March 29th, 2018
The days of the Semana Santa roll on. Today will be spent meandering around town, exploring more of the markets and sanctuaries that abound in and around the centre. It seems somewhat of a luxury to spend so much time in one place, but Popayán reveals its own charm as the crowds ebb and flow during the day, the rains come and go, markets and events seem to appear out of nowhere, and the various attractions offer their own unique charm.
I am set on not spending the entire morning hanging out at home, wanting to rationalize the things I intend on getting done, in turn allowing me to get out the door relatively quickly, which still turns out to be 10 am, a record for me, but nonetheless. The point is to be able to enumerate some of the outstanding attractions in town before the rains begin.
Walking out the door with the sun actually visible to some extent, I look around and realize that the neighborhood I am staying in is not half bad, considering that the local streets seem to culminate with some vista of green. To the east lies the Parque Santa Catalina and Colegio Melvin Jones, set on an expansive lot. Weaving around the colegio and into a sea of green, I encounter two young policemen searching some hapless homeless person. The message driven home by the police in the country is that if you are in any way different or suspicious, they will be after you.
The Sanctuario de Belén is the first stop on the day’s journey, featuring a serpentine staircase leading up to the small church, and at the apogee of each leg of the cobblestone path, a sculpture representing some biblical scene, in front of which families gather, reciting prayers as they progress to the top of the low hill on which the church is situated. I am given looks of surprise and admiration, which becomes somewhat confusing, given that Colombia’s fine citizens are hardly that removed from the real world. Perhaps there is an element of appreciation of seeing foreigners value their country enough to deem visiting it. But while I may be a tourist, I also recognize that I am broaching religious territory here, and should probably try to be as discreet with the camera as possible.
Great views are offered of the centre of town, although the light is far from spectacular. The setting is certainly very picturesque, although to the back of the church another aspect of Cauca comes to light that is less than savoury, and that is the street food. Most of the grills are preparing organ meat or fresh chicharron, for which it is hard to feel generous, other than simply leaving as quickly as possible before the odour becomes too strong. Perhaps this is not a very kind statement, but it would seem that a more refined food would be appropriate for a site of such spiritual importance.
The Industria Licorera del Cauca is conveniently located next to the Sanctuario de Belén, presumably for the faithful that are too overcome by their beliefs. But the product offering is rudimentary, consistent with the limited selection of alcoholic beverages elsewhere in the country. The woman working at the stand seems to be incapable of explaining to me what the difference between the regular aguardiente and the low sugar one is. After all, isn’t it made from sugar cane? The manager is incapable of explaining why Colombian aguardiente tastes of anis. It’s just … not right …. From what I tasted at the artisan market yesterday, it seems the local hooch is actually very palatable, with a rich aroma of sugar cane, but this anis business is lamentable. Well, there is always the eight year rum, which I will forgo this time around, since the aguardiente is so much cheaper …
En route to El Morro, a slight drizzle begins, which I would love to dismiss, except that I would be a fool to ignore the fact that the momentary dripping of rain around noon can and will quickly turn into a torrential downpour. Having wasted some precious minutes at a coffee stand, it seems my timing is again impeccably bad as the rain intensifies and I climb towards the incline leading to the top of the hill.
Fortunately, there is an escape route, and that is down the stairs to the Rincón Payanés, which contains a small chapel raised above street level with mildly charming gardens, surrounded by an array of white tents flogging the usual cheap crafts with no intrinsic value whatsoever. However, the venue keeps the troops of local visitors here for the Semana Santa busy as they peer mindlessly into the tents and few permanent shops, the value in the end being to simply kill time in as harmless a manner as possible.
At the north end of the Puente Del Humilladero lies the Plazoleta Parque Mosquera, which during the Semana Santa is dedicated to a gastronomic fair representing all regions of the country. Well, in theory, anyway, as the many booths present both typical Colombian fare, specialties from certain regions, but would hardly be that exhaustive. And then there is just a lot of the same old, arepas, patacon, the soups (nothing to complain about), parillas and asaderos, although there is a to me unfamiliar element, the seafood offered by the African cultures of the Pacific region. The seafood looks inviting, but expensive, and on closer inspection, I am skeptical as to the quality of the ingredients. Tilapia I wouldn’t knowingly touch, the trout is farmed across the country, and the shrimp mostly likely comes from China. I see no evidence of salt water fish being prepared here, which is somewhat sad.
I ask a police officer for his recommendation, and the chigüiro it has to be. I shudder: let me think about that one. He insists: it is excellent! The sausage stand to our side is probably very good, and in the end, there is just too much to chose from. And all I had wanted to do was get a coffee on Carrera 5. Life with its continual distractions …
The park just north of the bridge is delightful, with paths bordered in shrubs and grasses following geometric patterns through the park shaded by large flowering trees, including the yellow trumpetbush and African tulip. I can resist taking a plethora of photos while wandering through the spectacular park area, which results in being stopped by a crowd the ubiquitous adolescent police officers swathed in green. I won’t disparage them for their activity, but am instead intent on convincing them that I am more than somewhat cautious normally, although not here, given that the area is swarming with police.
