El Camino Del Rocio

HISTORY OF EL ROCIO

This cult dates back to the 13th century, when a hunter from the village of Villamanrique (or Almonte, depending on which version of the story you follow) discovered a statue of the Virgin Mary in a tree trunk in the Doñana park. A chapel was built where the tree stood, and it became a place of pilgrimage. Devotion to this particular version of the Virgin was initially a local affair. Then, by the 17th century, hermandades (brotherhoods) were making the trip from nearby towns at Pentecost; by the 19th century, they came from all over Huelva, Cadiz and Seville, on a journey taking up to four days. Over the next century, the cult of the Virgin del Rocio became more and more widespread, and these days participants come from as far away as Barcelona and the Canary Islands – not to mention tourists who travel from abroad, around Europe and even further afield.

It is customary for the hermandades to stop at the town of Villamanrique. Oxen are then made to pull the cart carrying the image of the Holy Virgin up a staircase to the entrance of the local church “pictured above” and receive a blessing from the priest.

A pilgrim takes a rest in the famous “Vado del Quema” river, were it is customary for first time pilgrims to get baptised as “Rocieros”.

WHAT, WHERE AND WHEN IS IT?

The object of the pilgrimage is a 13th-century statue of the Virgen Del Rocio (Virgin of the Dew), in the town of the same name. El Rocio is in Huelva province, in the heart of the Doñana park, between Almonte and the coast. Most pilgrims, known as rocieros, approach the town through the park itself.
The town of El Rocío is a sprawling, pretty Wild-West-style place (you tie your horse to a wooden rail with a sign saying “Reservado Caballos” – reserved for horses – while you have a drink or a meal), with sandy, unpaved roads (easier on the hooves). For a few days in late May or early June, Catholic hermandades (brotherhoods) and countless others flock from all over Andalucia, Spain, and beyond, to the town, to pay tribute to the Virgin del Roció, housed in her own church in the town.
Until the 1950s the town had only a few houses, and everyone camped in their wagons. Now, each of the 90 or so brotherhoods has its own house with stables, as well as its own chapel, with its name displayed at the front. Its members and their friends and families, and their horses, eat and sleep here during the pilgrimage weekend. People bring mattresses and bed down anywhere they can. There are impromptu parties, open-air masses, horse races and competitions between the hermandades. And lots of singing and dancing, at all hours of the day and night. These brotherhoods also stay at their houses at weekends throughout the year, with their families in tow, making each visit into a big fiesta.
The pilgrimage takes place over the weekend before Pentecost Monday, the seventh weekend after Easter (7th – 9th June 2014). People start arriving on the Friday before, and leave again on Tuesday.. The actual pilgrims don’t travel on the motorway itself, but follow a route which sometimes goes alongside it – the queue of horses and wagons, surrounded by clouds of dust snakes back for miles.

With Spring in the air, dancing and singing around campfires and the romance of travelling by horse and carriage it’s little wonder that so many Rocieros are actually “Made In El Rocio”.
This couple take an intimate moment behind a a wagon away from the travelling troop.

HOW DO THEY GET THERE, AND WHAT HAPPENS ON THE WAY?

Every late May, or early June, in villages and cities across Andalucia (especially the western part), you can see the locals gear up their covered wagons and don traditional Andalucian clothing – broad-brimmed hats and traje corto for men (grey, brown or black trousers, often with Western-style leather chaps, and boots), and flamenco dresses for women – a slightly different style, with a fuller skirt than the fitted Feria dresses – to head off to the El Roció shrine, accompanied by their own virgin on her simpecado (float).

Some still make the journey the traditional way, on horseback, or in picturesque gypsy-style covered wagons (reminiscent of the Wild West), adorned with flowers (either real or imitation), with curtains tied back, offering a glimpse of the interior. These are pulled by pairs of oxen, whose yokes have decorated leather headpieces, and bells hanging round their necks. It is a spectacular sight – one not to be missed if you are in the area (especially Western Andalucia) that week. In Seville, for example, groups of horse-riders (men are called jinetes, women amazonas) and processions of gypsy caravans from the Seville brotherhoods, gather by the cathedral on the Wednesday morning before, as they prepare to set off on their pilgrimage to El Rocio. They return the following Wednesday. Other hermandades leave from all over Andalucia, earlier in the week.

