March 31, 2013 by jiejie768
Today, we’re going to take a brief break from our “Travels with Mikey” posts to tell the tale of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Ayacucho. The week of Easter — specifically Thursday-Sunday — is the highlight of the annual calendar in Ayacucho.
The town swells in size, and the celebrations and processions can be so overwhelming that GeGe has taken to going back to the States during Semana Santa every year to avoid the craziness; well, she goes home twice a year, and times one of those trips to coincide with Semana Santa for this reason.
We arrived back in town on the morning of Friday, March 22. We had school that day, but thereafter would have the entire week of the 25-29 off to explore the town during its big festival. Monday-Wednesday were pretty uneventful, other than having to clear out our kitchen as our landlords had rented every available inch of space in our apartment to out-of-town visitors. The strangers wouldn’t arrive until Thursday, but by early Wednesday, we’d moved all of our kitchenly possessions into our bedroom, including the stove and mini-fridge.
For the rest of the week we would be cooking and (starting Thursday night) staying at GeGe’s to avoid the craziness at our place.
We’d heard that the fun gets under way on Thursday, so we headed to the central plaza that evening to see what was what. It turned out there wasn’t much going on that night. People everywhere — including Carmen Alto — were just getting things ready. It seemed like a normal day to us, but looking back it was definitely the proverbial calm before the storm.
A visit to the ever-helpful iPeru tourist information office provided us with an official program for the weekend and a cool promotional poster for Saturday’s Pascua Toro (Easter Bull) event. Our program told us that there was a big procession coming through the city center at 8 p.m. on Friday evening. I was torn between Sweet 16 basketball and heading downtown, but Meg convinced me by pointing out there’s a Sweet 16 every year, but this may be the only chance we have to see Semana Santa in Ayacucho.
We headed for the center at about 5:30, choosing to walk instead of brave the overcrowded public transportation system. Before heading for a bite to eat, we took a walk around the plaza and discovered a dozen or so street “paintings” in various stages of completion.
These works were truly impressive, as each of them was the size of a large bedroom and was created using a combination of flowers, colored sand and glitter (Meg gave extra credit to those that were heavy-handed with the glitter). The colors were dazzling, but even more impressive was the level of detail the artists were able to achieve when creating images of people and animals.
After our tour of the plaza, we thought we may be able to get a table on the balcony at ViaVia, a restaurant we frequent, and take in the festivities from on high.
We were wrong about that; balcony seating costs about 350 soles ($140) for a room that fits eight — food not included. We didn’t have that kind of money, or that many friends, so we were out of luck.
We did have a pretty decent meal, though, and left the restaurant to take in the procession from ground-level with everyone else. We grabbed a seat on the curb directly in front of the Cathedral at 7:55 p.m. and waited for things to get going. This being Peru, we waited quite a while.
Mostly we just got stepped on for about an hour, before marching band music in the distance informed us that the procession was nearing.
The evening’s festivities, it turns out, were essentially a giant funeral procession for Jesus, complete with a glass coffin and ceramic corpse. It was a bit unnerving, to be honest, but the singing and music that accompanied it was nice. I’m glad I went, I guess, but if I had it to do all over again, I’d probably just watch Michigan State/Duke.
Saturday brought the part of the festivities I was truly excited about: the Pascua Toro.
This is essentially Ayacucho’s version of the Running of the Bulls, and I was thrilled, and more than a little terrified, to take it in. We arrived at the Alameda — a park about a mile from the center plaza — at 10 a.m. when the bulls were scheduled to be released.
We knew the bulls started in the Alameda and ended up at the plaza, but other than that, the organization of the event was a mystery to us (and likely the organizers as well). Predictably, nothing seemed to be happening at the appointed time, so we moved around trying to determine the best vantage point, without really knowing where things would take place.
We ultimately settled on a spot near where the park meets the road that leads to the center plaza. We picked it because it was lined with fellow gringos, including a group of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers we recognized from having eavesdropped on their dinner conversation at a restaurant in Lima. This turned out to be the perfect spot as it provided a front-row seat to the Peace Corps volunteers shotgunning a beer, and was situated about 20 meters from where the bulls would be released into the crowds. Things didn’t get started until about 11, but there were beer vendors aplenty and a festive atmosphere akin to the Fourth of July crossed with a state fair.
