Just in time for Easter, this post has a little religion and a little science all in one! Not that I ever mix the two, but sometimes it’s interesting when they stand side by side.
Last Thursday I took my first pilgrimage up the mountain with colleagues to check out one of the weather stations. We drove about 30 minutes up toward Cajas National Park, west of Cuenca. I was excited to get out in the countryside, having been cooped up from all the rain these past couple of weeks.
Not that going to the mountains is any way to escape the rain. As we wound our way up the two lane highway leading to the mountain pass at the National Park, the shifting clouds and mist afforded very few views of even the lower peaks.
Just before we reached the outer boundaries of the park, we pulled off onto a small side road, and then into a parking lot near a large bolted gate in the roadway. We could easily walk around the gate and continue down the road toward the weather station. The gate prevented the entrance of vehicles into what appeared to be some sort of religious sanctuary. There were a number of signs posted – in Spanish and English – stating that this was an area of contemplation and meditation, and that visitors should respect the silence.
There was no one else about, but there were a number of structures and little shrines scattered about a lovely wooded area along a small river. We passed a shrine and crossed a bridge, and one of my colleagues pointed out some of the instruments set up along the river to measure stream flow.
Scientific instruments amid statues of saints. How interesting.
That was when someone explained to me where we were. The place is called Sanctuario de la Virgen de Cajas. Apparently, in 1988, a 16 year-old girl had a conversation with the Virgin Mary in this place. Not only did she have a conversation, but she recorded Mary’s voice on a tape-recorder with a message of hope and love for the people of Ecuador (interestingly, Mary speaks with a Castilian accent – that’s the type of Spanish they speak in Spain. Google it – you can listen to this girl – now a woman – tell her story on YouTube if you understand Spanish). So they built the sanctuary where the Virgin appeared to this girl, and this has been a very popular pilgrimage spot ever since.
It is certainly a peaceful spot. The object of our own pilgrimage was located in the middle of a pasture, maybe 300 or 400 meters from the nearest shrine, but well away from any trees, statues, or houses of worship. Still, I couldn’t resist a photo of an anemometer with a cross in the background.
We spent a good 45 minutes out at the station, as my colleagues pondered where to install the new disdrometer (an instrument that measures the distribution of drop size and the speed of rain as it’s falling). In the mean time, it drizzled on and off, and a couple of sheperds passed by us with their flock of sheep.
The spot may be beautiful, but it’s also quite cold. While we were there, temperatures were probably in the low 40’s. One of my colleagues said that the measurements at this station (at an elevation of 3600 meters – just under 12,000 feet high) were regularly the coldest of anywhere – colder than the measurements on the high peaks further west. This little mountain valley appears to be a spot for cold air pooling. It’s not uncommon for morning temperatures to hover just around the freezing point – throughout much of the year.
As we were leaving, people were beginning to pour in from the highway, having been dropped off by the busses that travel along the pass from Cuenca to Guayaquil, on the coast. They were also starting to open up the shops near the big locked gates. Large tents full of rosary beads, crosses, little statues – ready for the steady stream of pilgrims, a new group every day. Although, it’s clear that our own little shrine, to the advancement scientific reasoning, will likely be overlooked by the other sanctuary visitors.
While Mary and her saints will receive flowers and prayers, this little weather station will receive bits of energy from the sun that keep it humming away all day and night. And while the station won’t speak to us in a Castilian accent with a message of hope and love (that we can capture on a tape recorder), it will send us messages every few minutes through the ether, into space, and back down to earth again. Messages we can capture on our computers and that will empower us to understand and respond to our changing world and to build hope for ourselves in the absence of any obvious divine assistance.