She Was The Virgin 'When'...

With so many friends traveling overseas, I can't help thinking about my own time abroad and how the experience changed me. Life changes me. With each passing day it seems that I learn something new - about myself or about others. I'm not sure I learned anything in the story that follows - but I'll tell it anyway.

I've never been a religious man. I never got the option of thinking it all through for myself, coming to my own conclusions and forming my own beliefs when I was little. My father's side of the family was devout catholic. After he died, my oldest sister decided what she wanted me to be. She wanted me to be a good Catholic & carry on the tradition of church on Sundays - but I was at the age where I was forming my own beliefs, and my beliefs were elsewhere.

And what do I believe? I believe in me, and that's good enough. I'd walk the little old lady across the street - not for brownie points into the afterlife or whatever. I'd just do it because it's what a good person would do & that's reason enough. The whole 'god' thing seems a bit silly to me. A lot silly actually.

Even though I don't follow any western religion, I enjoy learning about it all. One of my most profound experiences occurred while living in Bolivia as an exchange student.

It was the birthday of the "virgin mother" Mary. Nevermind that the Babylonians thought up the whole virgin-birth deal long before the Christians got around to it... and nevermind that Mary wasn't a virgin - just a virgin when you-know-who was conceived. Mary was definitely getting some - but that's not the point of this story at all.

I was living in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Santa Cruz is a city of around a million people & about twenty miles outside of town is a village named Catoca.

In the center of Catoca is a Cathedral. Every year, on the anniversary of the birth of the virgin mother Mary, thousands of people from Santa Cruz make a pilgrimage to Catoca. Thousands? Make that tens of thousands.

Normally, Catoca has a population of a few thousand, if that... The village springs to life on the weekends when their outdoor market gets going, and I'd assume that Sunday mass at the cathedral is popular, though I never went. I was living with a Bolivian family, and we attended mass in Santa Cruz.

My Bolivian family was similar to my American family in that it was a complete disaster. I was probably living with the only family in Bolivia that had gone through a divorce. That sort of thing is seriously frowned upon in Bolivia... People used to say "you live with BAD people! Oh, but it's not your fault!" Then they would offer to let me do things with them so I could experience the 'real' Bolivia. In all honesty, some of them were bad people - my host brother had been thrown out of the U.S. during his time as an exchange student... but that's a story for another day.

During my year living in Bolivia, my best friend was another exchange student named Dan. Dan was from Minneapolis, and his host-family was great... I spent a lot of time with them, and they went out of their way to make sure I got to experience as much of Bolivia as possible.

So - on the birthday of the virgin mother... ok wait a minute. I feel the need to say that the whole virgin birth thing is one giant rip-off... If a woman is going to have to go through morning sickness, nine months of being fat and completely uncomfortable with her innards often kicking her, not to mention labor and then the entire childbirth thing... at the very least, she deserves a freaking orgasm... am I right? Yeah.

So - on the birthday of the virgin mother... :)

Every year on the birthday of the virgin mother, thousands upon thousands of people from Santa Cruz Bolivia make the pilgrimage to Catoca - on foot. The road from Santa Cruz to Catoca was a barely-paved two lane jobbie. But on this afternoon, the road was a river of people with not a vehicle to be found. I'd never seen anything like it.

We walked for hours, and nobody complained. HOURS. Nobody in the U.S. would do this... would they? We reached Catoca around 11:30 pm.

I distinctly recall arriving in Catoca. This tiny, peaceful village was a sea of people. I could see the Cathedral in the distance when we reached the town square, but there were so many people between us and there that I couldn't imagine actually going TO it.

I was handed a candle by Dan's host father, and yes, we were headed into the cathedral. We joined a long long line & worked our way through the square. As we entered the 'cathedral,' I was shocked by what I saw. I can still see it so vividly in my mind: We passed through an entrance, but there was no roof to the part of the cathedral we were 'in.' The sky was pitch black, but the entire courtyard of the cathedral was ablaze with the light of thousands upon thousands of candles.

The candle represented one's family. People were tearing up the earth to find a way to support their candle - to make it stand upright on the ground. They'd light it and then watch it glow as they made their way out of the cathedral. The heat from so many candles was intense. You could feel fire everywhere, and there were people crying - some even wailing. Had their candle's gone out? I'd never seen anything like it. I'd have been horrified if not for the fact that I was fascinated by it all!

I used another candle on the ground to light mine & then I plopped that puppy in the ground with gusto, scooping dirt around to make it stand upright... and then I found Dan's family & we left. I was thrilled to get the hell out of there! The heat was intense, and the scene was more than my heathen mind could contemplate after a four hour walk. Was it a four hour walk? Had it been longer? I don't recall...

