Sunday, October 24, 2010

Festival del Cristo Nazareno: Portobelo, Panama

At 6:30am, Oct. 21, the sun had just risen over the small town of Portobelo, already alive with music, singing and pilgrims flooding in on foot. It was the annual holiday celebrating the arrival of a mysterious statue of El Cristo Nazareno (Christ of Nazareth), also referred to as El Cristo Negro (The Black Christ) to Portobelo about three centuries ago. Actually, the music and festivities had been going strong all night and were ramping up by the hour. No wonder Gretchen woke me up so early, she loves a festival on shore, and probably never went to sleep. As soon as I fed her, she was back on deck.

Portobelo is along the Caribbean coast of Panama, about 50 to 60 miles WNW of where we were in Kuna Yala (San Blas). From the boat, the shoreline looks charming. It looked especially inviting after we made it into safe harbor following a squall that packed about 38 knots with lightning. The lightning was scariest to me, seeing as our boat is a giant lightning rod.

There is a lot of history in Portobelo, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the 1600s, it was one of the richest cities in the world – hard to believe today when all that remains are the ruins of forts and tiny homes of corrugated metal. Colombus landed here at the end of his voyaging, and Sir Francis Drake lies somewhere on the bottom of this harbor (his body was thrown overboard when the plague claimed his life). Captain Morgan filtered countless treasures looted from all over Central America through Portobelo on their way to Europe.

The three main holidays celebrated in Portobelo each year are Independence Day (Nov. 3), Carnaval in January and El Cristo Nazareno in October. The Cristo Nazareno celebration begins a week before the 21st with food and rosary vendors, drumming, dancing and lots of drinking in the streets. We’ve been here since Saturday, Oct. 16 and have seen pilgrims making the journey on foot from Panama City, each time we've taken the bus to Sabanitas, about 40 minutes away. They're dressed in purple - many in purple robes trimmed in white, frilly lace and gold sequined crosses. Panama City is about 80 miles from Portobelo…a very long walk. They began trickling in at the beginning of the week, and by sunrise Oct. 21, you could see a steady stream flooding in on shore.

As we walked through the Church on the evening of the 20th, pilgrims were kneeling before the Cristo Nazareno in prayer. Policemen who are stationed here throughout the festival, removed their berets and bowed in reverence. In the background, people slept all throughout the Church, in pews and on slabs of cardboard or blankets in the aisles. Their purple robes hung from hangers on the walls behind them.
It was then that I came to the realization of what I had seen at the El Rey Supermarket in Sabanitas during our last shopping trip. There were several people reclining on slabs of cardboard just outside the grocery store, in front of the stacks of shopping carts. The El Rey also acts as an informal bus depot (covered in grime) but the people camped out on the ground, resting on their journey to Portobelo.

There are many versions of the legend behind the statue of the Cristo Negro/Cristo Nazareno that culminated into its current traditions. The most popular is that the Cristo Negro arrived on shore hundreds of years ago “in a black box from the ocean.” The people who lived back then “didn’t know what to do with it” so they sent it back out to sea. It appeared again, and the cholera epidemic suddenly disappeared. The people believed it to be a miracle associated with the statue, and kept it in a protected place within the Church of San Felipe (in the center of town), where he still resides today.

A less popular, but more likely version declares that a sinking ship dumped it along with the rest of its cargo to stay afloat, when a nearby boat of disapproving fishermen chose to salvage it. Soon after the townspeople began to venerate the statue, cholera was gone. And a third version simply asserts that the arrival of the Cristo Nazareno was a shipping error…it was in route to another part of Central America and mislabeled, “Portobelo.” All too familiar with the inefficiencies of Central American bureaucracy, I believe this to be the most likely scenario.

But without miracles, there wouldn’t be a festival of such magnitude. And participation in this festival proved to me that the belief in miracles is powerful enough to unite a culture that is otherwise disenfranchised. Stories of miracles in the years following the plague, include one about a “lottery ticket,” that was shared with us by fellow sailors. According to the story, a Panamanian made the pilgrimage, and upon reaching Cristo Nazareno, prayed to win the lottery. In prayer, he vowed to paint the Church in exchange for the miracle. After winning the lotto, he declared he “never intended to paint the Church,” and had the audacity to try his luck again in a later pilgrimage. Jesus granted the same miracle again, but with a high price for not staying true to his word. He died in a car accident – a winning lotto ticket found in his pocket.

