Appleton Octoberfest: Tales from a pilgrimage

Jamie Gajewski

Appleton’s Octoberfest and a Costa Rican pilgrimage are not as different as one might think. Both involve hoards of sweaty bodies, bizarre fashion statements, cover bands on street corners and a lack of public restrooms. The only real difference is the goal of each respective journey.
The average Appletonian meanders from stand to stand until he is so inebriated that he genuinely believes that Favre has returned as the Packers’ quarterback.
In contrast, the average Costa Rican treks miles from his home until he reaches the central church in Cartago, where he falls to his knees and begins to crawl towards the altar containing a miniscule statuette of the Virgin Mary.
Last Saturday, Octoberfest took over College Avenue.
Although no dogs were allowed, chubby people with thick Wisconsin accents were allowed to shuffle down the blocked-off street.
Like blood pushing through a clogged artery, the Octoberfesters swarmed makeshift tents in order to sample such delicacies as $5 funnel cake, tantalizing tiger paws and clam chowder served by the Fox Cities Scuba Club.
Once armed with cheap beer in one hand and something fried in the other, the next step was to secure a place to stand in the crowd huddled around a cover band.
After ingesting adequate amounts of beer and food, members of the crowd actually began to relive previous concert experiences, only shaken from their alcohol-induced daydreams by a phony lead singer announcing, “Hello, Appleton!”
While husbands stood, dumbstruck and doe-eyed, swaying along to songs from yesteryear, their wives took the opportunity to waddle in the opposite direction towards a caravan of carts sheltering tender crafts. Children were allowed to run amok.
In order to study the native Appletonian and his behavior during the Octoberfest pilgrimage, I decided to tread where he tread, smell how he smelled, and eat what he ate, although in much smaller portions.
I overheard, “Barb looks like a new person” and, “JoAnne is moving out, she just doesn’t know it yet.”
As a former Catholic schoolgirl, I have acquired the ability to detect subliminal Christian messages as easily as cheesecake dipped in chocolate slides onto a stick.
However, this expertise was unneeded at Octoberfest ’08 since signs hung from the tops of tents read, “Got Jesus? Fried Oreos” and, “Holy hotdogs.”
The most shocking sign of Christ’s second coming was a tent for the Christian Motorcyclist’s Association; people that could instantly be hired at a piercing parlor peered at me over smoking grills, leather jackets momentarily replaced by aprons, as I approached their stand.
As I flipped through a glossy photo album of past bike blessings and charity events, I mulled over the connection between motorcycles and Jesus.
As passers-by filed past, surging through the congested street, I began to reminisce about the last time I was surrounded by so many people: Aug. 2, 2008.
This summer I completed my first pilgrimage. I began the journey on foot in the Costa Rican capital San José at nightfall.
Accompanied by my host sister, her boyfriend Fernando and a friend named Luis, we made our way past the bustle of the city and toward Cartago. The route was pretty difficult to miss, seeing as a projected two million people were following the same path.
The pilgrimage, called una romería in Spanish, included an element of insanity, much like Appleton’s Octoberfest. Stands with spiky red fruits, Hello Kitty balloons, light-up headbands with devil horns, rosaries for sale, and trucks full of water in plastic baggies were staples.
Roadside speakers blasted music ranging from reggaeton to Christian pop while Costa Ricans clipped past. The whole thing took my friends and me five-and-a-half hours, but some people had been walking from other regions for days.
At midnight, we entered the Promised Land. We were greeted by a sign that translates to, “Hey pilgrims! You’ve walked so far! How about walking a little further to McDonald’s?”
We were not swayed by the enticing promise of fast food and thus continued toward the basilica. We pushed onward. Awestruck, my gaze settled upon the church lit up with green and purple lights and the masses of bodies sleeping on its plaza.
Around one in the morning, my Costa Rican comrades and I finally entered the church. We took to our knees. Slowly, only as fast as one can shimmy on one’s knees, we made our way down the main aisle towards a tiny, black statuette of the Virgin Mary.
I’m not sure how or when this tradition started, but it sure made me feel ridiculous. Once at the altar, we rose to our feet, crept towards the miniscule Mary, and were herded out the exit.
After visiting a fountain where my mates eagerly filled up their water bottles with holy water gushing from a set of rocks, we camped out on the plaza along with thousands of other people.
It was absolutely freezing and spooning was necessary. At 4:30 a.m., after not really sleeping at all, we shivered, grumbled, and made our way toward buses that would take us back to San José.
After completing both marches this year, I have two final thoughts.
First, I would like to see the people who come to Octoberfest year after year trudging through the Costa Rican mountains.
Secondly, when asked if I had ever done anything like the pilgrimage to Cartago before, I should have answered, “Yes, I survived Octoberfest in Appleton, Wis.