Since my last blog things have improved. I am no longer infested with anything (well, I hope not anyway: the large quantity of wriggling brown bugs that I drank recently have not yet eaten my intestines or caused me to spend two days slumped underneath the toilet) and I’m staying in a beautiful mountain town in a hostel where everyone smiles and folk music plays all day and people hug each other when they walk past each other in the whitewashed corridors.
They don’t really hug. But there’s a lot of buen onda, as they like to say in these parts.
My routine is fairly simple. I rise early for my bowl of porridge and banana, I run outside to take bad pictures of the sun rising over the mountains and then I take a seat in a large chair overlooking the valley. From this chair I knock out reams of utter bullshit which will, please God, turn into a good novel one day. I drink too much coffee, get too distracted by my fellow travellers and reveal far too much about myself because that’s just what you do on the road. Discuss your gynae issues with complete strangers. Cry over the loss of your necklace with a hostel owner who can’t understand a word you’re saying. Discuss your views on backdoor sex with a well-to-do middle-aged couple from Cordoba province.
(For the sake of my pride I should point out that I actually haven’t done any of these but all are common.)
In truth I’ve been sitting here for the last twenty minutes trying to work out what the hell to write about. Nothing absurd has happened to me recently, nothing bad, nothing funny. I’m staying in a lovely place hanging out with lovely people. Everything is great with The Man, my friends and family are well, the sun is shining and I’m coming home soon – at the end of the best year of my life. Things, basically, are good. I can’t think of anything that feels remarkable or particularly interesting that might entertain you.
I mentioned this blog dilemma to a lovely girl called Tania with whom I am currently sitting in a little garden. She is writing a paper about political science, I am writing a novel chapter about someone having it off with her boss in a cleaning cupboard.
“Can’t you write a blog about the processions?” she asked. We’ve been to see a lot of Easter-related processions recently. “Nah,” I said. “Readers won’t care. That sort of shit is boring if you’re sitting at a desk in the UK looking for something interesting to read for five minutes.”
She looked surprised. “But it was lovely! You really enjoyed it!”
“I know. But aren’t travel blogs like the most BORING THING YOU’VE EVER READ?”
She looked even more surprised. “Er…No? It would be a shame, Lucy, not to be able to write about all the good things you’re seeing and doing just because you think it’s boring for other people.”
I pondered this for a few minutes. “Oh,” I said. “Oh, you’re right.”
Tania, at 24 years of age, is significantly wiser than me.
So here is my account of my Semana Santa, or Easter Week, as celebrated in towns across Northern Argentina.
It began on Sunday morning last week. I got up early to a dormitory that smelled of alcohol fumes. Johnny, the Irish guy, had just staggered in after a night chasing two Bolivian girls (and then, when they wouldn’t give him what he wanted, prostitutes), my two English friends were staggering around trying to catch a bus and Adam was half dead after a hard night watching the Chinese Grand Prix. Lucy Robinson, who hadn’t drunk a drop of alcohol the night before, was up feeling annoyingly fresh and active. All in all it was a typical Sunday morning scene as far as South American dormitories go. I had a breakfast of the unbelievably delicious savoury pastries they eat up here and scampered off to the centre of Salta with my camera. It was Palm Sunday and I wanted to get involved.
I love nothing more than a religious ceremony abroad. They’re life-affirming experiences: hundreds, if not thousands, of smiling people all gathered together with the aim of connecting with whoever their particular God might be. Noise, colour, chaos and disorder, inexplicable rituals and, above all, an overwhelming sense of community spirit, hope and happiness.
I bought a palm cross and joined the crowds. Everyone stared at the blonde girl clutching a palm cross in one hand and a massive camera in the other. But of course they all welcomed me with smiles and frowns (frowns, over her, normally mean smiles when issued by women of a certain age.)
It began with a lengthy speech – Argentines like to talk, as in, they REALLY like to talk – and then a woman started singing with a guitar. Friends, it was beautiful. I’m sorry but I cried. Music makes me cry pretty easily as it is; when there’s a crowd of blissful worshippers gathered round, sun shining on the cathedral on the other side of the square and a handful of doves floating around above my head I have no chance.
After the priest showered us in water and then incense we took off in a ginormous procession to the cathedral. People shook my hand and smiled at me, this great big English girl wandering along in their midst, alternately crying and grinning insanely.
“You are precious,” a woman with big hair told me. I hugged her.
A few days later, I was scrambling up a hillside outside the small town of Tilcara five hours further north. A monstrous procession of panpipe musicians was advancing down the mountain towards us: 3500, I am told – and the noise was deafening. When I imagine panpipes players I imagine spiritual types with long hair and bilious robes playing Enya tunes. Quite why I imagined it would be like this in Argentina – country of noise, chaos, passion and disorder, I have no idea.
The musicians, when they arrived, were quite the most motley crew I had ever encountered. I loved them! Not a bilious robe in sight, just thousands of dudes wearing low-slung gangsta jeans and tracksuit tops, baseball caps rammed over their heads, one hand in a pocket, the other holding a makeshift set of panpipes which in many cases was a collection of sawn-off water pipes held together with masking tape. A few of the bands within the procession had costumes but these mostly comprised of coloured felt hats worn alongside the aforementioned tracksuits. The noise was deafening. I would struggle to call it music – it was more a case of huge drums being banged by beefy chaps while the twenty or so panpipe players around him freestyled without any regard for what anyone else was playing. But I was utterly charmed. It was wonderful.
Then last night, Carly and I went off in search of a Virgin. We’d heard she was being paraded around town. We left at 6pm, as advised, and finally found her at 11.23pm. Argentines, if nothing else, can be relied on to be late. When she arrived though it was spectacular. She came in a procession of other Catholic icons – a polychrome wooden Jesus in a glass coffin, a humungous cross, a statue of someone else who I think might possibly have been San Juan (Saint John, obv) and a troop of youngsters wearing white robes with crowns of thorns. Mock thorns, one would hope. The crazy panpipers were back and once more I found myself in the midst of total chaos and deafening noise. Again, it was wonderful.
The crowds waved their handkerchiefs at the Virgin and everyone surged forward to try to touch her. Then someone started singing Ave Maria and naturally I started crying again.
As I stood in the Church Square watching all of these hundreds of people celebrating Good Friday with such unselfconscious joy I felt suddenly embarrassed at the memory of Young Me. Young Me who despised not just organised religion but faith of any kind. Young Me who couldn’t shut the hell up and let other people get on with their own beliefs. Young Me who would tell the religious and the spiritual that they need to see a counsellor. Young Me who talked about fundamentalism and holy war as if this was what religion was all about. Young Me who could not – or would not – accept that for millions of people, all over the world, faith is the central tenet of their existence and the source of an inner peace of which I could only have dreamed when I was a brat. Young Me would have hated it. Young Me would have been slagging everyone off on the one hand, taking pictures so I looked cool and travelly on the other.
I am glad there was a Young Me – being born wise would be boring, wouldn’t it – but I prefer Old Me. She’s a far nicer person to be around.
I have loved my Semana Santa and the good news is that it’s nowhere near over. As I write this I can hear the bang of drums and the screech of badly-played panpipes. I can only imagine what tonight will bring.
Happy tracksuit Easter, friends. X