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This week I had the pleasure of experiencing Peruvian “Carnaval”. Carnival celebrations occur at this time of year all throughout Latin America. Carnival was traditionally the big celebration held just before Catholic Lent. It was a period of feasting, revelry and general merriment preceding the 40 days of fasting and restraint that constitute Lent. Carnival has lost much of its original religious basis, but is still celebrated widely in predominantly Catholic countries. Today Carnival, at least in Peru, is the one time of year that you can throw a bucket of water in a stranger’s face and expect them to run away laughing.

Carnival is celebrated here with dancing, fiestas and water fights.

The main celebration was held on Sunday, February 10th, but the festivities extended for a few days before and after that date. In the days leading up to the official celebrations, the students asked me many times if I would like to “play Carnival”. Their sly grins and the suspicious buckets of water behind their backs led me to quickly decline and get out of the room as fast as I could. I managed to escape nice and dry most of the time, although there was always a danger of getting caught in the crossfire on the staircase. I was told that I should watch out for stray water balloons in the street throughout the week!

On Sunday, the main fiesta day, I met up with five of the students in the town of Pisac, about an hour away from Cusco. Pisac held a traditional dance competition all day long in the main square. The whole town was decorated for the occasion, with streamers and balloons adorning each street. Many houses had stalks of corn and flowers around their front doors and windows. The main square was packed with people watching the dancing and enjoying the festivities. Vendors sold barbecued meat, corn on the cob and sweet cakes around the edges of the plaza. Apparently the same sort of dance contests and celebrations were held in nearly every town and village throughout the Sacred Valley.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the dancing. In the morning, groups from surrounding communities performed their villages’ traditional dance. They each wore different costumes and were accompanied by musicians playing their communities’ traditional songs. In the afternoon, dancers from dance schools and cultural centres in the region performed. These semi-professional dancers were competing for quite a large cash prize.

The dances were very entertaining, and I was impressed by the range of costumes and themes. In a few dances, the men represented birds and wore long, wing-like sleeves and feathered headdresses. Other groups had props like farming tools, cups of chicha and coca leaves. Many of the female dancers had garlands of flowers or feathers that they twirled around and bestowed on the men throughout the dance. In one dance, the girls pulled out spindles and knelt to spin wool in a circle while the men twirled around them! One of the most entertaining dances involved a mock battle between dancers dressed like cowboys and dancers in traditional indigenous dress. One dancer from each side rode out on horseback to start off the choreography! The two groups then proceeded to do battle, with lots of leaps, play-fighting and graceful falls. They then pulled out whips and alternated between smacking the ground and their rival’s legs to pound out the rhythm! The dance ended when the men from each side scooped up the enemy’s girls over their shoulders. The girls put up a valiant fight, but were eventually carried off kicking and screaming to gales of laughter and cheers from the crowd.

While we were watching the dancing, I was introduced to another Carnival tradition, which involves spraying everybody in sight with foam.

Vendors in the square were selling spray canisters of soapy foam, and nearly everybody in the crowd had foamy flecks on their hair and shoulders by the end of the afternoon. The little kids especially seem to enjoy this game. The students were as enthusiastic as anyone, and a couple of them staged a sneak attack on me while I was innocently watching the performance. It was successful, as you can see in the attached picture! But don’t worry, I got my sweet revenge on the boys with the help of one of the girls... The good thing about the foam tradition is there is a high chance it will get washed off by a helpful stranger with a bucket of water!

After enjoying the traditional dancing, sampling the food from the vendors’ stalls, and chasing each other around the plaza, we made our way back home to Cusco. All in all it was a wonderful day and a fun way to experience Carnival, Peruvian-style. I think we’re missing out on a great tradition at home, and might want to adopt a few Carnival festivities in B.C. to brighten up those grey February days. Water fight, anyone?

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