La Serena: Churches

IMG_4579I am feeling quite sick on the day I leave Valparaiso~ the hovering “cold” stays close all night, which means that I get very little sleep and I get out of bed in a massive fog. Automatic pilot kicks in. Packing and repacking my backpack a few times means that the process has become smoother~ I now know where to put different things so that it will all fit. Automatic pilot follows these lines and then directs me out of the house where I have been the past few days, into a colectivo that is going down the cerro, into another colectivo that will take me to the bus station, into the coffee shop at the bus station, where she orders me a strong coffee and an empanada, after which she gently guides me to the bus platform. I come to my senses fully when we are almost arriving at La Serena, six hours later.

La Serena is a beachside town quite a bit north of Valparaiso- it is well-known for the large number of churches (29). After this point I plan to make a leap inland to Vicuna then a giant leap north to the desert of San Pedro de Atacama, so this is my last dose of ocean for a couple of weeks.

I am staying at a hostel and two of my roomies are Chilenos, from Santiago- Juan and Ivan. The other one is from Argentina, his name is Martin. He is a fascinating character who has been tramping for three months. Martin owned a successful hot dog (“completo”) shop in Buenos Aires- in South America, hot dogs are called “completos” because it is not your usual hot dog+bun+tomato sauce/mustard scenario, a “completo” is a hot dog on steroids- loaded with multiple fillings.. The life of the small business owner in Argentina was too stressful, he explained that you couldn’t make a profit without engaging in some sort of illegal tax practices, which meant that he was always thinking about money and how to get more. Soul-destroying. So now he tramps, he hitchhikes, he gets work where he can. Hearing him talk there is an obvious connection with Jack Kerouac, but he hasn’t heard of him. The passenger I pick up here is that money is not a critical ingredient for travel. What you need is time and to think outside the box. He has done most of his travelling so far on the cheap and he has had some fabulously rewarding experiences all by exchanging accommodation/food/experiences for work. He is doing it old school ~ eighty years ago he would have been hopping trains. His story speaks to me of the abundance that is there if you will only ask for it and be prepared to give something in return…..This gives me great food for thought in terms of my own questions about what to “do” next in my life. In contrast, my Chilean roomies are more conventional tourists in the sense that they are serious about getting to know La Serena and developing their tans before they get back to their everyday lives in Santiago.

One morning, Juan, Ivan and myself decide to go on a (free) walking tour of the city centre. Before leaving, at breakfast, I slip into conversation with a fellow called Antonio, from Vina del Mar. He is in La Serena to run a “laughter therapy” workshop. I’ve heard of this peripherally in my own explorations – most of which has focused on movement and dance.  We discuss body consciousness, which is something that I am exploring in this trip, except I am calling it “sensory ethnography”. I remember that I was so excited to hear about this methodology- mostly because it gave me an academic, and thus “viable”, pathway to follow when investigating an area that I find super interesting. But on the self-help circuit, the concept of body consciousness has been around for decades…..And speaking of body consciousness, I cannot help but notice that this “gallo” is cute! Tall, skinny, grey hair, piercing eyes. I enjoy the fleeting nature of our conversation and the goodbye knowing that I will take him with me simply as the “cute-Chileno-laughing therapy-guy”, never discovering the shadows.

After breakfast, Juan, Ivan and I walk to the town hall, where the tour starts. A group of people are congregating, people with the same idea as us. The guide appears, he is a very knowledgeable man, especially about the local flora and fauna. I am quite taken with his hands, and as I notice them Luiza pops into my mind. She is the only other person I know who is fascinated by hands. I wonder how she’s going? My eyes are glued to his hands as he points out a tree called the “Canela”, which is Indigenous to this region. They look like a gardeners hands, good at digging, used to touching the earth.

He leads us as we walk around the Plaza de Armas- I now twig to the fact that every town/city so far has a Plaza de Armas. We wander, stopping where he deems it necessary, so that we can listen to the information that he has stored in his head. This information centres mostly around the neocolonial architecture of many of the buildings in the centre of the town. He then uses this as a launchpad to highlight other types of architecture that pepper the cityscape- structural echoes from other times. La Serena has had the good fortune to have escaped a major earthquake for a very long time. It is for this reason that we can see this variety of architecture. This is a cool little fact to file away as I wander about gazing at buildings, but I find myself wanting to stray away from the group when we enter one of the churches.

I split off from the group and away from all that information. At this moment, I don’t want to be in my brain, listening to data. I want to be in my eyes, my heart, my feet. I follow the stations of the cross walking clockwise, following the walls of the church. In front of the statue of a female saint, I pause for a few minutes to watch a woman who is praying with her back to me. She is looking up. In my mind, I am asking myself what it feels like to place such hope (expectation?) in a god/gods/deity/saintly being? The mind kicks in, drags me away. I can’t help myself.

Her image bounces around in my head, hitting past personal histories with religious practice (12 years of private Catholic schooling). It rebounds off a dense core of cynicism. Some names inevitably pop up along with images, flashing past. Sr Jane Francis- an absolutely horrible, scary teacher I had in year seven. Also that priest at St Josephs in Mount Isa who caressed my back as he took my confession (with me sitting on his lap ewwww) and who, years later, went to prison for “interfering” with some other kids from my school. My great aunt Tia Paca- a cloistered nun in Toledo. Visiting the Vatican when I was 15 and seeing a bunch of blokes in robes living in the lap of luxury, all that money, all that gold…..But then there are the lovely images, that I still connect with today. The simple, joyous ceremony of Easter Sunday, the smell of Frankincense, singing….

