Sunday, December 13, 2009

We Wititi

Wititi is the official dance of the region of Arequipa, and the Colca Canyon is the center, the source, the font, the beating big bass drum of it. The first question everyone asks is why the men are dancing in long skirts. Long ago, so the story goes, Cabana men disguised themselves as women to sneak in and woo the beautiful but highly protected Collagua women. They danced together, in seeming innocence, but when the supposedly sequestered ladies started showing their big bellies some months later, the deceit was discovered, and the legend born, followed in short order with the birth of many a Cabana-Collagua wawa (baby, of course—the easiest word to learn in Quechua).

December ninth through the eleventh is the annual Wititi festival in Chivay, and we are eager to participate to the fullest extent possible. That requires dressing the part.

Between our friends Cusi, Cesi and Herminia we piece together the complete traje (outfit) for each of us, and as soon as we show ourselves in public, the gawking and exclamations start. Apparently the sight of two gringos in traje tipica is a rare and noteworthy event. As we continue out the door and down the street we can see the heads turning and hear the comments ripple along with us as we pass. We are greeted with big grins, thumbs up, and handshakes. This is to continue for the three days of the festival, with strangers stopping us on the street to be photographed with us. A couple of young women from Arequipa gushed over me “You look like a Barbie!” Yeah, Colca Barbie, with pollera and accessories. I felt like I was everyone’s doll, as the first day Cesi had to readjust my sash, another day Leo from the jewelry store grabbed me off the street as we were walking by and dragged me into the shop to make repairs. The fashion police were alert to infractions Russ was committing as well, but he got off with a retying of the honda (a ropelike slingshot fashioned into a belt) and a warning.

The other Peace Corps volunteers here for the fiesta had similar experiences-- it takes a village to dress a gringo. Here are the parts involved for Colca Barbie to be fully dressed: polleras –at least two (fancy long velvety skirts with many rows of embroidery and flashy trim starting at the hem and going up knee high or higher for the outside layer, with numerous other long skirts underneath possibly of lesser flash, but some trim), blouse, also with embroidery around the cuffs and neck, embroidered vest (as snug a fit as possible). Embroidered belt tied tight to give Barbie the tiniest waist possible (she’s a doll, she doesn’t need to breathe), optional jacket with more embroidery for when the temperature drops. Barbie has two hat options, but she must wear a hat. The Collagua hat is similar in shape to a straw boater, but it is white, and sports a solid glitz hatband with a starburst rosette of ribbon glitz worn on the left side. This Barbie chose the hat of the Cabanas, a more sedate felt option featuring a wide (embroidered, of course) brim worn snapped up in back, down in front.

And what of Colca Ken? Two polleras, as previously described, with the top one hiked up coquettishly in front to show a peek of the one underneath. He wears a montera on his head, which is a two story pith helmet covered with fabric and decorated with rows of fringe which has two practical functions. First, it hangs in front of his eyes, adding to his disguise, and second, it swings about merrily when he dances, adding swash to his buckle. The montera is held on with numerous straps, further covering the sneaky bastard’s face. In between the polleras and the hat the well dressed wititi man wears a long sleeved military style shirt, with two bright sashes crossed like bandoliers across his shoulders all secured by a precisely tied honda (see above). The sashes also provide a place to carry a whisky bottle. Now, finally we are dressed. On with the party.

And the music? A brass band with trumpet and “bajo” (euphonium) plays the same song in two sections, trumpet and bajo, all night long, without rest. The. Same. Song. The trumpets compel the dancing--when the trumpets take their turn, so do the dancers, swirling frenetically to make the skirts stand out and swing. Miles and miles of glitter trim on the hundreds of hats and skirts sparkles and flashes in the light from the street lamps. When the euphoniums take over the mad swirling stops and the dancers advance, flowing around the plaza or down the street. At times there are three bands blaring independently (and out of sync) and so many dancers crowded together we bang into each other during the twirling. Although it seems like the whole town is dancing, the streets are lined with observers, or maybe they are just resting a bit before they dance again.

During dinner at the neighborhood host’s home, it is decided that Russ will be the Machu Wititi on the first night. Machu means old, or grandfather, in Quechua. It also means he leads the parade from the house to the plaza, and around the plaza, with a beer bottle in one hand and his hat in the other. Cheers and applause for the greying gringo.

The party lasts three days. During the day, there are dance competitions with choreographed groups of dancers in matching polleras strutting their moves in front of the judge’s stand. One night is the band competition, with the winner being the band that plays the longest into the night before their lips flap off into the sunrise. Another night is the competition between the three neighborhoods of Chivay. I think the winner has something to do with how many dancers you bring to the event. We danced with our Ccapac neighbors, but I don’t think we won.

