Last week was Carnaval here – Fiesta! Fiesta! – and we spent most of Saturday sitting on bleachers on a street in downtown Cochabamba watching one of the most impressive displays of costumes, dancing, and revelrie in the country parade right by us. The town of Oruro is known to have the biggest Carnaval (it was held there last Saturday), but it is accompanied also by the highest prices, the biggest crowds, the most drunkenness etc. Cochabamba’s is the second biggest in the country and was plenty impressive and interesting for us.
Erik and the kids had gone downtown Friday evening to buy the tickets (which cost 4x more than tickets to the professional soccer game). Each small section of bleachers is under the temporary proprietorship of one woman, and you can only buy tickets from her and only starting 12 hours before the parade. The bleachers are marked off so people can buy reserved seats. If you happen to get a spot that has a support post for the canopy going through it (as Quinn did), well, better luck next time.
Many people with kids prefer to sit in the front row so the kids can run around with water guns soaking people (this being the main form of fun for kids all over town this whole week). We chose third-row bleacher seats instead, which gave us a pretty good view of the parade (though didn’t keep us from getting wet!).
Fortunately for the dancers, the weather was good (sunny, hot) so they actually welcomed the Super Soakers. A little less welcome on the part of the dancers in the parade was the foamy stuff that was also being sprayed and squirted willy-nilly (everyone except us seemed to have a can). I think it was diluted shaving cream or some such thing – party foam? Apparently, in Santa Cruz (12 hours east of here, the “Miami” of Bolivia) they spray things like shoe polish and ink! Everyone’s a target, especially when you have to walk in front of the crowd to find a port-a-potty. So when our turn came to be squirted, we considered ourselves relatively lucky not to get hit too bad.
At the beginning of the parade were a few local social service organizations, including the Bolivian equivalent of Community Living (with kids in wheelchairs all dressed up as clowns) and outfits promoting recycling, HIV prevention, and an end to violence against women. Both the recycling organization and a big float promoting environmental protection received surprisingly loud cheers and
much applause from the crowd. (Maybe not so surprising when you notice that there was a virtually naked woman painted as a jaguar on the environmental protection float…)
But seriously, the recyclers (older people, mostly
indigenous, with wreaths of plastic bottles around their necks) were very warmly applauded, in spite of (or maybe because of?) the rather large amount of
garbage (including plastic bottles) that tends to litter the streets of this city.
There was also a lot of clapping for one lone marcher carrying a sign protesting a highway the government has decided to build through Tipnis, a hugely important area of otherwise-intact and extremely biodiverse rainforest that is also home to several groups of indigenous people, many of whom marched all the way to La Paz last year – taking two months to do it – in protest against its construction. These crowd reactions seemed to confirm our sense that there is a strong national environmental ethos among the people here (though the government seems to say one thing and do something completely different).
Next came all the military regiments, first among them the navy. Now this is kind of strange, if you remember your South American geography, because Bolivia hasn’t had a coastline since 1879. In fact, it was during Carnaval that Chile stole it. In just two days they invaded and took over an entire province of Bolivia, with Bolivians being too enamoured of their partying to do anything about it (“Let’s just deal with it when Carnaval’s over…”). Or so some people say. But hope dies hard, and Bolivia has held onto their navy ever since, fervently hoping that Chile will have a sudden change of heart and Bolivians will someday regain what they lost. The nostalgia they feel was evidenced by a man dressed as a fish carrying a sign that read, “I dream of swimming in a blue Bolivian sea” (photo taken especially for you, Janet Cook!)
After the navy, for perhaps the next three hours, came all the other divisions of the armed forces (Division this, Regiment that, Paratroopers, Special Forces etc) each having chosen a different pop culture movie or musical theme for their costumes and floats: e.g., “Ice Age”, “Hotel Transylvania”, “Plants vs Zombies”, “Brave”, “Frankenweenie”, “The Guardians”, “Planet of the Apes”, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Star Wars, Mario Brothers, Smurfs etc. Each contingent had its own support vehicle with large speakers blaring music for the performers to dance to. We heard “I’m Sexy and I Know It” at least four times, and “Gangnam Style” at least seven.
Around midday the real dancers started to appear, representing many of Bolivia’s distinct regions. There must be a healthy but intense sense of competition among the people of these different regions to produce such incredibly elaborate, painstakingly decorated costumes as these! Some had a strongly Spanish, caballero-type flavour, dancing energetically in grandiose movements in their broad-shouldered jackets, high-heeled boots and big sombreros; others exuded a more Andean flavour, with choreography characterized by smaller, quicker steps that allowed them to play pan pipes and other ancient instruments at the same time, wearing multi-coloured sashes or hand-woven blankets draped around their shoulders. That said, the variety was almost endless, and the distinctions between European, mestizo and indigenous styles not always easy to make.
One of the most fascinating costumes was from the region of Potosi, and involved an enormous pillar-type costume piece attached to the back of the male dancers (who more walked than danced) and extending about 3 metres straight up into the air. We don’t have any idea of its significance (nor did the family who is hosting us), so if any of you have been to Potosi can explain what it is and why it’s like that, please do!
The parade began around 8:30 in the morning and probably didn’t finish until 10 or 11 pm. (We didn’t stay the whole time – we Canadians just don’t have the stamina of these Bolivians!) In the 7 or 8 hours we were there, we must have seen thousands of people parade by, and hundreds of people hawking everything you could ever imagine needing at such an event – and much, much more: puffed grains, fresh peanuts, fried bananas and water guns; ice cream, newspapers, plastic ponchos and folding stools; candy bars, cameras, noisemakers and gum; ice cream, hamburgers, fried chicken and candy apples; saltenas, balloons, folding silk fans, collapsible umbrellas, and “Baby on Board” signs; bubble pipes, plastic swords, Spiderman masks, and marionettes; neon pink and green wigs, chocolate mousse and DVDs of Carnaval in Oruro last weekend. One man walked around carrying a portable colour printer which he used to print out photos he took of Carnaval-goers posing with the dancers (they just go stand beside them and pose in the middle of the procession). There were also quite a number of traditionally dressed women (called “chollas” or, more politely, “cholitas”) walking around – some with babies strapped to their backs – flogging bags of fluorescent-coloured candy floss attached to poles even longer than the women were tall.
When we returned to our host family, they seemed a bit disappointed that we hadn’t stayed the duration, but as they were watching it live on TV, we caught some of the end on-screen. If we understood correctly, the last few hours is when the masks come out, along with the special dances that go with them – for example, the Devil dance and Devil costumes. We kind of regretted missing this (since we hadn’t realized how much still remained when we took our leave). Fortunately, back in La Paz, we had gone to a Folkloric and Ethnographic Museum where we saw many different types of Carnaval masks, some of them truly knock-you-off-your-feet incredible. Felix took some great shots of them:
Tomorrow (Tuesday) we leave Cochabamba in search of warmer climes in the subtropical province of Chaparre. Our first stop will be a wildlife refuge that is home to pumas, parrots, monkeys, boas, sloths, and one Andean bear. Don’t know if we’ll have internet or not, but if not, we expect to return to Cochabamba by next weekend, and take off again soon after for Sucre.
As always, we love your messages, so please drop us a line! Abrazos!