Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Winter Solstice at Huaytapallana

     Celebrating the solstices has been an important part of my life for many years. I didn’t expect that it would continue to be so here in Peru. How very wrong I was. I’ve become immersed in a community of people who are dedicated to revitalizing the ancient Andean vision of the cosmos and our place in it. I have the very great honor to be included in this community. I’m part of a women’s circle that does women-only ritual on the new moon, and ritual open to women, men and kids on the full moon. I’ve written a few songs for our ceremonies, with more planned. It’s so funny—when I went into Peace Corps, I imagined myself being a very different person. Not so. I’m still me, songwriting and all, just at a higher altitude.
     I was invited to take part in a winter solstice ceremony on June 21. We met in Huancayo and sorted ourselves into a flock of minivans and headed up and up to one of the two highest areas of our region: the Huaytapallana massif. These glacier-capped peaks have been the eastern edge of my world for the six months I’ve been here. Back in the states, I used the San Juan Mountains to orient myself; among them mount Taylor, the northern sacred mountain of the Navajo Nation. Here, it’s the Apu of Huaytapallana. An apu is a sacred place—often a mountain—that is an elder sibling, a repository of power, a protector that is often called upon to witness and share a ritual. For months I had looked forward to meeting Huaytapallana in person.
     After more than an hour of travel, we came to a place where the road was too damaged and steep for the vehicles to make it, so everyone got out to walk up the hill.
 To pass the time, musicians played and people danced and drank. I joined in.
 Some local herders came along with their horses and watched from the sidelines. Horses! Kristi has been longing to get on a horse ever since we got to Peru. Chasqui negotiated for us, and the men agreed to take Kristi and me on up to the ritual location on horseback for 10 soles apiece. It was an unexpected pleasure, riding along high up in the mountains with beautiful views.

We passed an icchu-grass home.
The family’s llamas regarded us with curiosity.
I was pleased to see that the forest service had posted numerous signs to urge people to take care of the environment. They used the "authority of the resource" strategy. In this sign, the apu Huaytapallana asks the visitor not to throw trash. As I used to teach in my environmental psychology class (in what feels like a different life now) people are more responsive to this kind of appeal than the kind that uses "the authority of the government", as in 'don't throw trash or we'll throw you in jail'.

I had forgotten that riding a horse can get uncomfortable, especially with unfamiliar tack. But it was worth it; we were so happy. We did feel suitably guilty to be culturally insensitive—the gringas on horseback leaving everyone else behind. Our guilt evaporated when all the vehicles, having surmounted the difficult part, passed us one by one, with people smiling and waving and taking our pictures. We were the last to arrive at the lake.
It’s a stunningly beautiful place.
Everyone marched along the road around the lake to the place selected for the ritual.
We set up our manta of offerings in amongst all the others on the “table”, including flowers and corn from our garden in Acolla.

The 'table' grew and grew as more people set up their mantas.
The ritual began, with many prayers to the sacred mountain. Also, one of the priests proposed to his partner during the ceremony,
Another recited a very moving poem to the coca leaves,

And a musician from Argentina played Native (north) American flute. I talked with him the next day, and he’s a friend of Carlos Nakai, perhaps the most famous Native American flute player from the United States.

During the ceremony it began to snow! Our first snow (well, grapple really) in Peru.

We had made friends with the people of the neighboring manta. This woman is a talented singer, and I really enjoyed her voice.
They invited us to join our manta with theirs for a prayer

Chasqui and I had our picture taken with our friend and his new fiance. We met him recently when he did the ceremony at another friend's (Yves) birthday. That ceremony was to honor and thank Yves' parents for giving him life.
 And then we went to do our offering. All the people fanned out over the hillside in small groups.

We drank beverages and the musicians in our group played and we sang.

 One of the men offered prayers

And then we buried our offerings in the Pachamama, the Mother Earth. It was a time outside of time. Sublime.

