A blog begun on February 16, 2010, the end of Carnaval in Cochabamba
It is 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 16, 2010, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and in another hour, the Carnival season will end. In my quarters on the second floor of our home in North Cochabamba, I hear the sounds of laughter and shouting, cars passing, and the occasional rapid boom-boom-boom of a pack of Chinese firecrackers just set off. On the Fourth of July in Tennessee, dogs jump their fences when fireworks explode. We always brought our sensitive Dalmatians inside the house to calm their nerves. When Henry, our host dad here, sets off a pack of firecrackers just outside the house, very close to where the family gathers for food and drink, the dogs don’t even flinch as the firecrackers explode.
Joel and I had scheduled this weekend to travel to the college where we are hoping to work in Carmen Pampa. This trip was to have taken six hours by bus on a Friday night just to get to La Paz—we had bought buscama tickets, meaning that we had booked large seats on the bus that reclined into almost comfortable beds. We bought four tickets on Thursday night, for Clare, Nora, Joel, and me, so that we would be read to leave on Friday night. Unfortunately, Joel was set back by a recurrence of an amoeba attack, and was literally unable to get out of bed all day on Friday. Some Tinitazol pills for parasites, the oral rehydration packets, and the blanco (white) diet were the course of treatment prescribed by our doctor host, Henry. By the afternoon, Joel was able to walk around, but the long trip to Carmen Pampa was out of the question. Clare and Nora were still able to go, but Joel and I would have to wait another time. We went on to plan B.
We were invited to spend Monday and Tuesday with our host family and their extended families, a round of Carnaval parties that would introduce us to the festivities of the season. Ever since we arrived, the city has been celebrating, but as the last four days approach, with a weekend and two days off for most working people, the energy, music, and numbers of globos (water balloons thrown at innocent passersby) rise. Best to remain inside those last two days, unless one wants to get drenched by the water balloons and water pistols hurled at us by people lurking on the street corners and on the backs of trucks that pass by.
We went to one birthday party, a cumpleanos for a cousin, on Monday. The children were out in the sunshine as the adults pumped up a large swimming pool for the children. It was dutifully filled, and then the soaking began. Henry and Lily, our host dad and mom, acted like children as they pointed the water hose at anyone who ventured into the yard. Buckets of water were poured on guests as they arrived, sometimes buckets filled at the freezing-cold water spigot. I remained dry longer than anyone. We had gone to Mass that day, a memorial for the grandfather whose birthday was that day, and I was in a skirt and blouse, unlike the others in shorts and tee-shirts. Lily and Henry heartlessly soaked their own children and the friends they had brought with them. The youngest generation, ranging from three to six years old, were continually shooting their water guns and receiving a baptismal soaking from a full bucket of water. As fiesta music played in the background, Andean, contemporary, or Latina dance music, the meat was barbecued, the salsa made, and the side dishes were brought out onto the tables. As all of us tried to get dry before our meal, and tried to stay dry afterwards, a nearly impossible task, we watched as new arrivals were either pushed into the pool or doused with a bucket of water. No one was left with any dignity at this party.
Joel and I walked home—a few blocks—and noticed that no one threw water balloons at us. Why should they? We were already soaked as we trudged home.
The next day, today, is Fat Tuesday, by North American standards. Here, the Lenten season is different from the one at home. We followed the customs of our host family. Joel and I were invited to help decorate the outside of the house for Carnaval. We strung rolls of ribbon on the outside of the house, weaving it in and out of the decorative but protective metal guards over the windows. We threaded the ribbons around the small trees and plants in the garden, like garlands wound around Christmas trees. We blew up balloons and tied them all over the house, inside and out. We started a charcoal fire and placed a pre-packaged collection of ritual objects on top of the flames. This was a koa, the things burned as a way of honoring Mother Earth, or Pachamama, as the indigenous people call it. Finally, we opened a bottle of sweet wine, which tasted like sherry, poured out glasses for everyone, and then poured libations throughout the house, at all four corners. Traditionally, I am told, chicha, the popular fermented drink made of maize, is used, but not this time.
For good measure, I took my glass of sherry up to our own quarters and poured it at all four corners of our large room. It was not holy water, but I felt almost as if I were blessing my own living space, along with that of my host family. I thought of all the traditions observed in my own home at Christmas time, the family rites of leaving out Christmas cookies for Santa Claus, although the children were grown, hanging up stockings, or simply the ritual of selecting and decorating the Christmas tree.
After observing traditions, we all got into the family car and drove two blocks to Lily’s brother’s house, where we were to eat dinner. But no, dinner would not be ready for two more hours. What to do? Joel and I, not knowing what was happening but trusting in our family’s judgment, went along for the ride to places unknown outside Cochabamba.
First, we paid a surprise visit to a nephew, his wife, and two small children. There, we participated in their rites of Carnaval as well. Another koa is burned. I learned more about the symbolic meaning of the objects that were burned. The white objects burned (such as play money) represent the house, money, car, work, books, that is, the things of material worth to the family. Other ritual objects burned were white flowers or petals (for peace), cinnamon (for harmony), sugar (for happiness), and coca (for union and community). The koa ritual expresses thanks for food, the garden, flowers, grass, water, work, and health. Just as some people eat black-eyed peas for good luck at the beginning of the New Year, this practice is a way of asking for prosperity in the coming year: good work, food, money, peace, harmony in the house, happiness, and tranquility.
I thought that the Tuesday festivities before Ash Wednesday, Miercoles de Cenizas, would bring the carnaval season to a close, but I was yet to see the city’s parade of dancers or bailarinos. This procession of dancers, representing many organizations of the city, would dance from 9:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night. The next weekend we would purchase seats in one of the many bleachers set up on the parade route around the city. The exuberance, energy, and costumes of the dancers held my attention as each group danced by, with its musicians walking behind, blowing trumpets and beating drums. However, my favorite moment of the entire day was the one hour when Joel and I left the fiesta to drink some coffee at the Brasilian café, a quiet, darkened place where we could talk, safe for the moment from the globos.
So my experience of Carnaval extended beyond Ash Wednesday, and I found myself between two cultures, one that was exuberantly celebrating life with food, dance, and drink, and one that was focusing on examination of the inner self, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. As we left the parades that evening, I felt some balance of the two worlds as I watched Henry give three street children the leftover ham and cheese sandwiches from our repast earlier. In the midst of these bright festivities, alms.