Thursday, February 05, 2009

Peregrinación de San Juan de Los Lagos

I have seen pretty much all kinda landscapes in Mexico...selvas, deserts, mountains, valleys and done pretty much all kinda adventures...swimming marathons, canyoneering, getting lost in mountains and what not. There was one thing pending that I had to do - Pilgrimage, and am I'm glad that I could do it before my stint in Mexico could get over.

Peregrinación de San Juan de Los Lagos, is the second biggest pilgrimage in Mexico, next only to Peregrinación al Tepeyac. Located in the state of Jalisco, San Juan de Los Lagos is a small town with nearly 40000 habitants. La Catedral Basílica de Nuestra Señora de San Juan de los Lagos, attracts thousands of pilgrims every year especially during 2nd Feberuary, the festival time of Virgen de San Juan. Pilgrims reach the cathedral in various means and forms - feet, bicycles, private vehicles, public buses or along with an organized pilgrimage group. Abraham and myself did the entire 100kM stretch from Leon city to the cathedral on feet in 29 hours (including rest) and this discourse is all about that.

After delicious breakfast of huevos estrellados and frijoles made by Abraham's mother, we were dropped by his cousin and his father at "i griega" or the Y junction in the outskirts of Leon. It was exactly 11:25AM. That's the place where all pilgrims from cities of Leon and other southern states start their pilgrimage from. The dusty road starts with few banners and some small stalls selling torches, socks, shoe soles and water bottles, immediately after which there is a huge trash disposing place with acres and acres of colourful plastic bottles and other trash and men working among them. We passed through some villages, every now and then we spotted stalls selling the needs of pilgrims. After about 40 minutes of walking, Abraham showed me 'El Cerro de La Mesa' which was supposed to be our first long resting place. It was a squarish mountain which appeared at the horizon obscured greatly by haze and distance.

The walk was almost along dusty roads. We met this pretty lady named Alma, who accompanied us for sometime. At times we saw kids with a bucket of water and cups giving out free water for the pilgrims. We passed a store which was even selling beer along with water and juice! Quite often we were engulfed completely by dense smoke of dust arose by passing vehicles, which was quite annoying. It was around 3PM when we descended to the village of Las Cruces. There were slightly bigger stalls and restaurants at this place, but we decided not to break for lunch. We stopped by for some chocolates, cookies, juice and fruits. Fresh orange juice refreshed us greatly. The main street of the town had a church with blue cupola dome and some residences offering bathroom services with hot water. The road gradually became slightly steep as we passed this town.

Outside the town of Las Cruces, we relaxed for the very first time in one of the stalls that had seating arrangements. The feet were slightly sore, a certain lady from Leon was kind enough to give us some kinda lotion to apply on the feet which relieved us from pain greatly. People were very amiable during the entire pilgrimage. We then continued our walk on rambling dusty path basking more in the dust. It was around 4:30, when we crossed the railway line with a close view of town of Lagos de Moreno. There was a sort of camping area there and lots of peddlers selling hotdogs and hamburgers and fruits and juices. There was one child which grabbed my attention with her innocent smile and she kept smiling as I clicked her from close. We then passed through fields with cows grazing in it, after which we crossed an airstrip and started walking on asphalt.

The road was slightly steep, but it felt much better than walking on the dusty metal roads. It led us to a bridge across a highway, from which El Cerro de La Mesa, looked much bigger and clearer in the evening light. We descended the bridge, the area was smelly and conspicuously dirty. We had another hour or so to reach the village of Mesa. The dusty roads started again, there was a jeep distributing free banana and guavas to pilgrims. As we kept walking, I noticed a pilgrim walking barefoot with a huge statue of Jesus on his back. He allowed me to photograph him without slightest reluctance. We had arrived at the outskirts of Mesa and sun had almost reached his home in the west. Our legs were sore like hell, by this time and all we wanted was a place to rest our bottoms and remove our shoes.

We crossed a bridge across sewerage river and entered the town of Mesa at 6:30 in the evening. We found some place at the entrance of the town and stopped there. Abraham got 2 bottles of alcohol and Vaseline for soothing the feet. It was a great pleasure to pour alcohol on the feet and massage was very refreshing and relieving. We had some muffins and laid down for a while...almost an hour. We then had dinner of delicious caldo de pollo (chicken broth) and continued our pilgrimage. When we reached the other part of the village, we happened to see a very large camping area, crowded and well lit. Some pilgrims were spreading their tents, some sprawled in front of bonfire, some crowded the stalls buying sundries and most others were dancing! The pilgrims had hired a Norteño-Banda-Tejano genre band that played music live and the dance floor was an open area where the couples danced rhythmically. I liked the whole setting greatly and wanted to camp there with other pilgrims, but our plan was different.

