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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Hiking up Devil`s Tooth

La Muela del Diablo

La Muela del Diablo

I recently took a hike up La Muela del Diablo (Devil`s Tooth), the craggy peak that features to the far right of my home page image of La Paz.  An extinct volcano, La Muela sits at 3825m above sea level and is a foreboding sight.  Legend has it that La Muela del Diablo and Mount Illimani once fought against one another, sending bolts of lightning across the valley.

Located high above the city`s most affluent neighbourhood, la Zona Sur, La Muela is a pleasant, if slightly breathless from the altitude, half-day hike that begins with winding dusty trails to the grassy base and becomes a rocky scramble to the peak.  I made it to the V-shaped point between the two right-hand pinnacles, beyond which point technical climbing gear and nerves of steel are required.  The daunting climb up the rocky outcrop was well worth it, with magnificent views of the bowl-shaped city of La Paz and the surrounding valleys as a reward.

La Muela is known to attract brujería (witchcraft) and I was warned against touching any evidence of this, such as the small piles of rocks scattered at intervals along the trail, remains of campfires and especially the abundant knotted grasses closer to the peak.  It definitely adds an element of fear, when scrambling up a slope of scree, to know that any deliberate or accidental contact with knotted grass might have ominous consequences.  I was somewhat relieved to leave the witchcraft behind and be picking my way through potato fields and clusters of cacti on the descent.

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Unexpected outdoor restaurant

Unexpected outdoor mini-restaurant

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

Knotted grass

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

…evidence of witchcraft

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The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

With that, I wish you all happy and peaceful holidays!  ¡Feliz Navidad a todos!

Potions, lotions and lucky llama foetuses at La Paz`s Witches` Market

Witches` market

Lucky llama foetus, anyone?

Last Saturday I took a stroll around La Paz`s Mercado de las Brujas (Witches` Market), marvelling at the unusual array of items on offer.  Nestled at the end of a narrow, cobbled street where tourist shops stock colourful alpaca hats, woollen jumpers and hand-woven bags, a cluster of small shops overflow with ingredients for Aymará rituals and witchcraft.  A pungent, unfamiliar smell greeted me upon entering, a musty mix of animal corpses and herbal remedies.

Here you can find potions, perfumes, incense, candles and powders for a whole host of afflictions and conditions.  Whether you`re battling to quit smoking, suffering from anxiety, in need of financial luck, looking for an aphrodisiac, seeking marital bliss or perhaps beyond that point and hoping to expedite separation…rest assured, a remedy awaits!  I even noticed a `love, sex and money` perfume, for those who prefer an Aymará all-in-one approach.

Most intriguing of all are the dried llama foetuses, reminiscent of the kind of extraterrestial creature about to burst forth from Sigourney Weaver`s stomach in the opening sequence of Aliens.  These poor critters sucuumbed to natural deaths in the womb and are traditionally buried under the foundations of new houses to bring about good luck and prosperity, as sacrificial offerings to the much venerated Pachamama (Mother Earth).  Baby llama corpses are also on display, strung up unceremoniously on hooks in every spare inch of ceiling space.  These perished at birth from the cold or other natural causes.

Brimming bowls of clay amuletos and talismans promote amongst others: health, love, intelligence, protection, happiness, wealth and longevity.  Pachamama charms and statues are available in all shapes and sizes.

7 year old Yessica, whose aunt owned the shop I ventured into, was a well-informed host, helpfully bringing me items and enthusiastically pointing out photo opportunities.  I took a shine to her after she asked my age and expressed disbelief upon hearing 32, announcing I looked jovencita and no more than 15.  (Exemplary customer service skills, I concluded.)

I bought a fridge magnet as a gesture of goodwill, too overwhelmed by the odours and options to make a more adventurous or authentic purchase (this time…).

La Paz`s Witches` Market

La Paz`s Witches` Market

Witches` market

Remedies for all manner of ailments & conditions

Remedies for all manner of ailments & conditions

`Separador` powder promises to help you ditch your partner

`Separadora` powder, a creative alternative to the abundant aphrodisiacs on offer

Witches` market

Dried llama foetus, anyone?

Dried llama foetuses

Llama corpses for luck

Llama corpses

Amulets

Amulets

(clockwise from top left) Tortoise amulet for `long life`, owl for `intelligence`, fist for `money`, couple for `love`, face for `happiness`

(clockwise from top left)                                   Amulets: Tortoise for longevity, owl for intelligence, fist for wealth, couple for love, face for happiness.

Pachamama / Mother Earth

Pachamama / Mother Earth statues

7 yr old Yessica

7 yr old Yessica, customer service extraordinaire

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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