The virgin had come and gone. I had missed her.
When I had arrived at the church of San Francisco in Queretaro, Mexico, five teenagers were crouched creating a street tapete, or carpet, a spoonful of yellow, green, or orange sawdust at a time. Scents of pine and cedar tickled my nose. At my feet, a hot pink sawdust banner bloomed welcoming the Virgin of El Pueblito.
An adolescent boy spraying the carpet with a watering wand explained the virgin was coming in a procession for a special mass. “¡Qué bien! ” Great! When would she arrive? “Ahorita.” In Mexico, this elastic time expression covers everything from “right now” to “in a few hours” to “never,” to the dismay of gringos used to fixed schedules.
I sought a more precise answer at the nearby tourist information kiosk, but the young woman looked blank. “La procesión viene a pie desde El Pueblito,” she said. The procession is coming on foot from El Pueblito, a town on Queretaro’s outskirts. She shrugged and smiled. It gets here when it gets here.
Damn! The prospect of the solemn splendor of a virgin procession captivated me. I loitered for the next half an hour inspecting San Francisco’s golden altars in the hope she would appear.
Religious rituals fascinate me, despite being raised by staunch atheists. My well-intentioned parents said I could make up my own mind about religion when I was an adult, but until then they limited exposure to what they considered brainwashing. I wasn’t allowed to attend church or own a Bible.
Making religion forbidden fruit only increased its attraction. In primary school, I stashed a shoebox in my closet of Christian contraband I had scavenged: a green Gideons pocket New Testament, a wooden rosary, laminated prayer cards. On Sundays, I shut the closet door and performed a little service, reading Psalms and crossing myself as I had seen actors do in movies.
I grew up a skeptic like my parents. But my childhood spiritual hunger turned into a lifelong curiosity about the religious pageantry of other cultures. On my travels, I explore pilgrim circuits in Lhasa, Jain temples in Ranakpur, and Shinto shrines in Kyoto with the same clandestine thrill I felt sneaking into my closet.
In Queretaro, I exited the church’s carved doors, framed with a palm frond garland studded with white daisies and violet alfalfa. My stomach rumbles had become too loud to ignore. The teenagers were still hard at work on the elaborate tapete; surely there was time for a break. I followed Google Maps to a TripAdvisor-endorsed restaurant.
To expedite lunch, I ordered a bowl of tortilla soup, but complimentary appetizers appeared: charred blue corn chips with five dips, then a salsa-topped taquito. The Mexican midday comida is meant to be an unhurried meal. I succumbed to a slice of dense chocolate cake with cinnamon-spiced café de olla for dessert. When I returned, the tapete crafted with such care had been trampled by marchers and then swept away, leaving only errant sawdust flakes. My lunch had cost me the chance of seeing the virgin.
At twenty-two, before the advent of smartphones, I’d moved to London after college knowing no one, and having no plan except to use the city as a travel base. On my first long trip alone, I landed in Istanbul at midnight with no map, no Lonely Planet, and no place to sleep.
On that trip, tips from other travelers led me underground to Cappadocia’s cave cities, up a starlit trail to Mt. Sinai, and down the Nile on a wooden felucca. When I got lost in the warren of Damascus’s streets, I asked shopkeepers for directions. Hostels didn’t require reservations, so I just showed up.
More than two decades later, though, when planning this Mexico trip, I combed Airbnb months in advance to book rooms with five-star reviews within my budget of $25 a night. My Evernote app overflowed with lists of day trips from Queretaro (Bernal, Tequisquiapan), best Mexican bus companies (ETN, Primera Plus), and restaurants culled from TripAdvisor with recommended dishes (Tikua Sur Este, chocolate cake). If a café or museum was closed unexpectedly, my notes provided a ready substitute.
According to psychologists, overplanning gives anxious travelers a sense of control. I’d quit my job as a software engineer in Albuquerque to pursue long-postponed dreams of language learning and travel, starting with Spanish study in Mexico. But web searches unearthed news stories of a thirty-nine-year-old woman from Madrid kidnapped and murdered in Mexico City and gunbattles between police and gangs in Acapulco. Micromanaging travel arrangements became a way to deal with fear.
Working in tech had honed my Internet fact-finding skills and attention to detail. I checked State Department warnings and Googled language schools, finally settling on one in Guanajuato. To speed the resurrection of my rusty Spanish, I took weeks of Skype lessons from my tidy home office.
On departure day, I caught an Uber to the airport at dawn to find the plane grounded due to mechanical issues. As a one-hour delay stretched into eight, I struggled to WhatsApp my airport pickup driver and host family to warn them I’d be a day late. My plan to buy a SIM card and orient myself in Guanajuato before classes started evaporated. Despite the postponed arrival, on Monday I navigated to school using an offline map app through the twisting lanes lined with magenta and saffron yellow houses.
