Our experience with Inti Raymi began with innocence and ended with beauty. In the middle there was dancing, blood, tear gas and death.
Maybe I should start before our beginning.
This Quechua ‘Festival of the Sun’ has its roots in Incan times and is celebrated by indigenous communities in Ecuador and Peru – and as far as I know, in any place up and down these Andes where the Inca’s traditions persist. For the Inca, it was the primary festival of the year, done during the time of year they mark as the change of seasons and to honor their most important god, Inti. In Peru, I read, they sacrifice animals as an offering to the god of harvest. The more blood – the better the harvest. It is a belief held by the indigenous communities around Cotacachi as well, but the blood spilt here each year does not come from animals. Again, I am ahead of myself.
The information I have on this specific Inti Raymi is gleaned from conversations with the people who participate in it and/or have lived here for years and watched it unfold time and again. It spans two weeks of events that begin with the men doing a midnight ritual cleansing in surrounding streams and waterfalls, a day of children dancing at each corner of the square in circles (honoring all the stages of the sun), two weekends of men marching to the square then dancing and chanting sun circles and/or fighting, and ending with a day of just the women dancing around each corner of the plaza as well.
The main event, without question, is the men. The (mostly younger) men of the surrounding communities drink until the line of reason is long forgotten, dress up in large black hats and chaps covered in goat hair with some wielding conch shells or flutes while the majority take various tools of battle from whips to ‘fake’ guns to stones. They then head off “to take” the center square, marching and whistling and rhythmically chanting past the small army of riot police called in each year for this festival. The riot police do what they can but each Inti Raymi brings tragedy. Last year a little girl was trampled, the year before that, a man stoned to death. Most of the fighting breaks out when one community moves on to the next corner and the group already there refuses to move on as well. Although, it must also be said that there is a palpable energy from the thousands of spectators that flock to this event that seems to radiate the desire for an outburst of aggression, which makes this whole festival that much more complicated to explain.
Calera is the community most known for its strength in these enactments, and the story I was told is that there has been “bad blood” between them and the neighboring town of Quiroga since forever ago when La Calera stole a sacred bull from Quiroga and ate it – to double the offence. This year’s main battle was between Calera, who stepped in to defend the smaller community of Santa Marta, who had had a member shot by someone from Cuicocha. So apparently there’s enough bad blood to go around for other rivalries to sprout up as well. Enough to cause at least two deaths and countless serious injuries still to be tallied.
Now, before I have you too worked up about this festival, and La Calera in particular, I need to make a few other points. These few days of violence are bookended by an entire year of near perfect peacefulness. I’ve mentioned in other posts how drawn Bo and I were to this area of Ecuador BECAUSE of the peacefulness and beauty of the indigenous populations that stood in stark contrast to every other area we’d toured. And the idea of setting aside one day, or set of days, when everyone agrees to get out their grievances for the year and everyone knows that is what they are getting themselves into if they participate, isn’t unique to Inti Raymi or Cotacachi. Takanakuy is one fesitval (on Christmas Day!) in Peru that has similar precepts with similar rest-of-the-year peace success, albiet no one is allowed to fight to the death on that one.
Also, the two closest local friends we’ve made here: Luis, who has tirelessly answered every question, helped with every outing, and who we sat next to just days ago at the preschool graduation watching his daughter and our son sing together; and Rodrigo, who has befriended Bo more than anyone else we’ve met, sharing beers and talking shop and family and life into the wee hours on more than one occasion and whose wife and two sweet children shared our first Chachimbiro outing with us. And all their friends that adopted us by association and stepped in to help or play or visit from time to time…all Calera. All people we trust, admire, and respect. Rodrigo spoke at length with Bo about how much he hoped the violence would not escalate this year, from what I could tell he does everything he can to focus his community on the ritual and the music and the dancing and the culture of Inti Raymi as opposed to bloodletting. The violence may be systemic, but it is not everyone’s desire.
Which is why, we were happy to see that the enormous group unloading and camping out across the street from our apartment on the onset of Inti Raymi turned out to be La Calera, the community we knew the best. Bo went down a number of times and caught a great video of Rodrigo getting the group energized with music and marching before ever heading out to the street, he even danced a few circles with them just under our window. It’s also why, after being told that as long as you went during the daytime you were safe, I joined the masses and followed La Calera on their march to La Matriz (Cotacachi’s central plaza) early Friday afternoon.
And now I know what tear gas is like.
As it turns out, that Friday afternoon’s march was the most violent of this year’s events. Even four blocks away the wind had carried some of the tear gas into our apartment and Bo quickly got the boys into their room and away from its sting. Although Vaughn felt some minor effects of what he called, “spicy nose gas” they were all safe. Many many that day were not.
I was at the back of the march, taking pictures and grinning with the adorable children dressed up to mimic their fathers when the first shot of gas was fired and the screaming and the running began. I turned and ran as well and managed to squeeze behind the closing gate of a parking lot just as my eyes began to stream and my throat and nose to burn. There were 7 of us hiding there, one of which was a young Afro-Ecuadorian girl who’d been hit full force by the gas and whose beautiful black face was splotched and red. She ran in and grabbed a water hose dousing her face and crying while the older men there ran to pull the hose away as water actually makes the affects of tear gas worse. Instead the men herded us under a tarp-covered shed in the corner and began passing out cigarettes. Taking deep inhales and then blowing directly into the children’s faces (there was another young boy there) or blowing into their shirts and sticking the children’s heads in their shirt to breathe in the smoke. I don’t understand why, but it did help, and so I gratefully accepted the cigarette, sat next to the girl who’d gotten it the worst and had no idea where her parents were, and blew smoke directly into her face. Over and over again. The fighting in the square had only gotten worse, which meant we had to withstand wave after wave of newly released gas choking us, making my young companion whimper each time we felt a new one come on.
Eventually, the waves stopped coming and with a few awkward smiles and farewells, we decided to try our way out from the shed. Stepping back onto the street I saw men being carried away by their sisters and wives. I saw a lot of blood – on the street, on people’s clothes, on people’s bodies. Ambulances raced by, women cried and ran. And then about a block from home I saw a cotton candy vender selling his wares to a family of spectators up on their balcony above the street. I think that is when I started to run. I made it back to an immensely relieved husband and sons contentedly watching a movie behind the closed door of their room. Safe. I don’t know what else to say about that day.
Soon it was Sunday and the women came out in their finely embroidered gowns and danced the same circles as all the dancers before them, but accompanied by the lilting tunes of an Andean flute and the giggles of their daughters. Gracefully swishing their skirts while smiling at the sky.
And then it was over, as quietly as it had begun.
We’ve included some video links throughout this post and a slideshow of some of the events is posted at the bottom to give you a sense of what my words cannot.
It is impossible to end this post with a clear point, because I don’t have one. Bo and I are still trying to reconcile the images and sounds and smells of the last couple weeks, with no real conclusion.
We are curious though, what do you think?