Chuschi is a pueblo deep in the Andes mountains, south of the city of Ayacucho. It was the site of the crew’s first workshops (video, radio and zine) in Peru (but not our last! Help us share in Siale – donate to our fundraising campaign here!). Here is the story of our time there, told from the perspective of one of our crew members.
Bundled in the pre-dawn darkness, we shoved our backpacks up to the man on the roof of the combi (public transport van), forced to trust our belongings to his tie-down abilities and wishing we could fit them inside with us. We squished inside, accompanied mostly by teachers who were commuting to work. It was a nauseating but beautiful two hour ride through the mountains to the small town of Chuschi, and as I stepped out into the crisp morning air, I breathed a sigh of relief (labored, from the 10,305ft altitude). Nestled in a valley between the mountains, the indigenous community of Chuschi feels sheltered from the rest of the world… but in fact it was the first town attacked by the Sendero Luminoso in 1980, and then experienced more political violence in 1991 – two events that left deep wounds whose scars are still felt today. But despite that heavy history, it seems the Chuschinos try to maintain a positive outlook. Their colorful clothing and flower-decorated hats brighten up the landscape, and their music is equally uplifting. Even higher pitched than the charango, the chinlili is the local relative of the guitar and fills their music with feeling.
Upon arrival to town, we were given breakfast in a restaurant on the plaza and shown to a family hostel where we were invited to stay free of charge. The town council and high school students held a reception in which they received us in a very grand fashion (as if we were foreign diplomats), making us feel honored and uncomfortable. They gifted us each an authentic Chuschi hat, already fitted with ribbons and fake flowers, which we struggled to keep on our heads as they invited us to dance to their traditional music, the chimaycha (later the hostel owner helped me stretch out my too small hat with warm water).
We were invited to Chuschi to share workshops on video, radio and zines, while studying their fascinating headwear. But as simple as that may sound, and as well received as we were, the Chuschinos were hesitant to do interviews, and often required serious cajoling and lots of smiles to get them to share the secrets of their artisanry with us. The wariness was to be expected, and as awkward as it was for us to push, ultimately, we gathered some very special information, recordings and friends.
Chuschi is not exempt from the reality of modernization and industrialization, and its hat is a reference to that. It came to Peru on the heads of the Europeans, but has been appropriated by the Peruvians and morphed into something culturally unique. Unadorned, the hard, black felt hat, would be indistinguishable from its European ancestors, but the Chuschinos have made it theirs by carefully decorating with ribbons and flowers. Other districts in the region, such as Quispillacta and Sarhua, use an identical hat at first glance, but locals can distinguish between them thanks to subtle differences that hallmark the wearer. Each community has its particularity – be it the hat band, the colors, the way the brim is worn... and the more single and eligible you are, the more decoration you put on your hat.
Traditionally, the flowers were real and the hats made by local artisans. But as we learned from an old milliner, Mauro, when hat making was industrialized, production taken to Ayacucho - the nearest city. There was no way for him to compete with their lower prices, and he was run out of business. Now, only the small details are made locally and the fabric flowers come from Lima (and probably China). Occasionally you see an abuelo or abuela with their hat adorned with a freshly-picked plant - it made our hearts sing. We learned that one of these plants, a dry golden sprig named jurihualla (huri-waya), was only harvested after a pilgrimage and pagapu (offering) to an enchanted lagoon high up in the mountains of La Puna. Needless to say, we perked at that possibility, and our investigator ears primed, we eagerly set out on the search for solid information.
We asked many people about jurihualla, and from each person we got a different story. Either they told us that it wouldn’t be growing at this time of year, or women can’t go there, or of course women can go, or I’ll take you if you supply the horses (for a 4,000ft climb)… our week was coming to a close and we were worried we would never get to Llanaccocha (Black Lagoon) when synchronicity fell into our laps.
One evening while sitting in the plaza, we were invited to sit in on a chimaycha jam by a musician we'd been trying to find - Crisostomo Flores Evanan (his 10-year-old daughter attended our workshops and told us we had to meet her father, but gave us confusing directions to the house). He and his friends told us of the work they’re doing to try to protect La Puna and Llanaccocha from mining. Mining companies have been encroaching on the lagoon, attacking its apus (sacred mountains) and causing landslides. They were (almost) as excited as we were by the idea of going up La Puna together to film their music, the ceremony of harvesting jurihualla and the reality of the danger that this special place is in.
The planning for this expedition happened in a manner far too typical of our experiences in Peru – our transport, traveling companions and food for the journey seemed to be organized right at the last minute, and we had very little idea of what was going on except to arrive to the departure spot at 6 in the morning. We thought we would be relatively few: the four ladies of the film crew, a handful of musicians and a singer – but as more and more Chuschinos piled into the combi we realized word had spread and everyone wanted to go (later: the mayor himself rode up on a horse in the middle of filming). Laughing ironically, comprehension set in and we knew that we were being taken along for the ride, not anything to the contrary. As we understood, very few (if any) foreigners had been taken to Llanaccocha, and it was a great honor to be able to accompany them to their sacred place.
The sky lightened as the combi wound round the mountains, accompanied by chinlili strumming and chatting in Quechua. We took out our stores of coca leaves (a sacred and very essential plant for climbs into high elevation, it can be used as an offering to new friends and to the spirits) and shared with our companions to prevent the inevitable nausea. The landscape was spotted with chinchillas, alpacas and the occasional cottage. At one point we stopped and waited while a young woman ran down the road to deliver her grandmother some food from town. Finally, we arrived, and as we piled out of the vehicle and gathered our things, my lungs were already feeling the elevation gain. Into the hills we went, but only after spitting out the coca leaves to eat some earth at the entrance - in order to keep us from getting sick or lost in the mountains...
TO BE CONTINUED...
Stay tuned for the next installment in which the Hat Docu Crew adventures into Llanaccocha, finds the jurihualla and does NOT get lost in the mountains!
Listen here to the podcast "Qocha Quechua" recorded with local voices during our workshops in Chuschi, 2016