All Saint’s Day in Perú

November 1st of each year is a national holiday here in Peru. The holiday is known as All Saint’s Day (Día de Todos los Santos) and was established to celebrate all Catholic Saint’s known and unknown. During my two years working in Yuracoto/Caraz, I never really saw any traditions or customs associated with the holiday other than the fact that the schools, municipalities, and other businesses closed down. However, this year I had the opportunity to take part in some traditional customs by traveling to the town of Huashao to visit the host-family of a former Peace Corps Perú Volunteer who is back in Áncash completing her Ph.D. research.

And so, yesterday morning, at 9 A.M., the 3 of us hopped on a combi from Huaráz to Yungay, and then took a colectivo (car) from Yungay up to the beautiful town of Huashao at the foot of the beautiful Mount Huascarán, the tallest snow-capped mountain in Perú. Once we arrived, we were quickly introduced to everyone, kids, adults, and dogs alike. Being a fairly rural zone, the family all spoke Spanish as well as Quechua, the indigenous language of the Sierra of Áncash. It was nice to be able to use the little Quechua I know to greet the family and make some funny comments. Anyways, after all of the introductions, we got to work. You see, for many families in Áncash, a typical celebration for el Día de Todos los Santos is to gather as a family (extended and all) and make lots of bread! In fact, this host-family ONLY makes bread on November 1st and not at any other time of the year.

When we arrived at the house, the process was already underway, but there were still plenty of opportunities to observe, help, and of course eat lots of the delicious bread. In fact, as soon as we arrived, we were gifted some freshly baked cachanga, a type of flatbread popular here in the mountains. While the oven was located outside, most of the dough preparation was being performed inside the kitchen. And when I say we were making bread, it wasn’t just a few pieces of bread, it was hundreds of pieces of bread.

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The dough all prepped, waiting to be cooked. Note: this is only maybe half of the dough.
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Fresh bread alongside the “brushes” made from willow branches used to clean out the ashes from the oven.

But, we were not just going to bake and eat bread all day (even though I personally would have been fine with that since bread is delicious). We also took advantage of the oven to make some delicious Pollo al Horno (oven-roasted chicken) for a large, familial lunch. And might I say, the chicken was absolutely delicious.

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Rotating the chicken for further cooking
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Lunch: Pollo al Horno, boiled potatoes, and a lettuce salad with lime juice.

After lunch, we decided to walk over to a small grassy area to play with the all the kids (if we had stayed seated at the house, I think we all would have fallen into food comas). At the park, I played some soccer and then broke out my frisbee, which was a huge hit with everyone. We played for about 1.5 hours before heading back to the house to rejoin the bread-making extravaganza. Now, upon returning, we decided it was time to make our own special bread; pizza. We had bought all the ingredients and prepared the dough in advance, and so, surrounded curious host-family members (mostly kids), we got to work on the pizza. My job was quite simple; shred the cheese. We opted for a mix of Mozzarella cheese and queso fresco, the typical cheese sold in wheels all over the Sierra of Áncash. In terms of toppings, we went with salami and chorizo.

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The first two pizzas (we made 3 in total) ready to go into the oven.

We expected the pizzas to take about 10 minutes to cook, however, the oven ended up being really hot (we thought possibly around 600F), and so the pizzas cooked in about 3 minutes. The edges of the crust got quite burnt and had to be removed, but the rest of the pizza remained uncharred. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of the cooked pizzas, but I can assure you they were Top Chef-worthy, especially since all 3 pizzas were eaten in a matter of 15 minutes by everyone in attendance.

After the pizzas were enjoyed by all, we moved onto the last bread-making chapter for the day: the creation of muñecas and wawas. For many religious holidays in Perú, such as Día de Todos los Santos or Carnaval, it is customary to mold bread into different forms: a woman, a child, a llama, etc. I like to think of it as bread art or bread sculptures. Anyways, everyone was given a ball of dough and set to the task of creating their bread art. The host-family went the traditional route, creating some beautiful and elaborate sierra women holding their babies.

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The muñecas with their wawas.

I, however, decided to branch out a bit from the norm and decided to first create a cobra, and then a lizard. Those who know me well, shouldn’t be too surprised.

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My dough-bra.

The black dough is used for added decoration and is made by rubbing dough in the blacked bottoms of pots & pans. I think my cobra turned out quite well considering it was my first foray into bread art. My friends and one of the host-kids also went down the creative route, creating an Inti/Killa (sun & moon), an osito (bear), and a culebra (snake).

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The sun/moon baking in the bread oven.
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Fresh out of the oven! Bear (left), cobra (top), lizard (middle), snake (bottom).

Shortly after our bread-creations emerged from the oven, it was, unfortunately, time to leave. We thanked everyone for the hospitality, gathered up our creations as well as the fresh bread we had each been gifted, gave our goodbyes, and then hopped in a car to make our way back down the mountain. Overall, I had an absolutely incredible time visiting Huashao and I was so, so, so glad to be able to partake in such a fun custom. Since I’ll be around Perú until next August todavía, I’m hoping I will get another opportunity to make some more bread and partake in lots more traditions before I leave.Before we left, I managed to take one last photo with my bread creations in front of Mount Huascarán.

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The dogs wanted to eat my creations.

Until next time,

MGB

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Sawdust Rugs: Take 2

On a typical Sunday morning last May in Caraz (way back in 2016),  I was walking through the market where my host-mom sells fruits, when the urge to walk down to the Plaza de Armas (Town Square) suddenly came upon me. After following the small stream of people heading down to the Plaza, I stumbled upon a really neat event organized to celebrate Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday celebrated throughout Perú (more info here). The event in question was artistic in nature, and involved the creation of massive “rugs” made out of wet, dyed sawdust. Check out my post from last May to see how the first year went.

