The buildings get taller and narrower the closer you get to the center; they begin to show delicate molding, long French windows, colonial lines. The sidewalks get tighter, winding around corners and up hills against the cobblestone roads. And the streets are getting fuller; now there are vendors: women with long slices of plantain on grill-carts, one man with thick, long colored bunches of shoelaces looped around his neck and arms and open hands. Carlos and I get off at the Plaza Grande, and as soon as we turn off Diez de Agosto and onto the street that brings you to the Iglesia San Francisco, we meet the crowds.
Some people got here as early as 2 AM to get the best places, Carlos tells me. If I stand on my tiptoes I can see the people in their purple robes, the bare-chested men with crowns of thorns, the veiled Veronicas, waiting to start their procession. We move along the crowded streets, searching for a vacant sliver of sidewalk for ourselves. We wait with the other patient waiters, who buy gum and candy from the ladies that pass by, who fiddle with their umbrellas beneath the patchy sunshine, who take pictures of each other with their cell phone cameras, or who sit quietly, waiting, their hands in their laps.
And then there's a hush, and the eruption of a marching band, and now I can just make out the procession moving towards us, making its plodding way. I see the tops of the cone-shaped hats, all those big wooden crosses, and I know this is not like any parade I've seen. All that purple, up and down the narrow streets: the robes, the veils, the sound of dragging chains. Whole families have taken crosses over, and while the father or oldest brother shoulders it at its crux, the mother and children help by lifting it a little, or by purchasing water from the women who sell bottles of it displayed in baskets for their suffering man. The biggest crosses, the ones that must weigh hundreds of pounds and extend a dozen feet long, require their bearers to shuffle quickly, then stop and rest, then hustle the cross a few more yards. Barefoot men with chains around their bare feet; men without shirts who have tied barbed wire around their bellies so that you can see the blood where the sharp knots are piercing. Those thorny crowns, and painted-on tears of blood. People are crying, the marching bands are playing, the sun has not stopped shining. The women who stand pressed against us on the sidewalk clutch handfuls of rose petals, which they toss towards the walkers who carry colored posters of Christ or gilt-framed portraits of the radiant Virgin.
And then come the statues; now the baby Jesus, now the Virgin Mary, and finally, surrounded by dozens of police and an eerily quiet crowd of onlookers, followers, devotees, now Jesus on the cross. Each statue, mounted on a covered cart that rolls solemnly past, is adorned with roses; bunches of red roses and pink ones for the Virgin, and all white for Christ. I think that I’ve never seen such piles of roses. And then the official parade ends, the onlookers all fall in behind Jesus, and this new, informal procession swells like a river in rain. I hold on to the back of Carlos’ jacket so I won’t lose him in the crowd.
If you return to the old center the day after the procession, you’ll find rose petals jammed in between the cobblestones and crammed up against the sidewalks, tucked into the cracks between doors and walls and caught in the branches of trees. The streets will seem so empty, so quiet, without the sounds, the press, of Quito’s devout. You’ll hear the wind as it tosses itself up and down the road, but all that remains of yesterday's procession are these rose petals on the ground: white and pink and crimson flecks, markers of that tragic and euphoric day.