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Bus2Antarctica: The Virgins of Ecuador

When Andrew Evans crossed the border into Ecuador, he found religion on its many buses.

For many people in the world, religion and travel go hand in hand. No matter what you believe in, when you’re on the road in a strange country you want to be safe and looked after by someone that speaks the language better than you. I always say put an atheist in the front seat of a taxi in New Delhi and they’ll find a god to believe in, fast.

Despite the differences in make and model, all buses in Latin America have a heavy religious element to them. I’ve noticed that even the first class “serious” bus companies have special prayers printed up and posted on the walls of the bus station asking for divine protection and to ensure that travelers return to their loved ones safely. Outside and in, buses are often painted with religious insignia–individual bus drivers also decorate their front seat area, turning their dashboards into small religious shrines. The most common phrase I’ve seen is “Guide Me, Lord” but anything holy and uplifting works.

Given that Ecuador is a Catholic country, I expected the generic, omnipresent Virgin Mary and yet, as I began to ask my fellow passengers about the depictions I saw, I soon realized that this was a land of many different Virgins.

On my very first bus, having just left the northern border town of Tulcán, our bus was blocked by a procession of some two thousand people marching with a life-size statue of the La Virgen de Huaca

(the Virgin of Purification). The procession was taking place in remembrance of the earthquake victims in Haiti and I was touched as nearly two-thirds of the passengers simply got off the bus and joined in walking with the other believers, no longer in a rush to get to faraway Quito. A card depicting that very same Virgin was taped up into the corner of the bus greeting every passenger who stepped on.

On another driver’s dashboard, I noticed the La Virgen de Cisne, from the town of Cisne in southern Ecuador, venerated by all Ecuadorians. I asked the driver about this particular Virgin and he explained that by showing his faith in her, he felt greater protection driving on the road and from “bad people.”

It was one of my Ecuadorian Twitter followers who introduced me to the country’s patroness, La Virgen del Quinche, is considered a special protector of the indigenous populations in Ecuador and probably the most revered in the country.

And finally, at the bus station in Quito, I noticed a corner shrine to La Virgen de la Dolorosa, known more commonly in English as Our Lady of Sorrows. This particular Virgin was present in all five of the bus stations that I visited in Ecuador, and was always depicted with swords piercing her heart.

I don’t wish to embark on a long essay about Catholicism in Latin America–that Ecuador’s own brand of Catholicism is evident on public transportation seems obvious. What I find most interesting is that certain devotions have arisen specifically around buses, bus travel, and bus stations. Both drivers and passengers seem to share in a kind of spiritual solidarity–their hopes, faith, and good intentions focused on specific spiritual figures in relation to bus travel. Prayers are said and devotions paid to these particular Virgins before, during, and after peoples’ bus travel. This may reveal more about the precarious nature of bus travel in Ecuador than it does any local religious belief.  

I was not able to research the Virgin phenomenon any deeper but what I do know was that I was in Ecuador for four days and during that time I encountered four different Virgins on the buses. And in the end, everything in Ecuador turned out just fine.

Andrew is currently in Bolivia. Follow his Twitter feed @Bus2Antarctica, and the map of his journey here. Bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Andrew Evans. 

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