From the campo (rural areas like Maragua) to the capital city, carnival is an epic celebration of culture, dancing parades, and debachorous drinking. The whole country stops to partake in the festivities, so much so, that when the Chileans invaded Bolivia in the War of the Pacific in 1879, they choose to do so during carnival, receiving mostly drunken resistance. For my first carnival, I traveled to Oruro, a city referred to as the “Indigenous Capital of the Country”, hosting the nation’s largest parade. I then returned to Maragua, where festivities were still under way.
Oruro, is a harsh and barren place, set over 12,000 feet in the Andes. Arriving during most of the year, one is greeted by pillars of dust blowing across the altiplano and hearty handshakes from miners. During carnival, the city explodes drunken chants of “Or Ruh Ruh Ro”, water balloons hail from the skies and the streets are packed with traveling revelers, who have all made the pilgrimage to the country’s largest spectacle.
The preparations for the festival begin months before the actual event. In cities around the country, carnival troupes finalize their membership for a selected traditional dance and start doing weekly practices for the event. They organize amazingly expensive costumes, and plan he logistics for their sojourn to Oruro to perform for the tens of thousands of people there. It is quite a time commitment, as the training must prepare them to endure dancing at altitude for over ten hours, though into the freezing cold Oruro nights. Ironically, the expense of the costumes and entry fee for the troupe mean that most of the indigenous people whose traditional dances are being performed, cannot afford to participate. In general, the dancers come from wealthy backgrounds, and have to learn the indigenous dance steps that they will perform.
In the campo, preparations are different. The dance steps do not need to be practiced. They are simple and known from the previous festivals. The costumes are mostly their own clothes, with a handful of augmentations which are grabbed from the city. The focus on the preparations in the village is on fermenting enough corn into chicha to keep the party going for a couple of weeks. This all depends on the size of the previous year’s harvest. Ideally it was large enough that grain still remains for the festivities. For some wealthier families, they can supplement their stores by buying more in the city, but for many families in the campo, a bad year’s harvest means a shorter carnival.
I arrived in Oruro to meet over 40 other Peace Corps Volunteers from around the country. We had rented a vacant, unfurnished apartment, and had camping gear strewn through it. The dancing parade had been going since morning, and we all went to the main plaza, to dance with them, throw water balloons randomly at everyone, and spray people in the face with a toxic foam generically referred to as “espuma”, which people wore goggles to try and keep out of their eyes. Obviously the streets were havoc.
There are over 36 different indigenous cultures in Bolivia, and as each troupe passes by they dance a traditional dance from one of them. The whole time everyone is drinking, and by mid-morning there is not a sober person in town. The party smolders through the piercing cold of the night, and then flames back to life the next day for another full day parade.
In the campo, a prominent member of the village will host the festivities each day. That family will provide food and chicha for those who come, although guests are also expected to bring some contributions. The idea is that as the chicha runs out from one party, the people seamlessly transition to the next party, so that people are drinking and dancing for about five days straight. All other tasks go unmanaged. Children run around the village naked, and there are people passed out all over the place, all the time. Some in the fields, in pools of throw-up, some down by the river fast asleep. Magically, they will awake and find their way back to the party and continue dancing a drinking with those who are there. It is an amazing show of endurance.
From the campo to the city, carnival in Bolivia is united by laughter, debauchery and dance. In the city, dancers dedicate enormous amounts of time and money to try and recapture some of the traditions of the past, while villagers out in the fields settle for drunkenly jumping in circles in each other’s houses. Ironically, the villages where the traditional celebrations originated, often no longer host them, while the urban elite give life to these traditions which they often do not understand.
The next blog in the Bolivian Blaze Series is, Fractured Realities.