Football fever and Semana Santa

Semana Santa celebrations in La Paz

Semana Santa celebrations in La Paz

Semana Santa

During Bolivia’s Holy Week celebrations, I witnessed the largest of many Good Friday processions taking place in La Paz.  La Procesión del Santo Sepulcro spent three hours gradually winding its way through the city streets, eventually circling back to a downtown church.  Approximately 95% of Bolivians are Roman Catholic, thus it was no surprise to see the streets filled with onlookers.

The procession depicts the fall and rise of Jesus Christ and was a sorrowful, sombre spectacle, an act of mass mourning rather than celebration.  School groups marched in uniform, chanting Biblical passages led by one child with a megaphone, while crowds of locals followed behind carrying flickering candles.  Most dramatic of all were the robed figures, with their tall, pointed hoods, eerily reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.  (Apparently the costumes represent mourning and are entirely unrelated to the KKK).  These haunting figures move slowly and silently through the streets, carrying enormous wooden platforms displaying effigies of Jesus and Mary.

A striking, shocking sight to the uninitiated, I was prepared to be somewhat alarmed this time around, having witnessed larger and more intense Semana Santa processions (i.e. more hoods, plus clamouring, wailing crowds) in southern Spain many years ago.

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Live football

Despite hopes of attending a live football match during my trip to Argentina, I opted to wait until returning to Bolivia, where I was less likely to fall victim to outrageously inflated tourist prices.  It paid off, since Messi and his team visited La Paz the very next week for a World Cup qualifier.  I scored a third row seat for only $17, a fraction of the price I was offered in Buenos Aires.

Of the South American teams competing for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, Bolivia was trailing at second to bottom of the table while Argentina were flying high at the top.  Bolivia, however, possess the intriguing ‘altitude advantage’; visiting teams have to contend with adjusting to the dizzying heights of La Paz.

The packed stadium was a sea of bright red, yellow and green and the atmosphere electric.  Three sides of the stadium would chant in turn “BO, BO, BO!”, “LI, LI, LI!”, “VIA, VIA, VIA!” and then altogether “VIVA BOLIVIA!”.  The Chilean referee was subject to relentless abuse from the crowd, reflecting the increasingly strained relations between the two countries.  (I learned a whole host of new expletives which I’m not sure I’ll ever have an opportunity to use.)

Admittedly my support of Bolivia was dubious, since I was secretly hoping to see Messi score (he didn’t).  Whenever he would venture close to our section, there would be taunting cries of “Messi! La ALTURA!” (“the altitude!”).  Bolivia went 1-0 up in the first half, Argentina equalised just before half-time and despite many close calls, the match ended 1-1.  Polystyrene squares are sold for 1 Boliviano (15 cents/9p) as seat covers.  At the end of the match, thousands of these were hurled into the air from all sides of the stadium, falling like ungainly snowflakes onto the pitch.

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Carnaval celebrations in Oruro

Feb 107Carnaval is celebrated throughout Latin America, the most renowned being Rio de Janeiro`s Mardi Gras.  In Bolivia, Carnaval is a lavish affair with the biggest festivities taking place in Oruro, a sleepy mining town that bursts into life every February to host thousands of dancers and spectators.

On the Friday preceding Carnaval, a ch`alla (blessing) is offered to Pachamama (Mother Earth) in the workplace to bring about good luck.  At FONCRESOL, this involved draping colourful streamers around the office and showering the floors with alcohol and confetti.  Similar ch`allas take place in homes on Shrove Tuesday, when the celebrations come to a close.

Upon many recommendations, I headed to Oruro with a friend for the renowned Saturday entrada, a day-long procession of indigenous dances in elaborate costumes.  I left La Paz at dawn, joining the masses of Carnaval-bound paceños and tourists.  The 4am bus was packed and the bus station overflowing.  Arriving bleary-eyed at 8am, the dancing in Oruro was already in full swing.  We picked our way through the crowds, dodging drunken revellers stumbling about, presumably still going strong from the previous night.  The streets were lined with rafters, sectioned off with seats for sale, and after negotiating a price we settled in for the day.

Each folk dance, with its own distinct music and costume, represents a specific aspect of Bolivia`s history.  Dances include La Diablada (Dance of the Devils), Morenadas, Llameradas, Caporales and Tinkus.  Every costume tells a story, with the predominant theme being good triumphing over evil.  Somewhat disturbing was the black body paint and chains used in dances depicting the tribulations of African slaves, whom the Spaniards brought over to work in the silver mines.  I honestly could not tell whether one of the dancers dressed up as a slave was a tremendous actor or genuinely lurching about looking distressed because he was heavily inebriated.  Either way, it struck me as one of the more disconcerting dances.

