Calientitos and Catherine Wheels – Huancayo, Peru, South America

Calientitos and Catherine Wheels

Huancayo, Peru

After finishing two weeks of Spanish language classes, we headed off for Huancayo – not before a fiesta, however. While we were there, just down the street from the hostel, workers were putting the finishing touches on a road and railway overpass that spanned over the street that the hostel was on. While there have been plenty of bridges crossing rivers throughout Peru, there have not been many overpasses outside of Lima.

It was understandable, then, that the people of Huancayo were taking a particular pride in their soon-to-be operational overpass. Shop owners watched in glee as the local workers spray painted the sidewalk railings (and inadvertently the sidewalk beneath) a nice bright safety orange. Quite a crowd gathered beneath the overpass to watch the workers weld the drainage ditch grate covering on-site (no prefabricated, cut-to-order grates in Peru). They did so with welding torches hooked up to generators located atop the overpass via frayed extension cords draped down the side of the bridge. We pedestrians had to safely navigate through this in the rain (not to mention the sparks from the welding itself). By the time the sign was erected that declared the name of the overpass, everybody was getting quite giddy.

We had been told that that there were supposedly 300 holidays a year in the Montaro Valley where Huancayo is located. The locals use any excuse to throw a fiesta. Well, apparently the potential opening of a bridge is just the type of occasion that calls for a major all-night party. It was our luck that the bridge opening holiday was to be the evening of our last night in Huancayo. After dinner a few of us walked the few blocks down to the bridge. I was quite impressed with what I saw – a huge stage, speakers, lots of lights, a large Peruvian band on the stage (one of three), a Peruvian military band beside the stage, and lots of revelers watching. On the way to the bridge, we passed some locals who were assembling structures made out of bamboo.

Huancayo is high in the Andes highlands – my guidebook says 3,260 meters or nearly 11,000 feet. Although not far from the equator, due to the elevation, it can get cold at night. The evening of the overpass celebration was the coldest we spent in Huancayo, probably down into the 30s Fahrenheit. To help keep others warm, and to make some money, many people brew and sell calientitos on the street corners of Huancayo. Calientitos is a form of homemade spiked tea popular in this part of the Andes – a form of moonshine.

Before too long, I noticed that many of the local women were walking around the crowd with wine bottles, each with a plastic shot glass atop them. I wanted a shot of whatever they were selling. My girlfriend, Ashley, asked a young girl how much and she told Ashley two soles, about 60 cents. Since a three- course lunch often only costs three soles, I thought two soles was a gringo price tag for sure. Ashley didn’t think so and gave the young girl two soles. The young girl handed the entire bottle to Ashley and walked off. We didn’t buy a shot but a whole wine bottle!

Chance to Party
Chance to Party
It wasn’t long before we had a few wine bottles amongst us. Ashley doubted they actually contained alcohol, but my ensuing change in behavior brought some serious doubts to that theory. The locals who were drinking their own bottles of calientitos were pleased to see gringos enjoying their hometown drinks. We ended up having a toast with many of them and sampling all sorts of varieties and colors of calientitos.

It was at this time that I noticed the two modest bamboo structures we saw on the way to the celebration had grown several stories tall. Here is a photo with the overpass in the background. Note how the structures dwarf the “3.20 altura max.” overpass.

Before going to the celebration, I had assured everybody that there was going to be lots of explosions, fireworks, and danger – all the things that are lacking in any American celebration (with the exception of the Chunk 666 celebration Ashley and I attended in Portland, OR over Labor Day weekend). Everybody believed me, but I was bluffing. I didn’t know anything about the particulars of what was happening at the overpass celebration. I just figured it was a safe bet there would be some dangerous explosions and fireworks at any minor level Latin American celebration, never mind at a major celebration such as the celebration of an overpass opening.

When I peered up at these three- and four-story bamboo structures, my hopes of danger and explosions were rekindled. “They are going to light them on fire and they are going to burn, burn, burn – like at burning man!” Those with me began to mention what I thought were minor trivialities such as “They will fall upon those electrical lines” and “They will fall upon us and the rest of the crowd.” Although I told them this was all within the standard danger parameters of a Latin American celebration, I began to doubt that my predictions were going to be true. That is when one of the bamboo structures began to look like this.

The main structure itself consisted of a series of bamboo cubes stacked one upon another. Nearly all of these cubes featured some sort of unique pyrotechnics. There was a master fuse that slowly burnt higher and higher up the structure, with the effect of setting off a new round of fireworks, explosions, and danger at each successive cube level. There were many fireworks that were mounted in such a way that they rotated and/or spun about one or more axes. This really helped to spread the sparks and flames upon the few drunken people dancing beneath in the shower of sparks. After all the fireworks were expended, the structures broke down easily and neatly into two short stacks of bamboo that handily fit into the back of a station wagon.

Later I learned that this form of circular, spinning fireworks is called a Catharine Wheel. They are named after St. Catharine who was admonished by her pagan ruler, Emperor Maximinus I, for pursuing Christianity during the beginning of the fourth century. When all attempts to sway St. Catharine away from Christianity failed, she was sentenced to death by tthe emperor. His decree specified the gruesome manner in which St. Catharine was to be executed. She was to be placed in a machine consisting of four wheels armed with sharp spikes, which were connected together in such a way that once they began to rotate, St. Catharine would be torn to pieces.

According to lore, St. Catharine was saved (temporarily) by a miracle. While she was being bound to the wheels, a flash of lightning descended from the heavens – severing the binds, destroying the death machine, and causing the death of the executioners and a number of bystanders. The term, Catharine Wheel, has survived to describe these particular rotating, spinning forms of pyrotechnics that we saw in Huancayo, as well as a type of circular window common in churches.

The heavenly miracle only granted St. Catharine a brief respite from her impending execution. She was subsequently scourged and beheaded according to a second decreee by Emperor Maximinus I. Her remains are contained within a church on Mount Sinai. People can view the ring and jewel- covered skeletal remains of one of St. Catharine’s hands.

We awoke the next morning to catch a train out of Huancayo. Celebrations had not ended. There was a parade, a political procession and protests and a race for the children of the city – in continued honor of Huancayo’s new overpass.

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