Wednesday, March 5, 2014

My First Community Visit: Blessing of Las Papas Nuevas

*Check out the short video of dancing towards the end.

The nine representatives in the women's alpaca cooperative have invited me to visit their communities. Eventually they would like to invite tourists for homestays, and my visit is an opportunity for them to try out the idea. They each wrote up a proposal outlining what they are offering for accommodation, food, activities, "sights", as well as describing the location and transportation. I won't visit all of them because some are a great distance on a dirt road and they don't have even the most basic facilities. 

Monday was my first visit and it was a day trip to a rural community near Juli, about an hour and a half drive by public combi van from Puno, near the shore of Lake Titicaca. There were interesting rock formations along the way:

I was accompanied by Julia, the daughter of Juliana and Francisco, the couple who invited me. She lives and works in Puno, but grew up where we were headed. This date was chosen because it was a very special day in the community -a day to bless the new potatoes as well as to celebrate "Carnival". Julia was pleased to go home for the celebration. 

Julia and I walked across a wide flat expanse to get to her family home. Juliana and Francisco welcomed us with open arms, and I also met Julia's littlest brother. He has Down's Syndrome, and was described as a special child. When I asked his name, I was told he is called "Pequeno", which means "Little One". 

We all enjoyed watermelon in the sunshine, while Francisco recounted the story of the 2010 Chile mine collapse and the incredible two month rescue operation. He was working there at the time, but was not in the mine when the collapse took place. He wears a shirt which says "Los 33", referring to the 33 who were trapped and saved. He describes himself as number 34. My Spanish isn't good enough to understand all the details.

Meanwhile, Juliana was spinning alpaca fibre on the traditional drop spindle. 

When she had filled the spindle, she handed it to "El Pequeno" to wind the spun yarn onto a bobbin. He was very adept at this task.

Juliana showed me her weaving room with a floor loom. 

We exchanged weaving ideas and I was able to show her photos on my phone of the Nottawasaga Guild Community Weaving Project as well as my own tapestry. She and her husband were very interested, and asked lots of questions about weaving and about Canada. I also described Iceland, and tried to explain the 24 daylight/darkness, using balls of wool to represent the sun and earth. They were enthralled, and wanted to know if people slept when there was sunlight, and how they looked after their animals when there was only darkness.

Juliana prepared a delicious lunch of roasted, nicely spiced alpaca, with potatoes, sweet potatoes and salad. I am getting quite accustomed to eating alpaca, and it really is quite tasty -something between beef and pork. We ate picnic style in the sunshine, and finished with a cup of mate, herbal tea.

After lunch, Juliana and Francisco got spruced up for the afternoon ceremonies. Juilana changed into her fancy layered skirts and her good shoes. She untied her long braids and combed her hair before rebraiding it and adding the typical pompoms at the ends. 

A blanket was spread, onto which were piled a number of items for the ceremony: flower petals, paper streamers (serpentinas), wine, special vegetables (membrinas), and bananas for a snack. This was all tied up and Juliana hoisted it onto her back for the walk to the potatoes fields.  Here is the family ready for the outing:

We walked across acres of hillocks of different types of potatoes. At one point we had to cross a small stream, and Juliana took off her shoes to wade into the water to create small mounds of stones so that the rest of us could cross without getting our feet wet. I was reminded that in this culture the women work incredibly hard. It is an expectation and no one questions it.

I don't know how, but Juliana and Francisco know which potato (papas) plants are theirs. They have five small plots amongst the acres of community plants, without any markers visible to me. At each plot, a little ceremony was conducted. First flower petals and streamers were scattered.

The membrilla was used to identify and bless a particular plant, which was dug up, and the potatoes gathered. 

Wine was sprinkled on the roots, and the plant was returned to the ground. This was repeated in each of the five plots. I was given some of these special potatoes to bring home.

"El Pequeno" tired easily, so I sat with him and played clapping games which brought a huge smile to his face. A favourite was "A sailor went to sea, sea, sea, to see what he could see, see, see..." It probably sounded like I was saying si, si, si (yes, yes, yes) which made it more fun for him.

After the blessing of the new potatoes, we continued walking to the church grounds, where the Carnival celebration was underway. There were actually three small communities joining together for this celebration. Each had a band of flutists and drummers, dancers, and their own "king and queen". In the photos you will see that the king and queen have a special twisted bread hanging on their chests, symbolizing their position of respect.

As community members arrived they each made an offering to their king and queen in the form of a specially baked circular bread, and a case of beer. The breads are designed to fit perfectly around the crown of the hat, but there were dozens of them, so they were strung on a cord, and worn over the shoulder. Confetti was thrown over the celebrants, and serpentinas were draped around necks. The young kids were spraying each other with shaving cream.

The bands all played at the same time, often seeming to compete with their volume, while dancers twirled around the grounds.

I was invited to join in the dancing, so I joined the circle for one loop around the field. When asked why I had stopped, I said I needed a skirt to dance properly, because the movements made the skirts twirl in a beautiful way. Juliana immediately loosened her top skirt (she had a few layers) and tied it around me. Then I had no excuse, so off I went again, this time with an enthusiastic partner twirling me around and around.

 It was a lot of fun, but I was getting dizzy and I was afraid of falling on someone. The others seem to dance and dance and dance while steadily drinking beer. "El Pequeno" also danced almost non-stop, and had a great sense of rhythm.

Many people came and wished me well, and asked if I was enjoying the celebration. When I thanked them for making me feel so welcome, they thanked me for joining them and said they were very pleased to share their customs with a foreigner for the first time.

Julia and I left before six to catch a taxi to Juli and then a combi back to Puno. The sky was amazing as we drove home, and there was a heavy rainstorm, the first since I've been here. The rain stopped suddenly just before we got into Puno.

Tomorrow I am going to the community of Anccaca, and this time spending the night with my host, Rosa. The following day I will continue to the community of Laraqueri. More when I return...

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