20 hours of drinking and Dancing – ¡Carnaval!

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Carnaval in Oruro is THE Place to be (if you´re not in Rio) and since we  couldn´t meet up with Bill and Cindy in Brazil, we went with 50 others from Sustainable Bolivia to the gem of Bolivia. Oruro is a beat up town of 400,000 people that hosts another 200,000 or so for 22 hours straight of dancing and drinking. After we passed through an immigration checkpoint where we had to leave our trip organizer, Erik, behind for some BS Bolivian bullying, we all piled into an office building we rented out to sleep in. 50 people, one bathroom, CARNAVAL!

We walked around to the main plaza and saw the pre-gaming. Food booths, tons of decorations, live music, and grandstands lining the streets. We could tell that this was an all out kind of event.

We woke up early on Saturday and found our seats. It´s so crowded and people started drinking before we got up. The parade starts around 8 am and the dancers dance a 4 mile track up to the church on the hill, which has an entrance to a mine shaft. A portrait of the virgin Mary miraculously appeared in the shaft one year and so they changed the ceremony from honoring Pachamama and el Tio (the demon of the mines) to honoring La Virgin del Sacavon (Mary of the Mine) and her battle with the devil. Or something like that. Basically, though, it is awesome.

We found our seats going through a restaurant and crawling below the bleachers and pushing our way through the crowd. Then we joined the party. From 10am to 5:30am Shay and I danced and watched the incredible costumes. My favorite were the Morenadas, which are dancers dressed with golden and silver masks of old men with large, multi-colored beards and rings of skirts. There is also Tinku from the jungle regions, la diablada celebrating the angel and devil´s eternal battle, and everyone´s favorite dance Caporales, which is very high energy and has up to hundreds of men and women with bells on their legs jumping and kicking and spinning in unison. When the Caporales dancers make their run, everybody is cheering.

There are also children dressed up in the same costumes, cars decorated with blankets and silver and coca leaves, fireworks all day long set off right in front of you, and smoke bombs. From the stands you can give the dancers high fives or – more commonly – pass off your bottle of vodka for them to take a swig. One Caporales dancer fell several blocks behind indulgin in this tradition, and as he wandered down our street, alone and stumbling, he accepted a few more offerings and then snapped into a singular charge with bells raging until he ended the dance with a leap landing on his face, and the police carted him off to boos.

At Carnaval everyone shares their drinks and their cheers. In the stands another tradition is to throw water balloons mercilessly. A guy in our group would have soaked a pair of old ladies across the street had they not blocked with their umbrella. Within our section bottles and bottles of foam spray met my face, shay´s face, everybody once or twice in the face at some point. Our bottle of mixer fell below the bleachers but there are children below selling cans of beer, and they´ll hand you your stuff that falls below. A group next to us was chanting for us one by one to try their beer bong. Eventually we were locked in by the restaurant and had to climb fences to get in and out. The street food was always good and always cheap, and we watched most of the 50000 dancers and 10000 musicians for 20 hours.

Then we joined the parade around 4am and followed it all towards the church. We didn´t make it. Around 5 am we were sitting in another stand trying to decline glass after glass of singani with warm milk from some bolivian guys who were hitting on both of us, and we decided to call it a night.

On Sunday we wandered around the city to where the water wars were much fiercer. Near the church on the hill every ten yards up there was another bastion of water ballooners. It looked too fun to me to miss out on, so we bought a bunch and climbed as high as we could and then were attacked by a bunch of kinds with super soakers. We made peace and threw water balloons hundreds of yards down the hill into the crowds. How glorious.

Except for it started to rain right after we got soaked. At 4000m, Oruro gets cold when you´re wet and it´s raining. We lost our will to fight, and when every little kid has a squirt gun and a bottle of spray foam CARNAVAL is a dangerous place. So we lied low until our bus for Sucre. BUT my bag got stolen in the bus station. So after running around for a few blocks I had to run 20 blocks to the main plaza, fight through the parade (they stop from 6am to 8 am and then hit it hard again), and submit a police report with the BOOM BOOM BOOM of good times and flowing booze marched by through the wall. It was a very surreal end, but I got a final taste of CARNAVAL! And we are still fighting survivors!