Black Jesus

PORTOBELO, PANAMA: September 15

Steve: After taking a day off to write, read and relax in the humid heat, we set off on a day trip for the Caribbean town of Portobelo. The main attraction as noted in our guide book and other tourist paraphernalia is the Black Christ of Portobelo, known to locals and pilgrims as the Cristo Negro or El Cristo. This relic, carved from black cocobolo wood, has different legends surrounding its existence. Some say that it was found floating at sea during a cholera epidemic (which ended after it was found) and others that it was on a ship bound for Colombia that was constantly prevented from leaving by bad weather, only able to sail after the Christ was left ashore. Either way this carving was rumored to have miraculous powers and is the center of a festival that occurs every October 21st. We figured that we would show up a bit early.


Travelling into Portobelo we were greeted with the first obvious signs that Panama is indeed a developing country. After a rather scenic bus ride through the Canal Zone (Leah: complete with me bouncing up and down in my seat, as there were some HUGE ships in the canal, bigger than others we'd seen before), the road from Sabanitas to our destination was peppered with mangy stray dogs, the likes of which we haven't seen for some time--probably since Nicaragua. The colorful yet rundown houses formed shantytowns that maybe wouldn't have seemed so oppressive had we not seen the glimmer of skyscrapers every day on the Panama City skyline. Closing in on our destination I could see that these sights, coupled with the dark grey skies that loomed over us since the morning, were taking a bit of a toll on my wife. She would feign smiles but I could tell that it was all weighing on her spirits.

As with most Latin American towns the guidebook advised that the bus would drop us off in the center of town. In the case of Portobelo this consisted of a large dirt lot that sat in front of the Church of San Felipe, flanked mostly by vacant buildings and several vendors selling religious items. We disembarked from our bus and walked up to the church; with no fanfare we were already at our destination. The whitewashed walls and plain architecture spoke of a sanctuary that was not drowning in money. Indeed the church--with its simple wooden doors, dirty and crumbling edges and rooftop laden with moss and plants like a celestial nursery--was on the same socioeconomic level as the community that it served.
We entered the church and were not surprised at the relatively simple altar and adornments that graced the walls. As we walked around in search of our black Jesus, I was struck by a shrine built for Nuestra Senora de la Merced ("Our Lady of Mercy"). With her crowned head tilted sideways in a thoughtfully human gesture, her hands were outstretched as if granting pardon to those coming to offer her prayers. What truly grabbed me about this image was a sight uncommon to most if not all churches--dangling from her hands were a pair of handcuffs as well as a key. In a world where we are infatuated with retribution and vengeance, often being mislabeled under the title of "justice," here was an image representing the all-too-forgotten concept of mercy. It seems to me that it is one of those aspects of our being that connects us to the divine. Even for those that shun religion, one must admit this vision speaks to the better part of humanity. Saying this I do not pretend to stand on a soapbox; to be sure I felt a pang of guilt and walked away from Nuestra Senora with an overwhelming feeling of humility.

Crossing the aisle (and making the sign of the cross like a good Catholic) I made my way to the Cristo Negro which stood encased in a large wooden structure, separated from devotees by a thin glass windowpane. At the base of the monument stood rows of purple candles, most of them burning in prayer from people visiting earlier in the day. I waited patiently as people made their way up to the relic, a mixture of picture-taking tourists and prayerful believers. After ten minutes or so I was afforded a rare chance to visit the Christ with only Leah watching from the pews. Walking up the stairs to get a closer view, my attention was immediately drawn to the intense look of pain emanating from this Christ's eyes. Blood spattered his face as he stood there bearing his cross in perpetuity. I then looked down to the velvety purple robe that clothed him, adorned with charms that must have been given as prayerful offerings during the last October festival. My thoughts went to the myriads of pilgrims that came to visit him, many believing that their prayers could be answered in the form of miracles. Thousands have looked up to this image and derived a strength that they could not have found elsewhere in their lives; surely this Christ, marching forward in agony with the burdens of a thankless world on his shoulders, was like them. His image is not of an Anglo Christ as is so often printed in pictures worldwide but rather of a dark-skinned savior that speaks directly to the local populace. Before stepping down from the precipice I stood there in reverence and said a prayer as so many have done before me--not to the wooden idol but to the Christ that he represents. With the world in a state of violent religious turmoil, I prayed for peaceful resolution among all of mankind. Looking up at this devotional icon, markedly different from most depicted in Catholicism, I was reminded that God--Allah, the Divine, goodness, or whatever you want to call it--is revealed through Christianity, Islam, Judaism, atheism, etc., etc. The violence that spews forth in the name of religion is appalling, perplexing and above all hypocritical.

