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Sawdust Rugs and Stations of the Cross in Comayagua

Easter has a different meaning on diferent parts of the world. While most american’s celebrate easter with fantastic treasure hunts, the strong catholic traditions found in most latinamerican countries have a very different way of celebrating this time of the year. In Honduras they call it Semana Santa, spanish for Holy week.

Semana Santa is usually a wash for me. You can’t get any work done that week, so you have to take time off, but Tegucigalpa becomes a ghost town. The only thing that interrupts the peace and quiet is mass, on a marathon schedule. All grocery stores close and they play Ben-Hur dubbed in Spanish several times on TV.

I hate crowds, too, so the coast is not an option. So what is a finicky atheist to do in Honduras during Semana Santa? The only sane answer is tourism to the “interior.”

My favorite Semana Santa was spent in Copan, which is a great destination any time of the year, but especially nice for Semana Santa. The ruins are generally open during holidays, there are quite a few other visitors to the town, and just a bit of religious activity to remind you that we are honoring the crucifixion of Jesus.

As Semana Santa rolled around this year, Copan seemed a bit beyond my range, but I wanted to do something besides cruise the empty streets of Tegucigalpa. I decided to make a visit to the Good Friday processions in Comayagua.

Comayagua is one of many cities in Latin America, including Antigua, Guatemala, that have a procession of the “Santa Vma Crucis” or Stations of the Cross, that takes place on sawdust rugs. In recent years there have been sawdust rugs on the streets of Tegucigalpa, also. But the most important and oldest celebration of the Stations of the Cross in Honduras is in Comayagua.

Sawdust Carpets
Comayagua makes a very easy day trip from Tegucigalpa, but this was the first time that I had ever visited. The central park and the Cathedral are beautiful for a casual visit, and there are several other important cathedrals and churches, that are very important in the history of Comayagua as an historical and religious center of Honduras (as well as political Comayagua was for many decades the capital of Honduras).

But to heck with all that, I’m here for the sawdust carpets. The drive to Comayagua was a breezy hour and a half. I left early to allow plenty of time for traffic, but there weren’t many cars on the road. There were quite a few traveler assistance checkpoints set up; some were National Police (who also wanted to check license and registration) and others were Red Cross, Firefighters and other worthy public service organizations. I felt very safe cruising the highways by myself on Semana Santa.

Comayagua is a very easy city to navigate. It is small but the streets are wide and straight, which is a welcome change from Tegus. I wandered down toward the cathedral and soon found myself in the midst of the action.

I parked on the street several blocks from the plaza, and headed towards the crowds. I soon found the trail of the sawdust carpets, and began to move along with a steady flow of locals, foreign tourists, US soldiers from the base, and groups of people working on the carpets.

The carpets are created by different groups, some of whom are local families, local social organizations, Catholic groups, and also “professional” sawdust carpet design groups, often from Guatemala, who create carpets sponsored by businesses.

Stations of the Cross
The creative effort underway at 9:30 am was astounding. Most carpets were already completed, but several still had workers patiently stenciling the brightly colored sawdust onto cardboard patterns. The creators have the responsibility to keep small children and dogs from disturbing their hard work, and also must mist the sawdust rug with water to keep the wind from disturbing it.

This event is a photographer’s paradise, filled with beautiful subjects that lay still while you frame them. Most carpets have a ladder or scaffold installed so that photographers can get the shot from above. There are lines of people with cameras or video recorders waiting their turn to shoot the best of the carpets.

Dedicated photographer that I am, I forgot my batteries. There were a variety of small and medium “Mom ‘n Pop” pulpermas open (and doing their briskest business of the year), and I found batteries, and all other essentials were available for purchase in Comayagua on Good Friday.

I spent the next hour spellbound by the incredible amount of artistic effort that went into all the carpets, amateur and professional. Can you believe they are going to walk on these?

The procession started on time, in some distant part of Comayagua, but I was already getting claustrophobic in the Central Park, standing in front of the station where Jesus is getting stabbed by a Roman with a spear. This particular event was being acted out by children; a small Jesus, with his crown of thorns painted on, a distraught Mary in robes, and a brutish little Roman. The children took the stage just as the procession arrived. In the procession, a model of Jesus in purple robes, carrying a cross soon arrived, being carried by many strong men. A priest led them, stopping to quote scripture into a megaphone. The crowd was quite thick, as there are many people who accompany the procession along its route. Some of these are women, who dress in black mantillas, showing their mourning for Christ. Some women also carry along their babies, who are dressed in purple robes, with crown of thorns and drops of blood painted on their faces, their eyes outlined with dark make-up to simulate Christ’s agony.

After the Procession
The very deep and traumatic religious symbolism at this point makes me seek out the food booths. There are plenty of these selling all sorts of Honduran junk food, including burgers (?!?!) and fish sandwiches. There are also T-shirts available from several vendors that have great pictures of carpets and cathedrals.

Having participated beyond the call of duty in the religious activities of Semana Santa, I returned to the carpets only long enough to confirm: the priest, and the devoted, and the rest of the procession had carried Jesus right over the carpets, leaving only a scattered spill of sawdust where the beautiful carpets had been only minutes before. Now that is what I call devotion.

I was back in Tegucigalpa by early afternoon, and with a stunning collection of photos and memories. Plus some T-shirts, and some tamales purchased on the highway.

All in all, not a bad balance for a week that is usually a wash.

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