From the Field: An Unforgettable Festival in Peru

By Crooked Trails traveler Kris Parfitt

Chinchero procession young womanStepping through the doorway, I notice my friends are no longer in the courtyard, yet music is trailing down many of the narrow streets beckoning me to follow.  I hear drums in the plaza far off to my right and brassy horns echoing off the cobblestones around the corner to my left. Not knowing which direction my companions have taken adds depth to this simple experience – I speak just enough broken-Spanish to confuse the locals and too much English to quickly remember which words they don’t understand.

It is late afternoon in Chinchero, Peru and a Crooked Trails group is visiting during the village’s annual Patron Saint festival with one of non-profit’s founders, Tammy Leland.  We have been invited by Paulima and Vilma, founders of Minka Chinchero Weavers Cooperative, to be their guests of honor during their annual All Saints festival.  Tammy, and many years of Crooked Trails’ clients, have been instrumental in helping to support weaving cooperative and the newly finished girls boarding school, La Casa de Las Ninas.  Mama Fagustina, the elder Quechua grandmother and the mother of Vilma, is sponsoring this year’s festival and invited us to join her at the cemetery to honor the life of her late husband, Juan.

Chinchero festival boyA group of children selling hats and finger puppets approach me as I squint up towards the plaza and then down the canyon-like street of stucco and cobble. I buy a toy and ask “Donde esta Mama Fagustina?” Hoping I have used the proper words and context for “Where is”.  Pointing shyly, they must have understood, for they eagerly guide me in the direction of the tinny sounding parade.

I hurry behind an elder Chinchero woman dressed in traditional Andean fashion carrying a large bundle of something on her back in a hand-woven blanket. I am aware, as I catch up to her, how much taller I am than this woman yet even with my long legs it takes a concentrated effort to keep up with her pace. She is not a part of the procession yet she was indifferent to the music and celebration as though this happens every day – all the time. As I hurry my pace to keep in step with this speedy woman, I glance around this colorful parade to see if I recognize my friends.

procession in Chinchero PeruScanning the procession of musicians, dancers and villagers looking for the back of a familiar head I do not immediately recognize anyone from my group, but the call of the horns is curiously inviting so I follow. Knowing the village is small and being one of the few visiting American travelers, I trust that if I find myself lost I could – through faulty language, pantomimes and smiles – eventually reconnect with the familiarity of Velma and Paulima’s villa.

Colorful feathered costumes of gold, white and red catch my attention as does the ever growing band of musicians. I look farther up the street to the lines of villagers holding hands while dancing to the music and although I recognize no one, I do not feel alone.
Now at a fast trot, the woman and I skirt the band and costumed dancers. Her destination and haste are unknown to me, but I want to capture this experience and fish my camera from my bag. Undaunted by a dead battery I deftly change it while close on the heels of my Quechua Wonder Woman and within moments I am recording her, the horns and procession.

costumes procession Chinchero PeruFinally relinquishing my chase I slip behind the costumed dancers and between the musicians and marvel at this experience. Despite the apparent absence of my friends I am beyond thrilled! This is extraordinary! The energy of the people is incredibly welcoming. As I film the procession, several teenage boys dressed as Inca Mountain Guards grab my hands and pull me into the crowd. They eagerly watch my face for a reaction. My laughter and twinkling eyes put them at ease as we giggle and sing our way among other strings of people doing the same un-choreographed dance.

Suddenly I spot my beau Dan with Mama Fagustina and her grandson, Raul, at the very front of our parade. Dan and I grin at each other over the dark-haired heads of the villagers. I also start recognizing more familiar faces around me! Grins and glances connect our thoughts. What an honor and privilege to be welcomed into such an expression of tradition. We are not tourists, we are family!  Holding tight the hands of my new-found brothers I run ahead pulling them behind me. Suddenly I stop and roar with laughter as they tumble ahead, both sides caught in a sudden game of crack the whip.  It must be a universal game for they know the rules and off we speed around the other lines of people to pull, stop and crack!

Chinchero Peru boy with instrumentChinchero is located high in the Peruvian Andes about thirteen thousand feet where the air is crisp and thin yet sparkles with a curious vibrancy. It snaps and crackles with tradition, ancestors, easy laughter, children, food, Inca ruins and intense color.  It smells of smoke, meat, straw, mud, urine, wool and sweat.  This village wears community like a thickly woven alpaca blanket ~ it’s heavy with the reality of survival yet comforting with shared trust, respect and admiration. By the time we arrive at the cemetery hot tears roll down my dusty cheeks and I am ready to explode, not just from the high altitude, but from pure gratitude!  I hug my brothers and take a drink of warm chi cha and smile wide – for this is only the beginning of an exceptional experience I know in this moment I will never forget.

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