I was completely lost. Not directionally lost (it would be an accomplishment for even me to lose my bearings in a three-street town), I was lost in the chaos, the madness, the anything-goes that is the Virgen del Carmen Festival. I dug into my homework research to make some sense out of it all, but nope, textbook knowledge doesn’t apply today in Paucartambo.
So the feast day of the Virgen del Carmen is supposed to celebrate the apparition of the Virgin Mary to down-on-his luck Saint Simon Stock, way back on 16 July 1521. The townsfolk of Paucartambo, three hours outside of Cusco, have adopted her as their patron saint, and supposedly use the day to reflect upon the past, thank God and the Virgin Mary for their blessings, and to pave the way for a good and virtuous year ahead. That, however, does not explain the wooden stool flying at me.
Yes, a wooden stool headed towards my face. I cowered as screaming ladies and muscled men elbowed their way towards the spot I was standing, grabbing and tousling to get a piece of the prize. Four ornately masked men on a raised platform were ripping a random assortment of trinkets tied to their equally elaborate costumes and flinging them into the crowd; it was Mardi Gras: the “This is Serious” edition, and by “serious” they mean toys of hard plastic, crockery, and the occasional piece of furniture.
The day had started sensibly enough. Arriving in a decrepit bus at 9am after a particularly (for me) early rise in Cusco, I chanced upon the beginning of Mass, where the presiding priest greeted and thanked visiting dignitaries from around the region and country. Yet even in this sober moment you could tell this was no ordinary service. The chapel built for some three-hundred people had no way of holding the immense crowds, and the service burst out onto the street, where VIPs sat on benches closest to an effigy of the Virgin, masked performers hover behind them, and the crowds stand cheek by jowl, shuffling to find space each time a sign of the cross was required.
With the “vayan en paz” and the final Amen, the Mass gave way to the masses, which began carting the florally-adorned statuette of the Virgin Mary down the streets to the town square (which, as in the rest of Peru, is called the Plaza de Armas). The Virgin was not alone; following the effigy was a procession of marching bands, folk dancers, and yes, those creepy-in-a-kind-of-way masked men.
I had read that the masks were symbols of an era past or of a hyperactive imagination: malaria victims, jungle Indians and condor-men. There were certainly stock characters, but it would be futile, like the rest of the festival, to try to attach meaning to them in a clear and logical manner. There were the masked flower girls with uncanny frozen smiles and their pastel pink dresses, the long-nosed gaucho – scarf, boots, and all – swigging bottles of beer and offering them to the girls in the crowd, and then there were the disturbing white stocking-masks with blood-red orifices and a twirl of a moustache. I later learnt they were called the qhapaq ch’unchu and were the Virgin guards, but at the moment you could have forgiven me for thinking they were demons of some sort.
I sneaked out of the crowd into a back alley, trying to find a little bit of breathing space and lunch. It was just as well that there was a line of alley-side stands with low benches and fires on portable canisters, each selling pretty much the same deal: a mix of rice, eggs and freshly-cut fries. I had deliberately avoided the tourist cafes on the main square for want of money, so the meal, which cost me S/.2 (US$0.70), was the perfect choice. The meal ended up being slightly bland, but for that price, what more could I have asked for?
Back to the Plaza de Armas, where the performers broke occasionally from their dance routines to harass the crowd or to stop for photographs. The crowd itself was a mixed bag. You have the visiting dignitary sitting on a balcony overlooking the procession, you have the Peruvian tourist, children-in-tow, trundling along with his sleeping bag (accommodation is in incredibly high demand during the festival and most people end up on the streets), and you have the occasional gringo who stumbles upon the festivities; there were very few tour groups in sight. Sure, I was probably the only Chinese there, but with all the different personalities and colours around and the sheer madness of the crowd you would hardly notice. Eerie masks and flying household accoutrements aside, I felt right at home.
The procession led across the town bridge and into a wide courtyard, and I, like everyone else in the plaza, was swept straight across along with it. In a swarm like this there was no room for independent movement, you go with the flow and hope you don’t lose your wallet! If I had missed from whence the performers appeared, this was where they all ended up at the end of the festivities. Once through the gates, the performers tore off their masks and headed for a tented corner – the beer station. Oh, well. No difference from the rest of the world. Any festival is a great excuse for losing yourself through alcohol.
Francis Sin is a writer for the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru