When it comes to random cultural festivities and celebrations, I must be the luckiest traveler on the planet for always seeming to show up just in time for these events no one could actually plan for. My first full day back in Maracaibo proved just as fortunate.
Trying to get a jump on the heat had prompted an early start to the day. Arriving in the historic center by 8am, I figured the hordes of groundskeepers scurrying like ants around Paseo de las Ciencias must have had the same motivation...but on a Sunday morning?
Halfway down this 8-block plaza which anchors the heart of Maracaibo, there was a long stretch of manicured lawns and gardens encased within ornate walls and historic street lamps. Decorative time-period park benches lined the glistening marble walkways leading up to this expansive rotunda area adorned with a towering statue that obnoxiously had a large bed sheet or something wrapped around the head. At this point, it didn't really matter. The entire area was blocked off so getting a closer look wasn't going to happen anyway.
At the western end of the Paseo was the beautiful yellow Basilica de Chiquinquirá; exterior photo ops further impeded by the large stage which was rapidly being constructed as if being thrown together with Legos. I wasn't impressed and wandered off to explore the nearby bustling city market.
Returning hours later to take advantage of one of the few shaded areas downtown just off the basilica, there was that unexplainable spark in the air - beyond the nearby cannons they kept regularly firing.
Another mass was in session; my ratty attire keeping me from entering for taking part or checking out what is billed as Venezuela's most impressive Cathedral. Ambling through one of the side gardens, I'd pulled out my camera to take some shots when noticing a young man suspiciously yet approvingly watching my actions. He eventually complimented my choices of calculated shots as if having his own eyes reopened to a place he was obviously familiar with.
Before parting, he encouraged me to make sure I had film for later. Huh? Tonight was the unveiling of La Chinita - the Virgin patron saint which rules over the Zulia state covering the country's entire northwest region.
There was no more mystery to the frenzy of activities consuming the central area which I'd just embraced as typical. Crowds gathering in the nearby park weren't just out for a traditional Sunday afternoon with family. One of Maracaibo's and Zulia's largest celebrations was on the verge of transpiring and I was reeling to think about joining in.
There was still plenty of time to kill with activities not beginning until 4:30pm, so I retired to a crowded shaded bench to submerge myself in the festive atmosphere. In addition to those coming early for the jubilation were also just as many looking to earn a meager living from selling to the crowds.
A virtual feast was preparing to unfold with all those passing selling, cakes and sweets, grilled kabobs, fresh fruits and about any other street snacks one's hungering stomach could desire. There were religious icons, sunglasses and handcrafted native jewelry to paw over and purchase for mere pennies based on the American income. And I had to laugh at the collection of vendors who were huffing and puffing blowing up the mini-inflatable toys and tossing them into large piles before tethering them to poles they would soon carry above the crowds.
The Cathedral bells were chiming a somber rendition of Ave Maria blending appropriately with the entangled sounds of Salsa & Merengue blasting from the distant markets, and the swarms of fresh seafood vendors clacking their metal tongs in a concerted effort with enough rapid precision to shame any backwoods hillbilly spoons player.
Shrieks from within the crowds momentarily interrupted the ambience as people started fleeing being chased by a couple of young boys in hot pursuit of their pet iguana. Built like a long-legged squirrel and moving just as swiftly as a NYC rat netting the same terrifying affects, their intentional impishness only showcased the smiles and good-nature of the people knowing all was in fun.
Intense heat was melting away at my ambition for not wanting to miss a single moment of the festivities which still weren't scheduled to officially begin for two more hours. Reasoning and exhaustion eventually got the better of me...eventually heading back to the hotel for a much needed siesta.
Indulgent Mass for the Masses
A state of reverence was toying with my mind scurrying around the hotel room in preparing for return to the festival. The least I could do was break out the jeans and a button-down shirt to tuck in out of respect to myself and the people I was about to share this holy ceremony with. It was a gamble timing my re-departure after 6pm in hopes of not roasting in the afternoon sun.
Rounding the corner back onto the Paseo de las Ciencias, initial shock was foolishly wasted on dense crowds which jammed the plaza from in front of the statue and rotunda all the way back to the basilica. Official ceremonies were already underway as I jockeyed for position closer to one of the dispersed mega-speakers and jumbo-tron screens, but there was no doing.
With a constant push that kept sweeping me deeper and deeper into the crowd, I headed back until I found my socially acceptable zone of personal space at far end of the renovated plaza. I missed not hauling my camera and backpack for all of about 30-seconds. I was a willing participant tonight - not a tourist.
I couldn't see the great stage erected at the base of the statue, but I could hear the orchestra, the liturgies and oraciones, the announcements, explanations and introductions of important people from within the Catholic church coming from the country, the continent, and even the endless representation of Vatican officials.
Songs performed by a great choir and opera soloists took me back to my younger days in a heart-warming way. I felt the tingles of privilege for being part of something so important and so much greater than my own cause. But I must confess: as the ceremony continued to drone on, my thoughts began to familiarly be tempted and led astray...just as they've faithfully always been in such religious settings.
By now, streaks of pink sunset behind the distant yellow cathedral were giving way to darkness revealing stars across the cloudless sky as if part of the ceremonial arrangements. I still had "my space" as late comers kept passing for pushing farther into the crowds which, by this point, were anything but contemplative and solemn.
I found devilish humor in observing that such a monumental holy celebration could take on the reveling atmosphere of Times Square on New Year's Eve. It was reverent paganism, to say the least, fueled even more by the swarms of vendors further clogging the streets with carts and coolers. Unfolding was Latin American Catholicism holistically at its best; or certainly nothing that one's next confession couldn't fix.
Checking time with a guard, a couple of hours had slipped by and I'd totally lost focus of purpose. But there needed no cue when all the lights in the plaza area suddenly went dark. There was no triumphant fanfare. And with the most delicate symphonic accompaniment, the moment all had been waiting for transpired and the large veil covering the towering Chinita's head fell to the ground. Call me sentimental, but the unexplainable warm fuzzies were only magnified by roars from the crowd and roving floodlights from all across the city which pierced the darkened skies.
Next came the dedication, the blessings, and prayers for the Holy Virgin to watch over Zulia while standing until the end of time, but my mind had already wandered off yet again. Here I stood in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people witnessing one of the biggest events of all time for Maracaibo, but it was one of those hollow moments in life when no one else is there to share it with you.
My mind began scanning through the faces of family, friends and acquaintances while surveying which, if any of them, could've or would've enjoyed this celebration for exactly what and how it was. Various IGO guides were also part of that list. I pondered if by chance there had been any American Catholic dignitaries or other travelers in the crowd, or had there been only one unofficial ambassador?
A spectacular display of fireworks came exploding across the skies signaling end to the official ceremony but far from last call of the party. I'd had enough and was prepared to get a jump on the mass exodus. There was one last glance towards the closest kindred icon I'd shared the night with - Ronald's Golden Arches hanging off on the horizon a couple of blocks away.