In short, we dress, get redressed by Peruvians, eat, eat more street food (hot chocolate, alpaca on a stick, alpaca hamburgers, arroz con leche) dance, dance, drink beer and chicha, and dance. So does practically all of the community, little boys in polleras, tiny girls in polleras. Old dancers, young dancers, all swirling for the joy of it. No one is fooled by the disguises any longer, but the locals say there is still a noticeable spike in the birth rate nine months following the wititi.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cranberries in Peru?!

I tried to write a Thanksgiving blog post, but it came out exactly like you’d expect a Peace Corps/Perú Thanksgiving blog post to come out--how it’s the simple things in life that are most meaningful, and our relationships with other people matter more than “things,” blah, blah, blah. You’ve read it before, in one form or another, every year, and it’s all still true—even moreso in Perú. I don’t mean to devalue any of it, and I can assure you that we spent a good bit of time reflecting on the unique lessons of our time in Perú, and what it all means in the context of Thanksgiving. We’re sure that you did likewise with your own situations—and we suspect that in principle, they’re not that different. So, let’s move on to the stuff that only your correspondents in Chivay can tell you!

That said, we had a great Thanksgiving day. We never tire of walking through the market here, it’s even better than going to the IGA in Hamilton, and that’s saying something. (We do miss Willie and Tom and the rest of the crew there. Tell them we said “hi”). The displays of fruits familiar and exotic, household goods, and a dizzying variety of potatoes, are presented—almost exclusively—by women, usually in traditional clothes.

We staggered home with an 8-kilo turkey, 2 kilos of potatoes, 2 kilos of camote (sweet potato), bread, fruit, and various spices, and set about making a feast. My sister, Liz, had sent some dried cranberries, so we were able to include a sumptuous sauce in the menu. Enrique fished an old gas oven out of their storage area, so we hooked it up and, after assuring ourselves that we wouldn’t detonate West Central Chivay when we lit the burners, we made an epic, yet highly aromatic, mess of the kitchen. To keep everyone happy, we also bought about 3 liters of Peruvian wine for a bit more than US $10. To cover up the taste, they just make it very, very sweet. You can imagine . . .

Net result: Enrique said it was the best meal of his life, in spite of my frantic signals not to continue in that vein while sitting next to his wife, Amanda, who has been making his meals for 21 years and is the heart and soul of their restaurant, Antares. No fuss ensued, though, and maybe she even agreed, as we gorged on apple and pecan pies a la mode. (A tip of the hat to fellow PCV Chris Heather, who pitched in to help us get it all done, thereby earning a share of the leftovers).

Chivay is thankfully devoid of Christmas cheer at this point—it’s hard to find any sign at all that the holiday is coming, aside from the ubiquitous “panetones,” sort of a cross between a loaf of white bread and a fruitcake, but the size of a small archeological site. I get the impression that everyone in Perú gives everyone else at least 14 panetones during the holidays. Arequipa, on the other hand, is a jarring experience, culturally speaking. The medium-to-large stores are full of decorations based on North American or European Christmas traditions, all tinsel and snowmen, muzack playing the same holiday tunes you hear in the US. AAauuugghhh!

Chivay IS preparing for the big festival of the year, the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción, which is celebrated with several days of drinking and dancing the Wititi, Dec. 8-11. It’s an honest festival, with hardly any consideration at all for tourists, thrown to celebrate and preserve the local cultures. “Wititi” translates from the Quechua, more or less, as (ahem) to make love, but it’s usually billed just as “the dance of love.” It has its origins in the mix of the two aboriginal cultures in the Colca valley, the Quechua-speaking Cabanas, whose pre-Inca origins stem from the ancient Wari culture of central Peru, and the Collaguas, Aymara-speaking descendants of the Tiwanaku culture once centered near Lake Titicaca.

The Wititi celebrates the legend that men of the Cabana culture, in order to get close to the Collagua women, would dress as women, including a hat with a fringed brim to hide their faces. Thus, they could sneak into the fiestas and dance with the women. (A variant has them dressing as women to get close to the Spanish conquistadors to cut their throats, but that’s SO not romantic.) So now we have brass bands blowing their lips off for 3-4 days, and a plaza filled with men in pulleras (traditional skirts) and monteras (the hats), dancing away with similarly-dressed women. Jean has bought her pullera and is looking for the rest of the authentic outfit, and I’ve arranged to borrow my pullera and montera. There will be feasts and who knows what to accompany the doings—we’ll give you a full report.

So what have we been up to since our last post, so long ago? We’ll start with “work,” since that’s what your tax dollars are supporting us to do.

