The Devil´s Drink is Paceña

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February 8th 2008
Published: February 8th 2008
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-- "Hello. Where are you from?"
- "England."
-- "Do you like Peru?"
- "Yes, it's very nice."
-- "What do you think of the foreign policy of your government?"
- "Um, I haven't lived there for a while, I don't know much about it."

Meanwhile, some other bloke on the other side of me, was trying to pickpocket the contents of my jeans pockets, namely a torn photocopied map of Lima, and a flyer for some discoteca. Needless to say the last question gave him away. It's a novel one at least.

I had another brief stopover in Lima before getting the 26 hour non-stop bus to La Paz. It was actually a very good, tranquil journey, with none of the rocketing antics of previous bus rides south, and my night in La Paz was cold and damp, as is befitting such a dramatic change in landscape and altitude. In fact, the Altiplano´s altitude gave me a splitting headache for two days straight which no amount of coca leaf tea would ease. But I actually only stayed in La Paz for one night, before heading down to the famous Carnaval de La Diablada in Oruro, four hours south of La Paz across scrubland plains ringed by mountains.

I arrived on Thursday, and the Carnaval itself started on Saturday. Everything was almost in full swing in preparation for the upcoming week-long festivities, with roads blocked off, mad rushes for hotel rooms, inflated prices and everyone drinking the local beer, Paceña, as soon as the sun rises in the morning. After throwing my stuff into my hotel room (I had had the foresight to book in advance, even though I had to pay US$15 per night, compared to a usual $2), I went for a walk to get my bearings, stumbling blindly into the middle of a large procession of indigenous dancers. Although the carnival wasn't supposed to start for two days, the preparations (which I assume were or are religious in basis, and include large processions of miners) meant that all the local villages and towns put out their best-looking ladies, their oldest "mamitas" and their drunkest men, in vibrant traditional costume, dancing and cavorting through the streets and leading bored children, sheep and goats. It was a fascinating introduction to the spirit of the carnival, not least seeing so close up the wonderful variety of costumes, textiles and jewellery on offer, with multicoloured stripes, babies in slings on the dancing ladies' backs, and bags of vegetables being thrown to the grateful crowd. It really was the start of the festive spirit, and by 6pm, men were falling off the back of the stands in drunken stupors, and the "espuma" (shaving foam) and water balloons were flying freely. I was standing peaceably at the side of the procession, when suddenly a group of teenagers sprayed shaving foam on the crowd of Bolivianos around me, which annoyed them intensely. The boys' answer - " Sorry, I was trying to get the gringa". Me. Laughing the crowd parted, and allowed the little buggers a good, point-blank shot at my head. I swear that so much shaving foam went into my ear, I'm sure it came out the other side. Oh, such hilarity! How I laughed.

The next day was calmer, with no processions in progress. I decided, rather late in the day, to head out to Huari where I could see and indigenous fishing village on the banks of Lake Poopo. Actually the real reason was to be able to say I've been to both Lake Titicaca and lake Poopo, and bombard you all with bad jokes. So I caught the 2 hour bus to Challapata, before getting a taxi to Huari. I know that gringos often pay more, and can be ripped off in spite of good Spanish, but when the 3 locals in the car pay 2.50 Bolivianos, and I have to pay 15 Bolivianos, I'm certainly going to say something, especially as I'm generally a foot taller than most of the locals. It was obviously in vain, so I stomped off in a huff muttering Spanish curses under my breath at the little taxi driver and his twitching, piggy eyes, and looked for the tourist office to point me in the right direction. Upon questioning some old ladies drinking in the door to the covered market, they replied that the tourist officer "is drinking. Everyone's drinking. Lots of fiestas. You want to go to the lake? Oh, so far, very far. Dangerous on your own. 20 Bolivanos to get there in a taxi.". So, I'd ended up in the middle of a ghost town, with everything shut and everyone drinking, trying to do something a bit different. I wandered around the square a bit, tried to talk to a wizened old lady who didn't speak any Spanish, only the local indigenous dialect of Quechua, and took a taxi back to the bus stop. I spent another delightful two hours on the bus back to Oruro, snapping the scenery of silver shrubs and crystallised salt plains, determined for some souvenir of the futile, though quite relaxing, day out.

Carnaval started early - at 4am apparently, though obviously I wasn't up to see that. The previous day I had bought a seat on the stands lining the main Plaza, and arrived just after nine to see the early ones, before everyone started drinking. Of course, all the dancers were already refreshing themselves with the local beer, Paceña, by that time, but all the same, I was glad that I was able to see some of the processions before they got too tired and drunk. The costumes are amazingly complex, large and brightly coloured, and adorned with mirrors, feathers and sequins. The angel pranced in white at the head, leading all the devils and she-devils, bears and scary women caked in make-up. They leap and cavort, shimmy and slide across the streets, putting on such a show of enthusiasm and energy, and charged by the thrilled crowd. The water balloons and shaving foam started early, fuelled by beer and chanted local rivalries, while the dancers twirled beneath the barrage. The atmosphere was unique; the power of the music, drums and trumpets blared over the chanting, shouting, dancing, crowd, most of whom were Bolivianos who come every year to see their town represented, and their favourite bands.

I had arranged to meet some people from Hands On that afternoon, so launched myself into the heaving mass of damp, foamy bodies to get to a side plaza, dodging large steaming pots of cooking entrails and gringo-bashing Bolivanos (not just teenagers here) who had been up all night drinking and not intending to return to a hotel for the duration of the weekend, had they even had one. Here was when I bumped into three other people from Hands On, quite unexpectedly, and together, we got our plastic ponchos on and bought large bags of water balloons and cans of shaving foam. Revenge is so, so sweet! We launched a full-on war on some unsuspecting teenagers, and we kicked ass! It was fantastic to turn to some tiny five year old armed with a SuperSoaker 500 and whack him in the face four times with water balloons. Everyone who attacked us, we retaliated with conviction and force, an unstoppable invasion. This went on for some five hours, and didn't wear thin until we we made the mistake of walking alongside the carnival parade, and were pelted the full length from both sides of the stands. Covered in so much foam that we resembled the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters, we sat down in the sun for a break, when Antonio discovered that his wallet had been stolen from his zipped trouser pocket under his plastic poncho, with $100 in cash inside. I suppose it was inevitable, but it's hard to think of some little child (for it couldn't have been an adult scurrying up Antonio's trouser leg) revelling and stealing at the same time. We continued nevertheless, though I had to crash early due to over-exertion of the beer muscles in the baking sunshine.

The next day was more tranquil, as I decided to stay longer to watch the carnival on my own. I had a few conversations with the teenagers from Cochabamba sharing and bouncing my viewing stand, and they instructed me in the rhythms and tunes of the individual troupes. Of course, the water balloon-espuma battle was taken up again with a vengeance, but I was lucky to have a sheltered seat from which I could watch and avoid a regular pelting, so being able to fully engage in the processions and join in the passion the Bolivianos have for each group. All together - the espuma, the balloons; the sequins and glitter; the bells on boots and vomiting crowds - it all, as one unified, communal moment of craziness and indulgence, transports you to a surreal, debauched world of fairies and goblins, soldiers and knights, angels and demons, each element as important as the other to creating this, the parade of devil.


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