Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Search for Serenity

Jesus and the Virgin of Milagro inside Salta's main cathedral. Having recently had my heart thrown to the ground and stomped on by a local girl, sitting in my room moping was about the worst thing I could do. I had slept in, I had finished reading The Rivers Ran East, I had read whatever e-mails were waiting for me in my inbox, responding if necessary, and I had done all the Web surfing I could stand—which wasn't much. Having run out of ways to distract myself, rather than suffering more boredom in the hostel, I decided to head to the park and begin my last book—The Old Patagonia Express, by Paul Theroux. Some fresh air and sunshine would do me good.

After tossing the one-inch-thick paperback into my camera bag and my camera bag onto my back, I headed out. The plan was to go to Parque San Martín, where I could get some peace and quiet. I went in my usual direction—head left out the front door, then take an immediate left on Mitre which turns into Alberdi at Belgrano, where all the cross streets change names. Then I would hang a left on San Martín, the main drag in Salta, walking until I got to the foot of Cerro San Bernardo, a landmark mountain, always looking over the city, always acting as a compass, in case one loses one's bearings. The park stretches for several blocks like a welcome mat in front of the mountain.

Another photographer. I hadn't gone south for one block to Avenida Belgrano before seeing that the road was mostly blocked with people. Cops were standing guard, holding ropes, some people were holding Roman Catholic paraphernalia, while others were squeezing through the corners of the crowd to make their way parallel to Ave. Belgrano.

Not wishing to fight my way past the crowd—and not believing I would be allowed to cross Ave. Belgrano here—I backtracked and went one block farther east before trying to head south. Meeting the same roadblock, I hung out for a few minutes and snapped some photos. After weighing my options, I decided to follow the trickle of people filing through the edge of the tightly packed parade-waiters, thinking I might find a chink in the law enforcement's armor mid-block, as the intersection seemed to be quite heavily fortified. I ended up traveling more than one block along the sidewalk, and, taking advantage of the conspicuously absent parade, followed some stragglers across the wide avenue.

A Roman Catholic worshipper. Glad to be done with the crowds, I briskly made my way to the park, dodging more-casual pedestrians, and skillfully picking my way across traffic at busy intersections. Upon arriving, I was surprised—and disappointed—to find the park not peaceful at all, but bustling with the typical locals plus a sliver of the 300,000+ visitors who had come to this northern Argentine city for this weekend's well-known and very popular fiesta.

In 1592, two statues—one of Christ and the other of the Virgin Mary (later to be called the Virgin of Milagro)—were sent to Salta from Spain, a gift from Bishop of Tucumán Fray Francisco de Victoria. In 1692, severe earthquakes destroyed the city of Esteco, Argentina. While the earthquakes were shaking the foundations of Salta, its inhabitants prayed to the statues and the earthquakes stopped, sparing Salta Esteco's fate. The cessation of the tremors was attributed to the Virgin of Milagro. Ever since, pilgrims from all over Argentina have trekked to Salta every September to honor the statues. It's the largest celebration in the country.

A Roman Catholic worshipper. Able to find neither a quiet nor comfortable spot to read in the park—and not being able to concentrate, anyway, my mind being distracted with bittersweet memories of love—I decided to head back to the hostel. Being clever, I headed north immediately, believing for some reason that the crowds must be centered around city center, but not in the eastern part of the city, north of the park. Unfortunately, the throngs lined both sides of Ave. Belgrano for almost its entire length, all the way to this, its eastern end.

As I hiked northward, I slipped in behind a gal who seemed to be on a mission similar to mine—get to the other side of the avenue. She was plowing her way through the crowd, and it's always easier to let someone else break fresh snow and just follow in their tracks. When we got to the police cordon, she convinced the cop to let her cross, but his generosity ended at one body, despite the fact that there was still no sign of a parade.

A Roman Catholic worshipper. If I were bolder, or more accustomed to lying, I could've pulled out my massive camera and told him I was a photographer from the United States writing a story for a paper, as my friend Bruno had done on multiple occasions, winning us free entrance into several tourist attractions in Cordoba and Mendoza. However, as my ex-wife will attest, I'm not a very good liar. Or maybe I could begin smoking marijuana. Perhaps that was Bruno's trick.

The cop told me there was no cordon one block farther downstream—farther away from my hostel—and so I headed in that direction, fighting my way out of the packed crowd at that intersection and into another one at the next. I think the cop had been smoking something, as the situation was no different a block away. Backtracking yet again, I figured I'd try the mid-stream crossing technique again. Falling in line behind some other people who were also trying to get closer to el centro, we shuffled our way along the sidewalk, inching ever closer to my home, my respite from the madness—interesting how my perspective of the hostel had changed from prison to respite.

Some friends from Salsa class. When crossing one intersection, I did a double-take when I saw someone who looked familiar. It was the cute girl from Salsa class who always has trouble looking into my eyes for more than one second when we dance. I give her a hard time about it and bob my head around trying to intercept her line of sight while we dance. We both laugh about it and occasionally she even makes eye contact.

I caught her attention and mussed the hair on her forehead. She looked at me, smiled, and mouthed the solitary word hola to me. I returned the greeting and pressed on. [She's the one on the left in the photo.]

I fell back in line behind a couple people who were parting the waters for me, making my journey just a bit less painful. Within less than a block, we came to some kind of construction of corrugated metal—one of the most common building materials in Latin America, right alongside concrete and bricks. There appeared to be a way through, but the contrary was confirmed by someone standing nearby. While the others turned around and headed back, I decided to stay put. I'd had enough fighting for the day. At least I was stuck next to a tall, attractive woman, with impossibly pouty lips smothered in lip gloss. Between watching the parade and staring at those lips, I figured the time would pass quickly.

