Thursday, February 18, 2010

From Carnaval to Carnivores

We figure you don’t read this for the sometimes boring, frequently frustrating, day-to-day details of Peace Corps volunteers in a developing country. Meetings that happen, meetings that don’t; and the other “inconveniences” we put up with--we recently congratulated each other for an exceptionally long period—2 months!—without either one of us suffering from serious diarrhea. Russ was almost immediately rewarded for this act of hubris with a case of giardia. That’s just daily life.

Down here, “Carnaval” is what they call the weeks before (and a few days after) Mardi Gras. In many parts of Latin America it’s a huge party, but it also has more dimensions to it than you ever imagined.

For one thing, it’s an auspicious time to make a “pago a la tierra,” literally a payment to the earth. It’s also a time for various kinds of flute competitions . . . and thus begins one of the weirder weeks we’ve spent in Perú so far, and that’s saying something!

We were invited to visit Espinar, a province in the region of Cuzco, to learn something of their touristic resources and critique their efforts to develop tourism. Item 1) Espinar isn’t really close to anywhere, and the roads aren’t paved, in spite of what we were told. Item 2) It doesn’t make the best of impressions when your van gets stuck in the mud, not quite a minute out of town on the show-me trip, and the nearest neighbor comes screaming out of her house when we start using “her” rocks to get some traction.

Nevertheless, the place has some impressive resources, and with Machu Picchu temporarily closed, they aim to attract some tourists. We were knocked out by the landscape at Tres Cañones, where three forks join to form the Rio Apurimac, (headwaters of the Amazon); or maybe we were just VERY glad to get out of the bus, finally. The Inca ruins nearby are a well-preserved religious site, where odd rock formations are said to cast shadows of puma and condor, and the view from atop the mesa on which they were built is spectacular. The whole area is very reminiscent of the Dillon/Big Hole country of Montana--but 7,000 feet higher, around 13,000 feet on average. It potentially offers a range of adventure sports, from kayaking and rafting to rock climbing/rappelling. All it lacks is tourists, infrastructure, and access.

Later that evening, as we were waiting for our meeting with the municipal officials to start, someone suggested we might like to spend a few minutes at a private “pago a la tierra,” much more intimate than the official ceremony scheduled for later. So, of course we got into the truck with complete strangers, and were whisked to we-know-not-where, strolling into a private and fairly serious ceremony where they may or may not have been expecting us. A bit scary, to tell the truth. We were welcomed and made to feel part of it all, though, as is almost always the case in Peru. There was music, men in distinctly odd costumes which were not explained to us, dancing, drinking, and . . . other stuff. We were instructed in the proper ways to make our offerings, and then, just as suddenly, we were trucked back to our meeting. It was in the nicest town hall we’ve seen, but it suddenly seemed very sterile.

The “official” Pago a la Tierra that night was still a serious affair, with a ram sacrificed in front of us (more on that sort of thing, later) and offerings made with great attention to detail and in very specific ways. We participated with as much gravity as we could muster.

The following day, after visiting more, very scenic ruins, we were taken to something like the local rodeo grounds, for the “Chaka Sabado” festival. Thousands of people lined the hillsides, like tailgaters at a NASCAR event (well no, not really), to watch a man, (the Chu’ko) dressed in an elaborate costume with miles of red yarn simulating the coat of an alpaca or llama, or maybe a pom-pom. He was playing a very large, phallic flute (Pinkuyllo), in an attempt to seduce a soltera (single woman) who was sassing him in song. The whole scene builds to a literal climax as they finally wrestle, and one of them (guess who) is thrown to the ground and . . . er, mounted.

OK, their clothes never came off, but there was no question about what was going on.
Each neighborhood has their Chu’ko and soltera, so we watched the same thing, more or less, repeat itself for a couple of hours. (Seduction? Rape? Elaborate sexual play?) Truly, it was a fascinating scene. At that point, we could not have been surprised by anything.

The whole thing felt like exactly the Peace Corps experience we signed up for—we were able to contribute a bit of our expertise to a development project, while experiencing some completely alien cultural traditions not as tourists, but as anyone else in the community experiences them—albeit, without context.

