Experiencing Bolivian Carnival

I´m still recovering from Carnival which ended last Tuesday for most Bolivians, but in a few communities in the La Paz province Carnival keeps going for a week after Lent starts–the Andes always did have an interesting interpretation of Christianity.

Carnival consisted of five days of continual drinking, dancing and nursing hangovers. They don´t show as much skin or have quite the licentious attitude as the Brazilians, but Bolivians are still deadly serious about their carnival. It seems to be a point of honor for them to start dancing and drinking early in the morning and to go till 3 in the morning. Then to stagger off to bed, only to roll out of bed and do it all over the next day. It seems that being constantly hung-over, red-eyed, and staggering with exhaustion are essential to truly “enjoying” carnival. It is a point of honor to keep drinking until you have finished a crate (or even a couple crates) of beer with your friends.

People in La Paz have a tradition called the Alacitas fair, which occurs a few days before Carnival starts. Basically, you give offerings to Ekeko, the Andean god of good fortune. Ekeko is dressed like a mestizo trader, covered in trinkets, money, and bottles of alcohol. Of course Ekeko likes to be offered alcohol and cigarettes and other vices. Andeans have an interesting view of how “vices” are needed to sate the gods so that they bring you good fortune. Some of the miners are known to sacrifice their own newborns to ensure that the Tio god grants them lots of tin and silver in the coming year. At the Alacitas fair, Bolivians buy tiny models of what they want to be granted to them in the coming year. So if you want a new house, you buy a 4×6 inch model house. If you want money, you buy a stack of dollars or Euros. Perusing through the offerings at the fair, I was amused to even find tiny dump trucks, little university diplomas, and even miniature scholarships to study abroad. My friends joked that I needed to buy one of the little model hens for sale, because it would ensure that I would find a “fertile” wife in the next year. Being the Western skeptic, I refrained from buying anything, even though I really wanted one of those cool Ekeko dolls to stick on my shelf just for amusement´s sake. Nonetheless, I am ensured to make stacks of money in the next year because my friend Miriam bought me a bundle of US dollars with good luck charms glued on the top. I can´t think of a more unlikely event to happen in my life than me suddenly becoming rich. 🙂

I decided, however, that my crass bundle of bills just might ensure that our translation project gets funded. I have translated our proposal into English, so it will be more palatable to international foundations. In case, your are curious enough to endure all free software jargon, you can read it online at: http://www.illa-a.org/cd/runasimipi_info/ProySoftwareLenguasOriginarias.pdf

We are still working on forming the ILLAA (Instituto de lenguas y literaturas andinas/amazonas) to promote linguistics projects like our proposed translation of free software, but right now we are still mucking around in the legal details. Of course, ILLA is a kind of Aymara talisman, which is supposed to ensure fertility, so we are guaranteed to be fruitful in our endeavors. I wish I had as much much faith in all the “good luck” which we are seemingly bound to receive. Our meetings so far with Bolivian ministers have been total wastes of time. We have been trying to get a meeting with Alvaro Garcia Linera, the vice president of Bolivia, but have had no luck thus far. Both the ministers of Education and of the National Information and Communication Technology, have changed, so we have to restart our lobbying efforts all over again with the new ministers. Monday I have a meeting with the people in the national literacy training office. They reportedly have lots of foreign funding, so they might be willing to finance some of our work, but I have my doubts. My meeting with USAID was pretty pointless because we didn’t meet their requirements. I’m discovering that it is hard to get funding when your group doesn’t have a tract record and a known history to check. Our track record is what we have already done, but somehow having 5 years of existence as non-profit NGO is more important than having actually translated software, digitalized dictionaries, and having made spell checkers. They just don´t understand that knowing how to do these tasks and having people who are willing to work very hard at them is much more important than having some fancy institution and some legal status. Setting up an office is lot easier than learning how to create a Quechua spell checker.

But I digress. I´m trying to write about Bolivian Carnival, which is a much more interesting topic than hearing my travails buttonholing potential funders. The Bolivian Carnival officially started last Friday, with a tradition called the ch’alla. At noon, all work stops, and people begin sprinkling alcohol around their houses and workplaces. Everything gets a liberal dose of 96% alcohol which they sell in liter bottles for 6 bolivianos ($0.85). The incandescent liquid is potable, but it is so bad that I can’t imagine anyone drinking it, except for the purpose of breathing fire of course–no, I haven´t tried that yet because I forgot to bring my fire eating torch back from Indiana, but the one little swig which I took of the potent stuff convinced me that I was swallowing fire. At any rate, it is obligatory to sprinkle this firewater on everything, including the network of thin-client GNU/Linux computers which I was setting up in the UMSA university on Friday. I gulped as I watched alcohol being sprinkled on the CPUs, but I figured that it wasn’t a good time to turn into a cultural imperialist and demand that delicate circuit boards don’t need anointing with fortuitous liquids.

