I was tapping my foot to the band on stage when a man yelled something that I didn't understand. "What?" I called out.He repeated the word. I still didn't catch it. But I noticed that people around me were scattering. The man then stuck his index fingers up from the side of his head and jerked his head toward me: "Toro," he called out.
Now I got it: Bull. There was a bull on the loose, heading our way. "Careful, he looks angry," another man shouted.
It was Jazz Fest for me, Peruvian style, 9,000 feet above sea level in the grassy central square in Incaraccay, one of the villages that had been a killing ground for the Shining Path guerrillas throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. I was on assignment for The Miami Herald, examining an anti-poverty program that the Peruvian government hopes will eliminate the wretched conditions that bred the Shining Path. I was spending this Friday of the first Jazz Fest weekend with the governor of the state of Ayacucho, Omar Quesada, the highest civil authority in a region that had none for a dozen years.
Quesada would not have lasted the day during that era. The Shining Path were so fanatical that they killed public officials, aid workers and peasants, even though the guerrillas were supposedly fighting to establish a peasant-led state. I wouldn't have lasted the day, either. The Shining Path didn't like journalists, and they especially didn't like Americans.
But the Peruvian government annihilated the Shining Path in the early 1990s. Peace has come to Ayacucho. School children in neatly pressed blue and gray uniforms lined the dirt road leading to the central plaza in Incaraccay, chanting "Omar! Omar! Omar!" and tossing flower petals as we walked past. Quesada was visiting royalty for this forgotten community -- a man with power to bring new school desks, electricity, a new tractor.
The governor made his way to a makeshift stage fashioned from wood planks placed over empty gasoline drums. The plaza itself was about the size of Jackson Square, but I saw no Pontalba apartments, no statue of General Jackson, no pretty flowers. Instead, crumbling adobe homes made of mud and straw ringed the square, which itself consisted of an uneven dirt and grass surface.
For an hour, local leaders hailed Quesada as a visionary and asked for his assistance. He in turn praised them and said they deserved more aid. Then came the folkloric band: a violinist, three guitarists and a woman wailing into a tinny microphone. The music reminded me that Jazz Fest weekend was beginning in New Orleans, and I began to daydream about the Neville Brothers, Deacon John and the Gospel Soul Children.
That's when someone set the bull loose.
I plan to run the bulls in Pamplona in a couple of years, but with nearly everyone else running for cover, I decided that then was not the time to begin to practice. I dashed behind the SUV that brought us to Incaraccay. In a community without television, movies or restaurants, turning a bull loose in the central square apparently passes for entertainment. A few men, either brave or foolish or drunk, ran within 20 yards of the bull. But the animal was not taking the bait this day. He snorted a bit and lowered his horns several times, but he never threatened anyone. The 150 people in the central plaza drifted away, following Quesada and the local leaders as they walked a half block to the town's community center.
It was time to eat lunch. There was no crawfish Monica or shrimp, pheasant and andouille gumbo. Instead, they served chunks of meat, baked potatoes and corn with yellow and blue kernels. They handed out toilet paper for napkins. There were no utensils. Like everyone else, I ate with my hands.
There was also none of the orange or rosemint tea that I drink at the Jazz Fest. Instead, someone passed me a plastic cup used by others and that was half-full with a greenish yellow liquid. I chugged it and felt a burning sensation on my throat. "It's sugar-cane alcohol with honey," explained Quesada. The meal over, we clambered back into the SUV to drive to another village. Our path out took us through the central square. I noticed that they had let out another bull. It eyed us warily as we bounced past.