Fiesta Del Carmen was underway in Rumira, a roadside towns-land a few miles outside Ollantaytambo, Peru’s ‘Living Inca Museum.’ My decision to return after my first visit to Peru, one year earlier, did not disappoint me.
Ollantaytambo stood out as being rather unique, so, I chose to discover what life was like in a small town in this area known as The Sacred Valley.
My friendships grew at the rate of my improvement in learning Spanish. I was the director of my own learning and all my life discoveries with help, of course, from those whom I befriended.
In this, my third week I had formed a lovely bond with some passing American tourists. Lis and Nabila agreed to walk with me to Rumira to witness a religious celebration which my Peruvian friend Hoowert had been telling me about.
Hence, we found ourselves sitting amongst the Andean folk, me pretending to drink beer and managing plates of rice with vegetables and tiny pieces of fatty pork, provided for all the guests.
It was close on 5pm and things were just getting started. I didn’t know if we were at the right house at first but I was reassured when I saw Hoowert coming from the road. I was proud to introduce him to the girls. He treated us like special guests and was so eager for us to understand the essence of the celebration.
He described everything beautifully. It was poetry to him. ‘We celebrate The Jesus and The Mary,’ he explained, ‘and also the traditions and stories from our past.’
Whilst the Spanish conquistadors imposed the Catholic belief upon their Inca captors these tenacious people and their descendants never lost sight of their original beliefs and traditions. Hence the ceremonies are a fusion of two belief systems ending up with very colourful and joyful celebrations.
For this festival is it the custom that a patron provides food and drink for the occasion. It is considered an honour to do so. All are welcome to the feast no-one is ever refused.
Hoowert brought us into a tiny hut that had an open fire with pots and pans. The fire was lighting and some meat was hanging from the rafter for curing purposes.
Hoowert had a good grasp of the English language, which is not usual for his kin. He owned his own mini-market where he worked long hours and in his spare time he performed as a traditional dancer at ceremonies such as these.
The way he described the importance of the dancing and what it meant to him was inspiring. Until recent years I had encountered very few people who would unashamedly display their hearts passion openly as he did. His love for his culture exuded in every word, every demonstration of his body behaviour and from his light-filled eyes.
After educating us about the celebrations he urged us to walk further along the road in the direction of the church.
Throughout the remainder of the evening groups of dancers would be arriving there to perform their ritual dances. Each group represented the houses of the hosts of the fiesta. Costumes and masks are part of the dance and every item including the colours is significant.
Hoowert explained, ‘the dance tells a story of my country.’ One of the masks was yellow in colour representing a tragic episode in history where many people in
that area died of Yellow Fever. Also some costumes were ragged and torn to represent extreme poverty that had been endured. He told us to watch out for the man with the whip, this too signified the history of oppression following the invasion by the Spanish in 1500’s.
We had some fun as the young men displayed their costumes to us. After taking photo’s we followed instructions and made our way to the church. It was getting much cooler as it does in this part of the high Andes during winter.
The church was a small modest building decorated inside with fruit above the altar, as thanksgiving to Pacha Mama, Mother Earth. The statues were decorated like dolls with pretty dresses all a glitter. Outside a group of dancers arrived in a procession towards the church.
A large costumed gorilla led the way. There was a particular foot work sequence which I noticed through-out the dances, a quick shuffle of steps from side to side accompanied by swaying bodies and outstretched arms.
As the sky darkened, country-folk gathered around the courtyard of the church. One after the other, groups of dancers arrived with bright colourful costumes and outrageous masks. Each group had a different theme and different story to tell in their performance.
We saw the whipping man, yes, and he appeared to be genuine in his whipping intentions as he lashed at those who stepped out of line. After each group completed their performance in front of the church, they then proceeded into the church itself. A new group took their place to perform the next sequence.
We stayed as long as our bodies could withstand the cold. We bought coca tea with spices from a nearby stall and skewered barbequed meat to sustain ourselves. A few hours had passed. It was truly special to be here but also to have friends to share the experience with and to see my friend Hoowert dancing.
There seemed to be no end to the dances but it was evident that a return to the houses for more food and drinks was part of the plan. We had received an invitation to return to the house we had started out from.
Getting home could have been tricky for there were no lights along the road back to Ollantaytambo and we had only dark clothing. For luck there was an auto-taxi. Nabila did the deal as her Spanish language was more fluent. Three of us huddled in the darkness of the covered motorbike giggling at the driver’s choice of music which was loud and surreal to my senses. This dimly lit motor-taxi dropped us safely back to Ollantaytambo.
It was our last night together. The girls were bound for Santa Teresa in the morning. Our time together was short but definitely memorable.
© Caroline Cunningham Author of Wild Star Landing