The costumes are incredibly ornate, adorned with jewels, feathers, mirrors, bells and spurs.  Some weigh up to 80 lbs, which makes the energetic jumping that some of the dances entail even more impressive.  The Diablada costumes are particularly elaborate, their devil masks works of art with curved horns and bulging eyes.  Live bands accompany the thousands of dancers, many exuberantly dancing as well as marching, crashing cymbals as they leap.

Rain ponchos are worn by most onlookers, since water balloons and spray cans of foam feature heavily in the festivities.  People hurl water bombs across the processions into the facing crowds and douse each other with foam, tourists being the main target for both (my sneaky attempt to blend in with the locals worked remarkably well).  Although the celebrations continue for several days in Oruro, it is generally understood that the first day of Carnaval is the best, since the event descends into increasing rowdiness and mayhem.  Dancers and onlookers consume huge quantities of beer and chicha (a very potent drink made from fermented corn), the dancing deteriorates with the debauchery and it is not uncommon to find people sleeping in doorways or the middle of the street.

After a full day of spectating, I set off on another bumpy bus ride back to La Paz.  Having had my fill of Carnaval, I chose to forgo the remaining festivities in order to explore Chile during my days off.

Energetic musicians

Energetic musicians

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A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

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Before I sign off, a special shout out to my dad on his 60th birthday –

As requested, here is a photo of me in a typical Aymará bowler hat.  Petro, the housekeeper, took great pleasure in dressing me up in her cholita attire, though she lamented my hair was not in the traditional two plaits (maybe next time).

Happy 60th Birthday dad! This should make you laugh... x

Happy 60th Birthday, dad!     This should make you laugh… x

Big hopes riding on small goods

Ekeko, household God of abundance

Ekeko, household God of abundance

With its roots in ancient Aymará traditions, the annual Alasitas festival was originally held in September (Bolivian springtime) in order for farmers to ensure a bountiful harvest.  Nowadays, the festival begins on January 24th and runs for three weeks or so.  Alasitas means `buy from me` in Aymará, and is celebrated with a huge fair in La Paz where everyone buys miniature representations of their wishes and aspirations for the coming year.  These items are offered to Ekeko (`dwarf` in Aymará) who is the household God of abundance.  Statues of the diminutive, rosy-cheeked, mustachioed Ekeko are laden with offerings of money, alcohol and cigarettes to keep him satisfied and benevolent.

Typically, Bolivians rush to the crowded fair at noon on the first day of the festival, clamouring to make their purchases and to have them blessed by a yatiri (witch doctor).  The blessings are a mystical, aromatic affair, with much murmuring and the spilling of alcohol and scattering of flower petals, amidst billowing clouds of incense.

The variety of objects on offer is remarkable, but by far the most popular item is the tiny replica currency – Bolivianos and dollars – to ensure a prosperous year.  Merchants wave wads of mini bank notes at the hordes of passers-by, shouting out tantalizing offers such as `un peso para mil dólares americanos!` (1 boliviano for US $1000).

Stalls overflow with miniature handcrafted hens and roosters (for those seeking a romantic partner), replica passports, visas and suitcases for those wishing to travel, toy cars and houses, construction materials and tools, diplomas and job contracts, certificates of marriage, divorce, birth and death(!), and tiny doll`s house sized packages of flour, rice and all manner of food products to ensure an abundance of food in the house.

I settled on a job contract, a certificate of good health, money and a driver`s licence.  (Ekeko will have his work cut out, since that very night I dreamt I ran over two people while driving a bus.)

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Houses and land are up for grabs, as well as bags of cement and other construction materials and tools

Houses and land are up for grabs, as well as bags of cement and other construction materials and tools

Hens and roosters for those looking for love

Hens and roosters for those looking for love

University diplomas & degrees, job contracts, certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce

University diplomas & degrees, job contracts, certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce

Skulls feature during some blessings

Skulls feature during some blessings

A yatiri, blessing my purchases

A yatiri, blessing my purchases

Mini versions of national newspapers are released during the first day of Alasitas, containign satirical and comical articles

Mini versions of national newspapers are released during the first day of Alasitas, containing satirical and comical articles

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Midnight meals & wishes under apples

Welcoming New Year with a 1am meal of `fritanga` (pork stew)

Welcoming the New Year with a 1.00AM meal of `fritanga` (pork stew)

Having spent eight of the past ten Christmases in a different continent than my immediate family, I was fairly unfazed about the prospect of spending Christmas solita in Bolivia.  I toyed with the idea of travelling, but after some drawn-out confusion about whether I had two days or two weeks of holiday, in the end I accepted an invitation to experience Christmas Paceño-style with a local family.

