When you think of pilgrims in the US, you may think of the people dressed in black and white garments arriving on the Mayflower and Thanksgiving dinner. Pilgrim, or ‘peregrino’, has a whole new definition where I live. The pilgrimage to Ayabaca is a annual religious expedition in which thousands of people walk from their town to Ayabaca. Depending on where you are coming from your journey can range anywhere between 3 to 12 days, or even months if you are walking from Lima (an 18 bus ride away). The whole reason behind the pilgrimage is to visit and celebrate Senor Cautivo. Senor Cautivo is a religious statue said to be miraculously constructed by 2 mysterious people deemed as angels (click link for more info). Many people go on the pilgrimage every year to repent for their sins or ask a petition from God – most people go in car, other people who are crazy enough go by foot, and some even go crawling on their knees.
My siblings, Carla and Christian, and I all made a promise to one another to go my last year together to walk with our community. I set this goal to reflect on my two years in Peru, to make a memory with my host siblings and to prove to my community I could do it. And I somehow convinced my badass of a best friend, Annie, to come with us too.
A pilgrimage is very different from a hike in many aspects. One of them is the fact you go with an ‘hermandad’, which is a close-knit group of people from the same community who have been preparing for the month prior to go together. There is a president who is charge of maintaining the whole group ‘morale’ as well as leading the ceremonies and chants you do upon certain legs of the trip. The rule is that you go at the pace of the slowest person in the hermandad, and take care of anyone that is having any issues. We were in a group of 18 people, and I 100% would not have made it without our hermandad getting me over numerous lows in the journey.
The journey from my site, Villa Chatito, is 5 days. Overall, it was a very long, beautiful, exhausting and the most inspiring journey I have ever gone on – and honestly did help me reflect on these past two years. We began the journey by foot literally from my house through 180 miles of desert terrain and hiked up numerous mountains to reach our destination of Ayabaca. To put it into perspective, the return trip in bus was 7 ½ hours in car from Ayabaca to Chatito – think of somewhere that far away from you, and that is how far we walked (for many that would be Columbus to Chicago).
When I say ‘5 days’ I mean walking over 20 hour days a day. We would wake up to start walking at 1:00am when the moon and stars were all at full force to take advantage of not walking in the sun. Annie and I thought this meant we would sleep during the day to avoid the burning sun, but we were so very wrong. We walked continuously from 1:00am until 8:00pm, with minimal and very short breaks – which were necessary to eat or go to the bathroom. That is over 18 hours of straight walking a day…not something my body was accustom to. Which explained the sprained swollen ankles at the end of it all.
The first two days were the most difficult as it was pure desert and your viewpoint would not change. It would take you about 6 hours to get to the point you were looking at, and then once you got there you had another 6 hours to go. While this is happening, we are walking along the side of the highway where cars are speeding by at 100 miles an hour getting to where we want to get to in a fraction of the time. But it wasn’t about our speed, it was about our journey. But honestly, I will never walk through the desert again for two days non-stop unless I find myself in hell.
Once we got over the desert and into the green oasis, it honestly was a very beautiful journey. And we had a lot of time to think. The rule is to walk at the pace of the weakest link. They deemed Annie and I as the weakest links at the beginning for our ‘gringa-ness’. This was rapidly denounced when we made a 6 hour advance on the other group who left from our town shortly after us. On our final day, we arrived into Ayabaca at 11:30am, and the men in our group who had walked to Ayabaca for 24 years had never arrived before 11:30pm. So we showed them!
The final moment when we reached the top of our last mountain was very emotional. I have never wept in my life, and I wept of pain (because my ankles were balloons) and for fear that this journey would literally never end. The two teenage boys next to me looked at me in fear and just helped me get to the top. Once we got to the top, our president had us all form two lines facing one another and gave a motivational speech about our journey together which left everyone in tears and giving one another hugs before we began the journey down to Ayabaca.