Now, back in Chivay, we had President’s Day free, so we accepted another invitation to a Pago a la Tierra, at our friend Pedro’s wife’s estancia, where they keep their llamas and alpacas in the rainy season. (Peace Corps rule #1: say “yes” to any invitation!) So off we go, high into the Andes, collecting juniper shrubs to make a smoky fire inside the stone corral to provide the right atmosphere.

The eldest son (Pedro’s brother-in-law) started taking notes so that he can conduct the ceremony when the paterfamilias is no longer able. A blanket is spread on the ground as a kind of altar. Sprigs of a particular shrub are placed on it. Everyone is given two pieces of llama tallow, on which you breathe three times, and place them on the altar—one to ask permission from the “apus,” or mountain spirits, to remain in their territory; one to ask protection from Santiago against lightning. The process is then repeated, only this time the two pieces of tallow petition protection for the llamas and the alpacas.

After this we begin downing many, many, cups of chicha (homebrew), beer, wine, and anything else they put in front of us. Seashells are dipped into the cups, a mineral is ground over them, incense is blown on three times and passed around. We’re hoping the brother-in-law is getting all of this down. Corn. There’s a couple kinds of corn, too, and dead birds, and more chicha. Things get a bit more fuzzy.

Then we go out into the mountainside to round up the animals and herd them into the corral. It was great fun to bring together this sea of alpacas and llamas, against the backdrop of the high Andes. Once they’re all together in the stone corral, the climax of this particular ceremony comes when Pedro selects an alpaca and brings it over near the altar, apologizes, and

WARNING: DON’T READ THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE AT ALL SQUEAMISH!!!

throws it to the ground, where the women hold it down. Brother-in-law dons a ceremonial poncho, rolls up his sleeve, picks up a knife, sips some chicha, then slits open the animal’s abdomen. He reaches inside, high up into the chest cavity, and yanks the beating heart right out of the animal! Leaping to his feet, he quickly runs a lap around the corral and all the animals, before breathlessly placing the heart on the altar. Next, he fishes out lungs, spleen, and kidney, which are analyzed for their shape and size, which augur for the coming year. Jean and Russ watch all this as impassively as they can manage. Pedro’s 7-year-old daughter is shooting video.

After this, more beer, more chicha, more whatever; the offerings are breathed on 3X by all present, and burnt. Russ is busy helping skin out the alpaca, Jean is shooting photos of an alpaca that walked into the corral a few minutes ago, and is now dinner. It’s a good lesson, I suppose.

All of a sudden, somebody spots the last bus into Chivay coming over the pass, and a few of us gather our things and gallop down the mountain to the road to flag it down, climbing on bedecked in alpaca blood, Mardi Gras streamers, and face paint that was applied just before the sacrifice. The people on the bus don’t quite know what to make of these gringos they just picked up in the middle of nowhere, but they give us a ride to town.

Stay with us here, we’re almost done.

Mardi Gras isn’t a big day here—it’s a big SEASON: Carnaval. In Chivay, it’s celebrated by kids throwing water balloons (OK, we laid in a stock, too, to be lobbed from our convenient 3rd-floor perch) and spraying aerosol foam on everyone, and by adolescents playing drums and flutes. The flutes are metal or plastic, mostly made from plumbing supplies, some still threaded for later use. They’re not very musical, and the short phrase they play isn’t very catchy, but they do play enthusiastically.

For days. And nights. The same damn music, over and over.

Not only that, but these “bands,” representing the neighborhoods of Chivay, roam the streets, and the official flute competitions sometimes devolve into fistfights as the peripatetic pipers encounter each other in dark alleys. The Chivay Fighting Flautists! Stay in your homes, folks, the streets aren’t safe—there’s flutes out there! Fortunately, they are accompanied by young women in their beautiful traditional costumes, swinging . . . what? Whips? Slingshots? Oops, back into the house!

We constantly try to avoid being judgmental, but this last week has caused us a few raised eyebrows, and a little squirming, in spite of our cultural sensitivity training.

So, write us and tell us about YOUR Carnaval/President’s Day festivities!

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