Well we were sure wrong about missing all the Semana Santa fun in Popayan as I feared in the last blog!
But first, we had an exciting journey to the place. We flew from Armenia about 45 minutes from Salento. From these small towns, all flights go through Bogota. That part went without excitement. We quickly switched planes into another small propellor driven number, and got set to taxi down the runway. Bogota is very high so the planes really boot it to get aloft in the thin atmosphere. We were roaring along prior to take off when the pilot slammed on the brakes and we shuddered to a halt. Nervous laughter among the passengers, three quarters of whom were the members of the Bogota Tigres Futboll (soccer to us) Club. A rapid fire announcement followed. I turned around and asked, “Habla ingles?” the word for “anyone” having escaped me. All the guys started laughing and pointing at a huge guy sitting behind me (he turned out to be one of the goalies) who embarrassedly owned up that yes he had a little English. Apparently the pilot said there was something wrong with the engine and they needed to check it out before we left. A little later, we were told (again my by now friendly interpreter helped out) that we would return to the gate. Drat we thought, hope there’s an airport hotel. When we arrived at the gate we were told to get down (with these small planes you have to walk across the tarmac) and assemble there to await instructions. Next we were herded together, the stewardesses joined us and we filed onto an airplane that just happened to be sitting there. Off we went in this one. The flight to Popayan goes over a high range of mountains and it was terribly turbulent, I think half the plane was terrified. Then lightening began flashing past the windows. When we touched down we were amidst a lashing downpour. We taxied into Popayan’s tiny airport, and were told to wait in the plane while they brought out umbrellas (I understood this part). Just then the power went out in the whole airport including the runway! What a way to start our Popayan visit!
Popayan is a lovely colonial city, blindingly white especially at this special time of year, Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Our hotel was in a gorgeous 18th century mansion, simple austere white rooms set around an interior courtyard full of plants, furnished with many original wooden benches and cabinets of the time. After our traumatic arrival, we were delighted and astonished to open the wooden shutters to our room’s balcony to a view of the lighted facade of the lovely old San Jose church across the narrow street. The price for the room was very reasonable as all our lovely rooms here have been, for the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, but the price doubled for Tuesday and we had to pay a surcharge for the balcony. As mentioned before, we had to revamp our tentative plans around the Easter week celebrations as the hotel was fully booked Wednesday to Sunday. We were rather resentful about the surcharge for the balcony, as we thought the Processions for which Popayan is famous started on Thursday. How wrong we were! Tuesday proved to be the first night.
But preparations were going on everywhere when we arrived. All the buildings were being given final licks of paint, and the churches were all setting up the large tableaux which would be carried in the parade. These baroque style churches all have nearly life size religious images in niches along the sides of the church, whatever image of the Virgen is particularly central to that church, the apostles and other saints, and depictions of Jesus at various stages of his martyrdom. Some of these had been taken out and mounted on elaborate carrying frames, very heavy, and surrounded by other religious imagery. On the night of the Procession in which this particular image will be paraded, it is surrounded by banks of flowers in a colour appropriate to each day: White for Tuesday, Pink for Wednesday, Red for Thursday, and Purple for Friday. The flower arrangements are spectacular. Gold paint was being renewed, flesh was being dusted and wiped, and the images were being clothed. We had seen them beginning this process when we were in Mompox where we watched Palm Sunday being celebrated.
As we wandered to the main Plaza overlooked by the Basilica, the primary church though far from the most beautiful, we realized crowds were assembling and everyone was carrying bunches of foliage — a palm frond, a piece of eucalyptus, some rosemary, and something floral. Aha, something is up here we thought, an outdoor stage fronted the Basilica steps, and viewing stands lined the other side of the Plaza. A large Police Band filed out of a truck and began to line up by the stage, it turned out to be the (apparently) famous Popayan Police Marching Band. When they struck up for a bit of a rehearsal, the decibel level of the many drums was electrifying, babies cried, dogs barked and everyone jumped!
A priest and various acolytes came out, and he led the crowd in singing the most charming hymn they always sing at the end of the Mass here, and often as they are waiting for Mass to begin. Everyone knows the words, it is a simple song of many verses, and the priest calls out the prompt for the next verse (a bit like “The Wheels on the Bus” but much more tuneful.) We really like the singing with the Masses here, not hymns as we know them, and no need for hymnals, we find it seems very inclusive, though no less devout, people here are very much Catholics. Rarely does anyone pass a church or a shrine on the street without crossing him or herself.
After that bit of a warm up, the police band struck up again, nearly deafening us all as they were standing still, and one of the tableaux was carried in accompanied by many religious persons. The crowd waved their fronds and continued singing. Along came the archbishop, accompanied by two dignitaries and a whack of extremely serious looking soldiers, in full combat gear bandoliered in bullets, and carrying very scary looking assault rifles. Though I must say those big guns have become a common sight to us in this part of the country and we are becoming blasé like the Colombians. Assisted by some very cute altar boys, the Archbishop began to preach a Mass which was quite lengthy, though we departed quietly after the first prayer with the excuse that our Spanish simply is not up to the task.