We walked into Ayabaca how we left Chatito, chanting songs with our tambourines in hands. The line to get into the church was overwhelming and wrapped around the whole plaza. We were able to go straight into the church and skip the line since we were pilgrims. We saw Senor Cautivo, and it was more stunning to see how much people worshipped him for their own reasons. Afterwards, we slept in the plaza until mass where we were interviewed for why we came on the pilgrimage. In the end, we all got on a bus back to Chatito through the night and woke up to one another in our home, where we all arrived a little different than how we left.
There are so many weird and amazing anecdotes from this 5 day journey that it is hard to summarize – But here are some of the high-lights:
- The whole town sees off the hermandad when leaving for the journey. The 5 girls in the group were given tambourines to help sing the songs on the way out. Little did we know we would be holding these tambourines for the next 5 days. I awkwardly carried mine in my hand for the first 2 days, before thinking to strap it up to my backpack. Also I would like to note Annie and I were the only girls (2 out of the 5) who carried their backpacks the whole time.
- We adapted to being homeless extremely fast. We were able to fall asleep anywhere when we were given the opportunity – form the side of highways, sidewalks, mountain paths, etc. The ground was our bed, and we were relieved anytime we were able to rest. We bathed in a stagnant creek and a running river where it felt like paradise at the moment. And we slept on tarps underneath the open sky. It was beautiful.
- Somehow nobody else was hungry. I on the other hand was constantly starving and found myself eating at any moment I could. It was crazy seeing how people had set up shop in the middle of no where to sell food to you at any hour of the day. Also, a huge shout out to the people who do the journey in car to give free food and drinks out to all of us pilgrims. As well as our families, who journeyed out on the third day to replenish our food supply and lighten us all up a bit.
- Although nobody else was hungry, they all were thirsty. And if you know anything about my town, you should know when they are thirsty they do not want water – they want chi-cha de jora, which is the corn-based alcoholic drink. Thus began the chi-cha mystery, where the men would pull out liters of chi-cha from their backpacks, we would finish it, and then they would find some random person to refill it. Never did we take a break after 11am without a sip of chi-cha to give us ‘fuerza’ or the strength we needed to get to the next break. This was actually very much appreciated.
- Out of our 18 person group – 16 of them wore flip-flops the whole time. They thought Annie and I were crazy for switching between running shoes and flip-flops (and maybe we were). A bunch of us ended up getting hideous blisters in which our ‘doctors’ popped them and stitched them up with a piece of yarn that stayed there to continuously drain the liquid. So I walked with about 5 pieces of yarn in my feet for the majority of the journey.
- My sister, Carla, and I could’ve been a period commercial. Not only was it both of our time of the month, and we were being extremely active and not letting anything stop us – but we also used kotex pads soaked in alcohol stuck to our flip flops to help with our giant blisters. Works wonders!
- We were a walking replication of ‘Stand by Me’ Peruvian style and without the search for a dead body. The majority of our group consisted of 13 year old boys and this was their first time ever leaving Villa Chatito. It was too cute and we should have documented their journey.
- Annie and I were woken up from napping in the plaza like homeless people to be interviewed by TVPeru with their cameras already in their face. We did it, and literally have no idea what we said.
- Annie and I almost made it the 5 days without having our group worry about us until the final hours. We were waiting for the bus in freezing Ayabaca so we decided to go get something to ‘eat’, or what we considered getting a well-deserved beer. We told them we would be back by 9pm. At 8pm, Annie gets an call from an unknown number, which ended up being my sister, Carla, because my phone was dead. Carla had to go through the trouble to call another volunteer to get Annie’s number. She told us to come back to the plaza. Upon arrival, a police officer approaches us asking if we are ‘Anita’…took a moment but yes I guess Annie may be Anita. Moments later one of our buddies runs up to us saying they had been searching for us frantically for an hour, and had informed all the police. We found them all super relieved to find us, which led to this hilarious photoshoot of them. Some great and very kind people we were able to walk with these 5 days.
Overall, this is just a brief glimpse of what this pilgrimage really was. Everyone did it for different reasons but in the end there were a million memories made, many friendships formed and a journey I know I will never forget with a community I could never forget.