In addition to the 96% pure alcohol, the computers were anointed with candy, brightly colored streamers and balloons. Not only were the computers so blessed, but I as well got covered with paper streamers, along with being sprayed in the face with water and foam spray. I guess that I should have been happy to receive so many special anointments, but I was appalled that the spray foam contained hydrochlorofluorocarbons. The environmentalist in me cringed to think of all the ozone being destroyed by a nation of festival goers, but again there are simply times when it isn’t quite politically correct to point out these minor details to my Bolivian friends. I have learned to smile and nod a lot in Bolivia because it is the culturally acceptable response for the tall gringo. Somebody also slipped some brightly painted seeds into my jacket pocket as well, presumably to ensure that I would get have good fertility in the coming year. All these fertility luck charms are starting to make me nervous, since I don´t have any plans for wawas (kids) in the near future.

Of course, all these blessing were accompanied by “ritual” drinking. Somebody handed me a glass of rum and coke, a drink affectionately dubbed cuba libre (free cuba), a name which would appall any good right-wing American. That was followed by somebody handing me a glass of Singani (grape skin hard liquor) and 7-Up, which in turn was followed by red wine. This lovely mix of liquors in my belly was leavened by frequent cups of Pilsener beer. Of course it isn’t considered culturally acceptable to balk when some stranger hands you a cup of beer, which of course has been drunk out of by at least 50 other people before you. I figure that by this point I am passing on more germs than I am receiving, after traveling through 22 different countries in my life. So I smile with my goofy gringo grin which seems to crack the ice in any awkward situation and accept the cup. After spilling a small portion of the cup on the ground as a ritual offering to the Pachamama (earth mother goddess), I spill a much larger portion down my gullet. It is important to guzzle with gusto, to show your willingness to partake, and to give the cup several vigorous shakes toward the ground to rid it of the excess foam, so that the next person will have a “clean” glass to drink from. Then you hand it back to the person serving the alcohol, frequently offering to take the bottle from the server and pour him/her a cup of the potent brew as well. It is considered culturally taboo to drink alone and to pour alcohol for yourself (unless you first pour alcohol for everyone in your general vicinity, of course).

The server carrying the bottle has frequently been offered the cup by a number of other people at this point, so the poor sap is already staggering drunk, which is slightly worrisome when he frequently misses the cup while pouring. Of course, there are ways to avoid drinking too much, but as the new-comer and the foreigner, everyone seems to take a special delight in making sure that I down more than my share of liquor and it would be bad form for me to avoid this “honor”. Luckily, the computer science wing of the university was being closing down and the doors being locked, so I only had to suffer a few hours of being honored with drinks from the computer science professors.

By this point I am more than a little tipsy. Some computer science student who I had just met pulled me along with her friends so that we could go and visit the other departments. We wandered into the math department and had a few more drinks, then off the university grounds to a restaurant for more Singani and 7-up. By this point, my friend grabbed me and started kissing me, which was an incredibly shocking experience considering that I was at least a decade older than her and I was having trouble remembering her name. Still, I haven´t been kissed in over 2 years, and it was a rather pleasant experience being on the receiving end of her labial aggression. Carnival is considered a time of lowered inhibitions, but Bolivia is a conservative society and kissing strangers is not normal behavior (unlike in Brazil).

Unfortunately, the alcohol got the best of my friend and she promptly fell asleep. It then became my job to chivalrously babysit her, trying to get her to swallow water so she wouldn’t suffer too bad of a hang-over the next morning, or more likely that evening since it was 5pm in the afternoon. I was a little surprised that her friends decided that it was my task to make sure that she got home safely. In the US, I couldn’t imagine people letting a strange guy take their drunk friend home. After depositing her at her front door, by which time she had woken up a little bit, I hurried off to meet Ricardo, my Aymara nationalist friend and Yomar, a Quechua reporter for the government´s indigenous news service.

Of course, Ricardo wanted to drink some more and in Bolivia you can´t drink alone. Fortunately Yomar had the flu, so she was able to limit our alcoholic intake.

Ricardo invited us to go to Oruro which is famous for its Carnival festivities and the 40,000 dancers who parade through its colorful plaza. So we slept in Ricardo´s room and planned to arise at 5am to catch the morning bus to Oruro. Ricardo and I were so hung over, however, that we didn’t make it out of bed until 9am, and we slept most of the 4 hour bus ride to Oruro.

