Thursday, February 18, 2010


The next La Paz day was spent with Emma, reunited after her trip through southern Bolivia. She, Nikki, and I caught up over breakfast, sorted out business and plans, and then shopped. La Paz has fantastic markets, and if you pass through them without buying something, I don't think you're human. Beautiful crafts, and so cheap I almost felt guilty. There were also several guitar shops, and you better believe it was difficult for me to resist that. I kept visualizing another month of carrying a guitar along with my turtle shell of backpacks.

When I get back to NYC, I have several goals in mind for immediate action. Traveling gives you so much time to think and reflect, I've had these goals in mind for a couple of months already. One of them is to learn how to play the guitar so I can accompany myself for open-mic nights. I have a great voice, but no current friends available to play for me. I love singing so much, it should definitely be a greater part of my life. Not only would this add another element of fun and beauty in my day-to-day life, but the performance skills I would learn doing open-mic, the comfort and ease with which I would learn to sing in front of people, would be superb preparation for grad school auditions. And the rest of my life.

But I will just have to find a second-hand one in NYC when I get back!

In addition to the regular artisinal markets, La Paz also hosts a legendary Witchdoctor market, featuring women of the Aymara people. I've been looking forward to this since before I left the States. Markets are never quite as I imagine them, but the dried llama fetuses didn't disappoint. And an Aymara love charm for 15 cents? Done and done.

That night Emma and I piled into yet another night bus, this one bound for Sucre.

Sucre is a lovely town. There's not necessarily that much to do there, but good company is perfectly suited to a lovely town. We ate some good (cheap) food, strolled the streets (before Carnaval-madness struck), bought and ate so much fruit, so many vegetables, from the amazing produce market across the street from our hostel, and met a fantastic Argentinian boy. Quinoa is now my official replacement for rice, I LOVE it.

Nikki joined us early the next day, and the girls went off to see some dinosaur footprints. Having visited a certain town named Vernal in the American west, which prides itself on it's dinosaur heritage, I didn't feel the need. So I spent a morning in a Bolivian cafe, writing postcards and catching up on emails. It was a really fantastic morning. I have been overwhelmed, in the last month or two especially, with how lucky I am. I know that is it more than luck, my own hard work and guts and got me here, but I am so lucky nevertheless. Mornings spent strolling around golden South American towns slay me, always endowing me with a euphoric glow that clings to me through the rest of the day. I have plenty of challenging or difficult situations, which inevitably dissolve into funny memories or good stories. I am completely in love with this life of mine.

By midday on Friday, Carnaval madness had a good hold on this quiet town. Carnaval is another one of those holidays that has its roots in pagan festivities, twisted and pinned down to some sort of Christian occasion. This one happens 40 days before Easter, and is supposed to be a grand farewell to 'bad things' in a season of religious discipline. Somehow it's turned into the opposite, a celebration of debauchery. Which can be great fun. I loved the section of my university Critical Theory class when we discussed Carnaval themes in literature-- how people feel that they can become completely different characters, or let out aspects of their true selves that they usually hide from decent society, just by putting on a simple mask. It's fascinating what the the carnaval atmosphere can bring out in a society, and also what it can accomplish when rigid rules or personalities are relaxed.

Sucre's Carnaval began with a general town-wide water fight. Anyone and everyone could lob a water balloon at you, or lambast you with a water pistol, for the sole reason that you walked past. The juvenile and adolesecent boys of Bolivia have a complete hey-day during Carnaval and become absolute little devils. The main plaza of Sucre became a war zone, we would try to strategize how to get through it, back to our hostel, unscathed. And inevitably failed. In this land of caramel skin I undeniably stand out as a tourist, and though it may be my imagination, I am pretty sure I was especially targeted due to this circumstance. Spraying foam was another favorite past time, and I had to constantly hold back my dirty looks for the women selling cans of foam on every corner, arming the boys of the town with their irritating artillery.

There were crowds of people, trooping around the square and the town, often including a band blasting away some tune, wreaking general water and foam havoc. It was a little surreal.

This trio of mine boarded a night bus to Oruro, the epicenter of Bolivian Carnaval. Oruro is a shithole of a town. There is absolutely no reason to go there except for once a year, for Carnaval. And even then, I was not a fan.

Our ultimate plan of action for Operation Carnaval was to roll in at 5 AM, walked around the FREEZING dark town in the sketchy morning hours looking for a hotel or hostel willing to hold on to our luggage and valuables for the day (took way longer than expected, why don't the hotels of Oruro want to make an extra buck for keeping our stuff for a day?), book tickets for another night bus leaving town that night, and nab seats in the grand stands for the parade. Accomplished, not without some irritability after our restless night on a bus. But we were finally seated, watching elaborate and gaudy costumes pass us by.

