, but I never saw them. Around me were just normal people, occasionally lugging boom boxes and playing horrid reggeaton mixes. And of course, vendors galore.
They do this procession every year. Nobody I spoke to could say exactly how this started, or why it continues. When I asked how long this has been going on, I was only told ” Oh, always”, and there seemed no record of its beginning. There appears to be no official organization. There is no prize, no winner or loser or bragging rights of commemorative T shirt. People just do it. It is amazing.
As I looked over the endless sea of marchers, I had hours to contemplate how this would NEVER happen in America. The closest thing we have is a Marathon, which is always approached with some degree of vanity of pride, and requires a dedication that would never permit it to be this casual or inclusive. I don’t think that any religious movement in the US still has the power to motivate a local movement of this volume. And sadly we have become indifferent enough about the world that we wouldn’t even manifest like this for protest or peace or politics. And certainly the idea of just doing it for recreation is absurd. It makes me sad that in the US we just lack this splendid energy to come together and MOVE.
I began the procession with old friends, quickly lost them in the crowd, and made some new ones. An older woman named Maria was doing the walk for the fifth time. She was walking with her 10 year old grandson, who practically had to jog to keep up. We had hours to talk, and walk in silence together. She told me that she had 10 children, but that five of them went to Spain, and they forget about her. She said that they come back to Ecuador and they don’t fit in anymore. They get used to a different life, with more money, an then they can never really come home. Some of them don’t even call anymore. It is a sad story that I hear a lot here. The other side of the immigration story – the people left behind.
Her grandson did an admirable job of keeping up the first few hours. But later he was panting and whimpering. He asked through his tears, every five minutes, if we were almost there. Maria was amazing in the way she refused to baby him. “No,” she always said, “Falta muuuuucho”. She was gentle yet uncompassionate, insisting he go on. That crying boy was voicing all of my pains too, as I kept wondering how much farther it could possibly be. Every step burned. At one point I calculated that we had to be through the worst of it, and that just up ahead we would round the corner and see Baños twinkling ahead. I nourished my wounds with the knowledge that we were almost there, until Maria motioned to the next mountain and said ” After that, we will be almost half way”. Argh!
When the little boy doubled up in cramps and had to be dragged, Maria said, “Think of your Uncle! Right now he is walking even farther than this, through the desert with snakes and scorpions. He doesn’t even know if he will live. YOU have no reason to cry.” She was talking about her son who, at the same moment, was sneaking over the Mexican border into the States. He was taking longer than expected, and they were concerned that no one had heard from him. It really struck me, viscerally through my aching limbs, the sacrifices that people make to get into the United States. They have to walk way farther than this, in the desert sun, without enough water, with no guarantees, no cheesy reggeaton music. They can so easily be killed. And for what? To get to be treated like crap in the United States, and leave their mother at home with one less child. Ay!
Eventually the little boy collapsed. He refused to budge. He was hysterical with tears. But we had to keep going forward. So I put him on my shoulders. I, who could hardly place one foot in front of the other, now had to carry a ten year old on my back. I was swaying from side to side, apologizing to all the people I was bumping into. My eyes were practically rolling back in my head. But I was glad to carry him. I thought of all the countless people who have picked me up hitchhiking in recent months, all the homes I have been taken into, all the hospitality. And all the privilege I start off with to begin with, so that I don’t HAVE to sneak across borders and risk my life (I do that voluntarily, for the fun of it!) I felt grateful that I was able to carry this boy and work off a tiny drop of my karma. And strangely, it made me think of Jesus carrying his cross (okay, so the cross is a little bigger) but it ended up, in a circuitous way, leading back to Jesus and Easter, and all those sorts of thoughts that I will not abuse you with. But, funny how I had sort of a religious experience despite myself.
Somewhere before dawn I made it home and collapsed in my bed. For hours the river of pilgrims still streamed by my window. I couldn’t believe how many people did this! In the half asleep haze of the early morning I heard some strange screaming. I hobbled out of bed to the balcony and had a look. There were several bloody men dragging huge crosses up the street, getting whipped to pieces and screaming. God, we Catholics are a weird bunch.