Ricardo is from Oruro, which he continually compares in a favorable light to La Paz. After months of hearing him brag about how much better Oruro is than La Paz, Ricardo then set out to continually prove the point by making us eat the best culinary delights of his home city. We wolfed down charquekan, which is shredded, dried llama preserved with a healthy dose of salt and freeze dried on the barren hills around Oruro. It is served up with a boiled egg, ch’uno (freeze dried potatoes which have been rehydrated and boiled), potatoes, and mote (boiled fresh corn kernels).

After a pleasant repast of Oruro´s most renowned meal, we met Ricardo´s friend, an agronomist in the Oruro government who worked with the Chipaya, a group of 2000 speakers of an isolated language. Ricardo is the only Bolivian who has studied the Chipaya language, and he had traveled to visit the Chipaya a number of times with his friend in the past. Bolivia has 36 indigenous languages, which are mostly unstudied, so I felt privileged to pass the carnival with people who actually valued these languages and the people who speak them.

Since both Ricardo and I were now nursing hangovers, we thankfully slowed down on the drinking as we setting into our seats on one of the central streets where the dance troupes parade for 4 straight days of carnival. Saturday is the best day of dancing, because all the dancers are fresh and are expected to wear their masks. The costumry is exquisite and Bolivians save for months to buy the ornate dress required for some of the dances. As a student of history and anthropology, I find the dances fascinating for the ways that they challenge and parody the social order, while also reenforcing certain social structures at the same time. Membership in the dancing troupes is a very important social activity and Bolivians spend hundreds of dollars on their get-ups. I was told that the most expensive cost up to $1000, which is a huge outlay in a country were the average GDP per capita is $1137 per year. Most Bolivians rent their costumes, but even then they generally pay $100-$200 for the privilege of dancing. In the Andes, conspicuous consumption is often public rather than private, and it is considered important to spend your wealth in public ways, whether it be large parties or prancing and twirling through the streets in outlandish dress, replete with fancy boots and masks.

Each type of dance has a different tradition, music and style. Bolivians seem to know all the words to the music and often sing along as the dancers troupe by, offering critical comments about any new style or variation from previous years. The Diablada is perhaps the most famous and certainly the most photogenic of the dances, parodying the devil´s legions, bedecked in the symbols of iniquity as conjured by the syncretic mixture of Western Christian and Andean mythology. Dragons, devils, serpents and frogs swirl 20 inches into the air atop their elaborate face masks. The men wear huge lizard-like costumes sporting all sorts of devilry. Every year brings a new innovation, such as the blinking lights to highlight the sheer garishness of the polichromatic get-up. My favorite innovation was the flame throwers mounted on the heads of some of the dancers. Since some of the troupes dance till 3 in the morning, the ball of flame makes quite a spectacle in the darkness of night.

The women in the Diablada sway and twirl, showing off their legs and and glimpses of their panties beneath extremely short skirts. They are proceeded by Lucifer, dressed as the fallen angel of the Lord, decked out in white wings and a cherubic mask. As the iniquitous temptresses of Lucifer, they flaunt their bodies, causing Yomar to keep poking us and make jokes about where Ricardo and I were staring. Yomar is an Quechua feminist in many ways, but she had participated in a number of the dances in the past, and admitted that she loved the Diablada despite its blatant objectification of the female body.

There are over a dozen different dances. Each dance troupe is followed by raucous brass and drum band. There is little precision to their marching steps, and even less to their playing, but their sheer gusto to play for hours on end, while simultaneously imbibing adds to the festive atmosphere. The Andes probably has more marching bands than any place on earth, since a brassy band is an essential concomitant to every religious celebration, funeral procession, nationalist holiday, and school parade. Bolivians learn how to march and play in school and many continue playing on their beaten-up instruments for the rest of life. The Dancers and band members are accompanied by helpers who carry jugs of liquor to fortify the performance. Friends and family frequently break into the performance to offer libations or pose for photos next to the bedecked. In many Bolivian houses, pictures hang on the wall of some family member in their carnival costume. There is a certainty levity to the interruptions in the dancing and the frequent pauses to imbibe—in fact the alcohol seems to be a essential feature of the whole performance.

