The city of Antigua is known for its Easter-time processions, and for good reason. People swarm to the city from all over the world to watch and participate in these processions. The processions begin at the start of lent, when every weekend a different church will host a vigil on Friday and Saturday, and then hold a city wide procession on Sunday.
San Bartolomé held the vigil this weekend, but this was no vigil in my mind. When I think vigil, I think of a few people, mostly old ladies, dressed in black quietly chanting in prayer, surrounded by candles in a dark room. I think of fasting and hand holding in calm and serene surroundings. But this was no such vigil. My first thought as I approached the church was that it was a carnival, and it was only one step shy of being so. About three blocks from the church, police close the streets and prevent cars from passing through. This is about where the crowd begins, although the streets leading up to this points are lined with parked cars and pedestrians. Along those final three blocks, there are vendors selling sunglasses, toys, icecream, fruit, and local food. Just outside the church the number of vendors and people swells. You would think its a grand celebration; the only thing the setting is missing is joyful music.
On entering the cathedral, its dark and musty. Although there's a crowd of people, its quiet, creating a slightly somber air. There are hundreds of people packed inside looking at some attraction that I can't see. I dive into the crowd and start to make my way forward. The crowd is a mass of bodies all leaning in the direction of the display, not a single free centimeter in the crowd. Everybody is bumping against each other in an effort to inch forward. The trick is to squeaze yourself in as one person leaves. Standing in the back and awaiting your turn won't do anything; you can't be afraid to push yourself forward. However, the whole process of rubbing against bodies, exchanging sweat and sharing body odor is worth it. After a few minutes of this dance, I came to a place where I could stand on my toes to see the display over the head of the woman in front of me. And what a sight it was.
On the ground stretching several feet long and the full width of the church, was a ceremonial carpet. This carpet is made entirely from sawdust, which is dyed and then spread to form an image. The picture takes hours of work and several people to prepare, and its design is an artistic mystery to me. The sheer size of the image requires intricate planning and a deal of engineering. The full image is about 25ft x 15ft and contains all different colors. It looks like a painting; colors are blended to create depth and shadows, figures are created with natural lines, and the background is realistic - but whole thing is made from sawdust! The image was of Jesus probable teaching in a temple. There were some other figures, disciples maybe, on the side. Jesus was larger than life-size, probably about 10 feet tall.
The design continues with an art-deco border, still all from sawdust, but with bold, neon colors. Beyond that is a border made from fruit and flowers. In the corner there was a cage of some birds - I'm not sure what the meaning behind that was. And along the backdrop was a scene of characters - a painted cloth backdrop and some biblical statues. The size and detail of the full display is overwhelming.
After a few pictures with my camera at a funny angle trying to get a good shot over the head of the woman in front of me, I started to make my way out again. This is more difficult than it seems; as I was leaving, people were pushing forward to try and reach the space I was occupying. This creates a standstill, a tug-a-war in reverse (push-a-war?). As I'm pushing my way out, the crowd is pushing forward. There's no space for me to go; so, more rubbing of bodies, raise up my arms to make space for someone else's shoulder, like one of those puzzles that you have to slide all the pieces into the correct place, only there's only one free space.
Back outside with the fresh air and sunlight, I enjoyed some fresh cooked corn and platene chips. Like a carnival.