As for Sister Jane Francis, “the priest” and Tia Paca, they are like phantoms that float past shaking their chains and making scary sounds whenever I think about the Church. Yet, as I sit and reflect, they deserve compassion, because they were absolutely mental, and I suspect that it was their spiritual practise that lead them there. Following a spiritual practise that requires chastity and a distancing from the material aspects of life requires a kind and caring guide, not a punitive God. It takes a strong person. It is a delicate line to tread, one where you might easily fall into spaces of intense frustration, anger and ignorance. It takes a special person. I understand the calling, honestly. When I was a little girl and we would travel to Spain and do the detour to Toledo to visit Tia Paca, it was all so mysterious. All the nuns would appear in their habits, with their wooden rosary beads, and sit on the other side of the visiting room, separated from us by a type of metal grate (?) I am trying to remember the design of this “window”. There was no physical contact. We would sit and talk, they would prepare us food and pass it through a dummy waiter opening. I remember seeing the same faces with every visit. Somehow, we would change, but they seemed to stay the same. I remember there was a part of me that also wanted to be cloistered in that old convent, perhaps to be hidden away….

My mother is now what I suppose what you might call a “non-practising” Catholic. My father is atheist. Even though he does not accept the existence of anything that cannot be experienced through the senses, he did not really say anything about us going to church on Sundays. And even though as soon as I could, I stopped going to Church, there has always been a part of me looking to something else. My love of going into Churches now is a vestige of that time, one that has transformed into a love of silence, meditation,symbolism, and the possibility of things unseen.

How is it to only believe in what you can touch or quantify? Coming out of a PhD this question is very close to my heart. I understand atheism, but there is one part of this vision that I find problematic. Can we really (comfortably) assume that because a human cannot measure a phenomenon, that it cannot exist? The human mind itself is only in the beginning stages of its evolution, relatively speaking- isn’t the fruit of this mind similarly rudimentary? Perhaps we are yet to design systems of measurement that can address that which we cannot observe right now. Perhaps the conceptualisation of these systems cannot even begin to happen until we open our minds to the possibility. Thousands of years ago, who could have conceptualised that it would be possible to fly? All the understanding that we have now was, at one point, inconceivable. This woman prays to something unseen, I appreciate that because her mind is open to the possibility

On the other hand, what is it that she is engaging with? What meaning does it have to her? From where I stand, at least from the Catholic perspective the way I understand it, the relationship to spirituality is underpinned by at least four concepts of God- God as a spiritual being that controls. God as a spiritual being that designs. God as a spiritual being that punishes. God as the “father” (not the mother- not the being- the father) who loves us. Without an intensely critical perspective, isn’t it dangerous to overlay human imagery onto something that is not human? It seems to me that the concepts of “control”, “design”, “punishment”, “love”- might be human concepts, specific to our form of consciousness. “God” is a way for humans to engage with an incomprehensible life force ~the process that drives everything forward~ it should be understood as such. It should be questioned.

God is the realm of the human, not of the butterfly or the tree. The human sees itself at the centre, does the butterfly? God made us in his image, positioning us nicely. How convenient. It is hard to not think that the concept of God builds on our inability to comprehend the true nature of nature by also facilitating a mass ego-trip, so that we can separate ourselves from the rest of nature. So that we can control, colonise nature. We are great at colonising. Oh, but we have consciousness, that is what makes us special. Tee hee!!! We have also colonised the notion of consciousness, for if you don’t have “human” consciousness then you have no consciousness. I started from a seed, I was born in a mess of pain and blood, I will live and one day I will die. Just like everything else. I am on a roll. Back to the point. The woman prays but I do not resonate with this praying. I would much prefer to go into nature, lie on the grass and feel myself connect with that force that drives my heartbeat. Or eat some mushrooms if the opportunity arises, go to a beautiful spot, and commune that way. Ultimately, who cares? Like the evangelist in Santiago, we are all walking different pathways, in the end we will arrive at the same destination. I don’t know. These are the things my brain spits up involuntarily as I sit and watch her.

I move onto the final stages of the stations of the cross. There is a Christ, bloodied, suffering in obvious agony on a cross. There is another woman, sitting in front of the cross, crying. At this most inopportune moment, Juan approaches me and starts talking about the Christ and how in Latin America you will always see the Christ suffering while in other countries (like Australia) you are more likely to just see the cross. He is speaking very loudly. He is talking about how this feeds into the guilt control of people. I find this fascinating but he is completely oblivious to this woman’s pain. She is having a moment. I want to tell him to shut up, but I don’t. Next to the Christ is a beautiful poem by Gabriela Mistral. She speaks of how the image of Christ in his agony gives her perspective. Nothing that we experience as humans could ever be as awful as what Christ experienced. Torture, deep pain, humiliation, and finally and most cruelly, abandonment by his own father at his moment of need. Although I don’t like the packaging of the message, I get it. Perspective. Appreciation for what one does have instead of what one doesn’t have. The packaging is pretty visceral though…….poor Jesus. I leave the woman behind me, crying silently. I wonder what she is trying to gain perspective about…

We walk out of the church and the tour concludes. Juan and Ivan are going to the beach, so I head off on my own. I wander past some markets and then to “El Guaton” for lunch. I eat porotas con plateado, which are these stewed white beans topped with a piece of slow-cooked beef that is just falling apart. It seems that when it comes to food, my belief that all life is equal gets thrown out the window. There are many things to be said of vegetarianism, but I am weak-willed when it comes to food. I sit and eat this animal and it is immensely satisfying. I love this kind of food, slow-cooked, cheap, comforting. For a moment, I see myself in the north of Spain in a couple of months time, eating like this every day as I walk the camino. I have to say though, the cow exacts its’ sweet revenge ~ the food hits my stomach like a grenade and I quickly feel myself sliding into a food coma. I fight it off walking across the city to the bus terminal and organising my bus tickets to Vicuna and San Pedro. After this I head back to the hostel for a much needed siesta…….

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