After we left the cathedral & the town square, we went back to a family friend's home. It was probably 1am by this time, and the scene was rapidly changing. Mass was over, and the entire city had become one giant party.

Remember, we're talking about a town of MAYBE ten thousand that easily had a hundred thousand people in it for the weekend. The streets were flowing with people. If you've ever been to Times Square or the Las Vegas strip on new years eve, you can imagine it - except that this was a VILLAGE!

Dan decided that he & I needed to hit the party scene, and so we did. Somehow, there were two women along with the two of us - though I have no recollection of who the women were. The whole weekend was sensory overload for me.

Many people in Catoca had turned their homes into bars and discos. The four of us paid to enter a raging makeshift-disco at 2am. We passed through the door of the home and walked down a long gauntlet of a hallway until we'd passed though the house and reached the back yard. There was a dj in a corner somewhere playing music at top volume, and there was a bar where you'd hand a man money & he'd give you a bottle of beer.

The place was packed with people as they were shoveling in people as quickly as the could in order to make money. The entire back yard had become a dance floor. I don't remember what music was playing - I just remember that it was loud. There were so many people that it was difficult for the four of us (Dan, myself and the two women) to stick together. People were dancing wildly, and we were getting bounced around... separated... and then it happened.

A scream.

At first, it didn't sound real, but then there was another. Then another scream as the needle scrapes across the record that was playing & the music comes to a halt. A bottle flies right over my head, missing me but coming close enough that I felt it even though I didn't see it. People are running in my direction. People are running everywhere.

What the hell...?!?

A glance around the room... we're in the back yard of a house and it's damn dark... the fence around the yard is part brick, part wood, and it stands at least ten feet tall - maybe fifteen. There's a fight in the middle somewhere, but it's hard to tell where because people are running everywhere, and the sound of breaking glass somehow cuts through the chaos. The fight was somewhere between myself and the entrance to the hallway that led to the street outside. People are running to get out of the way. I turn to look and see where everybody is running, and two things became obvious:

#1 - my friends were gone. Oh shit.

#2 - the crowd was trapped.

The people passing me were running towards the huge fence that surrounded the back yard, and then more people were following them. I could hear a stampede towards the far end of the fence, so there was no way in hell I was going that way. It sounded like death over there... I was going the other way. A man grabs my shoulder and says, in English, "be calm Gringo. Be Calm." As he says this, people running in our direction separated us. So much for being calm!

The dumbest thing I could have done was to follow the crowd into the fence. I did the next dumbest thing... I dove back towards the hallway in hopes of getting out of there.

The hallway was long and narrow. As I entered it, I was swept off of my feet by the crowd of people who were thinking the same thing... MUST - GET - OUT. I wasn't on my feet at that point. People were pushing so fast that none of us were standing... we were all falling forward, tumbling over the people in front of us which means it's only a matter of time before people are falling on top of me and those behind me.

More screaming... it's getting more intense - but I barely hear it. The door is maybe fifteen feet ahead of me & it's all I can do to not fall down. Then I was falling down - or I should say, I was falling across.

I fell on top of a crowd of people ahead of me as the crowd of people behind me swelled forward, and then we all fell down a few steps and rolled into the street, collapsing in all directions. I climbed off the crowd as quickly as I could - 'rolled off' is more like it - as people kept spilling out of the building. Dan and the two girls were already outside on the far side of the street, and one of the girls was bleeding. She must have been hit by flying glass in the leg...? We then made our way to a medical facility.

I don't think we even stopped long enough to think about what we'd been through. We had to take care of her, and then after we got her back to the family home where we were more or less based, we headed back out into the festivities.

What? I was along for the ride at this point...

It was 3am. The crowd was turning violent as everyone was getting drunk. Tiny village streets were highways of people flowing in all directions. All you had to do was step into it & you'd be swept away. We found a bar that had beer (many were running out, which only infuriated the crowd), and we proceeded to get drunk with strangers until the sun came up. By this point, the bar we were at had run out of beer.

Most of the town was out of beer by this point, and it was raining. We made our way back to the house where we were more or less staying. Dan's host-family had someone drive their truck from Santa Cruz to Catoca, and by 9am we were driving back to Santa Cruz.

Is there a moral to this story? No. I guess that as Easter has just passed last weekend, I find myself thinking how ridiculous it is that it came to be celebrated with Cadbury chocolate eggs and a rabbit... & then as I recall religious holidays overseas & the celebrations thereof... well... I find myself thinking about how much I love that friggin' bunny in comparison. I'll take pink peeps over flying bottles any day!

::::: | Saturday, Apr 17 2004 at 11:54 AM
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