Sunday, 16 August 2009

The annual running of the boundaries

"Almost twenty years after first visiting Chinchero," writes Wade Davis, "I returned to participate in an astonishing ritual, the mujon omiento, the annual running of the boundaries. Since the time of the Inca, the [Peruvian] town has been divided into three ayullus, or communities, the most traditional of which us Cuper, the home of my compadres and, to my mind, the most beautiful, for its lands encompass Antakillqa and all the soaring ridges that separate Chinchero from the sacred valley of the Urumbamba. Within Cuper are four hamlets, and once each year, at the height of the rainy season, the entire male population, save those elders physically incapable of the feat, runs the boundaries of their respective communities. It is a race but also a pilgrimage, for the frontiers are marked by mounds of earth, holy sites where prayers are uttered and ritual gestures lay claim to the land. The distance travelled by the members of each hamlet varies. The track I was to follow, that of Pucamarca, covers some 15 miltes (24km), but the route crosses two Andean ridges, dropping a thousand feet (300m) from the plaza of Chinchero to the base of Antakillqa, then ascending three thousand feet (900m) to a summit spur before descending to the valley on the far side, only to climb once more to reach the grasslands of the high puna and the long trail home.

"At the head of each contingent would dart the way-laka, the strongest and fleetest of the youths, transformed for the day from male to female. Dressed in heavy woolen skirts and a cloak of indigo, wearing a woman's hat and delicate lace, the waylaka would fly up the ridges, white banner in hand. At every boundary marker, the transvestite must dance, a rhythmic turn that like a vortex draws to teh peaks the energy of the women left behind in the villages far below. Each of the four hamlets of Cuper has its own trajectory, just as each of the three ayullus has its own land to traverse. By the end of the day, all of Chinchero would be reclaimed: the rich plains and verdant fields of Ayullupunqu; the lakes, waterfalls, mountains and cliffs of Cuper; the gorges of Yanacona, where wild things thrive and rushing streams carry away the rains of the Urubamba.

"This much I knew as I approached the plaza on the morning of the event. Before dawn, the blowing of the conch shells had awoken the town, and the waylakas, once dressed, had walked from house to house, saluting the various authorities: the curaca and alcalde; the officers of the church; and the embarados, those charged with the preservation of tradition. At each threshold, coca had been exchanged, fermented maize chica imbibed and a cross of flowers hung in reverence above the doorway. For two hours, the procession had moved from door to door, musicians in tow, until it encompassed al of the community and drew everyone in celebration to the plaza where women waited, food in hand: baskets of potatoes and spicy piquante, flasks of chicha and steaming plates of vegetables. There I lingered, with gifts of coca for all. At my side was my godson, Armando. A grown man now, father of an infant girl.. he had returned to Chinchero to be with me for the day.

"What I could never have anticipated was the excitement and the rush of adrenaline, the sensation of imminent flight as the entire assembly of men, prompted by some unspoken signal, began to surge toward the end of the plaza. With a shout, the waylaka sprang down through the ruins, carrying with him more than a hundred runners and dozens of young boys who scattered across the slopes that funnelled downward toward a narrow dirt track. The trail fell away through a copse of eucalyptus and passed along the banks of a creek that dropped to the valley floor. A mile or two on, the waylaka paused for an instant, took a measure of the men, caught is breath and was off, dashing through thickets of buddleja and polylepis as the rest of us scrambled to keep sight of his white banner. Crossing the creek draw, we moved up the face of Antakillqa. Here, at last, the pace slowed to something less than a full run. Still, the men leaned into the slope with an intensity and determination unlike anything I had ever known. Less than two hours after leaving the village, we reached the summit ridge, a climb of several thousand feet.

"There we paused, as the waylaka planted his banner atop a mujon, a tall mound of dirt, the first of the border markers. The authorities added their ceremonial staffs, and as the men piled on dirt to augment the size of the mujon, Jon Jeronimo, the curaca, sang rich invocations that broke into a cheer for the wellbeing of the entire community. By the point, the runners were as restless as race horses, frantic to move. A salutation, a prayer, a generous farewell to those of Cuper Pueblo, another of the hamlets, who would track north, (how cool is that? To navigate the borders of your land along with your neighbours) and we of Pucamarca were off, heading east across the backside of the mountain to a second mujon located on a dramatic promontory overlooking all of the Urubamba. Beyond the hamlets and farms of the sacred valley, clouds swirled across the flanks of even higher mountains, as great shafts of sunlight fell upon the river and the fields far below.

"We pounded on across the backside of teh mountain and then straight down at a full run through dense tufts of ichu grass and meadows of lupine and rue. Another mujon, more prayers, handfulls of coca all around, blessings and shouts, and a mad dash off the mountain to the valley floor, where, mercifully, we older men rested for a few minutes in the courtyard of a farmstead owned by a beautiful elderly woman who greeted us with a great ceramic urn of frothy chicha. One of the authorities withdrew from his pocket a sheet of paper listing the names of the men and began to take attendance. Participation in the mujonomiento is obligatory, and those who fail to appear must pay a fine to the community. As the names were called, I glanced up and was stunned to see the waylaka, silhouetted on the skyline hundreds of feet above us, banner in hand, moving on.

"So the day went. The rains began in early afternoon, and the winds blew fiercely by four. By then nothing mattered but the energy of the group, the trail at our feet and the distant slope of yet another ridge to climb. Warmed by alcohol and coca leaves, the runners fell into reverie, a curious state of joy and release, almost like a trance.

"Darkness was upon us as we rushed down the final canyon on a broad muddy track where the water ran together like mercury and disappeared beneath the stones. Approaching the valley floor and the hamlet of Cuper Alto, where women and children waited, the rain-soaked runners closed ranks behind the waylaka to emerge from the mountains as a single force, an entire community that had affirmed through ritual its sense of place and belonging. In making the sacrifice, the men had reclaimed a birthright and rendered sacred a homeland. Once reunited with their families, they drank and sang, toasting their good fortune as the women served great steaming bowls of soup from iron cauldrons. And of course, late into the night, the waylakas danced."

-Light at the Edge of the World, p58 - 63

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