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Archive for December, 2005

Christmas of a lifetime

Friday, December 30th, 2005

A Christmas not to forget. What we thought would be a non event because of our style of travel, turned out to be a highlight of the trip and by far the most educational time we have had to date.

We rode into the small town of Ollogue on the 23rd of December. Ollogue is on the border of Chile and Bolivia, situated between smoking volcanoes and salt flats. One hundred inhabitants, and despite its surroundings not the most inviting looking town. Bordering with Bolivia, it was for a long time more of a military post than a town, forever on the brink of battle, though things have settled down somewhat in the last years (on the Chilean side). We found the 2 hostels in our guide resembled tin sheds and were abandoned. We thought it would be Ange and myself by ourselves in the tent, tired and hungry for Christmas. Minutes later we were lucky enough to ask the local radio presenter for the region and his daughter for advice on where to get food and water. They welcomed us into the minicipilidad where anyone official normally stays, as they did not want us spending Christmas alone. The evening was spent drinking “Cola De Mon” (tail of the monkey) a Chilean drink only ever consumed during Christmas which resembles Baileys, a great drop. This was also to be one of the best first hand history lessons I have ever had. We spent the evening talking about politics, in particular Herman the radio presenter’s experiences during the Pinochet erra. He was a budding 23 year old radio reporter who was arrested and torched with electric hammers and worse etc etc, for three years purely because he worked for a radio station where in another department politics where discussed, a department in which he was in no way involved. There is something about hearing about these things first hand that sends a shiver down the spine. A very harsh time in Chilean history which helped explain a lot about the way Chile has developed since then.

Twenty five kilometres from Ollague is Cosco, a small town tucked away in the Andes mountains on the border of Chile and Bolivia. Cosco does not register on most maps but has a long and significant Quechua history. Cosco was used as a stop point on the Quechua trade route along the Andes long before even the Inka empire adopted the Quechua language. These days there are only two inhabitants who maintain the town during the year. Between the 24th and 29th of December however, the small town turns into a thriving one-thousand-inhabitants place with a festival of dance, food and celebration. A mixture of old Inka customs and Spanish Catholic influence mixed up to give what now molds the heart of Chilean culture. People come from far and wide to the festival – one family drove from the middle of Bolivia somewhere on a tractor to be there. Most are Chilean, though of course the native Indian South Americans knew no borders and many of the elders still do not and come from Peru and Bolivia also. I feel very honoured to have been invited into this hub of culture where they told us no non South America had ever set foot. This is a brief description of this very in depth event that we have just experienced.

Things kick off mid morning on the 24th with a 10km procession toward Cosco which involves four celebration points where the party of merry celebrants stop to perform a two hour long ritual. The procession takes a full day to complete and arrives 10km later in Cosco. Its significance is the “campanillas” (bell ringers). In remembrances of past amigos, current amigos and amigos of the future everything is done three times with respect to these three groups, then a set of half ancient Quechua and half Spanish influenced Catholic traditions follow.

There are about 15 big cups all lined up in a row, symbolic Quechua blankets draped over a Catholic looking figure of a saint. Incense is burning and a full brass band blasting away. The procession walks along the line of cups pouring some alcohol into the each cup saying “campanillas” once this is finished the cups of alcohol are thrown on the nearby rocks. While this is happening Quechua woman walk around constantly handing out Coca leaves. A big fire is lit as the band plays at the top of their lungs then everyone gets in a circle and moves in a spiral, shaking hands kissing on the cheek then shaking hands again with each person. There are many other small ceremonies which go on also, always three times before packing up and walking to the next post and repeating the process. Once they finally arrive in Cosco everyone crawls on their knees, three times around a symbolic cross at the entrance of the village and each blows incense over it before proceeding into town. Naturally three laps of the town are completed before a ceremony in the Church in the centre of the village which dates back to before time according to the oldest man in town who spoke a mixture of Quechua and Spanish which was then translated to us in modern Spanish by the local doctor. At about eleven o’clock there is a midnight mass, more catholic oriented and on the stroke of midnight everyone greets each other with the familiar “faliz navidad” and a party begins.

The party involves again spilling alcohol, something very foreign to the way I was brought up. In my university days the words “floor suck” would be called as every drop of beer is very sacred and must be consumed, often with speed. The ancient Quechua tradition is very different. In the Quechua language the words “Patcha Muma” are called, everyone spills some beer, then drinks. Patcha muma translates to “Tierra de madre” in Spanish which means “Mother of Earth”. Traditionally before drinking you give the first drink to the earth for good luck. Like in many ancient cultures there is a lot of superstition and luck plays a big part of good crops and good health. I asked one of the locals if this is done in Chilean houses and yes it is, and provides a horrendous clean up in the morning! However only on special occasions.

The 25th is the “Entrada de Baile” (entrance of dance) which involves a specific type of traditional dance followed by a brass band parading into the village, completing their three laps then a small ceremony in the church. The order is from the oldest dance to youngest, more modern dances. There are about 15 different dances in total and it takes a full day for each dance to enter. That night the party moves up a gear with all the bands playing in a type of war where they all play the same song over top of each other with traditional dances going on everywhere and everyone dancing on tables and chairs with food and drink flying everywhere. This is followed by heading to one of the four Salars where an endless supply of free traditional food and drink runs practically 24 hours. The bread cooked in small mud huts and the nice friendly llamas we thought were pets, stand outside waiting to be eaten. It seems in many cultures the woman are the work horses and these Quechua woman cook, clean and hand out a continuous supply of beer and do not seem to sleep. While all this goes on the brass bands take turns playing and traditional dance continues until the small hours of the morning.

This theme continues until the 28th where cars, buses, absolutely everything completes their three laps of the village before leaving and Cosco is again laid to rest until the following year. This three times rule in remembrance of the campanillas also applies to people coming and going during the festival which means there is a constant flow of cars, buses, tractors and people circling every day, weaving their way between the festivities. One of the most bizarre things I have ever seen.

Both Angela and myself participated in every ceremony and we think have left a very positive impression of New Zealand as a country of travellers always up for anything – not far off the truth.

We arrived back in Ollogue wrecked, far more tired than we were when we cycled into town after 80km riding up hill on sand, but far richer for the experience. We had one night’s recovery then set off for the new challenge we face riding across the mud and salt flats of Bolivia via an unmade road in the rainy season, for a laugh. We had anticipated avoiding the rainy season in Bolivia but as we are ahead of schedule we have at least provided some amusement to the locals after explaining our planned route. Fantastic!

Hope you all had an awesome Christmas keep it cranking!!!