Step step step step. My breath and steps are rhythmic, linked together in perfect harmony. I breathe the cool, fresh Ollanta air in smooth inhales, relishing every intake of oxygen that powers me forward along the tranquil dirt road that seems to take me straight to snow capped Veronica herself. Then suddenly, BOOM, a cannon goes off not 10 feet in front of me. I barely have time to slow down and swerve to the left before another goes off in a ear drum deafening blast followed by a cloud of smoke. No, Ollanta is not being attacked by the Spanish again (although the man taking over Mieke’s tourism coordinator job IS a Spaniard…) but rather the town is preparing for the biggest party of the year: Choquekilka.
What followed the unexpected cannon explosions above was exemplary of the festival itself. 3 drunk men (it was 8am) stumbled out from the hillside waving aside the smoke and guffawing loudly. Re-loading of the cannon begins immediately and even as I walk away, still a bit dazed and offended, I can hear blasts of other cannons exploding in the distance. For the next 4 days Ollanta will turn into a cannon exploding (still not sure why the cannons are fired), dance crazed, churro eating pueblo. All in the name of Senor Choquekilka aka Jesus Christ himself.
Choquekilka celebrates Senor Choquekilka. Just to clear things up, apparently Senor can mean “Lord” as well as “Mr.” in Spanish. Therefore, Senor Choquekilka means Lord Choquekilka not Mr. Choquekilka as I thought for the first half of the festival. While the word Senor can have 2 meanings so too can Choquekilka himself. He is both an indigenous deity and Jesus Christ. Ollanta, and I’m sure many other towns in Peru, has a fascinating mix of indigenous beliefs mixed with Christian values introduced by the Spanish. Choquekilka is a great example of this fascinating dichotomy that exits in Ollanta.
Choquekilka is the protector of the town, the wise being who helps assure that the crops are abundant and the people are happy. There were 17 different dance groups in the festival and each group was responsible for protecting and carrying the Senor from church to church for a certain amount of time. Ollantinos were with the Senor, guarding him 24 hours a day, for the 4 days of the festival. I have to say, you really get attached to the Senor as the festival progresses. At first you wonder what the big deal is about this stick figure dressed in fancy robes and paraded around but by the end you are so.excited. to see the Senor. Look at him being carried around, all regal and dignified in his silence. Look how everyone dances around him as he floats above the swirling colored costumes in his pure white robes. Oh Senor, how I missed you when you were in the church and not being paraded around!
The dances are perhaps the most important part of the festival. Groups practice all year for their dance. Costumes cost a hefty sum and dancers are expected to dance with the same group for 3 years before they’re allowed to switch to another. While the dances symbolize everything from the baking of bread to the rebelliousness of youth, the majority of the dances center around the Spanish invasion of the 1500’s and mock the Spanish in some way or another. Supposedly, once the Spanish caught on to this they outlawed the dances and in order to continue the festival all the dancers started wearing masks, allowing them to continue dancing without being caught.
The demons were my favorite. They had awesome, rainbow costumes and seemed to just run around scaling buildings and riding around in their flaming chariot. Classic demons.
Every Choquekilka the dancers are expected to dance basically all day for 4 days straight. Therefore, friends and family throw what are called cargos. These cargos are at a specific home and the dancers go to their cargo to eat (they’re fed 3 meals a day for the whole festival),to rest, and to continue dancing and celebrating when they’re done dancing for the time being. Guests are welcome at cargos and we had many a fun time at cargos chain drinking beers (not by choice), attempting to dance salsa and wino and working on learning to stomach tripe soup.
And whipping. Yes, you read right, whipping. It’s big in Choquekilka. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you why. My guess is something to do with Jesus’ pain but that’s just a guess. One of the dances completely centers around whipping and the dance eventually devolves into some sort of whipfest about halfway through. New dancers have to be whipped 3 times by their chosen “godfather.” If the godfather doesn’t whip them hard enough, he gets whipped. Don’t worry, the kids who start young get whipped with a scarf. Our friend Alex joined a dance this year and he chose Juan Jose, our new tourism coordinator, to be his godfather. It was a great(?) bonding experience.
The last day was the despedida (going away party) for Choquekilka.The entire party moved to the small pueblo of Puente Inca down by the river. There was much dancing, much churro eating and a strange competition where drunk men on horses had to try and grab a bobbing corn cob strung up on a string. Also, all of the people who helped to support the festival were given a HUMONGOUS tray of food. Awamaki’s name was called and somehow I found myself pushed to the front and into the center of a circle headed by the Senor himself and formed by the entire town of Ollanta and given a humongous tray of food. Confused, I muttered spanish to the lady about what I was supposed to do and wandered in small circles while trying not to drop the entire tray. Eventually I figured out the tray was for Awamaki as a thanks for donating money and we were to eat it. Huzzah! We brought the tray out to the center and chowed down on roast chicken, guinea pig, potatoes and delicious fried corn cakes until the sun went down.
And then there were the fireworks. Oof. In the states you have to be about 5 miles from where the fireworks are lit. Even if you are close enough to use binoculars to see the action at the launching station all you can see is a number of pyrotechnics experts in fireproof suits carefully making sure everything will go off as planned. Safely and orderly. In Peru, fireworks go down a little differently. A rickety bamboo tower is laced with fireworks and left by the edge of the crowd. At some point fire starts exploding on the tower and the crowd that was distracted by the Senor and was 20 ft away from the tower runs towards the tower until children are maybe 5 ft away from the pyrotechnics. The crowd ooh and ahhs as the tower appears to explode in uncontrolled bursts of flame followed by a fire shower that rains sparks down on the crowd. Experts and safety techs? Nowhere to be seen. There’s always free alcohol somewhere at Choquekilka. Check out the video below for a small sample of a Peruvian fireworks show.