By Daris Howard
While we were traveling through Peru, our university group spent many hours studying old churches, archeological digs, and ancient artifacts. But the thing I loved most was to see how common people lived, especially while traveling through Ollantaytambo in the sacred valley of the Inca. There I learned some very interesting traditions.
In Ollantaytambo, while most of our party milled around in the streets looking in shops, I visited homes that were on our tour brochures as being designated safe for foreigners. At each of these homes there would be someone sitting outside the door, hoping for money from tourists. In English, with a mixture of what little Spanish I knew, I would ask if I could see inside. They would always answer in broken English, “One sol or one dolla’.”
A person could get three sol (Peruvian money) to a dollar, so it was cheaper to use that. For that reason we always joked that we didn’t want to lose our sol while we were in Peru.
In the first home I entered, as the owner showed me around, guinea pigs were running everywhere. I already knew that guinea pig was a delicacy there, even before the owner pointed at them, then signaled to his mouth, indicating they were food. The guinea pigs ran in and out of the house and the courtyard as freely as the chickens did.
In that particular home there was something that quickly caught my attention. There were three recesses in the wall, each a type of cathedral shaped, small alcove a couple of feet deep. In front of each of these was a stone altar. Each alcove was filled with small, white skulls, about the size of the ceramic ones a person can buy for Halloween decorations.
When I asked him if they were decorations, he seemed quite offended. Though we struggled to communicate, I soon learned that these were skulls of his ancestors whom he had brought home so he could honor them. In turn, he said his ancestors watched over and protected him and his family. The things on the altar were offerings to them.
That first home I had entered was probably the oldest I visited on the trip, and it had about 50 skulls. As I visited other homes in that valley, I found most of them only had a few skulls, almost none of which had been shrunken like in the first house. But every home I entered into had at least two, and followed the same tradition.
In one home, the man spoke a fair amount of English, and he explained more of their traditions relating to their ancestors.
“We have day like what you call Halloween. We call Day of Dead.”
“What do you do on the Day of the Dead?” I asked.
“We celebrate happiness of ancestors. We go to cemetery. We take picnic. Sometimes we have fire — roast guinea pig. We sing many songs and have happy time with ancestors.”
“Do you think they come to visit you?” I asked.
He nodded. “We think they come, sing with us, and eat food.” He paused momentarily, then said, “So me hear much of Halloween in U.S. What you do?”
“Well,” I said, beginning to wonder how it would sound. “We dress up in costumes.”
“All sorts,” I replied. “Ghosts, goblins, witches, princesses, kings. Pretty much anything.”
“Why you do this?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I’m not really sure. I guess mostly for fun and tradition. But once the children are dressed up, they go around to different houses and people give them candy.”
He wrinkled his brow and said, “Me think you have strange traditions.”
I smiled, because that is exactly what I had been thinking about his, but upon further reflection I think he’s right.