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


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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Bowler hats

Aymará women who live in the city but wear traditional dress are known as `cholas` or `cholitas`. The typical dress consists of a bowler hat (black, brown or dark green),  an embroidered blouse and manta (shawl) and ornate pollera skirts, worn over several layers of petticoats.

Cholas` hair is parted in the centre and braided in two long plaits that are joined by a black woolen tuft called a pocacha.

Apparently this characteristic dress was imposed on indigenous Bolivian women by the Spanish king in the 18th century.