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On Exchange, Fiestas of Faith: Exploits of a Wandering Wellingtonian in South America

Monica Evans



By way of introduction, I’m Monica Evans, your Valparaísian voice, your Chilean correspondent, your Latin American lovechild… I’m a strayed Vic student, and I’m just about to start a semester-long University-exchange in Valparaíso, Chile, and charmed-I’m-sure to have the chance to recount to you some of my experiences and observations of life on the opposite edge of the Pacific Ocean.
So. As it happens, I’ve already been in Chile almost a month, and to be honest it’s a wee bit difficult to know where to start. In the interests of arranging these articles more or less thematically, let’s jump in first with religion, and more specifically, the Fiestas de La Tirana. This is a huge Catholic-indigenous hybrid religious celebration, which is held annually in a tiny oasis town in the desert of northern-most Chile. It so happened the celebrations fell the week after I arrived in the country. I’d been keen to go, but a bit dubious about making the 27-hour trip by myself, and slightly preoccupied with the task of negotiating, in my hundred-level-and-a-half Spanish, a place to live in Valparaíso for the rest of the year.
Fortunately, thanks to my instinctive trust in long-haired broken-toothed raggedy-handsome Latino men, within half an hour of my arrival in Valpo I had a merry vegetarian place to live, a capoeira class that afternoon and a fiesta to go to that night. It almost felt like cheating; I’d been sure there’d be months of lonesome wandering, kicking decaying leaves through uncaring streets, before I got sorted like this. I was almost disappointed about all the bitter soul-scraping poetry I wouldn’t get to write. Anyway, it so transpired that at the fiesta I met Guillermo, an 18-year-old French-Spaniard who invited me to make the mission to La Tirana with him.
And off we went. And so, it seemed, did the rest of Chile. Around 200,000 pilgrims, entrepreneurs and interested bystanders had arrived at La Tirana – normal population 600 – to pay their respects at the shrine of the Virgen del Carmen. Two hundred and thirty different religious groups, each with their own bright-coloured costume and band playing drums and brass instruments, made the mission from all over northern Chile and parts of Bolivia and Peru to perform their dances for the Virgin. It often seemed like most of them were doing so simultaneously, alongside each other, starting in the church in the main plaza and spilling out into the streets. Every few minutes the crowds would part to allow a new effigy of the Virgin, Jesus or Joseph to pass, borne aloft on the shoulders of the faithful. Other believers made the dusty pilgrimage to the Virgin´s sanctuary on their knees or stomachs, as row upon row of devils jumped a diabolical jig, their masks painted according to indigenous traditions and illuminated with the tackiest of Vegas fairy lights. This chaotic cacophony of faith lasted quite literally every hour of the day and night for two weeks. Of course, the Spirit of the Virgin, so tangible here even for a religious sit-on-the-fencer like myself, did little to obscure the Spirit of Rampant Capitalism that characterises so much of the post-dictatorship Chile. Coke flags hung proudly beside religious banners – some people even waved them during Mass – in the markets that surrounded the plaza; practically everything not made out of llama hailed from China.
Young Guillermo, despite his uppity España accent and incapacity to spend less than an hour grooming each morning, turned out to be a particularly worthy travelling companion. Not only did he retrieve my wallet when I left it in a public toilet and my credit card when I left it on a counter, lend me his hat when I got cold and remain calm when I lost it a few hours later; he also had the good fortune of a contact, Sebastian, in Iquique (the city closest to La Tirana), a distant cousin of a girl who’d once stayed at his house in Paris. Sebastian was a guy about our age who, despite having never heard of either of us, picked us up from the bus-stop, fed us, and took us out to La Tirana with him, where his extended family had a kind of a bach that they migrated to for the fiestas each year. Despite the fact that there were already about twenty people crammed into this tworoom place, we were welcomed absolutely as part of the whanau, to the point where I now have a whole new set of loving, if overbearing, Chilean aunties and uncles, who are all absolutely scandalised by the fact that my parents are letting me roam this far from home at the age of twenty, oh the pobrecita niña!
The gulf in so many Catholic countries between word and deed is particularly pronounced in Chile. It’s often said that Chile’s laws, thanks to the political influence of the Catholic Church, are vastly more conservative than its people, and this is no more obvious than in the cases of divorce law – after three years of marriage in Chile, you can’t get divorced – and abortion law – it´s illegal, full stop. Of course, people still get divorced, if they can pay a lawyer to fabricate something that proves the marriage illegitimate, and still get abortions, in Chile, it’s estimated that there are around six abortions for every ten births. If the woman can pay, this can be done in a good private clinic. If she can’t, there are plenty of cheap and dodgy options, but if anything goes wrong and hospital help is required (as occurs in around a fifth of cases), the woman is likely to be arrested upon admission.
However, political and social implications aside for a second, I do have to say that the kind of faith that I witnessed at La Tirana was truly something special. In an age where so many manifestations of traditional or indigenous culture seem to be put on principally for the benefit of tourists and their greenbacks, La Tirana felt, well, real. It wasn’t for us. It was for the Virgin, and everyone, from the littlest three-year-old dancers to the withering old monks to the muddle-headed munters, believed.