Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Superstitions, saints & shrines

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Before reaching the national parks I had to cross the Miranda pass – a climb of 1200m over the Sierra de Sañogasta – then cover 250km through more desert. I set off early to give myself plenty of time to enjoy the ride to the top (also as, having had a bit of a scare with the sandstorm a couple of days earlier, I was now carrying 4.5 extra litres of water – which means 4.5kg of additional weight and slower progress). The weather complied with a beautiful day (for once!).

The road up was stunning.

Riding up to the Miranda pass

One of the interesting things about travelling through Argentina is the number of shrines you see at the roadside. I’ve been fascinated to learn about these. Here are the three main protagonists:

Gauchito Gil

Shrines to Gauchito Gil can be easily spotted from a distance, thanks to to their red flags flapping in the wind. I have asked a number of people to explain the story behind Gauchito Gil, and have received just as many different answers replies. From what I can piece together, and with the help of Wikipedia, Antonio Gil was born in the 1840s and worked as a farmhand. After getting into some romantic trouble with a local wealthy lady, he was conscripted into the army to fight in the Argentine civil war. He deserted and became an outlaw. Thereafter he spent time roaming the countryside and desert as a gaucho, acting as a Robin Hood figure, relieving rich land owners of their possessions and redistributing them to the poor local labourers.

Legend has it that eventually the local police caught up with Gauchito Gil when hiding in a forest. After torturing him in a thorny tree, they prepared to kill him. At this point, Gauchito Gil predicted to the local police sergeant that whilst he knew he would shortly be killed, when the sergeant got home that night, a letter would be waiting for him confirming Gauchito Gil’s pardon and also containing a message that the sergeant’s son was dying off a strange illness. Gauchito Gil said that if the sergeant prayed and begged him to save his child, then the son would live, but if not, he would die. The sergeant laughed in his face and cut his throat anyway. Needless to say, when the sergeant returned to his village, he received a lettter and found the prophecy to be true.

Full of fear and remorse, the sergeant then prayed to the spirit of Gauchito Gil to save his son anyway. The next day, his son was inexplicably recovered, and legend says Gauchito Gil was ‘the bigger man’ for saving the son of his executioner. In acknowledgement of this, the sergeant gave Gauchito Gil a proper burial and in his honour, built a shrine in the form of a red cross – which is why the red flags can be seen today. The shrines are also often accompanied by donations of botttles of water and red wine, to help Gauchito Gil quench his thirst as he rides through the desert.

Gauchito Gil – the ‘people’s saint’ – has a very large popular following, and there is a lot of support in Argentina towards petitioning the Catholic Church to make him an official saint (controversial!). For the time being, it’s not the done thing to cross oneself when going past the shrine, but rather to say ‘Ciao’. Many locals believe he had miraculous healing powers and the power of hypnosis, also that he was immune to bullets. As such he is revered for providing protection from harm and imminent death, luck, good fortune, good health, healing, protection for cowboys, outlaws and deserters, bravery, and safe passage.

Difunta Correa

For every I great man there is an equally great woman, and the story of La Difunta Correa (literally meaning ‘The Deceased Correa’) is certainly one to rival that of Gauchito Gil.

According to local folklore, the husband of Deolinda Correa was forcibly conscripted into the Argentine civil wars in 1840. He fell sick and was abandoned. Deolinda set out into the desert with her small baby to find him. Following in his tracks, she never reached him and eventually succumbed to the heat and lack of water. Her lifeless body was found four days later by some gauchos, with her baby lying next to her. Miraculously her child was found alive and well, still suckling at her breast.

This peasant woman has now become a venerated figure of devotion, with hundreds of thousands of people going on pilgrimage to visit her grave every year. People believe she has the power to save travellers and leave bottles of water at her shrine to quench her thirst (I also quite often see statues of swans, but haven’t been able to figure out what those signify!). She is the unofficial patron saint of truck-drivers, travellers and cattle drivers, and anyone else who may need to have their thirst quenched. For this reason, you also often see truck tyres and car number plates left as offerings at her shrines.

I’m ashamed to say the first few times I saw the ‘Difunta Correa’ signs, I thought it meant ‘knackered road surface’ (I’d literally translated in my head as ‘defunct roadway’). I live and learn!

San Expedito

Expeditus was apparently a Roman centurion born in Armenia of all places, who was murdered in 303 AD for converting to Christianity. Considered the patron saint of ‘speediness’, he was first called upon to help with urgent causes, and has since become the patron of sailers, students and examines. Apparently he is also called upon to help with lawsuits.

(According to Wikipedia… ) ‘Expeditus’ is Latin for a soldier without a marching pack – i.e. one who can march speedily. Some alternative stories also say a package of relics from France was delievered to some nuns marked ‘expédit’ to ensure fast delivery, and they then thought this meant the contents belonged to a “Saint Expédit”, and so the name evolved from there.

Whatever the case, San Expedito is counted on to help make things happen quickly, particularly for those in desperate need. He is patron for emergencies, exepeditious solutions, against procrastination, and to protect merchants and navigators. His shrine is often surrounded by flowers and candles. I’ve also seen little statues of him appear in places like bus stations and in travel agencies, presumably for protection on the road.

Combining all three – spotted this shrine up in the high cordillera near Aconcagua, dedicated to all three of these ‘saints of the people’.

Having made it to the top of the Miranda pass under the watchful eyes of these three characters, I decided to stay in a small hospedaje in one of the only buildings around. It was run by this wonderful and industrious family,

As I walked in to ask if there was any ‘space at the inn’, I was greeted by the two ladies of the house trying to prise open the jaws of this cow’s head…

Making me some tasty empañadas on the indoor fire. They were very surprised to learn that indoor fires are illegal in London.

The son was a bit of a joker. He was ready and waiting to join me when it was time to leave, decked out in his ski goggles ready for any eventuality (perhaps he’d have done better to drop a quick prayer to Difunta Corrrea!).

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