25.03.2007 - 25.03.2007
"You're the first foreigner I can recall ever visiting this town," she remarked.
"Yea, I heard this was the happening place. So what exactly is the deal?"
"Well basically, the festival doesn't end until the last tree falls."
More on that later. Two coworkers from the medical clinic (Cesar and Mabel) had brought me to Ahuac with the promise that it'd be one of the more unique experiences I'd have around here. Thinking we were heading to the town square, I was a bit surprised when we got out of the taxi at an abandoned fork in the road. We walked for a little while when I began to hear the saxophones. A few minutes more and we encountered the following:
"Hope you're ready to drink," laughed Cesar. I wasn't. I was coming off a late intoxicated night and only 3 hours of sleep. My head had been pounding all morning and my stomach was barely holding down lunch. But when the first bottle was passed around to me, I was too timid to refuse. My rationale was that if I was drinking, at least I wouldn't have to dance. Wrong again. These people have perfected the art of simultaneously multi-tasking the two.
Things were made worse by Cesar and the band egging on the girls to dance with me. As I've mentioned countless times in this blog, I dance with the grace of a wobbly barstool. Sadly, the town of Ahuac was going to have to see it live and in-person. Wailus is the name of the traditional dance in the Mantaro Valley. The girls lift their skirts slightly and, with their arms close to the body, sway rhythmically from side to side. In contrast, the boys flutter their arms like wings and tap the ground rapidly with their feet. The combination is supposed to mimic two chickens flirting...seriously. My version looked more like a wounded chicken begging to be put out of its misery. The townfolk even made me don a traditional vest and hat to add to the embarassment. Two thoughts crossed my mind. 1) I really wish there was someone here who knew how to use a camera and take better pictures for me, and 2) I am so glad I'm drinking right now.
The Wailus is kinda like a Peruvian bhangra. And that guy kinda looks like Jas!
From the random spot on the road, the band and supporting troupe paraded its way towards the village with the music and dancing continuing throughout. All the while, this playful old woman kept harassing everyone with ortega...reminiscent of a stinging needle plant. She even rubbed me under my shirt! I felt so violated and again, relieved I was near drunk.
The centre of festivities for the evening turned out to be a patch of dirt surrounded by farmland, a couple houses, and a convenience shop. Crates of beer littered the ground, families gathered to party, and old folk chewed coca leaves by the side. When the band wasn't playing, they kept reminding me that 7 is a good number of girls to have at once. And when I wasn't listening to relationship advice from the band, I (un)fortunately was coerced into dancing and drinking some more. Within an hour I must have been introduced to the whole village.
Noticeable upon arrival were the 5 or 6 holes in the ground, each about a couple feet wide. Cesar and Mabel mentioned something about raising and chopping trees and I remembered hearing something about this in Cusco. It sounded crazy then and it was even crazier experiencing it live. The procession is called Cortamonte. It starts with decorating the trees with balloons and of all things, plastic wash bins. They are then propped into the holes and secured into place.
Next, a clay pot full of candy is hung between two of the trees. Little kids march around in a circle and take turns hitting the pot with a wooden stick, much like a piñata. Eventually it breaks and the kids rush in to grab as many treats as possible. I believe this also signals the official beginning of the main event.
Night is quickly settling in. The band has been playing for over 5 hours now with minimal breaks. I can count about 20 empty beer crates on the ground. People are just rounding into form when the axe makes its first appearance.
The music starts up and it feels like the hundredth time I've heard this tune. Meanwhile everyone grabs a partner or two and starts dancing in a circle around tree no. 1. The first axe wielder steps up and hacks like a madman at the trunk. When he's had enough, he passes the axe on to either a volunteer or a person of his choosing. Grandmas who can barely lift the thing get a go. So do the macho guys trying to show off to the girls. Heck, even I took a few chops to the cheers of the crowd. Only one thing was consistent...you had a bunch of drunk people swinging a severely dangerous weapon in the dark in the close proximity of other drunk people and little children. That being said, I think it's an outstanding tradition. And for a second it felt like I was at Ferg's Farm again with Sascha Yui.
Eventually the tree comes tumbling down. Kids swarm to the crash site and maul each other to grab the balloons, wash tubs, and other ornaments. I wasn't so much worried about the tree falling on me than the kids trampling all over me. While everyone is getting prepared to tackle the next tree, there is one official secretary recording names and contact details into his large notebook. I have never seen anyone take their job so seriously. You see, the person who knocks the tree down has to first chug a beer and is now responsible for helping organize the party next year. Cesar even told me that if I had dealt the final blow, I would have had to send money from overseas and designate a representative to go for me. I thought he was joking but my host family confirmed it had happened to one of their friends who was studying in the US a few years ago. Needless to say, I stayed clear of the axe for the rest of the night.
The treecutting routine repeated itself numerous times for the next couple hours. Even though there were originally only six trees, they kept raising the fallen ones again to keep the fiesta rolling. During the course of the night there were more than a few times when I just stopped dancing, looked around me, and thought this is the South America I've been searching for. It was memorable to say the least...not so much because of the costumes, music, or dancing...but for the realization that sometimes the long road actually takes you to the right place.
The last tree went down around 9:30pm. And although the logic of the girl I had met earlier was right, her prediction was way off. The party kept rocking for many hours more.