Once the pilgrims make it to the entrance of Portobelo, the very devout crawl on their knees about a mile to San Felipe Church in the center of town, to intensify their suffering. On the evening of the 20th, we watched a young man crawl down the center of the main road, amidst dancing and loud music, while a young female poured wax from a burning candle on his back and another male swept the road in front of him with a cloth. The theory is: the greater the suffering, the greater the chances are that Jesus will forgive them for their sins when they finally reach him in the Church. Panamanians and spectators alike, share mixed emotions and opinions about this display of faith. The more open-minded say, "to each his own" and see it as a unique way of making sense of suffering or reconciling past sins. Many more see it as bad practice (or a "freak show" as some have called it) - that drawing attention to one's suffering is frowned upon by God. And others ask, "What kind of a God would require this for forgiveness?"

Despite opinion, people almost universally agree that it has stirred confusion emotions - often unexpected sadness. The man crawling on his knees (above) made the journey with the lady kneeling in the previous photo. As pilgrims crawled, the intensity and drama of each person's journey varied. Some were actually quite humble, crawling alone and masking their pain as they made their way over poorly paved streets littered with broken glass.
Some are disabled or sick, as I believed the man in the photo above may have been. He and his mate crawled with the encouragement of relatives who held miniature shrines of Cristo Nazareno for inspiration a few feet in front of them. This particular couple attracted the largest crowd as medics tended to their wounds along the way. When they made it to the steps of the Church, they collapsed in the street, holding hands while a ton of people hovered above them, snapping photos (see slide show). The Red Cross tried to hold a perimeter around them while they struggled to the foot of Cristo Nazareno, where they were quickly hauled out on stretchers. Stephen nominated them for "the most dramatic" award.

This is a very nice family who accompanied the man in the middle on his journey. The father on the left told me he was "muy orgulloso" - very proud of his two sons who made the pilgrimage. His son in the middle wins the "best look alike" award. The father talked with me in Spanish about the importance of this day to them. Our vocabulary is steadily increasing, but I was only able to interpret in his message that "we are all family" and that "Jesus is always watching us from above." So many people and local journalists photographed this family, yet they had no camera to take a picture home with them. We found a sweet old man in a blue vest that said, "El Photographia," toting a polaroid camera. He looked like he could use some business, so we paid him to take a photo for the family to keep.

When they make it to the Church, the pilgrims are greeted by crowds of media - photographers and cameramen, and people who are cheering them on. Some continue through the Church at a steady pace, while others stop at the threshold of the Church, sobbing and shaking their heads. A little boy who accompanied his family members, watched in confusion as they paused in front of the Church, stricken with grief. These two men appeared to be suffering greater emotional pain than physical. It looked to me like they were hesitating because they felt they were not worthy to enter the Church. It left me wondering about the source of such feelings of unworthiness.

As we walked through town, we were surprised by this monkey who leaped out onto a porch between two vendors' stands. His owner told me it's a female that he found in the Darien region of Panama. She's attached to a collar and a long leash that gives her enough room to roam around the front porch that wraps around the front of the house and to swing from two wash lines. The monkey was amazingly good with people and especially gentle with little kids who stopped to let the monkey climb on them. She would approach them from the ground and pause to look up at them as if asking permission. Then she would carefully climb up the front of their legs and hug their waist.

As pilgrims began arriving to Portobelo this week, they set up tents in the middle of town, camping out until the holiday is over. If you saw how dirty the streets are, you would appreciate just how truly devout this is. Then again, this isn’t the first world, and concepts like cleanliness are relative. Under a pavilion outside of San Felipe Church, pilgrims strung hammocks and set up small grills for cooking. Down by the town dock, locals bathed in the sea and showered (in various stages of nudity) at the end of the pier by dumping buckets of water over their head.

