Marina and her aunts had told me that there is a ceremony in El Viejo, a village beyond Leon. The church takes out the silver and washes it in preparation for the Ceremony of the Purissima, Immaculate Conception. The washing ceremony will take place on Sunday, with the day of the Immaculate Conception being Tuesday. They urged me to go, so I got up at 6am on Sunday and proceeded for the bus station.
I found a taxi, it had only one occupant. I should explain that the concept of an exclusive taxi is alien to Nicaragua….. unless you pay for three seats. Taxis will stop for anyone that they think is looking for a taxi and ask if the people are going in roughly the same direction, then you have company. The first time I got a shock and was not amused in Managua to share a taxi with two large gentlemen and a taxi driver who did not speak to me. It got better after that and I made sure that the taxi driver would at least speak and be reasonable. It is also better not to b ethe first person in a taxi.
So by 7am I was in the front of a taxi, with a young lady rather the worse for wear in the back, shoes in hand. I was my usual polite gringa and said hello to both her and the taxi driver. He soon let me know that she had not returned home all night and once he had dropped her off told me that she had had had too many tequilas. Just being informative.
I got staight on a bus to Chinandego, then straight on another bus to cross Chinandego to be put straight on a bus to El Viejo. Each time the conductor pointed out the bus in front and told me to run. My luck was extraordinary. On the last bus I sat next to an older lady and told her what I hoped to do. Come with us, she said,we are going to the church and will keep you right.
They both waited for me outside the bus and the first lady had two blue plastic stools that she held aloft when she lost me. The town was packed, with dozens of buses making the pilgrimage to the church, probably the oldest in Nicaragua, with statues from Avila in Spain from the sixteenth century and an amazing beauty, even amid the circus going on. We went into the church, already full in the pews with more than 90 minutes to the mass.
There was a queue to see the Virgin and the ladies told ne to join it. So outside the church, accross the courtyard and down the steps I went. Quien es la ultima? Who is last in the queue?
There are two queues, one each side of the aisle and the faithful who are giving thanks come all the way up the church on their knees, the throng parted by teenagers in white shirts (girls) or blue (boys) wearing badges so that they can be identified. They also pick out the elderly and most infirm and lead them down the middle. It takes me fifty minutes to slowly make my way down.
Lots of time to think and reflect, and then many hands push you up past the alter, with a short stop in fron of the image, and they keep you moving. Then out past the silver that will be washed.
I make my way back into the church. My two benefactors know that I made my way through the whole queue and they were happy for me as I passed them. Now there is no way to get near them and I head to the back of the church.
It is packed and a priest is leading singing and recitation. He has been talking for forty minutes and will continue for many more. He works the crowd like a seasoned entertainer. A few songs, a few chants Maria is Nicaragua, Nicaragua is Maria. There is no fear of being nationalistic and religous at the same time.
Can we please applaud Maria, Mother of Christ, and all mothers who are special. Not forgetting that we must stop all violence against women and the insertion of a warning that we should be careful of pickpockets, even here. This is not my first warning today, people are always telling me to be careful, especially a gringa, but now the priest is talking to everyone.
There are no hymn books and the responses are known to everyone, except me. There is a lot of repitition and, sensing a flagging, the priest says the next verse is to be sung only by women, it is loud and strong. Then men, not so loud and with knowing looks on the faces of the women as the men flounder over some of the words. Then all together, to the relief of the men. The priest knows a lot about managing the expectations and working the crowd. The church is bursting with people, standing ,sitting and breathing the warm stale air which feels in short supply.
Then the procession of priests begins, in black robes, white robes, purple robes, purple and white robes, then with the pointed hats and finally the archbishop of Nicaragua with a crook. He almost high fived people on the way down the church as they all tried to touch him and get a photo on the smart phones. The void behind him filled quickly as people rushed to the front as far as possible.
The service was long and after a further fifty minutes I could no longer take the heat, so jostled my way outside to a breeze. A few minutes later there was clapping and the washing of the silver started. There were still thousands inside and outside the church and I was not going to stay until 4pm when the silver is returned to the altars.
I made my way back to a bus, and my luck held as I moved from one bus to the next. Crossing Chinandego there appears to be no space, but the driver indicates that I should climb across the front and sit next to him. It is a hot seat and he has never had a gringa on his bus I think. He will tell me where to get off and keeps looking to see that I stay in my place. Again he show me how to get into the bus station and I am on another bus and finally a taxi.
I have taken one taxi and three buses in each direction and never stopped moving. I arrive back in Leon for a late vegetarian lunch and the cafe owner and I compare notes on progress from chingongunya. She has been worse than me and I am glad that my walking is good, even if I am a little tired. I will have an easy late afternoon and evening.
Today I really saw the power of the church in Nicaragua. Hard to imagine and so very real in the faces of the young and old, men and women. Like a large party with lots of passion.