Peru - Dances with Scissors
The Peruvian Andes are really, really high. At one point on our epic trek driving the MINI Coupé to Andamarca, we were at 5500 meters above sea level. Altitude sickness, crippling viruses and stomach hemorrhages were par for the course on our mission to find the infamous, centuries-old scissor dancers: local men who stab rods into their tongues, hammer nails into their noses, and dart cacti into their flesh.
This bizarre tradition has pre-Columbian origins. Then with the Spanish conquistadors came the Catholic missionaries, who upon seeing the feats of the scissor dancers immediately assumed they’d made pacts with the Devil and tried to stamp out the practice. Despite this persecution, the scissor dancing rituals persisted in secret, passed down from generation to generation to the present day.
Scissor dancing is awesome and crazy. Two dance troupes battle it out in energetic and dangerous challenges that can last for up to 40 hours, in high-altitude, in order to bring fertility to the land. Their steps are intricate and athletic and their costumes are Matador meets Las Vegas showgirl-turned textile artist. But don't let their gaudy garb fool you, these dancers are hardened mountain men who twirl and flip about while self-piercing body parts.
One morning they took us to the most fertile part of the village, to dig up worms for ceremonial eating. During the worm picking, they talked of their commitment to preserving their age-old tradition--no matter how bloody and painful it got. They were not kidding.
Meanwhile, speaking of bloody… my Co-Pilot Anthony went down for the count with a serious altitude-induced stomach hemorrhage. So the locals performed some interesting and ancient healing rituals over the poor guy. They smoked herbs over his fever and mashed what looked like cilantro into his torso to temper his delirium. Then they smoked cigarettes into his face to ward off bad spirits. He got better. Check out this and other bonus content on MINI Facebook.
The night before the big scissor dance-off, we hiked to Andamarca's outskirts to offer a bottle of wine, pack of cigarettes and handfuls of coca leaves to the mountain gods in exchange for a pain-free scissor dance. Not sure if it worked, but the competition exceeded expectations. The entire town convened in the square. Beside a church where some of the dancers' families had been massacred in the 1980s by the Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path.
This year one dancer sawed his tongue in half until a pool of blood formed. Anthony and I vomited, and then I was pulled into the celebration to eat worms. Puke City again. Then we put on the costumes and danced like mad men.
Respect to these crazy Scissor Dancers. They are not devil-worshippers, but they are definitely insane. Scissor dancing expanded our understanding of what cultural preservation means to some folks. Our Peruvian adventure made a week of stomach hemorrhages, oxygen tanks and altitude sickness all worth it.