Get DIRTY OR LEAVE, MAN
6September is an important day for Baza – the whole town and its 20,000 inhabitants are brought together for the celebration of the Cascamorras festival. The tradition originates from the 15th century, when an ownership dispute arose over a sacred image of the Virgen de la Piedad (Our Lady of Mercy) between Baza, and its neighboring town, Guadix. Cascamorras was the nickname of a workman from Guadix, who tried to appropriate it for his town, but failed. Ever since, each year on the saint’s day, the newly nominated Cascamorras tries to complete the challenge of reaching the main church of Baza clean in order to take the sacred image back to Guadix. And each year thousands of people smear him (and each other along the way) with black oil – making sure the image of the Virgen stays where it belongs.
The crowd, mostly made up of young Spanish people, had already gathered as we drove up the hills on the outskirts of Baza overlooking the town.
Around 12,000 people took part in this year’s Tuesday event - the number can be as high as 20,000 when the festival falls on a weekend. The festival is festival is declared Fiesta de Interés Turístico Internacional (Festival of International Tourism interest), and indeed we heard a few English speakers.
The event consists of a collective 6 km run down the hills behind the town and into the narrow town streets with short stops on the way, and ends in the main church with a service.
The run was scheduled to start at 6pm, and we still had an hour to wait, with temperatures soaring to 40C. The local fashion for Cascamorras seemed to be shorts and spaghetti-strap vest tops in dark shades, although some people wore white. The initial reluctance to get dirty soon turned into morbid curiosity, as we got hold of some black oil that was being passed around. Not so long ago, machine oil residue was used for the festival, but a campaign was put in motion to start using ecological paint. Nevertheless, it’s so difficult to get the oil off that the locals cover themselves in baby oil or olive oil prior to the race, making sure it’s easy to remove and doesn’t clog up the pores.
Once the crowd started its unexpectedly abrupt descent, we got dragged in for a few minutes, choosing to stay at the back for the rest of the race.
The elderly wait patiently in the town, covered in black plastic to avoid the paint. The atmosphere is jovial amongst young and old.
To our delight, in the almost 40-degree heat, some locals from surrounding houses were pouring water from buckets and hosepipes onto the crowd. Every 15 minutes or so, the crowd would stop for a ritualistic oath-making of the Cascamorras. This was the time most people used to nip into bars to get soft drinks or leave their palm-prints on white building walls, or even get ahead of the crowds and take a rest.
Once inside the grounds of the church (thanks to our press acreditation), we felt out of place because most of the other members of the press had somehow managed to keep relatively clean. The town organises free communal showers next to the church, complete with shower gel and Fairy Liquid. As we learned from experience, don’t bother with the shower gel. While putting a liquid normally used for washing greasy dishes all over your body and rubbing yourself like a madman in a public place might not seem appealing at first, it is the most effective way to get clean. While most of the crowd heads to the showers, a service celebrating Virgen de la Piedad unfolds at the church, and the nominated Cascamorras is thanked for his participation. As Mr Cascamorras 2016, José Manuel Garcia Plaza - known to his friends as Malillo (bad boy) pointed out, it is an incredible honour to participate and he wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.
The town calmed down and the cleaning trucks ventured out onto the empty streets to wash off oil, sweat, tears and lost shoes. By then, the moon had risen and the sky revealed its majesty. Stargazing was incredible.
The annual town feria always starts on the evening of Cascamorras, providing countless opportunities to drink cheap sangria, eat tasty burgers and explore the local market produce. As we waited for our order at one of the feria stalls, a man with a Cascamorras tattoo on his chest sat next to us, talking about the excitement of the day.
Despite the seeming chaos, the atmosphere was friendly and as we made our way towards the church, on our sore dirty legs, we saw some people crying with emotion. After all, Cascamorras is still a deeply catholic tradition meant to evoke spiritual awareness.
As much as it is a random and greasy tradition, Cascamorras is something deeply rooted into the collective consciousness of that small Andalucian town, which makes it even more human, and an experience that will start a myriad of dinner party conversations for years to come.
- Wear clothes (and underwear) that you are prepared to throw away at the end of the day
- Bring a change of clean clothes with you
- Wear sports shoes with a good grip
- Cover your hair – with a bandana or cling-film
- If you are bringing a camera – make sure you wrap it up in cling-film as well
- If you are bringing a backpack – put a plastic bag over it to avoid it being covered in oil
- Bring some rope or cloth you can hold onto in order not to lose each other in the crowd – we saw groups of locals as many as five people tied together!
- Bring loads of wet wipes and bin liners – you might need the latter to cover you car seats
- Bring a bottle of frozen water – extremely high temperatures turn normal water warm way too quickly
- Make sure you have some easily accessible change to buy water and soft drinks once the crowd enters the town