20 hours of drinking and Dancing – ¡Carnaval!


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!

An All-Expense Paid Trip to Nowhere, Bolivia

I’m riding through the mountains from Oruro back to Cochabamba. It’s my fifth day in a row traveling and the third of this trip. Sunday Shay and I left the jungles of Chapare, on Monday I rode up into the snowy mountains as far as the road was good, and then we left for the deserts and grasslands on Tuesday. Freddy’s driving, Renan is riding shotgun, and Marcela is smoking a cigarette out the window while we pass through a toll booth. I feel bad that I’m sitting here on a laptop while an old man just begged at our window for a piece of bread. The road we’re on has chosen one of the ridge lines to traverse and at either side of me are abysses followed by folds of a green, brown and red mix of bushy pajabraba and sharp, exposed rocks. Llamas and cholas (country women always adorned with skirts, a colorful blanket about the shoulders, and a bowler hat) roam among the hills barely seen from the distance. We are traveling through one of the many faces of Bolivia.

We’ve come to Oruro so that I can make a documentary for Energetica, a renewable energy NGO. Freddy and Ruben are engineers sent to all parts of Bolivia to install solar panels to bring electricity to the 70% of Bolivians who live without it. Tomorrow is Energetica’s 20th anniversary. In that time they’ve brought light to around 15,000 families. Their projects vary from domestic panels to computer centers and they work with the municipal, provincial, and national governments, along with foreign universities and the EU to help fund these projects.

Marcela has lost the remote control for the radio again. Along with being Energetica’s communication director and helping me with everything I need to do, she’s a DJ for a classical radio station. Therefore, in the back seat, she has unequivocally gained the power to change the song when one of Fredy’s numerous sappy Spanish love songs or Bolivian bands praising Santa Cruz comes on. I had my thumb-drive in but after listening to Calle 13 twice through and subjecting the group to half of the complete Floater collection we put Freddy’s back in. And Marcela skips every other song after ten seconds of intro. So we’ve been traveling for three days. But at least now we’re on a paved road.

Pavement is such a luxury. Yesterday we spent 25km on asphalt and 8 hours on mud. We left Cochabamba on the back roads too; the government has raised the price of the Taxi Trufis (public vans with set routes that you merely have to wave down and hop on) from 1.50 Bolivianos to 2 Bolivianos and so there’s been protests and massive road blockages. After meandering through some farmlands we found the main road to Oruro and stopped by a school where Energetica has installed a solar panel. It hasn’t been working, though, and without their newly-acquired TV the attendance rates have dropped. Freddy walked in and flipped a switch and somehow fixed the power. That’s one of the problems with these development projects: in any state of disrepair the whole system is doomed to deteriorate. After Energetica’s three year maintenance guarantee I doubt that these people will be able to afford any repairs, and the smallest problem is as good as throwing the solar panel into the ravine next to the school because they also have no idea how any of it works.

Freddy plugged in the TV and all the kids came and started watching “Spirit” with the director’s commentary on for their subtitles. In this community of a dozen mining families on a hillside next to the road the children grow up speaking Aymara and learn Spanish in school. More than anything, they are simply marveled by the cartoon horse running along the plains. I interview the teacher and she tells me the kids learn much better visually and they have math and health shows for the kids, and watching movies they can learn Spanish better. I also talked to a miner who goes to night school here now that they have light. He’s 67 and has worked in the mine all his life and now is learning math. I interviewed a Chola woman of 19 who also is going to school. She takes care of her three kids during the day and had just started night school when the switch went off-kilter.

We left after a home-cooked meal of rice an’ egg and headed for Oruro, the city of Carnaval. As usual I have no idea of what’s going on and we stopped at the municipality and I sat in on a meeting in which Freddy and Renan were negotiating who would pay for what and what Energetica could provide in another round of solar installs. We went to a lamb restaurant where I was spared from eating the head because I didn’t bring my camera to document it. Tomorrow would be the long day. Apparently we’re driving to Chile.

It rained that night and so our trip was endless. I was stuck in the middle as we had picked up Hermán, who lives near the area we were heading to. After a breakfast of empanadas and Apí – a sweet, warm corn drink – we drove by the flamingoes on Lake Oruro and left the pavement. Several times Freddy got out to test the mud. There is a road, but it’s not completed, and so there are signs directing traffic to swerve off the road here into a riverbed, and to go around a pile of gravel there onto the dirt road. And Freddy’s music is… pervasive. All I can do is watch the endless flatness.

It’s not until 4pm that we arrive at the village where I’m to film. Village is an overstatement: it’s a small grouping of stone shacks in the middle of endless shrubs. It’s the shruburbs. They have 100 llamas per family and a solar panel-powered well for potable water and for a trough for the llamas. We have to drive over bushes and risk it through puddles, and the houses appear out of nowhere, lost against the limitless background. The next hill is Chile. We get out and nobody’s around, so I take shots of the panels and the houses and Freddy and Renan explain how the system works until a corpse of a woman comes out and we talk to her. Every question I ask Marcela has to repeat louder in answer to her “HUH?” She’s 74 and has thought about leaving soon. “Where would you go Doña Justina?” Renan asks. “Al cielo.”

Some kids come out and we have them turn on the water and run their hands through it. The llamas are out to eat pajabraba so I don’t get a shot of them drinking the water, but as we leave we stop by a herd and I film them eating as a lightening storm starts of in the distance. It looks like the llamas are eating the hats of buried gnomes, so are the pajabraba. I try to interview another woman but it starts to hail. We go inside one house, but the tin roof is way too loud so we go into one with a thatched roof and it smells terrible; it’s where they dry the llama skins and store the Charque, or llama jerky, and the crying baby at her breast and her less-than-one-word answers make the whole mess a stinky futility.

Rain was our greatest fear since we didn’t want to get stuck out here overnight as the roads are Margaret Hamilton. But we luck out and drive over dry land with a view to all angles of lightening storms on the horizon. And my thumb-drive’s back in and “Bad Moon Rising” seems fitting.

Today we had a short trip to another small town with a solar panel pump. They used to have to walk 2 hours (3 if they sent their abuelita) to get water. Freddy and I climb the tower and can see for miles llamas, a soccer field, and clouds.

We look over Bolivia.

I had no idea where we were going, a slight idea of the projects, and as always just film an unmoving object from several angles and ask questions like pulling teeth from timid interviewees, but I can say it has been a successful trip.

Oh thanks be to God. Freddy has Abbey Road. We are stopped to eat some bread and several 2,3 and 4 year-old girls shove a mint-smelling herb in Renán’s face through the window and he negotiates with them for several minutes while we’re stopped. “Bueno, te pago 1.5Bs como un loco. ¿Te alegra?” (Fine, I’ll pay you $.21 like a crazy man. You happy?) The girl walks away smiling, and we head down the mountain towards Cochabamba, me translating Jorge Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.”