Twice, avalanches cascaded down the face of the glacier and all the people shouted back to the mountain. But it was also sad. The glacier is dying. You can see its former extent. It is now half the size that it was a few decades ago. If things go as they have been, in a few decades the glacier will be gone and the Apu will stand naked without his manta of snow.

After this, we went to the lake. Some brave souls were bathing in the lake. I doused my head with water and thanked the lake for a profound day. We ate our lunch and then returned to the vans to go back down the mountain. It was a tough trip home for me, as the altitude and energy and chicha had given me a headache, which was not helped by the lusty singing of folksongs in the van on the way home. But connections went well, and when I finally got to bed, I slept soundly and dreamed of mountains. It was a wonderful solstice.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Race of the Chasquis, part 3

On the day of the race, we traveled the half hour or so from our site to Sausa to get dressed at Sergio's house. On the way, we came upon a fiesta. Around here, there's a fiesta in one neighborhood or another pretty much every week. We stopped to admire the costumes.
At the house, Sergio gave us a room to get changed in. The transformation began.
 While Laura braided Kristi's hair, Stasia took the opportunity to get my help with the statistics section of her master's thesis proposal. We worked out the research design and determined the number of participants she needs to see whether gender, age and length of time as a resident predict accuracy of medicinal plant knowledge in her community. It's an interesting study.
Once they were in costume, our doughty chasquis got their numbers and were labelled with their home towns.

Then it was quiz time. Professor Henoch Loyoza was in charge of the test. Each runner had to demonstrate her or his knowledge of chasquis. Kristi went first and got easy questions like "what is a chasqui?"  Laura went second, and got moderately hard questions like ""what was the purpose of the quipu?" By the time he got to Stasia, the questions were really tough, like "why is your headband red?" and "how were chasquis chosen?"
Once the test was over, all the runners lined up for photos in the street. At that point, there were 4 men in the men's competition, and just three in the women's competition, all from Peace Corps. Our confidence was running high. 
Everyone hopped in cars and rode downhill to the place where the race would begin. The competitors crossed the river on the footbridge.
and walked along the railroad tracks toward where the race would begin.
At the starting line, our team warmed up.
Then, suddenly, some additional entrants arrived. The Peace Corps racers found themselves facing competition. These women were rumored to be strong runners and their feathers were much bigger than ours.
We could no longer be assured of capturing first, second and third place. An strategy conference ensued.
Undaunted, the Peace Corps racers vowed to run their best.
In any case, it's all about intercultural exchange, not winning, right?
What an impressive sight the 10 runners were, in their Incan clothing, blowing their pututos.

Finally, the moment came. The women lined up and began the race.
 followed by the men.
Off they went, up the hill and along the route described in the post "Race of the Chasquis, part 1". The rest of us observers walked back along the railroad tracks, over the bridge, got into cars, drove up the hill, past the road construction, into Sausa and to the finish line, only to discover that several of the racers had gotten there before us! But we did get to see some of the later runners come in.
Unfortunately, the race course was unmarked and three of the runners got lost on the mountainside. They turned up eventually, but it did cause frustration for those competitors. Everyone was very sorry about that and swore to do better next year. The racers rested and drank chica morada for a while, then walked back through the plaza, and then to Sergio's house.
Of the women, this marathon runner from Jauja took first place

Kristi took second place and Stasia took third.

and Chasqui was in second place among the men.

Then, there was a lunch, with speeches, pachamanca
and beverages.

We gave a radio interview after lunch. It's gratifying that I can now speak Spanish well enough to give a reasonably articulate explanation of what Peace Corps is, why we're in Junin, and how the Race of the Chasquis relates to the Peace Corps goals to increase understanding between the people of the United States and the people of Peru.

For a little while, we helped the Incan chasquis live again. Then it was back to modern Peru, our normal clothing and regular lives. But it was definitely a project I'll always remember; a highlight of my Peace Corps service.