Semana Santa in Peru: Ayacucho kicks off Holy Week celebrations

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The streets are thick with people during the nightly processions. To catch a glimpse of the glittering, candle-festooned effigies being born through the town, you have to brace yourself against the flow of spectators attempting to keep pace with the Christ effigy and its bearers.

As the procession approached my vantage point, I snapped away with a digital camera, only to see the men of the hermandad wavering beneath the weight. Jesus tipped unnervingly towards the torch-bearing faithful who lined the pavements on either side.

Three older men in ceremonial capes were responsible for guiding the effigy. One of them caught sight of me standing close by and beckoned for me to join the procession. I passed my camera to a friend, ducked under the nearest telegraph pole, and took up the load.

To be called to join a hermandad’s procession in Ayacucho is almost unheard-of: it was a huge honor, albeit a demanding one. Although the burden is shared, and every two hundred meters or so there’s a rest break where prayers are recited and hymns sung, the strain on your shoulders, knees and back is almost unbearable. I didn’t even have the benefit of being drunk like my two closest neighbors, who flattered me by initially taking me for an Argentine (the only way a fair-haired white guy is ever likely to be mistaken for a South American).

Not everyone was pleased to have a gringo join the party, but nothing brings men together like a chance to play at being macho — and this was a real physical challenge. Teased for my blond beard and unable to convince my comrades that my birthplace, London, isn’t in Holland, I laughed along with the others as we told ourselves that, in accordance with local belief, whoever we were and wherever we came from, our sins would soon be absolved.

As I was a full head higher than everyone else, and white, with a comical lumberjack beard, I stood out somewhat, and got interviewed by a Peruvian TV crew at the halfway point. Struggling under the weight, I managed only telegraphic answers:

“Is it heavy?”
“It’s heavy!”
“Tell people why they should come to Ayacucho.”
“Best place in the Andes!”

The worst was yet to come. The effigy returns to the church after a lap of several blocks, and the final stretch involves a precarious descent of typically uneven Peruvian roads, followed by a Herculean effort to transfer the poles from our shoulders to our arms and stagger down the church aisle before finally laying the effigy to rest within.

Even then, there was still one more challenge: post-procession drinks. Peruvians are very insistent on camaraderie and hospitality, so I had to draw deep on my inner reserves and transform what had been just a brief excursion to take some photographs into a full-on beer and pisco session.

As we recovered from our exertions and drank Cusqueña beer on the doorstep of a small neighborhood bar, all around us we saw Ayacucho at its best. The city still has a bad reputation in the rest of Peru, thanks to the guerrilla warfare of the 1980s and ’90s, and at times Holy Week here has been portrayed as something akin to the fall of Rome – but the funfair atmosphere of Semana Santa carried on well into the night, the streets lined with stalls offering free food, drink and various mementoes for sale. Families with young children dined in the streets beneath blazing firework displays; in the bars, everyone danced and sang, calling passers-by in to join them.

I had barely finished my first bottle before the second and third rounds were arriving from the bar. My shoulders and the base of my spine were beginning to ache. I wondered if I had the stamina to go on, until I looked at the grinning faces of my fellow celebrants, equally pained, equally exhausted.

I’m not a religious man, but in that moment, I knew my spirits wouldn’t desert me until the week was out.

Matt Finch is a globetrotting British writer and educator, currently based in Peru and blogging at booksadventures.blogspot.com.