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Pascuan pyramid procession promotes Peruvian prickly pears

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Good Friday 21.03.08

Bedazzled by a ray of early morning sunlight, I awoke and peered outside the window. The Lima-Ayacucho coach was weaving through high country now, skirting the gentle slopes of a broad river valley. Rocky outcrops perched like watchtowers over a tranquil scene of farms and little hamlets. People tended to their morning chores outside thimble-sized dwellings while herds of llamas roamed sloping pastures partitioned by old-fashioned stone walls. With the road cross-stitching ever higher, new scenes bathed in morning radiance presented themselves at every purl. The now youthful stream ripped a seam fast and rough, while grassland gave way to heath which in turn yielded to tundra as we ascended into a cloud and snow-adorned mountain pass.

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On the backstitch, we threaded through a narrow eyelet dotted with stone ruins and eucalyptus, and I began chatting to a Peruvian woman named Clarice who it seems had been fortunate to avoid my wayward feet the night before. Before we knew it, we had macraméd into the dry, cactus-filled valley which Ayacucho occupies. This town flaunts the second-biggest Semana Santa (Holy Week) festival in the world, and I had come to watch. It was just a yarns-length mototaxi ride into the Parque Central, and I was soon making a nearby hostel my own with a new friend Kike, a Peruano from Lima.

We found a VW taxi on the other side of town to take us to Wari, a Pre-Colombian ruin in the area. The Wari people preceded the Incas, this particular site occupied for some 600 years. With the highway cutting between certain buildings much like the Formula One circuit traces the streets of Monte Carlo, we got the impression the entire site was only uncovered during the road's creation. The ruin of Wari, knitted using a combination of assorted stones and adobe is surrounded on all sides by a giant quilt of prickly pear, bearing thousands of the fruit known locally as Tuná.

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Our taxi ride for the return trip was flagged down by one of the classic black-hat-wearing indigenous women and her daughters by the roadside. While one daughter and the family's wood bundles occupied the boot, her mother squeezed in the front seat with me. Halfway through the forty-five minute journey she began breastfeeding her infant and within minutes both had fallen asleep, her head lolling gently onto my shoulder like a boat nudging a wharf. Soon my foot, uncomfortably wedged between her leg and the glove-box, followed suit into painful pins and needles, but when I considered rousing her to mention my predicament, a big brown nipple (now liberated from baby and garment) winked at me in reflection from the rear-vision mirror and I was too embarrassed to comment.

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The weekend's first procession began around seven in the evening as a glass coffin containing Christ's wooden body was carried out of a church a block from the central park. I soon became utterly trapped in a moshpit of several hundred candle-wielding devotees, and it was only a matter of minutes before a fellow pilgrim's hair was alight. The brass band played a jaunty tune as Christ pushed through the crowd to the parque central to the showering of petals from nearby balconies. We lingered in the street, which began filling with women of all ages wearing black veils and carrying candles. The Virgin Dolorosa, representing Mary's sorrow, slowly approached on a giant palanquin, sweeping silent reverie before her. The old indigenous women, wrinkle-creased faces wise and solemn cut contrasting figures in candlelight as the last procession of the night passed by.

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Despite a hypothermic beginning, the celebrations soon got the heart rate going with the Pascua Toro, the Easter Bull run through Ayacucho's main arteries. Hedonism was at high pressure for the Day without Sin, a theological loophole between Friday's death and Sunday's resurreción. A youthful crowd dressed in red danced to the crazy brass band tunes and began constructing human pyramids and throwing each other into the air. Beer and water also took to flight indiscriminately at or from the pyramids, which occasionally collapsed catastrophically onto those below. Screams and frantic manoeuvring announced the approach of a bull, towed behind a galloping gaucho. Once the animal departed on its less than merry way, the street filled again, and the cycle began anew.

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Inebriated from three straight hours of this, we headed to a little district named Flores to fill our stomachs. I thought I'd try to local delicacy named Cuy (known to you and me as Guinea Pig). From what I'd heard it arrived on the plate whole with claws bared and deathly snarl. Fortunately mine was fried to a crisp and face down, and it appeared the canny cook had divined at least six of the Colonel's secret herbs and spices. For those that know me well, this was about the best outcome one could ever hope for.

I lay my drunk self down for a few hours before night two and during the first hours of darkness Kike and I caught the performances of folkloric dancing in the Centro Cultural. Many traditional dances featured from around the country, all performed in classical dress that is still worn daily by some in the rural areas. While this was going on the staunch Catholics were attending mass, the Evangelicals had all paid to see a concert, the indigenous souvenir vendors were asleep atop their wares and the drunks were doing what they do best. We presently found ourselves at an out of town discoteque playing Salsa and Cumbia and I was lubricating my dancing legs with Peruvian beer. Once it had reached critical mass, my one-size-fits-all Latin two-step and unabated enthusiasm made up well enough for the flaws in my technique. Well, at least that's what I thought at the time.

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Back in the central park later on, the fireworks had begun and centre point to the whole arrangement were giant castillos of bamboo, mistakenly assumed by me to be works of art but instead multi-tiered platforms of utter dangerousness. Soon all kinds of fireworks were exploding from them in every direction - bright embers cascaded all over, fiery wheels spun and took off, lunatics sprinted about jetting sparks and overhead blossomed glorious bursts of colour. Eventually though, anarchy mellowed to anticipation as the growing crowd looked to the cathedral for the final show. Emerging from the great doors was a pyramid covered in candles and glowing in incandescent blue-white light. Topped by a figure of Christ, three hundred men shouldered the huge structure for a lap around the square in representation of his resurrection.

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When I awoke, Peru's biggest holy fiesta was winding down. Everywhere stalls were being packed up, people were beginning to disperse and we took our time walking about, victims of our own sinful behaviour. Ironically, on this day of Christ's resurrection, many in Ayacucho were prone on the footpaths, slumped against walls or face down in doorways. After nightfall, I squeezed into a mototaxi bound for the bus station, and before long had departed for Ica on the Pacific coast.

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Posted by Jeremy T 01:53 Archived in Peru Tagged events

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