Leaving the church we made a quick right and immediately found ourselves at the edge of the town and the San Geronimo Battery, one of two colonial armaments that sit directly on the waterfront. Dilapidated but structurally intact walls dating back to the seventeenth century still stood guard with  rusted cannons aiming out over the bay. I was surprised to not see any kind of chains or fencing preventing tourists from wandering about; more surprising may have been the lack of a fee to view this little piece of history. We wandered about the grassy knolls and joined the cannons in looking out over the Caribbean inlet, admiring the same views that soldiers must have had hundreds of years ago, the only difference being that while we watched lazy fishing boats coming to and fro they were guarding against pirates and other invaders. To the left of the battery we could see and hear the beating of drums and general commotion. We made our way back out to the aduana, which used to be the royal customs house, and found that some children were participating in an Afro-Antillo dance celebration. Adorned with tattered clothing, handmade hats and makeshift face paint, some of the boys resembled a cross between a scarecrow and a hobo while the girls danced in colorful dresses. Whistles intermingled with the percussion of conga drums as the children kept time with their rhythmic stomping. As many in Louisiana and the southern United States already know, there is a marked Creole influence that permeates much of the culture along the Caribbean Sea. Check out some videos here and here.

Leah: As Steve already mentioned, my soul was pretty sapped by this point. Ever since our year of sorrows in 2011, I've realized that weather increasingly affects my mood and can be the tipping point from a decent day to a dismal one. The gray skies and drizzle formed a depressing backdrop for the run down rubble of a town once glorious; the dogs covered in mange, sores and hefting sagging teats that scraped the ground just twisted the knife for me. We were excited to see a monkey slurping on his own frozen luscious-looking bolsita treat, but when I noticed the collar and chain tethering him to the porch I had to turn and hustle away before my tears overtook me. Of course it would take food and proper sunshine to snap me out of it; we found tiny eggplant-hued restaurant with bright robin-red chairs that specialized in baked goods, sandwiches and pizza. The color injection, coupled with mouth-watering tuna (me) and chicken (Steve) sandwiches on French baguettes with fresher than fresh ingredients and a shared maracuya smoothie put a smile back on my face. We even grabbed a couple bags of toasted garlic bread for later, the crunchy slices marinating in fresh olive oil, spices and tons of garlic. The rest of our afternoon was devoted to taking pictures in, on and around the ruins, with a particular emphasis on cheese-ball, senior pictures and Harlequin-romance themed shots. We shared some giggles before barely beating the rain and hopping back on the bus, the only white heads in a sea of black as we all nodded in and out of a restless neck-snapping torpor induced by the sticky heat and swaying of our brake-challenged chariot.

Steve: On a final note for this entry, I have to believe that airbrush artists must be held in high esteem in Panamanian culture seeing as how every bus is covered with wrap designs depicting everything from dragons and sorcerers to cartoon characters and pop culture icons (I couldn't get my camera out fast enough to take a picture of a bus that had Paris Hilton's grill plastered across the back...sorry!). However on our bus ride back from Portobelo I may have seen my favorite chicken bus to date. Take a look at this gem here. Don't be distracted by the airbrushed Chucky on the hood; look closer at the graphic across the front visor (which would no doubt be illegal in the States). Yes, you are seeing that right. That is our President Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden...and Tony Montana, Manuel Noriega, some other guy I have yet to identify, Bart Simpson, and Gollum. Now tell me that isn't just precious-s-s-s?

FOR MORE PICTURES AND VIDEO CLICK HERE.

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