A travelling troop brave the heat of the afternoon sun and dust on there way through the Doñana national park..

Everyone sings rocieras (flamenco-style songs about the pilgrimage) as they travel, and again at night around the campfire when the hermandades have stopped to eat, drink and dance and make merry, accompanied by plenty of wine. It is alleged by some that the annual baby boom which happens nine months after El Rocio always includes offspring produced as a result of extra-marital dalliances.

There are three main, traditional routes, and most hermandades, wherever they are arriving from, eventually join one of these. These depart from Triana (Sevilla, to the north-east), Sanlucar de Barrameda (south), and Huelva (west).
People also travel in big trailers pulled by tractors, ideally with shade as it can get very hot, as well as lots of food and drink. The rocieros sit on benches along the sides of the trailers, including many children who go on the pilgrimage every year. The more practical and comfortable, though less attractive, option is a big white caravan, with the same curved roof as the traditional models, complete with air-con and running water. This is pulled by a 4×4, as the route takes rocieros through the Doñana park, including several river crossings, so a tough vehicle is essential.

To reach the shrine, pilgrims must cross part of the Doñana park, which is a protected area full of rare wildlife, including the famous lynx wild boar, horses, and many water birds on the marisma (wetlands) such as flamingos, herons, storks and egrets. Law enforcement is well organised, with Guardia Civil and others working hard not only to keep order, but also to protect the environment. Fire is a special concern, as this event is one long party involving copious amounts of drinking and smoking. Information campaigns combine with round-the-clock surveillance in order to keep both participants and Doñana safe every year. Volunteers follow the rocieros to collect the thousands of kilos of rubbish left behind.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE VIRGIN MAKES HER APPEARANCE?

In the early hours of Pentecost Monday, the Virgin is brought out of her church by the Almonte hermandad, who claim her as their own. A tussle ensues between the various other brotherhoods for the honour of carrying her to the next chapel, and so she journeys around the town, visiting all the hermandades’ chapels, for the rest of the day. Popularly known as La Paloma Blanca (the White Dove), she is an object of massive veneration in Andalucia, and huge crowds push and shove just to get the chance to touch the glass case in which the Virgin sits, as she sways dangerously from side to side. People even lift small babies up to touch her. This remarkable, chaotic event is always televised by Canal Sur, the Andalucian regional TV station.

Apart from being the place of baptism for first time pilgrims the river “Vado del Quema” is also the place to stop for a rest, soothe weary feet in the cool water and sing traditional “sevillanas” to the holy mother.

Meet the women of the Omo valley

Meet Galtier, a young woman from the Hamer tribe. Galtier is already married at her young age. Her age is unknown to her, as is common with the Ethiopian tribes, however the type of necklace she’s wearing indicates that she is the first wife. Her marriage required ‘bride wealth’, a payment made by her husband’s family to her family made up of goats, cattle and guns. Although it’s paid over time in installments similar to a bank loan, it’s so high (30 goats and 20 head of cattle), that it might not be paid back in a lifetime. Galtier has covered her hair and body with clay, butter and animal fat which is traditional practice among Hamer women.

Meet Biuniat and her baby boy from the Bodi tribe. The Bodi still engages in barter trade system and Biuniat walks for hours to reach the weekly markets where she exchanges goods.

Meet Guri from the Arbore tribe. Guri, like all Arbore women, wears a black veil over her shaved head. The shaving of the head is a sign of virginity, a condition she must maintain until she gets married. As part of the wedding process Guri will have to be circumcised. She will be held down by her mother while her clitoris is cut, and she will then become a real Arbore woman. After this brutal ceremony, she will have to stay indoors for a couple of months. If she does not follow this tradition she will be forever shun by other Arbore who will insult her by saying she is a dirty Hamer woman. But for now Guri is enjoying being a girl. Balancing her studies at the nearby school with her chores at home which entail collecting water from a nearby pond and taking care of her family’s goats.

Meet Nania and her son Koro from the Mursi tribe. Nania like most Mursi women likes to wear her lip plate on special occasions. Nania lives in a small hamlet deep in the Mago National Park far away from any reliable source of water. For this reason life in the village can be very hard, especially during the dry season. Nania owns a couple of cows which she milks daily to feed her family. She never boils the milk as she believes that in doing so all the cattle in the village would be cursed and die. Instead she keeps the milk in dirty plastic bottles, given to her by people traveling through the area. The bottles of milk are scattered around inside her warm hut; sometimes for days before it’s consumed. Needless to say, this practice, coupled with dirty drinking water from nearby puddles, result in chronic bowel problems for Nania and many other people in the area.