I studied for four weeks, taking four classes a day and toiling over grammar exercises at night. I roomed with the Sosas, an amiable brother and sister who shared their three-story hilltop home with Spanish students. Weekends were devoted to exploring Guanajuato’s maze of steep alleys and tree-filled plazas, as well as neighboring pueblos, or towns.
One Saturday, I planned a visit to the small city of Dolores Hidalgo, revered as the cradle of Mexican independence. Its church, where Mexican founding father Miguel Hidalgo uttered his famous call to arms, topped my list of must-sees. Travel blogs also extolled Dolores’s legendary nieves, or sorbets, with exotic flavors like octopus, beer, or chicharrón, pork rind.
As I unbolted the heavy front door to walk to the bus stop, however, Señora Sosa intercepted me. Petite, soft-spoken Erica Sosa served as mother hen to the students under her care. She told me that Mike, a new housemate from Nevada who’d arrived the day before, was in the hospital with acute appendicitis. Necesitamos que traduzcas, Ingrid: We need you to translate. Erica was going to visit him, along with her daughter Irene who had waitressed in New York and spoke fluent English.
Why was a translator required if Irene was coming? But Erica had never asked for help before, so with a sigh, I abandoned visions of taste-testing nieves in a sunny plaza and trudged along. The hospital was in a baby-blue mansion with geranium-laden balconies, but Mike’s room was a spare, simple cell with only a crucifix on the wall. He smiled as we entered, but couldn’t sit up.
It turned out no translation was necessary. As Erica and Irene chatted with the nurse, I sat and held Mike’s hand until his wife rushed in, breathless from the long journey. We connected so deeply that day that six years later we are still friends.
My visit to Dolores Hidalgo the next day fell on Palm Sunday. To experience one of Mexico’s most passionate religious holidays, I had booked my trip to coincide with Semana Santa, Holy Week, with its silent torchlit processions, reenactments of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus with centurions in Roman garb, and explosions of papier-mâché Judases stuffed with fireworks.
In Dolores’s plaza, women with long braids knelt hawking intricate figures of Christ on the cross woven from palm leaves, fleeting works of art. When I arrived at the historic church, I couldn’t get inside; it overflowed with worshippers, singing hymns and chanting responses. I strained on tiptoes for a glimpse of gilded retablos, or altarpieces over the crowd waving palm fronds in the air, but exploring the landmark as I’d planned proved impossible.
At 11 p.m. on Good Friday, my last night in Guanajuato, Erica and I attended the Procesión del Silencio, or Procession of Silence. Drums pounded and bugles blasted, but marchers and onlookers remained mute. Penitents shuffled the stony streets barefoot in musky clouds of incense, only dark eyes visible behind fabric hoods. Some staggered under floats laden with statues of Jesus and Mary, shoulders raw and bleeding from their rough tunics. What was it like to have such certainty of belief?
The next day, I hugged the Sosas adiós and embarked on the itinerary of central Mexico I’d crafted from hours of Reddit research, starting in Queretaro, where I missed the virgin. A week and multiple bus rides later, I reached Cholula. After a morning exploring its great pyramid, the world’s largest, buried for centuries under layers of soil and vegetation, I took an Uber to the church of San Francisco Acatepec. I’d been drawn by online photos of its exuberant baroque style, but nothing prepared me for the real thing.
Centuries ago, indigenous artisans had melded their artistic traditions with the Catholic faith. The façade blazed with yellow, blue, green, and red mosaic tile. Inside, a gold-leaf altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe glowed with matching yellow, blue, green, and red neon. I shifted from pew to pew trying to absorb the riot of dark-haired, pale-skinned cherubs popping out of the plaster.
As I exited, firecrackers banged, and the brassy thump of a marching band intensified. My heart accelerated. Could it be? A woman sheltering under a parasol with a little girl confirmed that residents of a nearby village were bringing their patron saint, the Virgen de Juquila, for a monthly mass. At last, a virgin procession had found me.
This time, no sawdust tapete greeted the icon’s arrival; rose petals and pastel-colored confetti were scattered in her path instead. The virgin journeyed on a wooden anda, or platform. Horns blared as she reposed on a table outside the entrance; believers clustered to greet her.
I sat on a bench next to the anda. The statue was about the size of the Barbies I had idolized as a child. My parents had, probably sagely, judged Barbie to be a noxious toy for young girls, but I coveted one anyway. I saved my allowance for a year to buy Long Hair Barbie, with a mane of blonde tresses that fell to her plastic buttocks. The Virgen de Juquila had luxurious hair too, but hers was black, likely donated by a devoted parishioner. In stark contrast to her indigenous hair and the brown skin of the villagers surrounding her, the syncretic saint’s tiny face was white, like the Spanish conquerors.
As mass began, four men lifted the anda and carried the icon into church trailed by the musicians, who jettisoned their instruments. Alone on the sunlit bench among snare drums and a grass green tuba, I reflected on the virgin’s sudden apparition. In the end, she had graced me with her presence independent of my attempts to plan and control.
What other discoveries might await me on this trip? I arose from the bench ready for whatever would find me next.