In my town (which I cannot name, for security reasons) there is a central plaza bordered by municipal offices, a large cathedral, and the town’s main street. Three days a week, the plaza is filled with a bustling outdoor market. Throughout the year the plaza hosts many processions, concerts, ceremonies, a rodeo, and other large events. In the very center of the plaza, stands a tall tree-pole which, during the annual fair, is the site for the spectacular Palo Voladores (pole flyers).
The Palo Voladores tradition is very masculine and in fact, women are not allowed to touch the pole. Every two years, the pole is taken down and a new tree is found to replace it. Cutting down the new tree involves a day-long effort by about two hundred men. The ceremony to cut down the new tree is for men and only a handful of women are allowed to attend. My Peace Corps site mate and I were lucky to be allowed to attend the ceremony with them in 2018! When we first received the invitation, I waited for months for the special day.
On the appointed day, we arrived at our friend, Petra’s, home. She made sure that my site mate and I were wearing proper traditional clothing.
Once attired, we drove to the woods and then walked down a long dirt road to meet the large gathering of men who were assembled for the event.
All eyes were focused on one older man who was about to climb the tree that had been chosen to be cut during prior visits to the forest. The man was extremely agile as he shimmied up the tree, secured to the tree with a small rope. with only a rope. I don’t know what he was doing on the tree but his process took about an hour. Everyone’s eyes were glued on him.
Finally, he climbed down the tree and another man picked up an electric saw to fell the tree. Everyone ran back, away from the tree to watch it fall. I was so excited, I could hardly believe that it was happening! The tree swayed slowly at first, then fell in what seemed oddly like a slow motion instant, if that makes sense. It landed with a loud boom! Everyone ran towards the tree to remove its branches, attach it to ropes, and clear its path so it could be carried out. See it on Youtube.
I met the man who had chosen and climbed the tree. He is in fact, in charge of the Palo Voladores. He was older than I had imagined so his strength and agility was all the more impressive.
A couple of men did a fire ceremony to thank and bless the remaining tree stump. We, women, gathered to participate in this ceremony, kneeling to kiss the tree and make offerings and prayers.
Eventually, the tree was loaded onto a tractor and dragged back to town about thirty miles away.
The next morning, the tree was readied to be set in the plaza. Men stood ready to help in any way they could while women gathered under shawls and shade to watch.
The tree had to be shaved and blessed with incense. It’s top was carved to hold the smaller poles that would hold ropes and the Palo Voladores.
Photo above: my dear friend who is director of the town’s women’s center.
After a few hours, the pole began to rise. At luck would have it, I could not wait to see it as it was set into place. I had to jump on a bus to leave town or I might have missed my Peace Corps shuttle a few hours away. I was utterly grateful to have witnessed such a moving event. Once the pole was set, we would wait four more months for the Palo Voladores to make their flights around the tree.
Five hours after I boarded the bus, I found my favorite coffee shop, La Bohemé, in Antigua. After the intensity of the bumpy, winding roads, I needed to unwind and write a few notes. If you have questions about my posts, feel free to comment.