SO MUCH BLACKFACE IN CARNAVAL! WHYYYYY?! After a few hours of the parade I realized you see almost everything in one hour, and then it's repeated over and over and over for the rest of the day. There are specific characters who recur, with slightly different colors or baubles, but obviously the same. The first pack that passed was particularly puzzling: a bunch of large men, with huge ruffly sleeves, huge hats, heavy boots, Dionysus-like grapes draping his shoulders, a pipe, and blackface. He held a whip and everyone portraying him (all the way down to a mini two-year-old, particularly cheered for), used the same heavy, staggering, drunken step as he lurched down the street. Once in a while he was accompanied with a couple of skinny, stooped men, completely covered in blackface from head to toe, wearing chains and with red whip-marks on the back. WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND THIS ONE?

The blackface theme continued throughout the day. It was also a little surreal.

Another character was the saucy mistress of course. Scanty clothing, loads of makeup, loads of fake hair. Some pretty beautiful costumes.

Another wore slightly more matronly apparel, and wore a mask which I found rather frightening, though I wonder if it's supposed to look beautiful? It features a small nose, pursed lips, and HUGE eyes fringed with dark lashes. To me it looked to be portraying a commedia-like character of the snooping, busy-body woman. But I really have no idea.

Plenty of manly young men dancing

My ABSOLUTE FAVORITE CHARACTER IN THE WHOLE PARADE (of whom I did not see enough of), was a bear-beast creature. Huge fat hairy suit. I left my camera at the hostel, figuring Carnaval crowds are the prime time for stealing, but HOW I WISH I had a picture of these furry creatures. There were a few mini ones played by children as well, and they were beyond adorable.

Water and foam fighting were even more increased, if possible. Though I've got to say, in Oruro, it was pretty exclusively enjoyed by the small and medium-sized boys. During Carnaval, they have an excuse to be complete terrors, and they play that up to full effect.

The stands filled up and after a few hours I was unbelievably uncomfortable on my little board perched high in the air. The parade seemed to be on repeat, so Emma and I left for a small intermission (well, I never actually had the intention of going back). I've never been so squished into a crowd in my entire life. To be honest, all I wanted was to get away from the crowds and noise for a half hour. Emma and I inevitably got seperated, so I wandered away for a break on my own.

I found myself in a street full of vendors of food, makeup, bits and pieces for repairing costumes. I was in the 'green room' of Carnaval. I felt far more comfortable among the show-folk, and I really enjoyed walking around people-watching as Bolivians polished their shoes one last time, refueled after the exhausting parade through town. Women were constantly retouching their makeup throughout the entire day, from sunrise to sunset. I think my favorite moment of Carnaval was when I passed one of those bear-creatures, sitting on a bench, head removed and sitting to the side, eating a bowl of soup.

This was my birthday, and though it's pretty fantastic that all of South America was celebrating with me, I missed my family and friends. So when I passed an internet cafe I checked into my email account for a few minutes and refueled with the well wishes of friends and family. I love those times.

I headed back to the grandstands to see if I could meet back up with Nikki and Emma. To no avail, they had vacated our positions. The rest of the day I spent wandering that one long street of fair and show-folk, people-watching to the max. I babysat a beautiful Bolivian baby girl for a while, ate some street food. The second half of the day, as I was wandering, unprotected, in Oruro streets, I adorned my awesome green poncho. And by awesome I mean that it is, literally, a tarp and poncho in one. So I look particularly stylish when I wear it. Luckily, everyone in their right mind was wearing a poncho due to the cahoots of the town boys. Unfortunately, they have become pretty skilled at aiming the foam directly in your face and eyes, the only area of your body unprotected.

I stationed myself by a street vendor selling bits and bobs to repair or improve costumes. I had been wondering, are these costumes owned by the city? But it seems that everyone creates or owns their own costume, and they care for it and improve it year by year. Since American adolescents are pretty anti-everything, I found it particularly amusing to be seeing so many (especially the boys), carefully selecting the exact right fringe or bell for their sleeve. Boys paraded about, happily dressed in pink and purple, jingling and twinkling.

I wonder about the alternative lives of all these people. Am I seeing the town dentist cavorting by, boots full of bells, dancing a jig? Is that the quiet laundress prancing by with her butt cheeks hanging out?

As the sun set I meandered back to the hostel, reunited with Nikki and Emma, and we all headed to board out respective buses. Emma to Potosi, Nikki and myself to Uyuni to book a tour of the Bolivian salt flats, desert, and lagunas.

As we rolled away from that crazy shithole of a town, I'm glad I did Carnaval my way. Not by getting completely wasted, but by observing the details of a town on holiday.


Anonymous said...

I think a more accurate and less profane description of the town might be "mining town." That pretty much paints the picture for most of us.

Listening to NPR pays off