Many of the dances like the Morenada are parodies of certain elements in Bolivian society. The Morenada dancers are dressed as the black miners who were forced to work in the silver mines. They sport masks with fat negroid lips drawing on a tobacco pipe, topped by the iconic miner’s hard hat. The Doctorcitos dance parodies the pomp and superciliousness of Doctors and learned men, with their long black frock coats, top hats and canes. Although the dances have become ossified and stylized over time, it can be seen how in colonial times, the Doctorcitos dance was the opportunity for lower-class Bolivians to poke fun and mock the upper echelons of their hierarchical society.

More fascinating for me were the dances where urban middle-class Bolivians “played Indian” for the carnival, dancing to the traditional sounds of zampoñas (panpipes), quenas (reed pipes) and shashas (sheep hoof rattles), punctuated by percussive drumming and the occasion tooting of pututus (curved cow horns). Ricardo and Yomar were contemptuous of these pitiful attempts to imitate “indigenousness” and felt that mestizos (mixed blood people) dressing up in a pastiche of indigenous paraphernalia and symbols was belittling and demeaning to true indigenous people. Since both Ricardo and Yomar consider themselves to be indigenous and advocates for indigenous rights, they took the affront personally. I could see the latent racism in the whole affair as urban Bolivians played the anthropological Other, but I think that the dances have also taken on a new dynamic, as many urban Bolivians also see them as a way to reconnect to their indigenous roots. In the Andes, race is as much a function of life-style, dress and class as it is of blood. As an Aymara now holds the presidency and Bolivia increasing proclaims itself to be a nation of many nationalities with differing cultures and languages, many seem to be reaching for a sense of their own indigenous heritage.

Perhaps because I am the cultural outsider who has “played Indian” at times, it is easier for me to be more forgiving of others doing the same, albeit more crassly. I was fascinated by the way that the dancers mixed and matched seemly incongruous sets of indigenous symbols. Representations of the Tacna stone patterns from the coast of Peru were mixed with rock carvings at Tiawanaku on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, admixed with modern textiles from Tarabuco and Potolo near Sucre, Bolivia. The most fascinating were the dances, supposedly representing the Amazonian peoples, but replete with the feathered headdresses as found in the Western movies depicting the iconic North American Plains “Indian”. Fascinated by the intercultural dynamic I was witnessing at play, I took dozens of pictures of these dancers and the symbols they employed–an act which seemed to baffle Ricardo who could only see the ersatzness of the whole performance. At one point he stated baldly that he rarely went to see carnival in Oruro since it wasn’t “his” tradition as a true Aymara—rather it was the effrontery of urban mestizos. Ricardo proudly proclaims himself as an “aymara”, which he views to be far more pure and noble than the debased urban mestizos, and the falsity of an artificially created national identity as a “boliviano”. Ricardo took offense at being referred to as a “latino” when he was in Belgium, asserting that he is “aymara” and shouldn’t be compared to those “lazy latinos” who don’t know how to work.

By midnight we were too blurry-eyed to sit and watch any more dancing, so we hiked up hill to the house of Ricardo’s sister to stay the night. As the honored guest, I was lucky enough to get the bottom bunk, in a house packed with guests to see the Carnival. We made plans to get up to see the alba, the dawn performance which starts at 4am, but we were so exhausted that nobody was willing to roll out of the bed until 8am. We hoped to catch the end of the alba in front of the Church of the Virgin of the Mine, which is Oruro’s local patroness. The church is built on top of a mine where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared. The faithful flock to the church to light candles in front of the Virgin to pray for special request. I particularly like the church for its interesting wall mural depicted the Holy Trinity and of course the requisite Mary who seems to be part of the Holy Quintuplet in Latin America to judge from how prominently she is depicted in their religious iconography. While Jesus and Mary were the stereotypical fair skinned Europeans in the mural, God was represented as darker-skinned Latino, albeit with a close trimmed white beard. Like the insensitive tourist that I am, I snapped a couple of photos of people worshiping, then we set off to find some morning api (a warm drink made from sweeter purple corn and tarter white corn) and a big bowl of pork slathered in spicy chile sauce over mushy rice and ch’uno—another of Oruro’s delicacies to judge from the way that Ricardo raved about it.

Fortified for another day of festivities, we settled into our seats for another day of carnival dancing. On Sunday, the tradition is that the dancers don’t wear their masks, I suspect partly so that they can be publicly acknowledged for their roles, which is very important since dancing accords a certain degree of status in Bolivian society, since most people can’t afford the expensive costumes. Despite my growing sun burn from the direct sun at these high altitudes, I enjoyed the second day of dancing more than the first because I was no longer nursing a hang-over and starting to gain an appreciation for the different dances after seeing them the second time around. Around four oclock, we packed up and headed to a restaurant for what Ricardo declared to be the finest charquekan in all of Bolivia. I had to admit that I was impressed by the dried llama meat, although I found myself wishing for a few vegetables after 2 days straight of meat and starchy potatoes.

