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Nathaniel Loewentheil Headshot

Deviled Dancers, Drunken Pilgrimages and the Magic of Bolivia's Carnaval

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It felt more like an icy baseball than a water balloon. "Bienvenidos a Carnaval," los jovenes (adolescents) shouted at me as the car skated by, leaving me nearly bruised and totally drenched. Little did I know that balloon was only the first sip of the soaking celebrations that lay ahead - hailing from non-Louisiana America, I was simply unprepared for the carnivalism that is February in Bolivia. Originally a Catholic festival giving vent to the vices of devotees before the 40-day strictures of Lent - where alcohol and rich foods are often sworn off - here in Bolivia the holiday has become more seasonal than religious, liberally mixing Christian theology, Andean tradition, alcohol and water fights in a month-long embrace of the waning days of summer. In the process, Carnaval manages to lace together many of the seemingly contradictory threads of Bolivian society, creating a thickly lustrous and many-hued - if not quite unadulterated - cultural tapestry.

My first globo - as water balloons are known here - was nearly four weeks out from the beginning of Lent. In the days that followed, the streets became ever more aquatically treacherous. I found myself avoiding open doorways and suspiciously eyeing kids on the streets, knowing their predilection for gringo targets. Americans and women being the prime balloonees, my gringa friends had it even worse. As the days wore on, the soakings became a nearly unavoidable daily ritual, moving from charmingly refreshing to frustratingly inevitable. Luckily, I was to learn, Carnaval holds out charms to the young and old, and the only thing that flows more freely than water is beer.

Though the season's liberal spirits are in the air - and in the cups - for many weeks, the partying starts in earnest on the first Thursday in February, designated as "Compadres" - technically "godfather" but here closer to "drinking buddies." Bands of guy friends gather up for a boy's night out, hitting barbecue restaurants and bottles with equal intensity before regrouping for the bars and discos. Only after midnight can women join the party, though due to the dubious mix of roasted meat and alcohol few seemed so inclined. Femalelessly uninhibited, the toasts continued toasting till the sun rose.

A week later the roles were reversed as the city's female population sallied forth for Comadres. Comadres most closely resembles a massive bachelorette party, with each group decked out in their unique - to choose a generous word - costumes; bright green headbands, 80's-style leggings and unsubtle sexual innuendo held the dance floors against all comers.

On Friday morning, after a few hours sleep, a good portion of Cochabamba's under-30 crowd heads a hundred and fifty mile south to the city of Oruro, home to Bolivia's most famous Carnaval celebration. Pulling up to the bus terminal after the blessedly brief five-hour ride, however, I feared a mistake had been made. Oruro is a cold and rather somber location, with fading paint, decayed buildings and a noticed lack of street repair. It reminded me of nothing so much as a rough neighborhood in my hometown of Baltimore, a city all-too conscious of its long-past industrial glory. But as we cleared our way from the transit hub, the city's festival unfolded before us as a quintessentially Bolivian cultural collage: streets filled with roasting chickens and waving flags, youngsters carrying water guns and sweets, masks, streamers and ponchos for sale on every corner. A visit to Oruro at any other time of the year might be hard to justify, but the week of Carnaval is a glorious, noteworthious exception.

The weekend's events center around la entrada, a dance parade that snakes five kilometers through the city's central avenues. From early Saturday morning straight through till dawn on Monday, these dances slither and shake uninterrupted through the streets. The route is lined on both sides with large bleachers to accommodate the 300,000-odd festival-goers. The thronging spectators, filling the barely-standing stands, cheer loudly for 48 uninterrupted hours, drinking thousands of beers and exchanging - in true Carnaval spirit - tens of thousands of globos over the heads of the dance groups.

These are no ordinary dance groups, however. From the jungles to the north, lowlands to the east and mountains to the west come more than 30,000 Bolivians, each part of one of more than 100 dance fraternities. These fraternities are both social clubs and dance organizers; over the course of a year, each group might perform five or six times in various festivals while holding dozens of other parties and get-togethers. But these are mere limbering exercises for the Oruro weekend, the apogee of the fraternity calendar. Groups begin weekly practices three months ahead of time, while each member is fitted annually with a hand-stitched original costume. Costumes, though unique to each group, identify the fraternity with one of a dozen dance traditions, each with its own rich history and set of associations. Corporales, for example, growing out of southern, horse-country Tarija, incorporates large metal spurs on each caballero's ankle. Tinku, meanwhile, is a stylized Andean fight-dance, developed from annual rural boxing matches among young men, historically savage enough to result in death. More than merely a performance style, dances serve as cultural markers, uniting fraternity groups and individuals around the country.

The dedication and seriousness of purpose shows through in each and every troupe. The proud performers spring from foot to foot for more than five hours as they process through the streets, their bright costumes shimmering with each acrobatic move. By day, eagles fly and bears waggle before the crowds, men somersaulting and jeweled, bedecked women of all ages eliciting loud shots of "beso" - kiss - from the eager crowd. By night, the streets alight with live flames licking from ornate headdresses and firecrackers shooting from otherwise-traditional spears. It is a flowing sea of coordinated movement, with waves of hundred-person marching bands cresting among the agile human waters.