Traditions vary among families, but generally there is a late meal on Christmas Eve followed by gift-giving.  Households decorate with a tree and usually nativities too.  Christmas trees were adorned with cotton wool for snow, but outside it was hot and sunny in between frequent rainstorms.  The warmer climate added a strange feel to the festivities, not to mention the absence of working in retail for the first time in five years.  It certainly felt like a quieter, surreal Christmas on many levels.

We spun crackly old Latin American records – an eclectic mix of Bolivian Christmas carols, rousing Mexican folk songs and Puerto Rican pop.  Before midnight, we each wrote a wish on a scrap of paper and tucked it underneath a numbered apple, which I was instructed to take home and eat upon waking on Christmas morning.  When the clock chimed midnight on Christmas Eve, prayers were murmured, greetings exchanged and glasses clinked.  At around 12.30am, we finally sat down to eat (I was somewhat relieved I`d snacked beforehand).  The meal included turkey and stuffing, although this is not necessarily standard fare.

On Christmas Day, I enthusiastically sampled buñuelos (enormous deep-fried discs of dough) doused with honey and treacle-like cane sugar and accompanied by hot chocolate.  They were delicious and undoubtedly terrible for one`s cholestrol.  I immediately loved them.

Buñuelos - deep-fried doughy deliciousness

Buñuelos – deep-fried doughy deliciousness

The largest nativity set I have ever seen

The largest nativity set I have ever seen

Wishes under apples

Wishes under apples

Xmas Eve vinyl fun

Xmas Eve vinyl fun

More vinyl fun

More vinyl

Fun fact: At some point, Ricky Martin was a member of this rather greasy-looking band

Fun fact: Ricky Martin was once a member of this rather greasy-looking band

New Year`s Eve is customarily celebrated with a family meal (pork to signify prosperity and abundance) which also takes place after midnight.  Following the meal, many people head out to dance and drink the night away.  As it turns out, I found eating a 1am heavy meal of fritanga (spicy pork stew) with potatoes and corn more conducive to sleeping than hitting the clubs and was content to be in bed by 3am – pitifully early by Bolivian standards.

Bemused to see the local markets overflowing with bright red and yellow underwear for sale, I have since discovered that it is common to wear coloured underwear on December 31st – red for love and yellow for wealth.  Who knew…  I suppose I`ll have to wait another year to test that theory.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!  Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2013!

We lit coloured candles on NYE and received small red bags for good luck

We lit coloured candles on NYE and received small red bags for good luck

The gift bags contained a US dollar and a cinnamon stick tied with metal coins.

The gift bags contained a US dollar and a cinnamon stick tied with metal coins.

Cemetery celebrations on La Isla del Sol

* monster post – you might want to put the kettle on…

November 1st was Todos Santos/El Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead).  That meant a long weekend and I seized the opportunity to travel to La Isla del Sol.  This is an island on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake, which borders both Bolivia and Peru.

By incredible luck, I travelled with a delightful Bolivian family, who took me entirely under their wing and ensured I had an experience vastly different than travelling as a lone tourist.  After daily greetings with Rosa, the office cleaning lady and her 8 yr old son, José Luis, it transpired we were all heading to La Isla del Sol for the holiday weekend and suddenly I had instant travel companions.

We left at 4am (not my ideal departure time but well worth it for the good company) and travelled by taxi, minibus, boat, another minibus and finally another boat.  The final stretch of the journey involved catching a lancha (motorboat) from the town of Copacabana to the island.  As I was about to pay the tourist fee of 20 Bolivianos ($3) for the 2hr journey, Rosa intervened and sternly told the boatman “No es turista!  Es familia!”, ensuring I paid the half-price ‘community’ fee.  We were only just becoming acquainted at this point, but it was one of many remarkably generous gestures on the family`s part.  They insisted upon hosting me at Rosa`s father’s house and shared absolutely everything with me – I truly couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.

The family

Our group consisted of Rosa and her children Patricia and José Luis, Rosa`s sister Marcela and her children Omar and Monica (who is one of my colleagues, a nice surprise discovered en route), another sister Ericka and myself.

Marcela and Rosa, in their traditional Cholita dress

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