If you read my previous post about Semana Santa (Holy Week), you’ll recall that it is the Colombian spring break. And you’ll remember that most people who travel during this time head to the beach. Most. Not all. Some people actually leave the coast to go to the interior of the country – almost 1/3 of my group went to the Coffee Triangle during this week! I was not one of them. I took a freezing cold, urine-smelling bus ride 6 hours south of Barranquilla to the quaint Colonial town of Mompóx, Bolívar. This hot, humid town sits on the banks of a Magdalena River tributary and is famous for its Semana Santa processionals (and its annual jazz festival), so I flocked there along with a lot of cachacos (people from the interior) and a few other gringos (foreigners).
Getting off the bus, the town seemed…normal. There were people out and about, moving from here to there. I was immediately told by my friend James, who lives in the town, that this was not normal. Mompóx is normally dead. Due to its relative isolation (the highway through town sort of leads nowhere, and there was no bridge to the other side of the river until very recently), there are few cars and motos on the streets. It’s actually hard for me to imagine what the town is normally like; its main industry is tourism, and even during this busiest week for them, it seemed pretty quiet.
In the morning, I’d head from my hotel to a cafe on the river and enjoy an overpriced breakfast and cup of coffee while I read, usually alongside a family of cachaca women who were staying at the B&B there and very few other people. The rest of the day I’d rove from plaza to plaza, enjoying juice (Mompóx really leans into its corozo, which is like a delicious dark red cherry; it’s really bitter, so to make it palatable, the juice comes packed with sugar) and reading and people-watching. In the evening, I’d meet up with my fellow volunteers to check out the Event for the evening.
Wednesday of Holy Week isn’t typically anything special, but in Mompóx families head to the cemetery and light candles at the gravesites of their loved ones. I hung out in that cemetery for hours, partly because I was waiting for my people to meet me, partly because it was just so beautiful.
Additionally that night in the main plaza, a couple dozen artists created alfombras. This word literally means carpets, but they were actually works of art on the plaza floor depicting religious scenes using chalks, sawdusts, wood chips, and other mystery substances. It was part of an annual contest; there were categories for children, amateurs, and “professionals” – not professional chalk artists, but rather trained or professional artists in some field. Those pros really did amazing things with their materials!
Thursday, after spending the day visiting the school that my friend James works at and spending the day lounging around, I saw my first processional. It was not the first processional of Holy Week; that was on Sunday before the tourists came. The schedule said that the procession was to start at 6:30pm at one church, and end at 2:00am at another…just 4 blocks away. My crew stationed ourselves just around the corner from the entrance of the church on the sidewalk. We stayed there 45 minutes, at which point we decided to go get some juice and wait for the processional to move more because it hadn’t even yet rounded the corner. See, the people taking part have this very slow side-to-side walk (everyone you talk to and everything you read will say they walk 2 steps forward and 1 step back, but that’s absolutely not what I saw). That’s why their 4 block journey takes 8 hours. That and several breaks. Because the other key thing about these processionals is that the people are carrying pasos – giant and very heavy platforms on which various scenes are displayed.
The Holy Thursday procession started with the cross of Mompox and was followed by pasos showing the stations of the cross. The people that carry the pasos are called nazarenos, and all wear particular outfits that resemble priests’ garbs – robes with something sort of like a stole, plus a wrapped cord – with hoods. Nazarenos actually have various duties throughout the week, the most important of which (besides praying) is sounding the trumpet three times and ringing bells at each church in town on Friday as a signal that Jesus Christ has died.
The Good Friday procession is similar, but much simpler (but just as long!). The only pasos consist of the crucifix, the tomb with Jesus inside (the largest and heaviest of all of the pasos, the Virgin Mary, and a band. I recently attended a lecture on jazz music in which they talked about jazz funerals; that is absolutely what this was. As a side note to my family, I would very much like this to happen when I die please and thank you.
As always, coming from a country where religion isn’t a super public thing, it’s always strange to me when things like this, with such deep and meaningful roots, are just generally consumed. Not celebrated or participated in, they are just…things that happen in front of us without any prayerfulness. Or maybe not; I admittedly don’t know what was in the hearts of all of the observers those evenings.