While last year´s event was a surprise, this year I was prepared. I knew about the event in advance, and had even coordinated with some students from my local school to help out with their alfombra (rug). However, due to various circumstances once again I did not get the chance to make a rug, instead assuming my regular role of documentarian. But, I like taking photos, and Peruvian jóvenes (young people) tend to like having photos taken of them, so it all works out in the end.

What follows are an abundance of photos of the different rugs created for the celebration of Corpus Cristi. The rugs are largely made of dyed sawdust, but some also include other organic materials such as leaves, flowers, branches, etc. Generally, the rugs depict different religious symbols (crosses, Jesus, doves, flowers, etc.) and/or Biblical verses that the student first sketch out with chalk, and then fill in with the sawdust. Of course, the rugs also display the name of the school that created it; school pride is a big deal in Caraz.

The rugs are created all along the town square, essentially forming a beautiful, continuous sawdust walkway upon which the members of the Catholic procession can walk. But enough talking, enjoy the gorgeous photos and let me know which is your favorite alfombra!

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My seniors from Yuracoto; rug still in process.
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The juniors (I think?) from Yuracoto with their rug

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The rug from the seniors of Pampacocha; I had a nice chat with the students.

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Micelino Sandoval Torres
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M.S.T.
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M.S.T.
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Nueva Victoria
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Nueva Victoria
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Nueva Victoria
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M.S.T. (I think)
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M.S.T.
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M.S.T.
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M.S.T.
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M.S.T.
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M.S.T.
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M.S.T.
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Dos de Mayo (D.D.M.)
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D.D.M.
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D.D.M.
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“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…for you are with me”

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Once the students finish their alfombras, which usually takes anywhere from 3-5 hours, it only takes about 1 hour before they fulfill their purpose: to be walked upon by the religious procession.

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The procession leaving the church and starting the alfombra path of destruction.
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Even the military band gets in on the stomping action.
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The rest of the Saints joining the procession.

As the procession ends, my good friends in Limpieza Pública (public cleaning) get the fun task of sweeping away each and every rug.

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The colorful remains of a former sawdust rug.

I love the alfombras because they are ephemeral. A flash of beauty, which is then trampled on, destroyed, brushed away, and ultimately forgotten. In many ways, the alfombras remind me of the mandalas of the Tibetan monks.

While once again I missed out on the alfombra party, I´m hoping that there is still hope for me since I´ll be sticking around Perú for a 3rd year with the Peace Corps.

Until next time,

MGB

Sawdust Rugs: A surprise cultural event

This past Sunday as I was with my family in the Caraz market selling fruit, I decided to head down to the Plaza de Armas to try and get some money out of the bank. As I was walking down to the Plaza, I noticed that the streets to the plaza had been blocked off and that large masses of people had gathered. Curious, I walked closer and discovered that the main streets around the central plaza were covered with alfombras, or rugs. However, these were not typical rugs made out of fabric, but rather temporary “rugs” made out of dyed and dampened sawdust.

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A few of the rugs made by the student groups.

As I began to make my way around the various works of art, someone called out my name, and looking around I found a group of students from my local school in Yuracoto. Now, another school in town is in the midst of their 111th Anniversary celebrations, so I naturally assumed that the alfombra contest was just one of the many activities the school had organized. However, one of my students filled me in, telling me that the “competition” was in honor of a religious holiday during which they celebrate many Catholic Saints, and therefore independent of the school anniversary. Students from all over Caraz and the campiña organized into groups to design and create their alfombras.  I spent a while talking with my seniors from Yuracoto about their alfombra and the whole process they went through to make it. They explained to me how everyone chipped in for the materials (4 bags of sawdust at S/. 4 each, lots of dye, and transportation), and then how they all met up in Yuracoto on Saturday to dye the sawdust into the proper colors; many of them still had green and red hands come Sunday morning. On Sunday, they all met up in the Plaza at 6am to begin construction of their alfombra, which first involved drawing out the design with chalk, and then painstakingly placing the damp sawdust overtop. My student said it took about 3.5 hours to finish the whole thing; I was impressed with the commitment given there wasn’t even a prize or anything.

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Pre-procession rug (made by the seniors of Yuracoto)

So what is the point of making the alfombras? Well, the alfombras seemed to have served as a way to show of artistic talents, to contribute to the religious holiday, and to maybe show up your rival schools to some degree. However, like many things in life and nature, the alfombras were ephemeral, and after having been displayed for a mere 2 hours, the beautiful alfombras were quickly disfigured by a large procession of Saints who emerged from the church to continue with the religious celebration. At least the rugs wasted away doing what they were meant to do: getting walked on.

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Mid-procession rug.
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Post-procession rug.

And then, as soon as the procession had passed, what remained of the alfombras were swept up into colorful piles of sawdust, a poor vestige of what they had been only minutes before.

I am hoping that the students in Yuracoto will give me a heads up for next year’s celebration, so that I can get in on the Alfombra-making. I would love to get some experience making an alfombra here in Perú (maybe the Peace Corps logo???), because I think it would be a fun concept to bring back to the US.  It could also be a great Goal 3 project for those working in the World Wise Schools Program.

Well, what started off as a normal Sunday in the market turned into an awesome cultural surprise, and reminded me once more why I love my Peace Corps experience.

Until next time,

MGB