We continued our walk in the darkness talking about Mumbai attacks and Madrasahs, lit by the faint light of the torches. Every now and then we saw dimly lit stalls with chairs and bonfire for the pilgrims to relax and beat the cold. It was cold, but our quick pace helped us maintain the warmth. My feet was terribly paining, I was totally dusty and tired and I asked to myself...why am I doing this? I'm not a Catholic, I'm not a worshipper of Virgin, I'm not a believer in God, I don't have any unfulfilled wish. Then I answered myself, that I was doing all this for experiencing a pilgrimage and nothing else. The very thought of the man in bare feet, walking the same dusty road I had walked with my comfortable $100 sneakers encouraged me enough to complete the pilgrimage. The faith of the pilgrims was something similar to what I had seen in my own country. What impressed me most about this pilgrimage is the solidarity, the fraternity among the pilgrims...they don't know who you are, but they buoy you up with cheerful words.

Our destination for that night was La Puerta del Llano, a halting area just next to the highway. At some point while we were walking, the highway became visible and the lights of the vehicles seemed stones throw away but it took us two good hours to reach the highway. The terrain was uneven and stony, which slowed down our pace. When I just had a glimpse of pilgrims behind me I saw a series of torch lights swaying in absolute darkness and advancing slowly. This stretch of the journey, atleast for me, was the most tiring part. We reached La Puerta del Llano when 15 minutes had passed midnight. This place had a big open shed where the pilgrims had slept haphazardly but warmly covered. We repeated the same treatment of alcohol and vaseline for our feet and lied down in the available space. Initially it was fine, but the biting cold started creeping my body slowly and a slight shiver started. I woke up unable to bear the cold and I was delighted to see a thin layer of sheet by my side, abandoned by some pilgrim. We pulled it over us and slept, but still the cold was very severe to catch a decent sleep. Our earlier plan to was to sleep for about 3 hours, but the cold was so severe that we woke up at 7 in the morning.

Morning was cold but full of life. There were many pilgrim groups chanting and cheering and carrying palanquins (litters) with adorned statues of Virgin in it. We had a breakfast of quesadallias (tortillas filled with cheese and Pobalano chilies or potatoes) and started our second day's walk. Luckily the rest of the journey was walking along the highway, definitely desirable than those damned dirt roads. A part of the highway was blocked by the cops for pilgrims. We had another 40 more kilometers to traverse to reach the cathedral. Walking on highway has this weird thing - you happen to see around 7-10km of road ahead which seems as though it's a small stretch, but it would easily take around 2 hours to reach. Pelotons from Mexico city, Michoacan, Puebla and other states kept zooming past on the highway.

At Agua de Obispo we stopped for changing our shoes. It's always advised to take 2 pairs of shoes for such tasks, one normal pair and preferably a looser second pair. After covering such long distance, my feet was slightly swollen and it was a great relief to continue walking with my floaters. We passed the crowded town of Agua de Obispado and from there it was 20 more kilometers. The highway was mountainous having long ups-and-downs. There were people giving out lots of freebies to pilgrims - tortas, sandwiches, lunch plates (containing chicharon, rice and tortillas), juice, fruits, water, painkillers. After a couple of hours, you happen to see two little white triangles at horizon and that's where the tollway to Guadalajara separates out from freeway. We took one last rest lasting for 30 minutes under tree shade, much before the the bridge and then continued without stopping.

We crossed the bridge and that signified we had last 7 km to be covered which would be an hour and half long journey. We had almost entered the town of San Juan de Los Lagos, just that we had to reach the cathedral. The cathedral is located near the center of town of San Juan de Los Lagos and we need to cross few smaller streets to reach the cathedral. Due to it's touristic outlook, the streets are crowded with art and sweet peddlers from Jalisco. San Juan is especially famous for it's caramel and other candies. The ladies of this little village are fairer and prettier, due to prolonged stay of Spaniards there.

It was half past four in the evening when we reached the cathedral. We did a loud high-five for our achievement and entered the courtyard of this impressive colonial cathedral. There were cycles all over in the courtyard and pilgrims from all walks of life had crowded the courtyard. We entered the cathedral and I saw some people moving towards altar on their knees carrying flowers and photographs/statues of the Virgin. We moved along with the group towards altar, where we were sprinkled holy water by the father. In the front there was a statue of the Virgin with ornate floral, gold and Christian artwork. To the left was the statue of Crucified Jesus Christ and to the right was the statue of baby Jesus with his parents holding his hands. Below baby Jesus there were some florally decorated litters of Virgin. We exited out of the small door at the right of altar and relaxed for a while in courtyard.

The market outside the cathedral was bustling with pilgrims shopping sweets and artwork. We purchased caramel and candies and settled down at "Super Tacos" for a supper. Carne asada and Chorizo tacos were highly satiating, after which we took a bus to Central de Autobus. The bus from San Juan de Los Lagos to Leon (costing 65 pesos per person) started at 6:40 and reached Leon at 8PM. Nothing could have been better than a hot shower, home made dinner and a sound sleep after such a tiring feat.

I had never walked 90km in my entire life and I had never spoken Spanish language for 3 continous days. Million thanks to Abraham for inviting me for the wonderful Peregrinación de San Juan de Los Lagos and Abraham's family for being so hospitable.

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