Monday, February 27, 2012

Experiencing Bolivian Culture: Carnaval, Parades, and Dress

***I would like to start this post by saying that I did actually write it a week ago when I was still in Bolivia, but between spending several days in a row traveling and then being on a farm with no internet has slowed down the uploading pictures and posting process.  Apologize for the delay and appreciate your patience!

Before I came to Bolivia, I have to say I knew pretty much next to nothing about the country.  I'm not even sure I could have pointed it out on a map of South America.  On top of having the opportunity to see so much of the country, one of the highlights for me has been learning about the history and culture here, from the traditional ways people dress to dance to religious ceremonies.  Sam and I lucked out with our timing in Rurrenabaque and were able to catch part of a festival where people come all over from the Beni department of Bolivia (where Rurrenabaque is situated) to perform traditional dances.  It was kind of like a mini-Carnaval, but different (and a lot hotter). 

In general it has been incredibly interesting to see and learn about the traditional ways of dressing here, from the layered skirts with several petticoats, crocheted shawls, and little Charlie Chaplin-esque hats worn by (married) Arymara women in La Paz, to the pleated or velvety skirts worn to the knees and adorned by a straw hat worn by the women in areas such as Sucre and Cochabamba (and of course you will see these styles mixed in cities as well).  Sadly, from what we learned, it is tradition that could be dying out, as they are worn by campesino (countryside) women, but the next generation of women who are raised in the cities do not want to wear them.  There is such resistance, in fact, that we were told by our tourguide in Lake Titicaca (and have since noticed) that the younger generations won't even wear hats.  Instead they will either hold a piece of paper or something else to block the sun from their faces.    

In addition to getting to experience firsthand Bolivian culture, I am also really glad that I was able to experience a South American Carnival.  It is such a part of the culture here that I would have been pretty disappointed to have left this trip without partaking in this important tradition.  That said, I'm glad we went to Oruro and not Rio, and it's one of those things I'm happy we did but don't feel the need to go out of my way to do again.

The costumes were incredible, though probably not what you imagine.  Tons of women of all ages shimmying (best way I can describe it) down the street wearing these sparkly, bright tutus with the coordinating traditional little bowler hat (more on that later) and high heels or boots (don't ask me how they danced down the entire parade route in those shoes, my feet hurt just looking at them).  Men dressed in matador-esque cowboy suits with bells on their boots.  People dressed in costumes meant to represent the devil and angels.  And probably one of our favorite accessories: the noisemakers made out of wooden (or perhaps real?) armadillos.  And probably one of the most entertaining groups (from our perspective) was the group singing about coca and throwing bags of coca leaves into the stands where spectators were sitting (legal here).  

The energy was great without it be too rowdy, despite the fact that near everyone, including many of the performers, was drinking Pacenas (one of the Bolivian beers) starting really early in the morning (and our tour group passed out rum in addition to beer in the morning).  

It was amazing how large the groups performing were.  I'm talking of hundreds of people per group, at least, wearing similar costumes in a rainbow of colors, and several different styles of costumes, with several bands spread out intermittently throughout the dancers.  

Anyway, if you should decide to ever attend Carnaval in Oruro, a few tips:

  • Get a poncho.  You will get sprayed with foam (in some cases copious amounts, drenching your hair and whatever else is not covered).
  • Go with a tour group.  Prices for hotels trip or quadruple, many require a 3-night stay.  Then you often are on your on trying to find seats in the stand, which are a must if you want to actually watch the parade.  
  • If you go with a group, do the one-day tour.  It sounds like a pretty exhausting day: leave from a neighboring city (i.e. Cochabamba, La Paz) at like 4:30 am, be at Carnival from about 10 am-7:00 pm, then head back from said city.  But everything there is to see can be done in the first day.
  • Don't get there a day early.  Oruro is not a touristy city.  At all.  There are a couple museums, but most are outside of the city center.  Most of Friday consisted of us getting breakfast, sitting in the park for awhile, going to an internet cafe, going back to the same place we had breakfast for lunch, nap, back to another internet cafe, walked around the vendors who had set up shop inside the parade route, dinner, bed.  Wooo, we really know how to party!
  • Get a cushion to sit on.  You are squeeeezed into bleachers with little room to move around.  Plus you are sitting on your ass for hours upon hours on a hard surface.  We happened to stumble upon a women selling homemade cushions the day before, and they were well worth the 10 Bolivianos we spent on each of them.
  • If you take a bus on your own (i.e. without a tour group) buy the tickets a day before.  Since we left a day early before most people get there, we had no problem buying bus tickets on that day.  But since we were leaving on Sunday, when most people leave Oruro, we bought them on Saturday, which was the earliest we could get them.  And it was a good thing we did because it was a madhouse at the bus station--waiting in line for I'm sure at least an hour to buy bus tickets for the next day.
  • Bring your passport.  Unless you want to deal with the hassle of going to the tourist police, just bring your passport and safely stow it somewhere.  But we recommend not bringing any other valuables.
  • Expect a long wait to cross over the parade route in the evening.  It was pretty amazing to watch the entire parade route get erected in a relatively short period of time, particularly as it consisted of welding together these huge staired arches in various places along the route so people could get to the other side.  The only problem is because there are so few places to cross, once the parade starts to calm down for the evening, you are stuck waiting in a looooong line to get to the other side.  And don't try to cut the line, you will get yelled out by angry Bolivians and probably be sprayed in the face by someone yielding a can of foam.
Overall, a really great experience, but not sure that I will be going back to Oruro anytime soon.

Lots more pictures:

2012.2 Oruro, Bolivia

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