Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Carnival in Pisac

This weekend was a big deal in Pisac, our new chosen home away from home for the next four months. Of course, at first blush, it was hard to tell the difference between this Saturday morning and every other Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday, when all of the wooden tables are set out along the little street that dead-ends right past our house, and long, straight poles are fastened together to form the framework for plastic-tarp-roofs covering what will soon blossom into a cacophony of orange, yellow and red fabrics, dolls, masks, and clothing for sale.

This Saturday morning promised a familiar experience as I walked from our hospedaje, or hostel, to the colonial oven a few blocks away. I go there daily to buy five small bread rolls for one sol (about 35 cents). I passed between young and old Peruvians bustling about their daily routines, building the same portable tiendas (shops) that they put up and break down 6 to 14 times a week. A baby lay, wrapped snugly in his colorful swaddling blanket, balanced atop a mound of similar blankets yet to be unfolded and put on display. Silent, still and wide-eyed, he was barely distinguishable as a life form amongst the chaos of preparation. A tiny, sun-leathered woman in the traditional women’s costume – brightly patterned red skirt, white top hat with blue ribbon, and strong, dark, bare legs in salt-water-sandals - looked as if she could be the child’s great-grandmother. She hefted a bundle of thirty tent-poles three times her height from her back onto the steep incline of the narrow, stone-paved road.

To her right, a man that could be her son, her grandson or just a neighbor and competitor, had finished his plastic tent construction and was busily installing the goods, hanging first the large colorful tapestries and tablecloths from the main horizontal poles, then carefully stacking variations on that theme to the left and right, and placing the most eye-catching colors and patterns, by the hundreds, atop his two tables. Soon, the grey, aged wood, the poles shackled together with bits of rubber and plastic, the dirt patch upon which the tent was built, were hidden from view. The effect was dazzling. Vibrant and high-contrast colors, hand-stitched into outlines of Incan apu – representatives of the spirit world and of nature itself - caught my eye and inspired a secret lust to buy.

Dogs of all shapes and sizes, most looking at least moderately well-cared for, ran underfoot, hoping to find scraps forgotten from the night before. Vendors cried out to me even before their set up was complete, the women calling, “Amiga, buen precios for tu amiga,” the men seducing with their low, sultry voices, “Cui, alpaca, calendario incaica, hecho a mano…”

Three days a week, I see this same scene as I go to fetch our morning pan (bread). The other four days of the week, the stalls fill the main square, but do not venture up the hill towards our hospedaje. Today, however, I noticed that the tiendas had branched to the right, populating the usually-empty bus station off to one side of the road, but they went no further than the bottom of the hill where Calle Intihuatana hits the main Plaza de Armas. In fact, as the plaza came into view, its emptiness was shocking in its solid barenakedness. I saw acres of flat, grey surface. And an enormous, moss-covered tree had mysteriously sprung overnight from the stones in the middle of the square. “How did that get there?” I silently exclaimed, looking up into ancient branches reaching the width of a good-sized house.

The plaza was motionless, dull and dusty; not the bustling sea of orange, red and yellow that I was used to. I stopped to marvel at the transformation and imagined a Pisac before the Mercado (Market), when the Plaza de Armas was actually used for military maneuvers. Perhaps the soldiers performing the drills were colonials, the red tassels on their uniforms the only splash of color against the dry, dusty cobbles and the earth toned, work-worn clothing of the campesinos (farmers) gathered to gape at them. The sun actually shone all around me, no longer impeded by ten-foot-tall tarps.

Yesterday, “La Bellisima Pisac” contest took place. We were too late to get into City Hall, where the event was full to capacity, but I imagine this contest for the most beautiful woman in Pisac involved a few crusty old men – I mean town officials – and resembled something like a high-school popularity contest. I don’t know, as I wasn’t there, but with a town so small, how could it not?

Today – Saturday - with its queen chosen, Pisac got ready for Carnival. Workers cleaned the square and set up a stage near the big tree. It turned out to be a beautiful, hot, blue-skied day - lucky for the young people in Pisac because Carnival involves lots of traditional water balloon throwing and shaving cream spraying, especially between teenagers who have crushes on each other. Herds of boys, from 5 to 19 years old, roamed the streets of town in small gangs, armed with buckets filled with water and plump water-balloons. They hunted the other gangs along the small grid-pattern of the town, which wasn’t hard because there are only four or five streets in each direction.

