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Horses for courses

May 20, 2010 – 9:06 am

Last night, news came in of the first “evacuations” from this year’s El Rocio pilgrimage. The Hermano Mayor of Triana was among four rocieros taken to hospital suffering from dolencia cardiaca. A few people were kicked by horses too – all par for the course, with the combination of vast amounts of two and four-legged attendees, and extreme heat. The treatment of the animals, a certain number of which die every year from exertion, heat and dehydration, is always a cause for concern.

For those who don’t know what El Rocio is, imagine a million people riding horses, ox-drawn gypsy wagons (carretas), tractor-drawn caravans (carriolas), and mule-drawn carts (as well as the odd 4×4, to remind us which century we’re in), across forests, rivers and wetlands, to a small shrine in a town in the middle of nowhere, all drinking, eating, singing and dancing as they go. A lot. That’s it, in a nutshell.

It all started on Tuesday, when some roads near my house were closed off (in fact, I had to take my first detour on Monday) – I live very near the main route out of Seville. Then yesterday morning, a few thousand pilgrims in their various forms of transport trundled up the main street of the local town. We set off after lunch to try and catch a glimpse of the procession, but only got the tail end of the Triana hermandad, considered to be one of the liveliest. However just a few tractors (green or red) were enough to bring a huge smile to my son’s face. He wasn’t that interested in the pretty flower-decorated trailers they were pulling, with their pink trim and matching white-with-pink-spots curtains, or the women decked out in their Sevillana dresses, complete with traditional leather bag strapped across their body to keep their bare neccessities to hand, sitting on benches at a table, eating their lunch and singing heartily. That’s a trailer that’s moving, albeit slowly, and they had glasses on it (naturally). These people invented the mobile party. Respect.

Later we saw a group which had been left behind their hermandad due to a broken-down carriola, but were dealing with their situation with suitable aplomb, by having a well-lubricated roadside picnic. Noone looked in the slightest bit bothered about it, and no doubt they’ll catch up by tonight. That’s one of the things I love about living here – people don’t get their knickers in a twist when they don’t need to. I am learning, very slowly, not to either.

It was already steaming hot (low to mid 30s), with the sun at its burning peak, when we ventured out en famille. So I wore a hat, which I don’t often do while out and about near my house, reserving the “Englishwoman abroad” look for the beach. Both my children were smothered in suncream, and we were armed with a big bottle of water. After 10 minutes, I needed to sit down in the shade – that’s how hot it was. So we watched a few stragglers bringing up the rear – a group of four two-seater horse-drawn carts, a lone couple in their trap. I felt a) jealous, as they were all having such fun, with a palpable sense of camaraderie and anticipation – they’ve only just started, the whole adventure awaits them; b) relieved I didn’t have to sit in a cart all day; c) thankful to be in the shade; and d) hopeful that my husband will arrange for us to go next year with his friend from the Triana hermandad who has a house in the town of El Rocio, either on the pilgrimage (cushions and shade non-negotiable), or to stay at his house for the weekend itself (without children, whose distracting presence would make interviewing half-cut rocieros even trickier). For a journalist living in south-western Spain, it is the offer you cannot possibly refuse.

For now, I will have to content myself with watching it on TV, and listening to the cohetes being fired off in the distance. The river crossings are fun, as the simpecados sway perilously while they bump over the river bed, and everyone stands in the calf-deep water enjoying the spectacle and chatting happily, as if paddling in a river while wearing a dress was something they did every day (don’t their feet get cold?). One of the main differences this year, is that fewer people are going – about 20 per cent, according to the media, due (obviously) to the crisis. Those who do go are unlikely to tighten their belts.

Every year, I’m more interested in this most Andalucian of events, more intrigued, and more keen to find out for myself what it’s like (where do you pee? do people get sunburned? does anyone get left behind because they’ve snuck off for some illicit rumpy-pumpy, fallen asleep under a tree, and then been unable to find their carriola the next day?). I’ll get there one day. And then I’ll write a book about it.

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