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To Coroico by Carl Cleves

Page 7

Thursday night, before Good Friday, Tashi, Vincente and the children of Faustino's brothers, were all asleep. Tonight the grandmother, who sat close to the flickering kero-lamp spinning wool, would mind them. Faustino, his relatives and I walked with quick steps over the rocky paths under the full moonlight to the small church in the centre of the island. All of us were chewing coca-leaves -a common habit amongst all Altiplano Indians- to ease the climb, cumbersome at this altitude. The walls of the small church were painted white. A few worn and ripped paintings dating from the colonial times were the only decorations. The altar was hidden behind a black cloth and many candles lit up the Cross. Since there was no resident priest on the island the inhabitants had to improvise their own ceremonies. I joined the men who were all standing on the right side of the church, wearing their best clothes: red and white bonnets, white jackets, black hats and trousers. My family had lent me a poncho and bonnet so that I would not attract too much attention. The women sat together on the opposite side, their heads covered in black shawls. They looked like overweight ballerinas in their many petticoats and skirts. I heard the Indian harp and violin rising from a shadowy corner of the church, their mournful melody the purest prayer. The women then broke into song with shrill nasal voices. My hair stood on end. I closed my eyes, my soul stirred by angels.


Easter itself was celebrated two days late. This was due to the fact that the bishop would visit the island to celebrate mass, the only time of the year that the island ever received such an honour. Anticipation was high. It was well into the afternoon when the fishing boat arrived with the honourable guest. To my surprise the bishop was a Belgian. He wore a white suit and a white-rimmed Stetson hat. This was not how I remembered the bishops of my youth, when I was a teenage inmate at the archaic College of Saint Rombout. Every inhabitant of Taquile was gathered in the village square and so were the two brass bands that had been rehearsing for the event for weeks. Faustino waved at Tashi and me with his trumpet. Most spectators sat against the walls of the cooperative and the few other buildings surrounding the square. There was not enough room in the little church for everyone, but once again I could hear the rousing voices of the women and now and then snatches of violin or harp. When the service ended the bishop emerged from the church carrying the Cross, his cowboy suit now covered with catholic paraphernalia. A young Indian choirboy strode beside him shaking an incense burner, enveloping the bishop in blue smoke. Eight men stepped out carrying an effigy of the Virgin Mary and positioned themselves at the church entrance. Out of the cooperative now strutted a group of dancers, both male and female. They had prepared themselves inside and looked out-of-this-world, with outlandish clothes and masks. A procession was formed: first the men carrying the effigy, then the bishop and the choirboy, followed by the male dancers, the women and finally the two brass bands.

The music burst out and the dancers stepped in time with marionette-like movements. The two bands were blistering and raucous. Together they were cacophonous. It was both reverential and exhilarating. They could have been marching through the city of Lhasa, I thought, and again the whole display reminded me of the Tibetan Buddhist festivities I had witnessed years before on another rooftop of the world, the Himalayas. There was something familiar about this music. For a time a similar band of exotic musicians carrying gongs, huge horns and trumpets, crashing cymbals and drums, had been appearing in my dreams. Sometimes I saw them clearly, at other times I caught only brief glimpses of them from a place deep in the forest, the music and the musicians drifting in and out of ear and view behind the green foliage.


The Easter procession had started pacing slowly around the village square when I noticed the most incongruous spectacle. Two dancers had separated themselves from the group and danced vigorous circles around the bishop. One wore an enormous papier-mache head of Mickey Mouse, the other of Donald Duck. "Look daddy! Look!" Tashi shouted excitedly. The bishop remained solemn and dignified, carrying his cross. I blinked and stared. This too was a very different interpretation of biblical lore from the Latin church services and Gregorian chants I had grown up with. Slowly the march proceeded to the constantly repeated tunes of the brass band. After about three rounds the bishop vanished back into the church, but the dancers and musicians continued unfazed, circling the square well into the night. Gradually the bands became more out of tune and out of time, dancers dropped out or fell to the ground. I had noticed many bottles of pisco amongst them and now everyone was drinking openly while dancing. The crowd thinned out and we could hear the brass bands echo over the hills when we made our way back home guided by the moonlight.

(To be continued)