If you don´t know what the Mammacha del Carmen festival is, you aren´t alone, and I didn´t until a few days ago.
Basically, people train and make their costumes all year in order to perform in this festival, and then they do all day and even all night for three days, in various costumes. There are camps of dancers, each with specific music, a specific dance, specific costume(s), and even attitudes. I do not know all their names.
But there are several, some from the forest, some from the mountains, some make fun of colonial traditions, another seems to be a lamentation of slavery, some are jokesters with whips who attempt to hit each other on their exposed ankles, as well as drunk troublemakers.
There´s not much time: I´m on a public computer in an internet cafe, but I will do what I can to recount what´s happened so far.
Was dangerous looking. I went from paved road to mountains with guard rails, then to guard stones, then to nothing, then the pavement disapeared and the road was made of rocks, then it was made only of dirt and become one lane, and we were thousands of feet up in the air. It was one of the most beautiful things I´ve ever seen. I also had to clutch the seat in front of me and breathe breathe breathe, because the Andean mountains are proof that things can be really enormous.
But I met a woman next to me who took my mind off the journey with her conversation. She was very patient while my Spanish brain warmed up (its like a muscle, it´s weird) and then we had an extremely interesting talk about faith, about health, about Augusto Boal, about sign language and my desire to learn it, about her daughter. She made sure that I got to where I needed to go and called me an hour later to make sure that I had arrived safely.
To find where I was staying, I asked a man on the street who lead me to a tourist office, which then gave me directions on unmarked streets to a tiny store. I had been led to believe that where I was going was a school, but in fact it was actually the top floor of a popular general store as well. My spot on the floor was near the open plaza where water trickled through a crack in the wall and a large cage of cuis (guinea pigs) cooed alternately soft and loud.
The place was run by a hard-edged woman named Sabina who was brisk and obviously would never take any shit. She mostly watched over the stock and balanced accounts while her even harder edged daughter Theresa demanded correct payment from customers trying to play on her non-existent naivete, twice told drunk men to get the fuck out of her story, and made sure I was enjoying my coffee and had the correct size spoon. Elvis, her brother, sat quietly in the corner making paper plates for cake out of cardstock.
Did you know that in Paucartambo they make coffee from hot water and a thick black concentrate in a bottle which looks like a magic potion?
After walking around for a while I got caught up in the crowd following the Maqta´s, mischeivous spirit dancers who crack their whip at anyone too near the rest of the dancers. My friends found me and introduced me to Pámala, who only spoke Portuguese. Several times she asked me if I understood. I did, but I could not respond.
The drinking had already started.
At the end of the market the great valley of Paucartambo laid itself out in the sunlight. While two campesinos cleaned two pigs to my right, a woman sold frog extract on a loudspeaker to my left, and then a great wind ran through the valley and I took off my hat and make a ridiculous looking-back-at-the-pueblo-and-into-the-wind pose.
Then every dance in the Plaza. Every dance moving through the streets in costume and in perfect time. I was caught in the procession and each group went by my face, angels, spirits from the forest, beasts and monsters, slaves, gods, and so many other costumes I have no cultural context for.
Feeling faint from hunger, I wandered in search of something besides starch and meat, and came across a breast-feeding woman selling bread and apples. I paid her a sol for a few of each, and she insisted that I take more, telling me I looked hungry. This was not a kind mother of everyone tone, but rather a matter of fact statement, almost out of anger.
That night the fireworks exploding from the square shed sparks so close they almost set everyone on fire and in the distance the great valley became black and then blue with moonlight.
Everyone got drunk. I did a little too.
A small man approached me and told me I had a clean heart. Another man who looked suspiciously like Mic Jagger told me I had spirit in my eyes. Best drunk talk ever.
And then more dancing. The dancers from earlier had shed their costumes, donned sunday clothing, and performed exactly as they had earlier. The gods and monsters and angels and the rest of the things I am not describing in a culturally relative manner were now men and woman parading through the streets. What was firstly supernatural now became human. These men and women conjured these creatures with their bodies, and now laid bare the mechanism, clearly displayed exactly how this tradition had infected them, how something ancient had come through who knows how many years (someone does, not me) and now manifested itself in front of me.
And then me dancing with my friends. I am hopeless when it comes to learning some of these things.
A final conversation with a friend before the end of the night, in which life advice is exchanged, in which I find that there are partners working for the same goals, the same changes in the world that I am. Of course one knows this intellectually, but when one meets another trying their best to create their life…
Well, this summer I have been blessed (yes blessed, I´ll use the word) to meet so many people working towards manifesting the ancient into new forms. At the start of my journey, someone whom I believe is trying to change the world by radiation. The artists who make new images and new forms, the dancers manifesting ancient beasts, the new writer who I believe might get Peru´s head about the whole gay thing in order, the activists who every day are trying their fucking best.
Last night I fell asleep to the ocean like sound of the cooing cuis.