Ricardo stayed the night in Oruro to visit with family, while Yomar and I headed back to La Paz. I was amused to see Yomar play the crusading journalist when we got the bus station. By regulation, the buses were not supposed to charge more than 23 bolivianos (3 dollars) for the trip to La Paz, but the going price was 30 bolivianos (4 dollars). Yomar confronted the national police who are supposed to enforce these regulations, then made a public scene in the office of the agency in charge of the bus station. Being the American who thinks in terms of procedure, I told Yomar that we should file an official complaint, something that Yomar with Bolivian skepticism told me to be pointless in Oruro since it would be thrown in the trash. She seemed to believe that loud recriminations were much more effective, but after Yomar had a cathartic bout of vociferous complaining to the Bus station officials, we finally filed the paperwork for an official complaint. Yomar then charged off to find the officials for the particular bus company that we were traveling on. When they failed to lower their price according to the official regulations, even after Yomar flashed around her press credentials, she then called her station manager to file a news report about how Bolivians were being taken advantage of during the Carnival by rapacious bus companies.

During the whole performance, I nervously stood to the side, hoping to not get dragged in because I wasn’t carrying my passport when traveling which is illegal for a foreigner. I was very impressed by Yomar’s courage in confronting the authorities, but I was also struck by how differently Bolivians view the marketplace than the average North American, who are taught that raised prices during times of higher demand is simply the virtue of an efficient capitalist system. In contrast, many Bolivians see raising prices to take advantage of people’s demand is an immoral act. I actually believe that the Bolivian economy is much closer to the closer to the ideal advocated by Adam Smith than the current US economy, because there are many small producers with an open marketplace of hundreds of competing vendors. You can see in the thousands of daily negotiations between buyers and sellers, price actually adjusting to meet demand. The price distortions of a few producers and few megastore sellers with the high cost of a consumer going to a different seller prevents a true Smithian market, as does the lobbying to manipulate markets and the public subsidies for some industries. In Bolivia, the market operates with few of these distortions, but ironically, Bolivians have much less faith in Capitalism’s supposed benefits partially because they are so cruelly buffeted by its unregulated effects. Since last year, the price of bread has doubled, forcing many Bolivians to go without rolls with their daily tea and coffee. Capitalist swings in supply and demand can mean the price between eating and going to bed hungry at night. Bus prices, however, are regulated when they operate out of the public bus terminal which limits their competition and guarantees them a base price–Yomar was determined to see that regulation enforced.

Yomar made the owners of the bus line nervous because they knew that they were violating the regulations of the bus terminal out of which they operated. So we spent an hour while they tried to find a higher-class bus with fully reclining seats so they could justify charging their higher prices under the regulations. I gathered that they failed to find a free bus at that busy time, and many of the passengers were growing visibly angry at the delay. I nervously hoped that their ire wouldn’t be directed at us as the cause of their delay, but Yomar didn’t seemed to be worried as she publically announced to the other passengers why they were being delayed and encouraged the other passengers to also file official complaints.

We finally got on the road and back to La Paz, where I arrived exhausted and throughly tired of Carnival. Although the festivities continued for another two days, I longed for the solitude of a good book. I holed up in my room for the rest of Carnival, reading Robert Fisk’s masterpiece The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. The merry clashing of Carnival bands wafting through my window contrasted with the pages of reporting on the horrible clashes of warfare and violence which have enveloped the peoples of the Middle East. Fisk’s reporting captures their humanity and their suffering better than anyone, so that the Algerian civil war, the Palestinian intifadas, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Gulf wars can be grasped emotionally as the horrible tragedies that they are. Mostly, however, Fisk makes me reflect on the arrogance of people in power and how rarely we monitor their follies. As a British, French, or American citizen, you can’t read Fisk without coming to grasp how responsible your government has been responsible for many of the tragedies of the Middle East over the last 9 decades since the Sykes-Picot agreement.

I often see Bolivia in the same frame, thinking of how US policies have caused Bolivians to suffer, and how I am somehow personally responsible. I become outraged at the ways which my government is currently trying to undermine Evo Morales’ administration and destroy efforts to create a constitution which would lay the seeds for a more equitable society. Maybe it is good for me to occasionally step back and see Bolivians enjoying life, so I don’t just see them through my dichotomous lens of “anti-globalizationists” organizing social movements to protest my country’s foreign policy. It is nice to simply be able to appreciate them as people during carnival, celebrating life in diverse and fascinating ways.

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