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Published: March 16th 2012
There appear to be two reasons why Bolivians have carnivals :
• To get drunk and party for two days
• To get drunk and party for two days
Having said that, most days are generally like that in Bolivia. No day passes without a celebration of something or other.
As carnival in Rio was stupidly expensive, we decided to spend a few days in Oruro, to experience the madness that happens for a few days in February. The bus from La Paz takes three hours, although at least an hour of that is spent trying to exit the city.
To get out the bus has to go through an area called El Alto that overlooks the valley of La Paz. The best way to describe El Alto is to say never, ever go there. Your correspondent imagines that Beirut at the height of it’s problems would have been safer. Thankfully, although at the cost of the puppy and small kitten we passed through unscathed.
The road to Oruro is paved, which is a remarkable thing for Bolivia, and on arrival, your correspondent was not so much struck by the beauty of the town, as
much as thinking “ why the hell have we come here”. If a traveller was to arrive here at any other time than carnival, his first thought would be to buy guns and small explosives, then hole himself up in a room and not venture out until his bus was leaving.
However, it was carnival, so the place was brightly coloured and seemed friendly enough. We took a taxi to our booked hotel. As with most cities around the world, prices are dramatically increased when there is a grand occasion in town and here was no exception. Our accommodation was in a state of frenzied activity. In true Bolivian style, they had decided to clean everything from top to bottom just before all guests arrived.
Our next task was to procure tickets for the carnival itself. Through all the websites, it was explained that you could only get such tickets online and the cheapest (in the worst areas) were £75 each. So, off we wandered to the procession route, where all the stands were being erected, stopping only for necessary beer intake.
We looked around and saw an area where we thought we would like to sit
and watch the parade and at this point I saw the person selling tickets for this section, and I pulled off the most amazing piece of haggling ever performed by a gringo in South America. Here in full is the dialogue :
Me : “how much are the tickets ?”
Him : “ £20 each “
Me : “ok I will have two”
As you can see, it was an intense exchange of bitter negotiations, but in the end I prevailed with superior business savvy.
Wendy pointed out at this point that she had not eaten for several minutes, I mean hours, so we meandered through the streets to find a bar or restaurant. Over 400,000 people attend carnival here, so your correspondent was expecting it to be quite easy to find somewhere to replenish his starving wife. Wrong. We walked for ages (at least 45 minutes) before finding a haven for hungry souls.
It had the strangest ordering system. You looked at the menu, then when decided on choice, queue up at the counter and pay for what you want, then receive a token with your choice printed on it, then sit back
down, then wait for waitress to come over and take your token, then await your food . This applied if you wanted such a thing as another beer (my dear readers will not be surprised to know that this did happen), when you would have to stop eating, go and stand in the queue again to pay for another token and then wait for token to be collected !!! I was so stressed that I had to stand in the queue several times to get over it.
The parade started the next morning at 7am. We decided to get down before the rush as we had heard that it gets very packed so we could take our seats. The seats themselves were just planks of wood with numbers painted on them, but sufficed. On reaching our seats, we did find that there were quite a few people already there, but on closer inspection, it was discovered that they were all the drunks from the previous night’s celebrations, indeed they were still celebrating !!! After a short time, it became apparent that the main part of the crowds did not arrive until later in the morning. This did not deter
us, so we sat surrounded by drunks in the cold Oruro sun.
The lack of early morning audience did not stop the parade either. It goes on for at least 15 hours, so it has to start at 7am whether anybody is there to watch or not !! Your correspondent did have a degree of sympathy for those who started as they must have been practising for months, as well as spending endless time on the amazing costumes, only to have nobody there to see them. Thankfully, my concern was eased when I was told they get to perform later the next day.
After 4 hours the stands were all packed. Food and drink was supplied by street vendors at the front. We were about 9 rows back but the vendor would just throw a can for you to catch. The money would then be passed hand by hand down to him, and the change passed back up. As there could be a few minutes between each group on the parade, the crowd would amuse themselves by having foam string and water fights. The atmosphere was fantastic.
To the parade itself. We had expected colour, music, dancing,
bands, vibrancy, laughter, music and mayhem – we were not disappointed. The costumes were spectacular with every design you could imagine. The masks were works of art and reasonably terrifying at times. We were especially taken by small womble type creatures that danced around. I was determined to trek in the surrounding mountains to find them in their natural habitat but was slightly deflated to find that they were actually children dressed up.
Once everything was in full flow there was only one way to get in and out of the stands. There were 20 foot long wooden ladders held together by bits of wire propped up against the back of the stand and everybody would quickly climb up and down as the whole place shook. I say everybody, but of course I do not include myself in such nimble activity. Every rung for me held the prospect of certain death as I held on to the sides sobbing wildly.
The best part was that we got to the whole thing all over again the next day !!!!
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