Part of the day’s mission is to find yet another good coffee place, and that means going to Carrera 5. The Oromo cafe looks very smart, with an overhead balcony filling half of the space, the ceiling on the side of facing the street soaring high above. The establishment is finished in dark wood, and offers specialty coffees and alcoholic drinks. Yet despite the signature coffees offered and the variety of beans sold from the region, the house coffee beans prepared in the form of an espresso amount to nothing more than a mediocre coffee.
The two older men seated at the table by the door are somewhere thrilled to hear of my adventures in the country, although the touristic clichés soon become boring, even though I would say I have probably seen and explored somewhat more than most people. In fact, even where Colombians are enthusiastic to hear of the positive experiences a visitor has made in the country, enumerating the attractions from the Lonely Planet isn’t necessarily that meaningful, especially when visiting such places amounts to no more than showing up, taking some photos, and otherwise having no connection to the place or its people.
Leaving the cafe, I run into a group of beaming Alsatians (not the dogs). They are sympathetic to my gastronomic plight, but not when I compare their food to Colombian in not particularly complimentary terms. You have great wine and spirits, but the food amounts of heaps of grilled pork and sauerkraut, hardly anything to write home about. They have one more night to spend here, and hopefully they will make some use of the word ‘chevere’ that I teach them. No, that doesn’t refer to your goat cheese …
I return to my home, the advantage of being able to return to a familiar environment during the day a huge benefit. Happily, the Pekinese across the street is quiet, but then the corny amplified music at the Santa Inés church more than makes up for it. I think I prefer the Pekinese …
Not wanting to wait for the parade to pass by, I plan on leaving the house relatively late. Hence I have lots of time to prepare a good dinner, always a big disincentive to go out, considering how easy it is to prepare something delicious, especially with a little bit of effort. And wash the dishes afterwards!
The streets on the periphery of town are deserted, but closer to the centre, the crowds appear. My heart sinks somewhat at seeing large numbers of people wandering around the streets aimlessly, suggesting that the procession may be nowhere near beginning, even this late.
Closer to the designated path of the procession, however, the roads are barricaded, and large numbers line the road. I can hear the drum and lyre band in the distance, meaning that the procession is already proceeding on some distant road. Reaching the procession, the depth of the crowd makes approaching the street front for a better view almost impossible without pushing forward very aggressively. And here suddenly the local population seems quite tall.
Further away, blocks ahead on the intended path of the parade, the streets are lined with people as well, the crowd somewhat slimmer every block further ahead of the procession, other than around the Parque Caldas, where the volume of people surges dramatically. I chose a street just to the south of the park, managing to squeeze into a roadside position where there are thankfully relatively few people.
Today’s procession is titled ‘Procesión del Cristo de la Veracruz’, and begins at the Parroquia de San Francisco. Floats include San Juan Evangelista, La Magdalena, La Verónica, El Señor de Huerto, El Beso de Judas, El Prendimiento, La Sentencia, Los Azotes, El Amo Ecce Homo, and so on, for a total of some 20, displaying images revolving around the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that is the focus of Easter.
The tone of the event is social but serious, consistent with the nature of the Colombian people. While the Semana Santa draws on traditions of devout Catholic faith, its traditions are integral to the way of life of the people, representing a ritual in which the entire family and community participates in a holistic manner.
I get into a conversation with the man next to me, who is visiting town for a few days from Cali with his son and granddaughter for the purpose of showing her what it is. He as well as his son was a carguero in younger years, and has never come back since. It may be some 30 years since he has been here to see the procession. Serious, and yet visibly also touched by the spectacle of what has been so close to him, and yet that life somehow took him away from. Perhaps that is part of the purpose of the Semana Santa processions – to ensure that there are rituals that solidify not only our faith, but give us a sense of continuity, a point of reference in a life full of distractions.
He tells me that the position of carguero is inherited, a right that is ascribed to members of specific families. Every parade includes its own unique floats, and yes, they weigh a lot. The procession today seems to pass by quickly, perhaps because of the ongoing conversation, which the younger people in our immediate vicinity follow eagerly (not that it is that interesting).
The Semana Santa activities provide a strong commentary on the social cohesion of the country, all generations being present here, but then as the man points out, where are all the older people?
Most of the candle bearers – at least today – are younger, and few are even middle aged. Perhaps older people don’t want to be burdened with the long walk, never mind the amount of time they have to be present beforehand? When he was young, it was mandatory for the students of every colegio to carry candles in the procession, but then the processions must have gone on all night, what with the huge numbers of people participating.
As much as I may have achieved just the perfect position to observe the procession, taking decent photos is far from obvious, the challenges ranging between flash blowout and blur from movement. It’s also difficult to frame the shots as the procession moves by at close quarters. Most of the photos get deleted later, and I struggle to determine how to get better shots using the flash. The problem is that I don’t have much opportunity to practise prior to the evening’s procession unfolding, at then I almost never use nighttime flash photography, for good reason.
The procession proceeds with each float laboriously carried by the cargueros, the paso or float being heralded by the sahumadora carrying her wreath of flowers and burning incense.
Symphonic ensembles provide orchestral music, while uniformed military bands from the various branches of the army, navy and air force provide marching music drawing largely on drums and brass. The parade concludes with a marching brass band, and then it is over, much quicker than I had anticipated, but perhaps I was too engrossed in conversation during the event.
And now quickly back home, to make the most of the rest of the evening, although it is already 11 pm when I enter my home from the quiet streets of my suburban retreat.