Friday, December 10, 2010

Wititi Week 2010

The annual madness is in full swing. For four days, beginning the 8th of December every year, Chivay goes crazy. It may be that we’re celebrating the Feast of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception—that’s the religious occasion that overlays all of the festivities--but at times it’s a pretty thin veneer. Whatever the excuse, though, the town is alive like no other time of year.

This is the Wititi Festival—the traditional dance of the Colca, danced with fervor, amid massed brass bands, men and women wearing their colorful embroidered skirts (polleras), traditional hats, blouses, a whole vocabulary of accessories and adornments that add up to an astonishingly beautiful swirl of color and motion when they swing into action.

And the noise! Three large brass bands, of up to 100 players, parade through the Plaza de Armas, or prowl the streets at all hours between 6:30 a.m. and . . . 2:30 a.m.? Maybe later. We lose track. It’s like living in the middle of an elaborate bowl game Halftime Show, surrounded by trumpets, drums, and baritones (mini-tubas, called “bajos” here), all blowing their lips off amid an orgy of eating, drinking, and dancing.

The mercado is lined with impromptu food and drink vendors (José standing with cases of beer stacked up and a sign, “happiness in bottles”). Ranks of tall arches, made of eucalyptus poles and festooned with shiny pots, pans, trays, flashing lights, and stuffed animals (the significance of which escapes me) line the streets of the Plaza de Armas. People dance and weave in and among the arches, which are “sponsored” by individuals or families in Chivay.

Chivay is divided in three districts, Urinsaya (lower), Hanansaya (upper), and Ccapa (merchant), and each competes to outdo the other with the volume of their musicians, the gaudiness of their arches and altars, and the enthusiasm of their dancers. People host breakfasts, lunches, or dinners at their homes for dozens of attendees.

Virtually nothing gets done for the four days of the Wititiada. Some businesses may be open in the mornings, when less is happening, but by mid-afternoon, hundreds of people are dressing in their outfits and preparing to dance. As the sun goes down, the bands really crank it up, and the true craziness floods into the streets.

Generally, there’s rain. This is the beginning of the rainy season, and it is considered good fortune if it rains, at least by connoisseurs. Gotta think about the growing season, I guess, although for those of us with no beans in the ground it’s less thrilling, and really just kind of muddy and cold, but that’s the local ethic for you. Sometimes it hails, and I guess that’s good, too, although it IS harder on the beans.

The best is when you’re dancing in the middle of it all, and just let it sweep over you. The incredible volume and physical impact of the noise; the sensory overload of lights, color, and motion among the dancers; the physical closeness of the partner you’re spinning; the intensity of the dancers; it all adds up to something elemental, primal, a collective expression of something unique to this culture in the specific way that it’s expressed, but recognizable across cultural barriers as something innate.

Yes, it’s also an occasion for serious public drunkenness, yes there are a lot of mixed messages getting sent, yes the ostentatious spending on frivolous fiestas instead of addressing deeper social problems are all troublesome; feel free to extend that analogy to the American football halftime show, too. You can see a darker side to anything; sometimes you just have to acknowledge all that, and then choose to live in the beauty of the moment.

And what a beautiful moment it is!