The fish market in Manta, Ecuador, is busy on the morning of Good Friday. Most customers browse and buy among the open tables where every type of edible sea animal is laid out, most I could not name, their colors a range from black to steel gray to a peach the hue of human skin. Farther down by the waves on Playita Mia, as it is called (“My little beach”) a father and son stand on the beach with a scale attached to a stick to measure certain specimens as they come in for buyers who walk across the sand. “How much did that one weigh?” I ask about a shiny dark blue monster being tossed into the back of a pick-up that has driven across the strand to collect it. “Fifty pounds,” he said.
The Good Friday procession of about fifty people is wending its way around streets near the church called Dolores, named for Our Lady of Sorrows. I hear the sound of wooden clacks meant to mime the sound of a whip on the flesh of the Christ who carries the cross. At a corner, when the women protest the punishment, the soldiers beat them back. It’s theatre, but it’s disturbing to watch. A young priest wearing a black baseball cap, processing before a statue, is the most benign figure of all. An hour later, when the procession returns to the front of the church for the crucifixion (with ropes), the crowd has swelled to hundreds. Roman soldiers with whips and women with covered heads meant to be grieving, a Herod and a Simon of Cyrene, the pious faithful, young acolytes carrying a square red cloth into which bystanders toss a few coins and bills.
Daniel, the taxi driver who is a native of Manta, said twenty years ago a cargo plane full of flowers crashed into the church and incinerated all the buildings for an entire square block. It had been evening, so few were inside the church, but of course people occupied the houses and shops, and many died. Daniel pointed to a rooftop. From there a man had tossed down a nine-month old girl, who was caught and saved although the man – her father – did not. The neighborhood pharmacist always sat on a little bench outside his shop at that hour and later was found there where he could always be found in life, carbonized in place. Only the old bells and a stone Madonna, now looking down from a campanile, survived from the church. How could that happen? Daniel looks up at Madonna in the bell tower. “It’s a miracle,” he said.
We shove off from shore about five p.m., and later, , a padre and some passengers conduct a service of meditations on the Stations of the Cross before about fifty persons in the small theatre. Scenes from a Mel Gibson movie about the Passion of Christ appeared on screens on either side of a makeshift altar. The year before, said the couple next to me, they were on the ship at Easter on a sea day when the padre celebrated Mass on the aft deck with the ocean as a backdrop, and the memory to them – you could tell – was beautiful.
Inside the Dolores church in Manta the crucifix and saints had been covered with dark purple cloths, as the custom goes, to be lifted on Easter Sunday. I rise on Holy Saturday at 4 a.m. somewhere off Panama, to take the elevator to the twelfth deck where, midships, the astronomer and nine other passengers have gathered to watch the lunar eclipse. (“You don’t have to be crazy to be here,” whispers the man next to me, “but it helps.”) The sky is completely socked in, although early arrivals said they had seen Orion briefly. Now, no Orion, no moon. The celestial bodies too, like the figures in the church, were hidden behind a dark shroud. Eventually, I get a cup of coffee and go down a few decks where I can watch the sun not exactly rise, but gradually pink the clouds in a lightening sky.