After reading my last post, my sister Louisa suggested that I write something where I don’t almost die. It’s true, I guess, the near-death experiences (while not in the least bit exaggerated, I assure you) might be getting a little repetitive. Although I’m sure my loving sister had nothing but my well-being in mind when she asked me not to almost die again sometime between the last post and this one.
All-in-all, I think I’ve heeded her advice. I may have crossed a few streets that are frequented by insane taxi drivers, but mostly when they’re tearing down the road at a reasonable distance from my person. A fellow intern saw a man hit by a taxi the other day, so one does have to be careful about these things. The driver couldn’t really make the argument that he hadn’t seen the pedestrian, for the latter was running through the streets shooting off fireworks in all directions. I guess this driver just couldn’t be bothered to brake. Or maybe he really hated fireworks.
To be perfectly honest, I can sort of sympathize with him (about being sick of fireworks, not the manslaughter part). Shortly after I arrived in Cusco, the festivities leading up to Inti Raymi began. Inti Raymi, the “Festival of the Sun” was the most important festival in the Inca Empire. It was banned by the Spanish for a few hundred years, but was revived in 1944, and has been celebrated in Cusco ever since. I didn’t know much about the festival when I got here, but I did notice that Cusco seemed to be an extraordinarily lively city. In the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square, children of various ages engaged in lively dances every night. Huge parties, complete with live bands and ample Cuzquena beer kicked off all across the city. And, more than anything, there were gratuitous displays of fireworks.
Ok, to be honest, I don’t know if they were all fireworks. Some of the noises were probably caused by firecrackers or similar kinds of explosive devices, whose primary purpose is to make a loud noise. Regardless, these sounds were going off at all hours. I’d find myself jolted awake at night to a series of deafening cracks, only to turn to my clock and realize, with a groan, that it was 6 in the morning. I don’t know what was a stronger emotion: my anger at being woken bright and early by a full-canon salute, or my confusion as to why anyone would find this an appropriate time for such a thing.
As if this weren’t enough fun for one week, Corpus Christi was being celebrated at the same time. Giant crowds filled the main square to watch as a number of saintly effigies were paraded out of the cathedral and through the streets. I don’t know if this is a volunteer job or some sort of mandatory rite of passage, but as I stood under the beating Cusco sun, I was sure glad I wasn’t one of these robed guys who had to carry the platform. Vendors milled about in the crowds, trying to sell cokes, less-than appetizing ice cream popsicles, and frankly embarrassing disposable cardboard caps that seem to be inordinately popular around here. Despite a tingling sensation of unease which gripped at my stomach, I decided to try a traditional Corpus Christi meal. This included chicken, tortilla, sun-dried alpaca meat, fish-eggs (which had some fancy name), and cuy (guinea pig). For the most part, the meal was delicious. I couldn’t get myself to eat the claws or head of the cuy, but the meat was sort of like a mixture between chicken and pork. To explain my hesitation, I told the locals around me that guinea pigs were pets where I came from, a fact which they seemed to find hilarious. I couldn’t stomach the crunchy fish-eggs, but I polished off the rest of the meal, and washed it all down with an Inka Cola (yes, that’s a thing here).
After a solid ten days of preparatory dancing, parties, and parades, it was time for the Inti Raymi festival. I got up bright and early to have a six-thirty breakfast with some interns and members from South American Explorers, and we made our way over to Qorikancha, Cusco’s ancient Inca temple.
The crowds were already flocking to the first site of the day’s festivities. It was a good mix of Andean locals and picture-snapping gringo tourists. First, the priest came out on a high terrace and performed a blessing, which included scattering some sort of dust off the edge of the wall and an incantation in Quechua. A careless vendor interrupted the sacred speech by yelling “Hats! Hats for sale!” This drew shocked gasps and admonitions from the crowd, answered by an apologetic look from the hat vendor. However, she was not ashamed enough to refrain from whispering “Hats for sale!” a few more times as she continued through the crowd.
The priest was followed by the Incan king, who was to be featured extensively in the day’s festivities. He spoke some words, this time uninterrupted, accompanied by grand gestures to the sky and sun. Our guide explained that he was greeting the various groups representing all the areas of Southern Peru, and asking the gods for a plentiful harvest. Afterwards, he poured maiz off the wall into the open blanket held by the women below.
The first part of the ceremony was over, and we made our way over to the side of the temple to watch the procession that would lead over to the central square. Tourists jostled for good spots, sometimes quite fiercely. A crew of robed servants took their places at the door to the temple, ready to lift the platforms that would carry the king and queen. The suspense was broken when a tow-truck showed up to drag off an illegally parked van which was blocking the way of the procession. The crowd cheered, and I wondered if this was also a part of the traditional Inti Raymi festival. The Removal of the Ancient Van that Had Blocked the King’s Passage. If not, a certain driver was in for a serious fine.
After the procession, the festivities continued in the Plaze de Armas. Regiments of colorfully dressed actors danced and saluted the king as he stood in the center of the square. We ate an absurdly-priced lunch on a balcony overlooking the plaza, and then hiked up to Sacsayhuaman, where the real party began.
I had visited the ruins of Sacsayhuaman before, but nothing could prepare me for the difference. Many people had camped out the night before in order to have a good spot to view the proceedings, which were to include more dancing and a simulated alpaca sacrifice. (They used to actually kill an alpaca, but when the animal rights groups got involved, a feigned knife thrust followed by the presentation of a red handkerchief had become the norm.) Those of us who hadn’t spent 100 to 200 dollars for a VIP seat were doomed to stand in the massive crowd on the hillside. I’m lucky enough to be about a foot taller than most of the locals here, so I could see about half of what was going on. But I couldn’t hear very well, and we had lost our Quechua-speaking guide, so I didn’t feel so enlightened as to the meaning of of the proceedings. After awhile, my friend and I agreed that the dancing was much the same as what we had seen for the rest of the day, that we were dead tired, and that it was time to head back to town and take a nap. I didn’t even bother to see the alpaca sacrifice.
So that was Inti Raymi: a very long day packed with colorfully dressed dancers, extensive rituals, and extremely repetitive flute music. It was quite the spectacle to be sure, but before the end of the day I found myself hating the armies of tourists (of which, of course, I was a member) and I did not feel particularly enlightened about Incan civilization. However, this wasn’t the sort of event you could see every day, and I counted myself lucky to have arrived during Cusco’s most festive period of the year. I had gotten used to life being a constant party. After Inti Raymi was over, the Plaza de Armas seemed oddly empty at night, and the streets devoid of shouts and music. But being able to get a full night’s sleep without the blast of firecrackers… that I didn’t regret.