As part of the volunteering aspect of our program, I was faced with the challenge of deciding what events to volunteer at. All of the events sounded so foreign and intriguing to me: A parade on the streets of Letterkenny, local bands performing, strangely titled plays, and alas- “Puja”. I had no idea what this “Puja” thing was. All I knew was that it sounded like a character from ‘The Lion King’, or maybe some type of bizarre pudding. Either way, I was curious. So, I took the chance and put my name down on the list to volunteer at the event, with the only job description being something along the lines of “Keeping people away from cliffs”. I knew this would be an adventure of some sort.
Nothing could have quite prepared me for the experience I actually had, though.
Jacob and I hopped in a car with a random woman who was also volunteering at the event and got ready for the long, scenic journey to Fort Dunree. We had a decent conversation with the woman who was driving us, and told her all about the local shenanigans we had recently found ourselves caught up in, all of which seemed to amuse her quite a bit. After a long drive to the Fort filled with beautiful views of rolling hills and sheep, and a soundtrack of non-stop Fallout Boy (Thanks to our driver. But actually, no thanks), we arrived in an area filled with majestic cliffs overlooking a gorgeous sea. I was already in heaven.
We continued our drive through winding country roads until eventually we reached the main attraction- although I still wasn’t entirely sure what the main attraction was yet. All I could see was a beautiful cliffside landscape with inflatable, lit up decorations and string lights sprinkled throughout the rolling hills. I didn’t know what was about to unfold before my curious eyes, but I was definitely ready for it. BRING IT ON!
As the giant blue gates opened up and the crowds of people rushed in, the magic began to happen. First, there was a huge parade of people on floats and sculptures wearing eccentric costumes unlike anything I had ever seen before. There were mystical fairies, men twirling fire, a woman with a lit up, moon-shaped hat walking on stilts, and a woman doing acrobatics in a lit up sphere suspended in the air. Pure magic.
The parade of mythical creatures led us humans over to a small stone stage surrounded by large torches on all sides. As the show began, I felt a warm feeling inside that came less from the warmth of the large flame in front of me, and more from the pure feeling of euphoria that was rushing over me. The dark figures performing tricks with fire, the lively dancing of the woodland sprites, the larger -than- life sculptures that illuminated the night sky, and the energy of the crowd had my head spinning. My senses were completely overwhelmed. The fiery musk of incense that was wafting through the chaos was perfectly fitting for the nostalgic feeling of nights by an open fire surrounded by my closest friends. Take that feeling and multiply it by about 50, and you’ll have a vague idea of how completely wonderful this experience was.
A woman perched on top of a towering inflatable tent-like structure sang opera melodies that sounded like they were from some exotic, far-away land not yet discovered by humans. I looked around me, took in the overwhelming array of beauty that stood in front of me, and felt as though there was nowhere on earth I would have rather been in that moment.
Just when I thought I couldn’t handle any more of this obscure beauty, two of the characters in the show began running up a distant hill, torches in hand. They lit a path so the audience could see the giant cloth phoenix perched atop the hill. They came running down the hill with this bird, it’s fiery cloth feathers flowing in the wind. I was ecstatic. As they lit the metal bird sculptures on fire in the distance, I thought there was no way this breathtaking show could have come to an end more appropriately. I was wrong.
A huge crane nearby lifted a spectacular , multi-piece triangular lit-up sculpture. When it drifted over our heads, high in the night sky and emitted it’s ethereal glow against the contrasting dark sky, words could not describe how peaceful I felt. There are moments in life where you have this feeling… you can’t explain why, but you suddenly feel like despite whatever your own problems may be, that everything is right with the world, just for a moment. Ladies and gentleman, this was one of those moments. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but this was one of the closest things to a religious experience I can imagine feeling.
Puja wasn’t just a show, or a parade, or some sort of twisted circus. It was an experience I will never forget for as long as I live.