I have just returned from a pilgrimage to a sacred mountain called Ausangate, which involved four days of sleep-deprivation, freezing cold, squalor, non-stop noise and dreadful food. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
I went to the festival of Qollyur Riti with a troupe of traditional dancers. I was lucky to be hooked up with a band of spiritual brothers who allowed, in fact insisted, that I take part in every aspect of the event, despite my totally inept attempts to stay in step with their traditional dancing, looking like somebody who has just joined a new aerobics class and is forever skipping one way when everybody else is skipping the other say.
The festival has two levels of meaning – on the face of it, a homage to an image of Christ, which was painted onto a rock in honour of a miracle that happened here about two hundred years ago. But an alternative view is that this miracle was concocted by Spanish conquistadors determined to convert the natives. They requisitioned an ancient ritual of mountain-worship, and came up with a good miracle to give the event a Catholic veneer.
In practice, it involves a cold overnight journey in an open truck, then walking two hours up the mountain along a dusty valley, kneeling and playing music to every one of the twelve or so crosses on the way. You then spend two days in a freezing cold campsite at high altitude, enduring drums, brass bands and firecrackers making a din 24 hours a day. Add to that squalor and inedible food, followed by a steep climb in the dark up to a glacier for a night-long vigil. Not my usual idea of a fun weekend.
There´s a ban on sex and alcohol for the duration of the festival too, so there wasn’t even the option of a medicinal tot of something strong to warm the blood during the night-long vigil, although the canazo that my hosts shared with me had a suspiciously strong kick, despite their insistence that it was non-alcoholic.
The physical discomforts seem to be an intrinsic part of the pilgrimage – the hair-shirtedness of it all being more purifying. But my hosts realised I hadn’t signed up for the hardcore experience, and were endlessly generous and thoughtful in looking after my welfare – lending me their blankets to keep me warm, even though they were sitting there with no gloves and only the thinnest of clothes. It’s small wonder that there are a few fatalities among the pilgrims each year.
The vigil over, there is the opportunity for a few hours’ kip during the following day, if you can block out the still-ongoing drums, before setting out on a 20 mile hike to a neighbouring mountaintop to see Ausangate as the first rays of the sun strike its snowy peak. Of course, to get there in time, you have to walk through the night. What is it with these pilgrims and sleep deprivation?!
But in fact, the moonlit hike is something quite special, walking through the peace and calm of the night, mostly with just the sound of the tinkling bells on the dancers’ traditional costumes, and only occasional outbursts of the inevitable insistent drumbeat.
And the ensuing celebrations at sunrise are unparalleled for their sheer exuberance and energy, which ends with the pilgrims streaming down the mountainside in criss-crossing lines of colourful humanity. The scale and the sound of the event are mesmerising, and I felt quite overcome. Or maybe I was just plain knackered.
I came away from the experience filthy with dust and grime, emotionally and physically drained, and in dire need of a decent meal, but feeling lucky to have been involved in a ritual that has such deep meaning for these Peruvians.
(Would love to show you some photos, but the batteries in my digital camera died in the cold…)