We decided to do our provisioning on Monday and Tuesday, before the streets became flooded and overwhelmed with traffic. By Thursday, the entrance to Portobelo is baracaded and the taxis can only take you so far. We took the “party buses” to Sabanitas, and after the first trip back on this crazy bus line, opted to splurge for the taxi instead. The leftover American school buses pump Latin club music M - F and are airbrushed with murals honoring both voluptuous women and Jesus at the same time. “Sins in the rear and forgiveness in the front,” Stephen summed it best when while taking in the artwork on one of the buses. Inside, they distract your eyes from the torn up seats and chewing gum with hot pink feather boas and zebra striped paint. To us, it seems like a constant party, but around here it seems a way of life.

I love these buses and the general lack of concern for safety. As the buses fly around blind turns at top speed, Abuelas (grandmothers) hold their toddlers up to the open windows so they can feel the air on their faces and reach out with their arms to touch the passing trees.

At the end of our first shopping trip, we had a loaded backpack, huge shopping bag and a cardboard box stuffed with food. When the packed bus to Portobelo arrived in front of El Rey, people were standing in the aisles and we thought we might not make it on. But then two young guys who may or may not have worked with the buses were being extremely helpful and held up the bus to take us around the back for loading. When one of them opened the emergency exit (now painted over, as the concept of "emergency" is now irrelevant) there was barely enough room to squeeze in. Stephen attempted to find space for our groceries as I waited patiently outside with a growing awareness that the guys helping us wanted me to get on in a hurry – and for good reason. The bus driver couldn’t see, or maybe didn’t care whether we were on or not. Before I knew what was going on, I was being lifted in the air and placed gently on the bus. Before I could stand up straight, our friends were stuffing me inside and latching the door as the bus took off down the street. The greatest part about the back of the bus was that we were closest to the speakers. As we shouted to each other above the music while straddling our groceries and holding on for dear life, I was laughing to the point of tears. This was the most fun I ever had grocery shopping.

The taxi rides were less eventful, but we had to stop at several police checkpoints on the way back to Portobelo. The policemen here look intimidating in their camouflage with M-16s and bullet proof vests, but are extremely friendly and will be the first to smile at you in greeting. The police checkpoints are mainly set up to prevent people from bringing drugs and arms into the festival, but we were warned to carry our documents in case they tried to confiscate our liquor. Since we were restocking the boat with beer and wine, this was crucial information to have. At one stop along the way, a female police officer pointed to our case of wine on the front street and smiled as she tilted her imaginary bottle to her mouth and said, “Party.”

Another sailor who has been in the area for years gave us some really good advice. “Never speak to them in Spanish, if you speak English you are less suspicious to them and they’ll wave you on through. And never show them a map when asking for directions. They’ve never seen a map, but they sure like to look at one.”

While riding with him to Colon one morning, we saw his advice in action. He rolled down his window at a police checkpoint and said in his deepest Texan accent, “Howdy pardner!” The policia paused for one moment as a funny smile emerged on his face. Clearly he was deliberating over whether to exert effort in an attempt to communicate with this silly foreigner. In the next moment, he simply waved us on through.

The food vending tents are the most colorful part of the scenery and are stacked with bins of rotisserie and fried chicken, ribs, kebabs, spiraled sausages on a stick, yucca frites (fried yucca fries), patacones (fried plantains), rice, tamales, deep fried corn bread and coconut treats. The yucca fries and cocadas (coconut treats) are our favorite - and the potato salad that was colored purple with beet juice for the festival.

Latinos know how to do chicken, but otherwise roadside pork and beef throughout Central America usually looks better than it tastes. I am reminded of a time Stephen bought sausage from a family that ran a little market adjacent to their home. After a few bites, he tried to feed it to an emaciated dog that took off running in the other direction after one sniff. One of the best features of this festival is the 50 cent beer that can be purchased out of just about anyone’s home. We’ve been finding that there is often a “local price” and a “gringo price.” In Portobelo, we are less likely to be taken advantage of by the locals than by fellow expats who claim their beers are $1 because they are the “coldest in town.” That’s sooo like the white man. El Cristo Negro is “for all people,” with beer prices “for all people.”

