Carnaval in Oruro is THE Place to be for the beginning of Lent in Bolivia. After we finished our volunteer projects, we went with 50 others from Sustainable Bolivia to the gem of Bolivia. Oruro is an old mining town of 400,000 people that hosts another 200,000 or so for an entire weekend straight of dancing and drinking. After we past through a police checkpoint where we had to leave our trip organizer as a sacrificial lamb to the gods of the bribe, we all piled into an empty office building we rented out as a giant dorm.
50 people, one bathroom, CARNAVAL!
My face still bothered me, but we figured that we’d be on the move and home in no time, so I’d stick it out until we flew home on March 21st. We left Cochabamba on March 4. In three weeks, what could go wrong?
We woke up early on Saturday and found our seats. We had prime real estate in Oruro’s central square, a section of the parade known for being rowdy, loud, and very encouraging for the dancers. 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 (Quechuan “Mother Earth”) and el Tío (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 had to get to our seats by 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. The lead dancer blows his whistle to silence the crowd, then in a powerful charge, the hundreds of the dance troupe leap in unison.
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 beer or bottle of Singani for them to take a swig. One Caporales dancer fell several blocks behind indulging 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 a policeman carrying him off to the boos of the crowd.
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 at the top. 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 the next day, Sunday, I truly reaped the consequences of my conviviality. I woke up after a couple hours of sleep, and the wound on my face seemed to have blown open. It went from being a small scab to a full open wound. It was still small (relative to how bad it would get eventually) but I could no longer deny the affliction. I resolved to get it checked out as soon as I could stay in a place for a few days. We had planned to go to Sucre, Potosí, and Tupiza on our way down to Argentina, then head across to Valparaíso to meet Shalynn’s sponsored child. We soon lost control of all our plans…
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, running the gauntlet of foam sprayers and water bombs. Right as we reached the top we 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.
While a few other girls whom we were traveling with changed their tickets, a kid walked by Shay and me. We were exhausted from the partying and lack of sleep. She was slumped down next to our two big backpacks and our two small backpacks, and this kid dropped his keys right next to me. It seemed to happen in slow motion; I reached down, picked up his keys, and met his eyes as I came up. He smiled – in retrospect I can only describe it as a sly smile – and then said “gracias” and bowed. Shay woke up from the entrancing interaction before I did: “Where’s my backpack?! Shit someone stole my backpack!” She ran off looking for the culprit and I was stuck with the stuff. When she came back I ran around the station in every direction, checking the bathroom stalls, running around the loading bays, peeking into open doorways on the blocks surrounding the bus station. How could we have been so dumb?! We let down our guard at the worst time, in the most crowded tourist attraction in the country. We began to take inventory of what we lost: My laptop, camera, the engagement ring I had just given Shalynn at Machu Picchu. More problematically, we realized Shay had left her travel wallet in the bag. Bye bye passport, cash, credit cards. Suddenly our adventure would become much, much more difficult.
I left Shay in the security office of the bus station with our bags and headed into the traffic to find a Taxi. I sat in a car for a minute and quickly realized we would never make it to the Tourism Police station before they closed in 30 minutes amidst the gridlock of everybody leaving town after the weekend’s festivities. I got out and had to run 20 blocks to the main plaza, feeling my way by the cheers of people still watching the dancing. I fought through the parade (they stop from 6am to 8 am and then hit it hard again) and quickly explained to a Policía that I needed to get in. He took me along the parade route – I glared hard at anyone in the crowd with a can of spray foam. I submitted a police report with the BOOM BOOM BOOM of good times and flowing booze marching by through the wall. I had to cross the street through the Tinku dance to buy paper for them to print a report, and couldn’t resist dancing a little bit to get through the feathers of the costumes. I couldn’t believe our day’s fate. After the craziest party I could ever imagine, I wake up with an open wound on my face and end the day wondering how we are going to get out of Bolivia without Shay’s passport. All I could do was laugh and dance and trust that we’d figure it out.