All told, there were five bulls. Unlike Spain’s Running of the Bulls, where the bulls are released all at once, these bulls were let out one at a time about 10 minutes apart. Another difference, which I was in favor of, is the Ayacuchan bulls are tethered around the horns and led down the street by a man on horseback. That’s not to say they were controlled. The ropes were long and provided more than enough leeway for the bulls to scatter the crowd.
Truth be told, the bulls themselves provided less immediate danger to me than the crowds who gathered in the middle of the streets and then ran like hell once the bull was out. My viewpoint (Meg was usually a row or two of people behind me), was just close enough to be scared, but generally out of real danger. I was, however, frustrated by the crowds, as the pushing and jostling inhibited my ability to get the photos I was looking for. I managed a couple of decent shots, but was frequently being pushed by the mob while clicking away.
After the bulls, we walked along the crowded, but manageable, route of the bulls to the main plaza. There, it was chaos. The entire plaza was packed in a manner I generally associate with mosh pits. There was no room to maneuver, one simply had to shove their way through the crowd. Groups were taking turns forming human pyramids, and in one corner of the plaza, a firetruck was spraying the masses with refreshing bursts of water from the fire hose.
We took in the scene, but didn’t linger long before heading back up to GeGe’s to check out the happenings in Carmen Alto.
While downtown was teeming with tourists and gringos, Carmen Alto also was abuzz, but with what appeared to be a more local crowd. The Cerro de Acuchimay, which is a viewpoint just up the hill from GeGe’s, was playing host to a fair that featured food, beer, kids’ rides (mostly giant slides, carousels and trampolines) and booths selling everything you could possibly ever want; seriously, the goods on sale ranged from kitchenwares to clothes to shoes to livestock and more.
In addition to the madness atop the hill, just about every available locale on the street descending to the Carmen Alto market (including GeGe’s backyard) was home to a party and a loud band playing traditional Andean music. Meg and I enjoyed our tour, but were a bit overwhelmed after the morning of bull dodging in the hot sun and headed inside for lunch and a nap.
We ventured out again for about an hour in the early evening and were astonished as the crowds in Carmen Alto had multiplied exponentially. There were probably 200 people at the party in our (GeGe’s) yard, which was now in full swing.
Furthermore, the entire hill, from top to bottom, was covered in people milling about and enjoying the atmosphere. It was really something to see, and we drew lots of strange looks as, unlike the festivities downtown, we were among the only white people to be seen for miles. We did run into a good number of our students, and Meg secured an ice cream bar before we once again decided we’d had enough and headed home for an evening of basketball and TV on the Internet. One perk of all the madness was that the party just downstairs was selling big bottles of beer, so I didn’t have to waste much time in search of refreshments.
Our evening did take a dark turn around 7:30 as the high volume of concerts going on around the neighborhood overloaded the circuits, and the power went out for more than an hour. After that, however, things went smoothly as we tried to ignore the fact that there were extremely LOUD concerts going on in every direction.
On Easter morning (you know, today), we rose fairly early and went downtown for the 10 a.m. mass at the main cathedral. I shouldn’t complain though, as Meg didn’t make me get up and go to first mass of the day, which was scheduled for 4 a.m.; our friend Alejandro told us the mass is that early because it’s for all the people in the plaza who’ve spent the whole night drinking and haven’t gone home yet.
The Easter service was interesting, as the priest was of a more fiery sort than I’ve come to expect in Catholic church. When I say fiery, I’m being literal, too, as he told the congregation that we needed to light people on fire, but not burn them. Meg insists that he was speaking metaphorically, and he meant that we needed to light their spirits on fire, but I’m wearing flame-retardant clothing for the next week either way.
After church, we went to the grocery store to replace the few items of GeGe’s we’d used while staying at her place and headed back to Carmen Alto for a day of basketball, blogging (both Ryan) and thesis writing (Meg). Tomorrow will bring “Travels with Mikey” back to the blog and GeGe back to Ayacucho with my mother in tow. Other than Meg and I, Mom will be the first member of GeGe’s family to visit her during her years living in Peru.
Happy Easter, everybody!