Meet Nachuna and her son Olabile from the Surma tribe. Nachuna runs her own household and owns her own fields. She is free to spend the profits from the crops as she whishes as opposed to women in other more male dominated tribes. Nachuna sometimes wears a lip plate. At the point of puberty she had her bottom teeth removed in order to get the lower lip pierced. Once the lip was pierced, it was stretched and a lip plate was inserted in the hole of the piercing. She, like all Surma women, sees this as sign of beauty. The size of the lip plate also indicates her value in cattle on the day of her wedding day. The bigger the plate, the more valuable she becomes.

Meet Kato from the Hamer tribe. Kato lives in a small village near the town of Turmi together with her husband and his other two wives. Kato is the third wife as symbolized by the two metal necklaces she wears. This makes Kato more of a slave than a wife. Because they live so close to a town, her family has become to rely on the products which are on offer in Turmis’ weekly market. In order to afford this, Kato is made to walk for hours with a heavy load of firewood on her back which she tries to sell to locals. Like all Hamer women, Kato braids her hair and then applies a deep red clay mixed with animal fat to it. This custom is a very important one for Kato and all Hamer women as it makes them more attractive.

Meet Dara from the Karo tribe. Dara, like all Karo people, enjoys decorating herself with paint and flowers found in the nearby slopes leading down to the Omo River. Dara has pierced a hole on her lower lip in which she places a metal nail, or in this case a flower for adornment. Dara has no clothes other than a long skirt made of cowhide. She lives in a small hamlet known as Konso, found on a plateau overlooking the stunning Omo River. Every afternoon before darkness Dara descends the steep slopes down to the river, and after washing herself she returns with heavy containers filled with water used for cooking and drinking.

Meet Lago from the Arbore tribe. Lago is a married woman who lives with her husband, her husband’s two other wives and their four children in a small village deep in the Omo Valley. Lago has to accept her husband’s right to beat her sometimes when he feels she deserves it. One of the guidelines for such behavior is that her husband must beat all his wives equally. Failing that, he risks being beaten himself by other male members of the community. Lago was circumcised as part of her wedding celebrations and her hair was then allowed to grow. Her hair now indicates her status as a married woman. Lago owns a small herd of goats from where she gets the milk to feed her children. Her many necklaces form part of her few possessions and she rarely takes them off, even for sleeping. The most treasured part of the decoration is the metal strap (old wrist watch) which she proudly wears as a center piece.

Meet Magantu and her baby girl Bartui from the Mursi tribe. Magantu chose not to pierce her lips for a lip plate like most Mursi women. She does however use the ear plates and makes creative use of the surrounding nature to adorn herself. Magantu lives in a tiny hamlet consisting of a handful of straw and mud huts. There are other such hamlets nearby, but no villages or towns for hundreds of kilometers. The Ethiopian government has recently opened a very basic and somewhat unhygienic clinic close to Magantu’s home. It has a handful of government civil servants who offer medical assistance. The problem is that most of the medicine on offer has a cost, unless it’s directly supplied by an NGO (non-governmental organizations). Magantu, like most other people in her area, owns a couple of cows. The milk from them is used for drinking and to mix with maize into a porridge. Blood from the cow is also drunk for extra strength. Magantu, unlike other Mursi living nearer to towns or water supplies, has no way of earning money. Even selling a cow is impossible since the nearest market is hundreds of kilometers away, and there is no means of transport. Therefore, Magantu simply can’t afford the medicine on offer in the clinic.

Meet Esinien, a young woman from the Nyangatom tribe. Esinien is still not married and lives with her family on the banks of the Omo River. Although she’s still very young, Esinien already boasts a number of scars on her body which she believes make her more attractive. As all Nyangatom women Esinien wears elaborate beads around her neck, the number and color of which convey her social status within the tribe. She enjoys singing, as well as listening to stories told to her by her elders.

Meet Ari, a young woman from the Bena tribe. Ari lives in a small village near the town of Jinka. Once a week she attends the local market in Kako were she sells dairy products produced by her and her family back in her village. Ari also likes to buy hairclips which she uses as decoration.