Most famous of all the dances is la diablada, a performance narrative that pits El Diablo against the Archangel Michael in a battle of temptation and purity for the soul of Carnaval. Fierce devil masks and blazing swords parry back and forth as the eternal adversaries joust in perfect sync over the asphalt and through the plazas. The contest is more than metaphor amidst a weekend that so strangely yet smoothly unites the base and the spiritual. Carnaval would not be Carnaval without heavy drinking and everything that accompanies it - merrymaking, boisterousness, sex and the occasional outbreak of violence. Yet it maintains a deeply and authentically religious air. Saturday morning begins with a procession of priests blessing the parade and offering thanksgivings. Early Sunday morning, fraternity member still on their feet unite at the city's cathedral to receive a blessing from the city's Virgin del Socavón, the patron saint of miners, to whom the festival is dedicated. This is far from formulaic - praying for the year ahead, many tears are shed by the exhausted but pious devotee dancers.

The weekend is not only religious but civic. Each fraternity shoulders the cost of their performance; the hand-made customs, instrument rentals and transportation to and from Oruro can cost more than $20,000, a small fortune here in Bolivia. The dances are a gift both to the Virgin and to the citizens of Oruro, given as a sign of religious devotion and community spirit.

This gift, in turn, is recognized and respected by the crowds. While la gente party beyond their heart's content in the stands, they maintain a deep appreciation for the dancers; globos, for example, can be hurled with alarming force at friends and foes alike, but let an errant balloon hit a costume-clad bailerine and the crowd will turn with immediate anger. There are two simultaneous fiestas - the tawdry party of the stands and the holy celebration of the streets. And though the physical lines between participants and spectators blur as the weekend intoxicates itself, an ethical boundary remains.

The alcohol-infused pilgrimage is not the only strange weave of the weekend. While the horned dancers who make up la diablada - the devil's dance - purportedly represent the Christian Satan, the tradition dates directly back to the worship of Huari, a pre-Columbian god of the underworld who jealously protected his mineral wealth and demanded elaborate ceremonies. His symbols, especially the snake and the grasshopper, are in proud display in many of the weekend costumes. The history of the weekend is one of this kind of continuous adaptation to new practices and new cultures, passing not only the two religions but myth and folklore through one vibrant loom.

After a long weekend of partying - many Bolivians come without lodgings and stay on the streets for the full two days - attendees return home by the bus and truckload late Sunday and early Monday. But while Carnaval Orureno slowly unwinds, the same colorful weave of practices is unrolling across the country. Monday and Tuesday are feriadas, national holidays, with every school and virtually every company and store in the country closed. The commercial pause lets families gather in their homes. Many use the time to attend church and prepare for Lent. Many more - including some of those same Catholics - hold challahs, a traditional Andean ceremony to bless homes and businesses. Koas - collections of herbs, coca leaves, and other small offerings to pachamama - are burned over coal fires, drifting earthy smoke through avenues and alleys. While these parallel religious devotions are being offered, families of every cloth are buying bonbons and confetti in ample measure, filling children's mouths with sweets and streets with brightly strewn fliers. Brightly strewn wet fliers, that is; las feriadas are the height of the water wars, as trucks filled with young people careen through town with tanks of water, bucketing unlucky pedestrians and generally wrecking mayhem.

The following weekend, floods subsided, towns and cities large and small hold their own entradas. Though not on the scale of Oruro, these are still massive celebrations that shut down city centers and draw tens of thousands of spectators; Cochabamba's proceso de procesos, their version of the parade, is the city's largest party of the year.

Exhausted from the previous week, I had only joined Cocha's festivities at 8 pm, 12 hours behind my already drunken compatriots. And I must admit that, despite my late start, by the proceso's last procession late Saturday night I was over-ready for rest, relaxation and a bit of mental and physical cleansing. Rising early Sunday morning for an ambitious jog, I realized I was not the only one ready to forget the exuberances of the last few weeks - there was a an army of city employees filling the streets, dismantling the bleachers and cleaning up the debris of Cochabamba's great hoorah. Within hours, the city was back to its quasi-orderly self, and bleary-eyed families were heading through the now-clean streets to Mass.

The rapid shift from cheap beer to holy sacrament was strangely in harmony with the rest of the season. It is these contradictory elements - the raucous boozing and the pious praying, the Christian and the pagan, the tranquil family gatherings and the riotous streets - that ultimately define Carnaval. It is a plurination-wide moment of release, a month of relaxed hierarchy, occasional lawlessness and the flaunting of social mores. And yet it is also a festival deeply rooted in community, a space in time where people come together to celebrate in a form that binds together Bolivia's complicated cultural fibers. More than even the water balloons, I was most struck by the deeply communal sense of joy that bounded through each and every household throughout those early weeks of February, a social fabric woven more tightly than any I've seen in America.