The vendors were very warm, humble and happy to share their beliefs when asked. They sold beautiful handcrafted rosaries with multi-colored beads and designs unlike any I’ve seen in my Catholic upbringing. They sold necklaces and car ornaments with pictures of Cristo Nazareno and statues ranging in sizes no bigger than your thumb to 3 ft tall. People carried their Cristo Nazareno statues over their shoulders and mounted them in shrines used to motivate family members making the pilgrimage on their hands and knees. Worn out from hours of inspiring crawling pilgrims, the Cristo Nazareno (seen above) took a break in a plastic chair along the parade route.

We were buying incense from an older man who spoke a little bit of English. He was delighted to learn that Stephen had the same name as him…”Esteban” in Espanol. Esteban had a big statue of Christ – the only one that was blanco (white) not negro. When we asked him why it was white, he answered, “We didn’t have time to paint it.” We found this quite funny and he laughed with us as we talked about the color of Jesus’s skin and the likelihood that a man from Jerusalem would be “white” not dark-skinned. “That’s why they killed him,” Esteban stated half teasing, but also with seriousness. “They were waiting for a man with white skin to save them.” “Isn’t that just like the white man?” I joked back, and we continued to laugh in the face of our cultural differences.

At first glance, the presence of alcohol appeared widely accepted. Like Carnaval, it seemed integral to the way the Caribbean celebrates its religious beliefs. As the celebration wore on, however, we noticed two very distinct factions of celebrators: its devout participants and its onlookers. Some of the devout went so far as to pass out pamphlets and preach the importance of abstaining. Some sipped beers while donning ostentacious purple robes, but clearly their wasn’t a lot of suffering going on. And then we witnessed the greatest paradox of all, a pilgrim who crawled through the streets toward forgiveness, while motivated by a can of Balboa (the national beer).

The photo above features an example of the miniature shrines created by pilgrims, to keep the faith, and remind them what they are crawling towards. This man pauses takes a break in the street, about a 1/4 mile left to go. Theatrical or humble, almost every pilgrim grabbed my attention. I admit that some tears crept up on me while watching "the most dramatic couple." Beneath their grandiosity or masochism was an undeniable void. I've always been a sucker for the Hollywood formula...cue music, cue tears. I hate to see anyone cry. But I was pretty embarressed when a group of adolescent Panamanian boys started laughing at me.

When the pilgrims make it to the Church, Cristo Nazareno awaits them atop an enormous platform, adorned with candles and flowers arranged to spell "Nazareno." The statue is brought out from behind the glass and placed on the platform on the evening of the 20th. The platform is so large, that it takes over 20 men to carry it through town during the procession that takes place from 8 PM on the evening of the 21st. The men sway in a fluid, dance-like movement at a pace of two steps forward, one step backward along the parade route through town. The men must make it back to the Church by midnight, when the Church bells ring, the fireworks go off and the festival goes wild. The firework display was unbelievable for the size and economy of this town. From the middle of the anchorage, the sounds echoed like canons. Bordered by forts on both sides, it was easy to imagine that you were amidst a battle scene that took place centuries ago.

The Jesus Nazareno is followed by a band of horns and trumpets and a procession of pilgrims holding lit candles. At midnight, the pilgrims make a mass exodus out of Portobelo, making the journey home. The devotion of the pilgrims and the beauty of the services adorned with flowers and glowing candles is an amazing sight, but the food and dancing are equally remarkable. Little girls and boys from toddlers to adolescents make rumba and salsa look as easy as tying your shoe laces. A little girl who couldn’t have been more than two years old was busting some dance video moves to some club music blasting from speakers five times her height.

This is Gretchen the day after the 21st. After a week of being on the prowl, Gretchen is worn out. It's hard work staying up all night hunting birds and watching fireworks. Gretchen caught two sweet little birds trying to catch a break on deck. We awoke twice this week to the sound of a shrill squeaking very early in the morning. She chased her second catch inside the cabin, where Stephen was able to pry it loose from her claws. the bird flew to the opposite side of the boat, and as he shooed it out of the companionway, Gretchen took an impressive leap across the boat, swatting it in midair. It's hard to beleive this cuddly furball is a vicious hunter.