A future devout Roman Catholic. I would just wait for the procession to pass, which was now in full swing. I wouldn't exactly call it a high-energy parade. Priests in robes and others dressed in everyday clothes walked, some carrying, well, Roman Catholic stuff, mostly statues of varying sizes of Christ nailed to the cross, painted blood dripping from his hands and feet, and, of course, a red daub of Parker's best representing the wound in his side.

There were loudspeakers installed in strategic locations throughout the city with announcements made over them, and songs played through them. The crowds joined in, singing praises to Jesus, or Mary, or the saints, or whomever the Catholics worship. I even recognized one of the tunes. That's at least one thing the Catholics and Protestants have in common—the melody of a song.

At one point, the police lowered the rope they had been holding taut in front of the worshippers. A few folks filtered into the road occasionally, joining those already parading down the avenue toward the monument of General Güemes. I thought about trying to pass for a Catholic worshipper, but just stayed put. Damn you, woman with voluptuous, pouty, glossy lips!

The parade in Salta. Within a few minutes, the ropes came down for good, the main procession having passed us by. Already, thousands and thousands of Argentine pilgrims filled the wide avenue to capacity. I cautiously—and as quickly as possible—threaded my way across the street, trying not to be swept too far downstream before reaching the other side. At the far side, I began paddling upstream furiously, toward the next tributary, which would lead me safely away from the overpowering current of pedestrians.

Having milked my analogy of the street with a river for probably far more than it's worth, upon reaching the next cross street, I met a very solidly packed wall of onlookers, blocking my way out. I said permiso (the Spanish version of "excuse me"). Nothing happened. Again, permiso. Nada. How about get the hell out of my way because here I come? That, along with not-insignificant exertion from my short yet strong legs, got me started. With continued permisos, and my newly acquired forward momentum, the crowd began to part for me. They could see, beneath my Oakleys, I meant business. One older man actually made a concerted effort to help me on my way, stepping aside with a kind look on his face, possibly seeing the out-of-place foreigner was having a tough go of it, and wanting to offer some encouragement. I threw him a gracias.

A Roman Catholic worshipper.Within fifty meters of the main drag, I was free and clear.

Back near Las Rejas Hostel, I went into the corner restaurant, still thinking about the scrumptious looking steak I had seen someone else order the night before. I ordered one for myself along with a salad and a Coke. I asked for the salad to be brought out before the steak, as the Latinos are in the habit of eating the salad and the main course all at once, and, rather than watching my steak get cold while I ate my salad, I figured I'd take advantage of good timing. The steak was, in fact, quite good, and I thoroughly enjoyed a break from the pile of people, to use a Spanish expression. I took pride in seeing—on the television!—the mayhem I had just escaped, while I sat in peace, savoring some good—albeit normally over-hyped—Argentine cow meat. The cameramen for the news had gotten some nice aerial shots and angles from tall buildings that I had missed from ground level.

After dinner and a short rest back in the hostel, I decided to try my luck in the jungle again. I was told there would be a show at the monument of General Güemes, which is located at the end of the very street Las Rejas is on—Avenida General Güemes. Besides, I had never visited the large statue.

The crowd reaching for the raining rose petals.At about the half way point, I ran into a crowd thick enough to make any attempt at additional forward progress a waste of my time. I just decided to hang out, take some photos of the crowd, and see what happened. Music came over the loud speakers and thousands of people around me began to sing. It must have been the Argentine national anthem. It didn't sound like a church song. Being buried in this crowd of thousands lifting their voices was a beautiful experience. At this point, a helicopter flew over the crowds and its crew threw thousands of rose petals out the door. The people smiled with glee as they reached toward the sky to try to catch the red petals as they rained down.

After the singing ended, attention turned toward the monument. Shortly, I could see that what people were looking at was another procession. A large statue was being brought back down the parade route, possibly to be returned to the main cathedral in Plaza 9 de Julio. I aimed my Nikon D3 in the same direction as the thousands of point-and-shoots and cell phones snapping photos of the spectacle. As the image passed, the crowd began to flow back towards city center, following the object of worship back in the direction from whence it had come. I just stepped aside The monument of General Güemes.and watched the crowds pass, snapping the occasional photo of an interesting passerby or of yet another statue being carried in the arms or on the backs of the more dedicated of the Roman Catholics.

After the bulk of the crowds were gone, I moseyed on down to the monument of General Güemes, looking for any sign of a show or concert. It didn't look like there would be any. Still, the statue was located in a nice park with a view of the city, up a slight hill from the average elevation of the flat city, so I decided to stay a while.

Now, it was peaceful. I snapped a few photos of the towering reminder of the famous Argentine general who defended Argentina against the Spanish during the Argentine War of Independence, then just hung out and looked over the city as the evening sky faded from light blue to gray to black, as lights flickered on across the city and began to stand out more starkly against the increasingly contrasting background. This Looking over Salta.was a vantage point from which I had not previously seen the city and I enjoyed the view and the peace. It was quiet. The air was still, the temperature comfortable. Kids climbed up the base of the statue and on large surrounding rocks. Mothers walked with and watched over their children. Schoolgirls walked through the park, arm in arm. Boyfriends and girlfriends kissed and held hands. Families sat, snacking and chatting. I had finally found what I had been longing for the entire hectic, stressful day. I was near humanity, yet there was a modicum of solitude. Life was good.

Involuntary parade participant. A future Roman Catholic worshipper. A future Roman Catholic worshipper.  Walking the image back to the church. A future Roman Catholic worshipper. A woman returning from the parade. Parade participants calling it a day. The best view in the house.Parade participants calling it a day. Kids climbing on the general.

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