Katie and Georgia got in on the action, but in a safe, controlled environment. Here at our hospedaje, there are two grandkids, Eros and Marcelo, ages 6 and 13. The girls bought some globos (water balloons) and used a bowl from the kitchen for their own little arsenal. Once the rules of the ‘war’ were decided and the two sides took their positions, it was clear that Marcelo had done this before. With a strong throwing arm, he launched his globos from far away and aimed for the adobe wall directly behind the girls. Even if his aim were off, the splash from the balloons hitting the wall usually got them wet. And him aim wasn’t off often. Eros was more manageable, being 6, but his energy and enthusiasm were unequaled by the other three combined. At one point, no one was left to play with, so he asked me to pour water on his head from the balcony. Or maybe I suggested it - and he accepted gladly!
The day concluded, or should I say the party started - from 5 to about 11 pm, with more formal, adult activities. People started to line the sides of the street around the square late in the afternoon. Two 15-foot tall trees were ‘planted’ in the street and decorated with streamers and balloons. Strangely, two sequined and tiared Senoritas Bellisimas Pisacs – maybe one was runner up - paraded throughout the town on pedestals fixed to the beds of two pickup trucks. Each had a young handmaid dressed in customary Peruvian garb.

Hundreds of dancers wove throughout the city and circled the main square a number of times. The women wore the traditional, knee-length skirts that reached to the horizon when they spun (modern modesty has introduced shorts underneath because, frankly, most of these women were old enough to be grandmothers; some, great grandmothers or better). The typical dance is a shuffling ‘step-ball-change’ by the men, with handkerchiefed gestures to their female partners. The women do a similar step, but include a spin of some sort to get the most out of the circumference of their skirts. They too hold a handkerchief and wave it at the men. The men wore brown ponchos draped with paper streamers, black felt hats and black pants and shoes. It was interesting to compare shoes and pants between dancers and try to guess their age and place in the social hierarchy of the town based on these articles of clothing. Some men had shoes that obviously did not fit well, others had shiny dress shoes appropriate for an office job in Cusco. Some men wore tight black jeans, other saggy trousers.

Although the uniforms were at first glance uniform, upon closer examination, they were each quite unique and specific to their owner. The women followed a theme, but each had her own style, like the Sisters Sledge: one blouse was off the shoulder, another a halter top, and a third with a large cut-out to show off her cleavage. These dancers weren’t so brazen. They wore petticoats, colorful skirts, blouses and sashes across their chests. Most wore top hats of white or black, brightened with colorful glued-on sashes. All had extraordinarily long black braids. The braids of the older women were fashioned from their own hair, but many middle aged women wore hair extensions made from black yarn.

The parade circled us in the square for an hour, mas o menus. Senorita Bellisima Pisac and Senorita Vice-Bellisima Pisac, in their strapless gowns, donned wool coats as they shivered on their mobile daises. The coats also served to protect their expensive dresses from the revelers, who didn’t hold back, not even for royalty, with their spray cans of foam. The less stalwart of the dancers broke away from the line as rain started to fall, retreating to a covered area a few blocks away. But other dancers kept right on dancing through the short-lived rain, after the parade turned into a dance demonstration in the street, and after that, when it turned into a party, also in the street, accompanied by live, amplified music that kept right on going until long after my customary bedtime. Their feet must have been sore on Sunday!

We stayed for the first hour, but returned to our home when the music and the dancing didn’t stop – or change for that matter. The musicians maintained the same song for hours; the dancers the same steps. It was mesmerizing, and might have been hypnotic for the dancers as they repeated the same motions to the same beat with the same tune over and over and over again. We checked back in on the party to see if anything new was happening (we live two minutes away). At one point, some men chopped down the two little trees that were erected in the street – not sure what the symbolism was there. The auto-repeat song finally ended at about 7:30 pm, but music was still flowing over the airwaves in the tiny town of Pisac at 11 pm, when I fell asleep. And this was only the preparatory day.

Carnival took place on Sunday. Everything that we witnessed on Saturday was repeated Sunday, but with more gusto. The festivities started earlier in the day, the music lasted later into the night, and everything took on an even more exaggerated tone. Boys with balloons and foam canisters stalked and attacked girls and tourists with more viciousness, chasing, cornering and incapacitating their victims by aiming for the eyes. Street venders offered a huge, mouth-watering array of snacking and lunching options, from picarones (deep-fried pumpkin dough donuts) to pollo a la ceviche (vinegar stewed chicken and vegetables). We spent the entire day in the plaza eating, watching the stealthy antics of mischievous boys (and feeling their wrath at one point) and passing time talking to random Pisaquians. For the second night in a row, we grew weary before the locals did. We went home after 8 hours in the sun, but the party kept on going until 4 am (and on a school night!).

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