by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
While traveling around the world from 1998 to 2008, we visited fifty-seven countries, and five continents. Because we started out in an RV through Central America, used an RV in Europe and Western Europe, and used local transportation to do China, Southeastern Asia, and some of the hundreds of Islands that make up Indonesia and Malaysia, we were able to see more holidays and other religious ceremonies than we even knew existed. We were in for some real surprises.
In Mexico, as we drove back and forth, up and down to see all the ruins of past civilizations, we saw small villages celebrating local holidays and traditions. Most of the holidays are the traditional Catholic ones with a heavy dose of influence from the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The churches in Mexico were built by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and inside the walls are decorated and covered with gold leaf. In most of them, there aren’t any empty spaces and in many of them, representations of corn plants feature everywhere.
One city in Mexico, Huamantla, celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin every August. The little town has a population of about 50,000, but for two weeks every year, the population swells to 250,000 with people making their reservations to stay years in advance.
That year the celebration would end on August 16 with the biggest parades, two miles of decorated streets, a bull fight, and taking the Virgin from inside her church on a two-mile walk. It is called “The night of no sleep,” and we wanted to see it.
We drove up, not knowing that there were no vacancies anywhere in the town and 250,000 people had already arrived. Driving through the little town, we saw a Pemex station next to the Greyhound bus station and a small cemetery. We pulled in, and while we filled our tank with gas, Ted asked the owner if we could park next to his office and see the celebration. He agreed and said we could use his bathroom if we wanted. Next to the station, a man had a stall where he sold sandwiches and drinks. His stall was hooked up to the electricity, and he agreed to let us plug into his stall for five dollars a night.
It turned out that these were the best accommodations in town.
The main church was about two short blocks from us, and we walked over to watch as local artists cleared off eight different six-foot by four-foot cement slabs, arranged flowers on them, and created lovely pictures of Bible stories. The next morning, they would brush off yesterday’s creation and start over with new stories.
A block away was a two block by two block food area. Whole ovens had been built to cook bread (pan) or other baked goods. The food was too good to pass up so we ate our fill for the four days we stayed. We watched as one woman patted her batter mix with bare hands but put on plastic gloves to accept our money. Since money is handled by many people, but her tortillas were only handled by her, it seemed like she had a good plan.
Further down from the food court, was the carnival ride area. The screams of kids enjoying themselves could be heard all the way back to our RV.
Outside of the church, an orchestra was murdering Beethoven and a group of people were beating on their drums. Every time the orchestra’s noise decreased, the drumming would increase, and then they would slow down and the orchestra would beam forth. We enjoyed watching the rivalry of the two groups.
Two miles of local streets were transformed in one day by huge stencils, damp colored sawdust, and local work by all the residents on the streets. Giant birds, colorful flowers and intricate designs covered the streets, making them look like large colorfully decorated rugs. Along the sidewalks, the local people had decorated the edges of the cement with corn stalks and flowers.
Outside of the church, crowds numbering over 200,000 gathered, waiting for midnight mass to finish and the virgin to emerge, carried on a large board and the shoulders of the men of the village. They would take her walking down the lovely streets, across town to another church where she had supposedly appeared long ago, and all the time, utterly destroying the beautiful sawdust carpets. We watched for a while, and then staggered off to our RV where we planned on sleeping.
No way. Fireworks went off all night, hot air balloons made of paper and powered by rags soaked in petrol supported by wires beneath them were being released, joining hundreds of others as they flew up and away. Kids ran around yelling, people watched the balloons, and the level of noise prevented any sleep.
By eight o’clock the next morning, all the colored sawdust had been swept up and disappeared. The town was as clean as it was before the start of the two-weeks celebration. The carnival was packing up, and the food court was dismantling. Life would revert back to the ordinary and we would leave with a wonderful memory, one of many that we experienced during our travels.