My Odd Life: Getting My Face Punched On Christmas In Peru

The time on my mobile said one pm. My coletivo (mini-bus) was scheduled for five later that evening.
‘This is it’, I said to myself. ‘If I don’t do this now, I might spend the rest of my life regretting this.’
The crowd cheered and jeered but a louder battle taking place in the dark chambers of my mind. These fights were more brutal than I had expected them to be. Some fighters were bleeding from their nose and others had swollen lips. Blood dripped in a hurry on the moist December earth as they walked away. A cold shiver ran through my spine.
Why was a non-fighter like me even thinking of fighting in an obscure village halfway across the globe?
The answer to that question was ‘The 12 Project‘. I had quit my PR job to travel the world and take challenges. That is when I came across Takanakuy. In Quechua(an indigenous South American language) it means ‘to hit each other’.  This tradition originated in a town called Santo Tomas which is the capital of Chumbivilcas region of Peru.
What is even more bizarre is that these fights take place on Christmas day and then go on for the next few days in other villages and towns across the province.

Men, children, and women get inebriated and fight each other to settle scores, strengthen a friendship or to simply to display strength. My objective though was slightly different. It was to break a mental barrier and to participate in one of the weirdest traditions on the planet.

Santo Tomas lies close to Cuzco, one of South America’s top tourist destinations. But it takes an eight-hour back-breaking coletivo ride to get there. The roads seem better suited to lead you to the end of the world. I reached there on Christmas night to the sight of people bursting crackers.
However, the real madness of Santo Tomas was evident the morning after. I followed the drunk crowd to the town stadium. Loud wayliya music played in an unending loop. Masked men danced flapping their arms and women did half spins causing their skirts to follow.
‘Not bad for a violent festival’, I thought.
Then close to mid-day the actual Takanakuy began. First men and then boys challenged each another to a fight in the centre of the crowd formed a ring. What was drunken revelry a little while earlier turned into serious face-offs? Punches and kicks flew in abandon. Each one of them with the intention of hurting the other. Defending oneself be damned.
I took solace in the fact that the fights began and ended with smiles. Almost no one bled and thirty seconds seemed to be the average duration of the fights.
‘I should be able to endure this’, I convinced myself. But also procrastinated thinking, ‘let me fight tomorrow’.
Next morning I booked my ticket to get back to Cuzco. Some friends were waiting there for me, unsure of when and whether I would return.
I knew Llique was the location for Takanakuy that day. What I did not know was that this version was far more brutal than the one in Santo Tomas. The best fighters from the region congregated in this tiny village. And, mercy was the last thing on their minds.
I realised this only when I sat down on the ground of that Peruvian village high up in the Andes mountains. Thirty minutes had passed since I had arrived.
The time on my mobile phone said one pm. I had to take a decision. Now.
Two young men were fighting. I told myself, ‘right after this fight, I am jumping in. I will announce that I want to fight.’
My Peruvian photographer friend Marco couldn’t believe when I told him.
‘Marco, I want to fight’.
‘What??? Are you fucking sure mate???’
‘Yes man, I am.’
At this point, I had thrown myself into auto-pilot mode. Decision made, no more analysis. Only action.
The officials looked amused, even a tad sympathetic. One of them walked around with me to look for a fighter.
‘Para amistoso!’ he yelled at the crowd meaning that it was a fight for friendship. Not that it meant that I would receive any sympathy from my opponent.
Then a masked face walked out of the crowd in a body hugging white t-shirt. One look and I knew he was much stronger than I. Though shorter than me, his muscles were strong enough to indicate that he probably took this sport seriously.
It was time to get ready and to tie the ceremonial cloth around my palms and waist. It wasn’t just symbolic, the knots were also meant to prevent fatal injuries. Though I did manage to smile, it was easily the most nervous moment of my life.
Then a few seconds later I was in the centre of the ring. The crowd grew louder. I wasn’t sure whether they were cheering for me or were laughing at this idiotic gringo with a death wish.
Without the mask my opponent looked more human and a tad less intimidating. I had made a decision, I wasn’t going to defend myself. If I did, it would have meant that he would beat me to pulp. I was going swing my punches wildly the moment the referees signaled the start.
And then they did.
The next moments seemed like a hazy, slow motion world. I kept my head down and punched wildly. So did he. For a few seconds, it did seem like a match of evens. I distinctly remember landing a few punches on his chest. But he was fast too. Swinging both his hands and legs rapidly, while I used only my hands. The fight went on for a while only because he could not make any contact with my body.
And then… it happened.
Probably after 20 or 30 seconds into the fight(though it seemed like 30 minutes to me), I received a strong blow next to my right eye.
The next moment I was staring at the sky. The referees and my opponent ran towards me. I knew it was over. The punch was so strong that it took me a good ten seconds to even think of getting back on my feet.
The match was over. I had lost.
My opponent lend his hand to help me off the ground. We hugged and smiled. There was no anger, resentment or frustration. I looked at the crowd and realised my performance was over.  Gracias, I thanked and bowed to them.
The applause steadily grew louder. If they weren’t rooting for me before the fight, now they were.
Blood dripped in a hurry on the moist December earth as I walked away. It oozed out of cut next to my right eye.
Now, it was time to leave.
The ride back to Cuzco seemed far more pleasant even with a blood-drenched shirt and a swollen face.
You know, an odd experience can do that to you sometimes.
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