Colour, noise, religion, beer

By Nicholas Asheshov

A couple of weeks from now sees the fiesta of the Virgen del Carmen in Paucartambo, a cold colonial town east of Cusco. Just beyond is Tres Cruces on the dramatic edge of the cordillera and from here the escarpment plunges into the jungles of the Madre de Dios. There’s not a hill between here and Rio de Janeiro.

In Paucartambo I have a godson, Adolfo Concha, who is just starting his career as a policeman. “There’s not much to do,” he says. “Just play football.”

But once a year this Quechua market town, distinguished by an old stone bridge over a turbulent river, explodes into the raucous magic of a slam-bang Andean fiesta.

The fiesta at Paucartambo is famous for the discipline of its dozens of dance troupes, their wild costumes and masks together with battering brassy noise as hundreds of dancers swirl through the cobbled streets. It goes on for the best part of a week.

From now on through September most parts of the Peruvian Andes, not to mention the Coast, is wall-to-wall religious fiestas, enormously colourful and powerful.

The people of the southern sierra tend to be morose and introverted. Half a millennia ago they gloriously ruled the world but today they carry a sad chip on their shoulder and perhaps it’s not to be wondered at. They mistrust each other and the same goes for outsiders.

But this insidious gloom, in the middle of some of the world’s greatest scenery, explodes every year in every pueblo into well-organized get-together colour and noise. Here on the marches of Rome’s spiritual empire, ancient local traditions emerge in good humour -they throw a good party.

Cusco itself is always full of processions and fiestas. I remember a foreign hotel manager complaining of being regularly woken up before crack of dawn by the explosions of fireworks marking the beginning of yet another fiesta.

From now on it’s wall-to-wall troupes of masked dancers, thumpy bands, other-worldly pan-pipes, fireworks and Amazonian quantities of beer and chicha.

There is often a waiting-list of several years to become a mayordomo of the dances, The mayordomo finances the dances and the bands, and provides the meals and vast quantities of drink for each dance group. My wife and I have done it. It takes up a lot of time and energy for months beforehand but we knew that it was worth it, that we’d done our duty by our saint, la Virgen de la Natividad de Huayllabamba, and that we are living under her protection. We top up our devotion every year by supporting other mayordomos and, of course, joining the parties and processions and a mass or two.

As a mayordomo you get to walk in the procession with an ornate woven banner with your name and you get privileged access to your saint’s attention on His or Her day, indeed for the whole year leading up to the fiesta. It’s like having life insurance. You can ask special favours, like getting your child into university, curing a health problem, money for a truck or a house.

One couple who were mayordomos for the Capac Negro dance group at the fiesta for Mamacha Naty, as us devotees feel entitled to call her, were able to announce the birth of a long-sought child nine months after the fiesta. La Virgen de la Natividad is known around here as being “bastante milagrosa.”

By this stage I can take fiestas in strictly limited quantities. But there are one or two that I don`t tire of.

My favourite is at Coya, between Calca and Pisac, around August 20 where you can watch a super game of football with the players dressed up in masks and dancing gear. They start off with regular soccer but within minutes they’re picking up the ball and running with it and throwing it and it’s as slam-bang tough as Australian Rules. The ref is dressed up as the devil and the linesmen are junior devils. There are several crates of beer at stake and gentlefolk like you and me would not want to be on the receiving end, believe me, of a tackle from an Andean Indian in a mask. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of July 3, 2008