It´s been a while since I´ve written, which gives me more to update you on!
I got to take a great Easter vacation to Ayacucho, a small but lively city in the mountains of central Perú. (look it up on a map if you want to know exactly where.) It´s not very close to Amazonas – 1 ½ days of bus rides! I´d spent three weeks there with a study abroad program in 2010, so it was nice to go back and see it again. I also got to see the host family I´d stayed with over two years ago, which was best of all. They´re amazing, warm, genuine people. Here´s the only picture I have with all of them – I´m the floating head in the back of the crowd. There are only two of them that live in that house (on the right, sitting down), and the rest are sons and aunts and uncles, etc., that were visiting for the holiday.
Like the rest of Peru, Ayacucho has a notably heavy Catholic history. That history and influence came from Spain’s conquest of much of South America, which began in Peru in 1532. Where before there had been indigenous cultures and the very large Incan Empire, the Spanish imposed their language, politics and religious beliefs, erecting churches and crosses in the people’s sacred places. While it’s a difficult legacy, it helped shape the rich Peruvian culture that exists today.
When we talk tourism, Ayacucho is known for at least two things. It has more than 40 Catholic temples and chapels, and is home to the largest Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) celebration in Peru. I wanted to check that out! The entire week, from Palm Sunday (one week before Easter) through Holy Friday to Easter morning, is one long series of celebrations. There are plenty of religious processions like the ones you see here.
The one at night is on Holy Friday, when Jesus is said to have died, been taken off the cross, and followed by his grieving mother (the Virgin of Sorrows). They were walking a pathway of beautiful designs, laid out in the street from simple materials like colored sawdust, flowers, and salt. The daytime one you see is right after the Easter sunrise – they paraded the resurrected Jesus around the plaza on top of a mountain of white candles, and had Easter mass on the steps of the Cathedral. That final “mountain” is enormous – it takes somewhere between 400 and 600 people to lift it on their shoulders!
Religious processions aren’t the only thing going on with a big Peruvian celebration – there were also plenty of fireworks, small human towers built by standing on each others’ shoulders, and a running of the bulls! The bull run is actually called Jalatoro, or “pull-a-bull”, because they literally tie bulls behind horses and run them through the streets. The crowd then rushes up behind them, trying to touch the bull from behind. It was a fun experience, but I’m also glad I was watching and not running!
On a bit of an unfortunate note, I got sick from eating street food and wasn´t there for the main festivities on Holy Saturday night! Instead, I was laid up in bed at the hostel, trying to get better. I finally walked out into fresh air at 6:00 Easter morning, when my friends returned from watching in the Plaza and sent me on to the family´s house. I walked out, not feeling the best, to find a gray and cloudy sky; cool morning air; silence; and then a rocket explosion that echoed through the valley. It was a bit surreal, almost like an expectant, withheld breath. Certainly worthy of an Easter morning. I was well enough to go to the Plaza and see the end of that huge procession, and then start of the Easter mass that followed on the Cathedral steps. People were watching the mass; selling sandwiches; launching homemade hot air balloons; and otherwise going about their business – a strange and wonderful sight that is Easter morning in Ayacucho. It struck me for a moment, how much we know the Easter story. (I´m talking about Christians here.) We know exactly what´s going to happen, year in and year out – Jesus is given up, put on the cross, dies for us, and comes back to life. That´s hard enough to grasp, but when you add the familiarity to it, it can become just another thing. Just another yearly event that passes by, that we notice with a sandwich in our hand or as a side event to everything else we´re doing. It can become commonplace, and if we want it to be otherwise – if we want it to be something we feel in our soul and celebrate to large proportions, no matter where we are in our lives – then it´s up to us to discover it anew. That was just a passing thought I had, and an interesting reflection (for me) among the whole vacation experience.
Things are doing well on this end. I feel as integrated as ever in Leyme, not as an outsider, but more as someone who lives here. I know the town and the people who live here. (I know I´ve said that before, and I may keep saying it. It´s definitely a process.) And the projects are going well. We´re finishing up our meetings with families and they´re starting to construct / improve the latrines for their homes – here´s a picture of the last meeting we had, on how to try for a more balanced diet. And the hand washing in schools is just recently starting up. There are plenty of snags and delays, but we´re getting through them and making it work.
Relationships, projects, and making it work. I think that´s what this Peace Corps service is about.