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Pro-Ecuador Insiders' Newsletter, Issue #003 -- Pilgrimage to the Virgin of El Quinche
December 06, 2007
A NIGHT OF MIRACLES, A NIGHT OF DEATH
Gary and I spent Saturday a week ago shopping in Quito. We made arrangements with Isaac, our favorite Cotacachi taxi driver, to be picked up at a mall in north Quito. Leaving the mall around 8:40 p.m. for the return trip to Cotacachi should have been about a 1 1/2 hour journey north. Not so. On this special night, we didn't arrive home until 5:30 a.m. the next day!
Heading north, the traffic was unusually slow. By 11 p.m. we were still inching our way through Quito proper. At the entrance to the Pan-American Highway north, we were re-directed south by police who had the entire road closed off. It dawned on us that we had been caught in the midst of the yearly pilgrimage to the Virgin of El Quinche.
We had heard about the pilgrimage from a friend who avoids leaving her house each year because the pilgrims are so thick that traveling is impossible. Thousands of pilgrims walk in hopes of receiving a miracle. It hadn’t occurred to any of us that the huge crowds would be enveloping Quito, too.
Isaac sped south for thirty minutes, searching for a way to bypass the crowds and turn north again. Police stopped us completely as we approached thousands of people thronging en masse north toward Ibarra and Colombia.
Isaac turned around and pulled off the road behind a long line of other cars and trucks. We took turns guarding the cab and our purchases and eating roast chicken at a “Kokoriko” restaurant nearby. We were joined by a young man in his thirties who told us that this was his fourth pilgrimage.
We asked our dinner companion if he expected a miracle and he said yes. Every year miracles are reported. His mother was unable to walk for years but after her first pilgrimage, she was mobile again within six months! He is a strong believer in the power of miracles and the power of the Virgin to heal. He told us that he would walk 50 kilometers tonight in 8 hours.
Everyone walks very briskly. The crowd was surprisingly young. Mothers carried infants and held younger children by the hand. Teen-aged couples also held hands or walked arm-in-arm, as did groups of girls and boys. It was a happy, relaxed, tennis-shoed throng, clearly filled with anticipation and excitement, purposeful yet calm.
At 12:35 a.m. the police removed the barriers. We were among the first to enter the empty freeway, but were immediately overrun by buses barreling down upon us at break-neck speed. We guessed that they were hurrying to be first to pick up pilgrims who had given up or were ready to return home.
However, their headlong rush didn't last long. Minutes later we all braked to a halt and napped in our cars until 2:45 a.m. Again as the police removed barriers, we all raced along the winding Pan-American outside the Quito city limits for about ten minutes. Traffic was mostly buses with no oncoming vehicles. Isaac passed two buses and just managed to squeeze in when a bus careened past us and disappeared around a curve.
The bus that had passed us was tilted in the left ditch of the Pan-American. As we passed it, we saw smoke and dust rising from a small compact car that the bus had hit head-on. The car was crushed like a coke can, totally demolished. There was no sign of life.
Our driver was visibly upset, calling out God's name and railing against buses that are always in such a hurry on the roads. All traffic stopped again and we sat silently in the dark. A policeman walked to the wreck, then more policemen, an ambulance and fire truck.
A man wandered by and stopped to talk to Isaac. Isaac became very loud and agitated. When we asked him about it, he said that the man he was talking to was the driver of the bus that hit the car!
The man showed no signs of remorse, shock or upset that I could detect, just chatting and laughing. However, we’ve been told that Ecuadorians typically cover their stress or upset with laughter, so he may have been in a state of shock. He walked away, talking to other bus drivers.
At 4 a.m. traffic started forward again. Winding down the hills in front of us into the river valley, we could see the red brake lights of a long stream of vehicles. We were approaching the place where the pilgrims turned off the road and made their way up a mountain to the shrine of the Virgin. We could see tiny lights moving up the mountain as pilgrims with candles or flashlights made their ascent. At the top were 3 bright lights, marking the pilgrims' way toward their destination, the fine old church at El Quinche.
We had reached the village of Guayllabamba. The area was very littered with debris and smelled of rotting food. Watermelon rinds, paper, lettuce, the remains of cooking were strewn everywhere. Tents were pitched haphazardly and there were a large number of open cooking fires and makeshift eateries.
The sun was coming up as we arrived safely at home. I had meditated much of the night and my meditations were very deep. In spite of the traffic accident, I was aware of a profound peacefulness and contentment, happy to be a part of the mass movement so focused on their worship of the Virgin of Quinche.
Perhaps next year I will make the pilgrimage myself, walking to experience even more deeply what propels so many to make the arduous trip. I wondered if our dinner companion had reached his goal and if he had received a miracle last night. He seemed so sure that a miracle would be granted him, so expectant and reverent, that I hope he got his wish. For him, the Virgin rewards those who are faithful, sacrificing and loyal.
But last night, it seems that at least one carload of pilgrims was not so lucky. Instead of experiencing a miracle from the Virgin of Quinche, their meeting was with the Grim Reaper.
Click here for the rest of the story, a fascinating synchronicity regarding our pilgrimage to the Virgin of Quinche.
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