CARACAS: “I want to be a + palm tree + and go up there”, sing the “palm trees” that have been collecting for several days, the branches of palm trees in the national park that borders Caracas, to offer them to the faithful on Palm Sunday after a procession that brings together thousands of people.
This tradition of more than 250 years is included in the UNESCO registry of good safeguarding practices and aspires to be a world heritage site.
On Saturday, greeted by thousands of people, the palmeros, dirty and tired, leave the Waraira Repano park carrying their palms, to join the church of San José where on Sunday the mass of palms will attract a large crowd.
“We cry when we put the branches back. It is incomparable”, explains Carlos González, 37, a carpenter.
“We refuse to sell (the branches). It makes no sense. We do it with our hearts, fulfilling a 250-year promise. It is priceless,” he adds, referring to the genesis of the tradition, when yellow fever was raging.
The parish priest then asked the faithful to look for the branches in the mountains, promising to perpetuate the practice if the disease disappeared…
Wednesday, 1:30 am, Carlos and Álvaro Porras, 36, go into the forest with half a dozen young men whom they supervise. Four kilometers of program but almost 1,000m of unevenness to reach the place where they will camp.
About 300 “palm trees” are scattered in the national park with exceptional authorization to collect palm trees, Caroxylum Carifarum, an endangered species.
The “Palmeritos”, Santiago Coriat and Joseph Rincon, both 12 years old, oscillate between fear and emotion. “I want to but I’m a little nervous. It’s the first time,” says Santiago, who carries a backpack to which a “budaré” (plate for cooking corn pancakes) is attached. A load that will be too heavy for the child during the difficult ascent.
Álvaro and Carlos carry 60 kg on their backs. Food and equipment… Not forgetting “vitamins”, rum and brandy.
The light from the city we overlook illuminates the steep path. At first detailed, they focus on effort. Conversations fade.
“The ascent is hard but going down the branches for the faithful is the best,” says Álvaro.
At 7 o’clock, it is finally the arrival at the camp and its clouds of mosquitoes.
“There is faith, the responsibility to perpetuate tradition, but there is also friendship. Above we are united. We are all one”, explains Álvaro.
“The + dolls +, the spirits of the + deceased + clappers, accompany us”, assures Carlos.
Faith and devotion, but also parties and guardhouse pranks are on the adventure menu where women are absent. “What happens in the mountains, stays in the mountains”, blows a +palmero+.
The +palm trees+ cross the forest, climbing steep walls sometimes on all fours… But the search owes nothing to chance, they know the areas where palm trees are planted every year.
Before, the search and the cut were done randomly and the palm trees almost disappeared.
“We are + palmero + 365 days a year. We sow, we clean the mountain. We carry out operations in other parks, in squares, in schools. We give back to nature what it gives us”, explains Álvaro.
Álvaro and Carlos teach the young people how to harvest the central branch of each tree so that it can continue to live. Santiago and José are thus “baptized”.
“I would like my peers to teach young people. Because (the forest) is our lung,” says José León García, 90, the oldest of the clappers whose shirt bears the inscription “Mount the mountain since 1939.” This year he went up but by cable car.
On Saturday, after two new nights on the mountain, the clappers, some of whom wear rosaries around their necks, descend with the branches on their shoulders. For many, it is a kind of “way of the cross”.
“We are happy to have accomplished the mission. No matter the pain, the fatigue”, summarizes Jean-Paul Blanco, tattoo artist.
To the sound of brass bands and firecrackers, the clappers parade through the city, visiting in particular the small working class neighborhood of Pedregal where most of them come from. The tradition of this practice is also the history of this district located in Chacao, a luxury area with its luxury residences and buildings. Real estate pressure is strong, but Álvaro swears that the neighborhood of several hundred inhabitants will never disappear: “El Pedregal is a big family. Each neighbor has a common ancestor. The family seeks to maintain that heritage.”
The procession stops in front of houses adorned with photos of deceased palm trees. “It’s as if he had been waiting for us at the door of his house,” says Carlos.
At 4 in the afternoon they arrive at the church where the palms are blessed and then placed in the parish house. The end of the adventure. Fatigue and emotion mix. The clappers hug, shout, kiss, cry, laugh, sing. “Mission accomplished!”