Friday, August 5, 2011

Fiestas Patrias in Sacsayhuaman

Fiestas Patrias in Sacsayhuamán

As I’ve noted before, there are “good Perú” days, and there are “bad Perú” days. The latter tend to wear you down with the sometimes-endless small aggravations that are just a part of life, here—and then really wham you with something categorically shitty. The former, by contrast, are full of the sparkling moments that are also a part of daily life—if you’re alert to them—that are then somehow catalyzed by an unexpected event or sight, into something rare and wonderful. That was Wednesday, July 27th, in la Comunidad Sustentable Sol de Sacsayhuamán.

Really, we didn’t expect much of the morning. This little satellite community of 450 people, just across the river from Chivay, received some money to renew their small Plaza, and did a nice job of it. We’d been invited to an event the night before, some nebulous occurrence scheduled for 5 p.m., as part of the celebration of re-opening the plaza, but when we got there it was only the work crews motoring around, so we didn’t stick around. The community officials had also invited us to another event for Wednesday morning and, being suckers for any form of diversion, we’d elected to make the 10-minute walk, up and over a steep hill, to see what might be going on.

Our first clue was the huge Peruvian flag draped over the Puente Inca, the aged bridge across the Rio Colca that separates Sacsayhuamán from Chivay, and the policía putting out unnecessary traffic cones and blowing their whistles in the inscrutable, random manner we’ve grown, like most, to ignore.

Descending to the new plaza, we were pleased by the sight of so much red-and-white, the colors of the Peruvian flag. This was the day before Peruvian Independence Day, and patriotic feeling runs high. Many of the buildings had a fresh coat of pinkish paint—it either loses or gains something, when applied to adobe or stucco, it’s hard to judge which. A good deal on pink paint must have been part of the plaza renovation budget.

We had walked over with a friend, and all three of us were directed to seats in the shade of the “reviewing stand.” One by one, some heavy-hitters began to arrive—the owner/architect of a fancy nearby hotel who had, no doubt, contributed to the renovation, various other officials connected to the project, and finally the alcalde provincial himself, the equivalent of a mayor at the county level. Our own connection to the project was tangential, at best: we sometimes work with some artisans in the community, some of whom are movers and shakers, and are acquainted with the president of the community board. We go to a LOT of meetings there, and are well-recognized, but I can’t say we’d contributed in any material way to this project.

It was a beautiful morning in a pretty place, at least if your tastes run to the rustic. Ours, now, do. Flags, agricultural terraces, adobe homes, people in traditional clothes, and the mountains that are considered living guardian spirits, rising into the blue, all combined to create a very pleasing prospect, with the new plaza in the foreground. The centerpiece of the plaza was a column crowned by a statue of . . . a local woman, spinning alpaca yarn, dressed in the traditional manner of a good fourth of the crowd. You gotta love THAT!

The commandant of the local army post goose-stepped over, automatic weapon and pistol possibly cleaned but not obviously polished—saluted, and asked permission of the alcalde to start the proceedings. A gigantic Peruvian flag was unfurled, and the assembled officials—us included—were invited to carry it around the plaza. We were ready to do so, but our friend reasoned that somebody had to stay behind in the reviewing stand to applaud, so we did.
Next, a bussed-in marching band from another district marched and played the national anthem. A few people—us included—sang along, but generally speaking, Peruvians don’t really get their heart into the anthem. The flag went up, the provincial hymn was played, another flag went up, and then came the marching.

Marching is an important part of any civic ceremony. From a young age, students are taught to goose-step in a disturbingly Nazi style, to martial music either blared from loudspeakers at painfully-distorted volume, or played by sixth-graders issued trumpets and drums. Bad idea, either way. But, every school in district was there to parade by, plus a number of civic groups who, too, self-consciously and half-heartedly goose-stepped, or not, by our reviewing seats.

Late in the proceedings, the head guy of Autocolca, the quasi-governmental agency that’s charged with managing tourism in the Colca, urgently motioned me to join him. Turns out, he needed a “tourist” to march with the Autocolca brigade, which included half a dozen llamas, to simulate someone “llama trekking.” He was disappointed that I wasn’t wearing a backpack, as most tourists are, but in a pinch I’d do. Jean, too, was recruited to hold their banner as we marched. We have mixed feelings about Autocolca, but the taxpayers pay us to be good sports, so we filed down the short plaza, carrying the banner and walking amid the llamas, and were laughingly applauded for our efforts.

Then, as we were milling about the plaza waiting for the next phase, I heard my name called on the loudspeaker, and was startled to find myself in the lineup to be awarded a “corazon de pan,” a large loaf of bread baked in the shape of an oversized heart about 18” across, decorated with flowers, and tied to the chest of persons whom they wish to honor or acknowledge as special. I was very pleased, and very humbled—I really don’t feel that I’ve contributed THAT much, but it was a very nice gesture on their part.

After that, it was cups of chicha (local version of homebrewed beer), Caballo Viejo (literally “old horse,” a cheap, sweet champagne that is regularly offered as a toast), and plates of food, to inaugurate the newly-paved playground of a nearby primary school. That much alcohol on school property in the U.S. would generally get someone fired, if not jailed, but here it’s customary. It saddens us, sometimes, to see the behavior that gets modeled for these kids, but it’s a culture that we’re not going to change.

Then it was still more food, until the ceremony wound down. I was never called upon for “palabras,” (literally, “words”) where you are expected to stand up and speak extemporaneously for a few minutes to thank, honor, or toast, as the occasion demands, but I was ready.

We left in the early afternoon, the unexpected events of the day embedded as yet another pleasant memory of our “good Peru.”

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