We had a great time wandering the picturesque narrow streets of the town, visiting some historic houses with small museos, looking into all the historic churches and generally enjoying the fiesta like ambiance. When we discovered that the first of the mighty Processions would take place on Tuesday and would pass directly under our balcony, we were ecstatic. Tuesday night we were back in our room well in advance of the 8 pm start time as the hotel desk man had told us that crowds would be so extreme around the door of the hotel that we would be unable to get in.
The Procession was spectacular. A group priests marched past first holding a large golden cross. Right behind came the Police Marching Band, the volume being much more bearable from our balcony. They also had slightly less reliance on the drums, and played a most melodic version of El Condor Pasa on the xylophones and the brasses. Everyone walked in wedding procession style, one step at a time, most wearing for the band I would have thought. As the procession filed along a steady stream of people carrying lighted candles lined the sides of the route, walking along with the procession. Some were kids in school uniforms, various organizations, but many were ordinary people in regular clothes who I think had just signed up to carry the candles. Extremely effective. Soon the first tableaux came into view, carried by 8 men holding the carrying poles on their shoulders. A terrible job, but apparently a great honour. They wore long navy robes, belted in white with navy head coverings and white indigenous style straw sandals. When the procession paused, as it did at regular intervals, they immediately inserted props on the outer four carrying poles, though it was still hard work to steady the whole thing while they waited. A young boy in similar dress had the job of making sure the many candles flanking the images on all sides were kept alight. Quite difficult despite the stillness of the evening. Each of the tableaux was preceded by a young woman in traditional dress carrying a smoking brazier full of aromatic herbs.
Interspersed along the route were many other musical groups. It was quite ingenious the way a whole symphony orchestra was pushed along on a sort of trolley, the violinists walked, while the cellos and the oboes rode, the double basses themselves rode the trolley while the people playing them walked along behind sawing away as they went. A lovely choir went by, singing away following their organist whose organ was being pushed along by men on either side. Since they stopped so much, every person on the route had a chance to appreciate the music which was lovely. And of course to them, the images representing the events of Holy Week from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion, we assume the Resurrection will take place on Sunday, are extremely important. Quite the amazing event, the whole thing took 2 1/2 hours to pass us, but they must have been on the route for 4 hours as we were near the beginning. Cannot imagine how the carriers of the heavy tableaux were able to do it!
The other noteworthy thing we did in Popayan was take a day trip to the Silvia Tuesday market in a nearby indigenous town. We hired a guide to take us, and though he spoke only Spanish, we had a wonderful day and were able to clear up a lot of information we were unclear on. (Really the level of our understood Spanish has improved unbelievably, it is just too bad we speak so horrendously). We learned a great deal about two different important topics for this country: the conditions of the indigena population, and the history of the guerrilla uprising (the Farq).
Wilson our guide, had been a policeman for 22 years before retiring and taking up guiding. He was in the anti guerrilla squad for years during the worst of the conflict and in the intelligence division for the last 8 years of his career. He attributed his grey hair and wrinkles to his experiences, and that is probably not an exaggeration, this part of Colombia was off limits for years due to the guerrilla warfare. Popayan was cut off for much of the time, and the road we took from there to San Agustin not useable due to guerrilla activity. We discussed the current negotiations between the guerrillas and the Farq, the deadline for resolution having passed this week. He assured us he had up to date information and they are still working on the plan (in Havana interestingly enough.). The military and police presence is extreme in this area, with check points sandbagged to 8 feet high armed by really scary looking armed guards. Wilson kept assuring us that it was to make Colombians feel safe and that he understood that for us, unused to visible weapons as we are, the impression might be frightening, but it was mostly a sort of bizarre public relations gesture…. Interestingly, as with everyone we have discussed this topic with so far, he dropped the volume of his voice when talking about the Farq.
The indigena in this area seem more like the group in Otavalo in northern Ecuador (which is very near here) rather than like the poverty stricken groups we saw in the Andes there. I think the same is true in other parts of Colombia, though this is the only indigenous area we have really been in, this is not the country so much for indigenous culture. The group at the Silvia weekly Tuesday market were from the Guambiano group, quite well off with their agricultural pursuits. They are guaranteed their autonomy over their lands, their culture, the right to their own hospitals, schools, and traditions, preservation of language and clothing etc., by the Colombian constitution. Certainly the people at the Silvia Market were a good looking group, none of the obvious poverty of the similar Guamote Market in Andean Ecuador. For lunch we went to a Trout Farm (a common thing here, the government thought it might convince the indigenous to switch from coca cultivation to trout) where Colombians like to catch their trout and then have it cooked for them. We just had a ridiculously cheap and delicious trout lunch without doing any work. Since this is the biggest holiday week of the year in Colombia we are having a very interesting time observing the Colombian middle class on holiday — very prosperous and very numerous!
Moving south east to San Agustin next, an area of very important and interesting archeological sites. We saw many artifacts from this area in the Museo de Oro in Bogota. We are leaving our beautiful historic mansion for a Finca (farm) which sounds pretty comfortable. Should be interesting.