We hadn’t planned to return to U.S. soil during our 2-year hitch, but technically we did so in late November, bringing a pair of Chivay artisans to the 7th Annual Peace Corps Artisan Fair at the U.S. Embassy in Lima. Embassies are legally considered sovereign soil of the country they represent, so there we were, among people who speak English and flush the toilet paper right down the toilet, instead of putting it in a little basket next to the john. It was a bit odd, being there, but it was a great chance to re-connect with the group of volunteers with whom we trained, all of whom also brought artisans to Lima. We had a half-day of training, a night on the town in Lima, and a day of selling on the campus of the embassy. Cameras, cell phones, USB’s, and all sharp objects other than knitting needles were collected at the security portals, but one of our PC staffers was able to shoot a few frames. Welcome to the USA . . .

To get to Lima from Chivay, we spent 20 hours on buses, each way, just to spend 36 frantic hours in Lima. Not Worth It.

Our artisans did well for themselves, with some unique products (and some just like many others), and the high point was a Wititi demonstration that we put on, in Colca costume. Cusi may, in fact, have spent more time and thought preparing for the dance than for the fair, but he has experience with both, so all went well.

Our other main job focus is tourism, so we attended a 2-day Forum on Tourism at a retreat in the valley. It was about what you’d expect at any such gathering, a lot of blah-blah, and a few kernels of really good stuff. The nut to crack is how to help the people here take advantage of the torrent of tourists, most of whom are paying guides in Arequipa to bring them here; consequently, little money stays in the valley. As always, we made some good connections, and are following up on project ideas, but it’s mostly long-term stuff at this point, so it may be a while before we see much result.

We’re also working out a proposal to do some training for the hotel and restaurant association in Chivay.

For fun? Yeah, we’ve done some of that . . . We owe a debt to the philosophy of Ace Steele, whose motto of “fun once a day, Big Fun once a week” we try to follow. We’re still happy enough with our situation that just walking across town, through the market and the Plaza de Armas, constitutes our daily fun.

We visited the 700-year-old, very spooky pre-Inca ruins of Tapay Viejo. Tapay is a community accessible only on foot, and there’s no real path to the ruins, which are fairly extensive and rarely-visited. They include a small cave full of human skulls and bones, and pottery. Definitely an Indiana Jones moment. We can’t even begin to describe the precipitous trail to get there, but we’ll be happy to show it to you if you visit. Huge fun.

We biked a nice half-day circuit from Chivay up to Canocota, on a (mostly) paved road, then made the descent home on an Inca road alongside the river. Some of that involved carrying the bikes down a stone staircase, still more-or-less intact centuries after its construction. The trail back to Chivay passes through a canyon of basaltic lava flows (OK, the whole Province is one big basaltic lava flow, reminiscent of eastern Washington), and it conveniently delivers you to the entrance to La Calera, the very nicely-developed hot springs here. This is one of the recommended tourist "circuits" that a local NGO is trying to promote.

And, at the invitation of a mixed group of guides and workers at another local NGO, we loaded our bikes on the bus, and got off at the dizzying Mirador de los Volcanes, elevation 15,800 feet. There, we mounted up, and made an indescribably thrilling descent back to Chivay, nearly 4,000 vertical feet below. (A bit intimidating, when two of them suited up in full motorcycle helmets and skateboard-style body armor.) We saw herds of domestic alpaca, llamas, and sheep, wild vicuña galloping across the slopes, odd alpine flora (it might have been sentient, hard to tell with those alpine life-forms), and outrageous mountain vistas. It had a bit of everything, some challenging single-track, some less-challenging double-tracks, some no-track-at-all, and a whizzing couple of kilometers of pavement in the middle, to connect all the rough parts. In Spanish, what we were following is called a “trocha,” and I have to wonder if that isn’t the root for “atrocious,” as some of it definitely was. Still--definitely Big Fun.

For the record, all the above also count as “work,” since part of tourism development involves acquainting ourselves with touristic resources and activities that have yet to be developed as commercial activities. These excursions definitely count, and we’re actively working with guides and others to develop them, while preserving their unique characteristics.

And our host family—we really love these guys, we have so much to share. On Dec. 2 we went to mass with them to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Amanda’s father’s death. Some of the service was sung in Quechua. Every day is a revelation of some sort.

So there it is. Some days we’re so focused on the “little stuff” that our biggest frustrations seem to be the slow speed of the internet connection in Chivay, and the excessive time we have to spend on buses; then we step back and look at the miserable condition of everyone’s teeth due to poor oral hygiene, the artisans selling beautiful works ridiculously cheap because they don’t properly value their own time spent on the work, and the unbalanced scales of “industrial tourism” vs. benefits for the community at large, and get a better grip on why we're here. We suffer from “mental whiplash” every day, as does anyone who looks at Perú with their eyes open. We’re here to be your “eyes.”