Sunday, March 1, 2009

How to Enjoy Carnaval in Bolivia

After countless weeks now spent experiencing the uninterrupted lunacy that is Bolivian Carnaval, I officially consider myself an expert. Here's what I've learned:

Step 1:
Arrive in Cochabamba having never spent a second considering that Carnaval, that prototypically Brazilian party-to-end-all-parties, might affect your new life in South America's poorest nation. Witness a few random water balloon fights on the Prado, and dodge a couple lobbed bombs yourself, before being told that Carnaval in this country is synonymous with getting very, very wet. Upon finding out, raise an eyebrow and let out a syllable of combined intrigue and apprehension: "Eh?"

Step 2:
Learn all of the Carnaval tunes, all of them, firsthand as they seep into your bedroom window every weeknight, fresh from the horns blaring in nearby Plaza Sucre. On several different occasions, wander out of the house cautiously to observe from afar the throngs of university students practicing their steps a solid month before the actual day to use them arrives. Once you've built up some courage, take your tripod and shoot a video one night for posterity's sake. Yes, you'll miss this craziness once it's over.

Step 3:
After weeks of waiting, during which the water balloon wars and dancing sessions increase to a fevered pitch, it's finally time for Carnaval to begin. If you have a sick predilection for exhuasting yourself, sign up for a guided tour and hop on an Oruro-bound bus at 4:00am the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. The four-hour journey from the floor of the Cochabamba valley up to the Altiplano is a tedious one, so you'll already be well on your way to fatigue once you arrive in the capital of Carnaval and take your shoddily constructed bleacher seat on the parade route. Sit right there for the next 12 hours while attempting fruitlessly to avoid water balloons and spray foam, projecting your own water balloons and spray foam in retaliation, trying desperately to protect your meals and open beer cans from water balloons and spray foam...oh yeah, and filming as much as you can of the endless parade of crazy costumed dancers going by not ten feet in front of you. Some snapshots will likely remain imprinted in your memory forever.

Once the sun drops, get together with a bunch of your fellow tourists and make an effort to convince the guides that leaving before midnight is a good idea. They'll pretend to agree with you, but the bus will leave at midnight anyway. Try as best you can to slumber on the return home, because it really does no good for you to see how close the driver cuts his passes on the narrow, winding, precipitous highway back down to the valley. Unfortunately, the windows don't close all the way, it's freezing on the Altiplano, and you can't stop shivering.

Step 4:
Stay inside for the next three days. Monday and Tuesday are national holidays, so every male between the ages of 8 and 30 is out in the streets of Cochabamba, just waiting to dump a bucket of water over the head of a naive foreigner. Besides, you need to save your strength, because Carnaval still has one last ace up its sleeve.

Step 5:
While the rest of the Catholic world enters the reflective, self-sacrificing 40 days of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Cochabamba just can't seem to let go of the fun. So the Saturday after Oruro it's time to take to the bleachers once again and clap, dance, drink, soak, and be soaked, against the backdrop of that same old Carnaval soundtrack. Aren't you glad you already know all the songs?

This time, though, the fight is on your turf. You know the streets, you have a shower and a bed close at hand, so there's nothing holding you back. Buy as many globos as you can and see how many unsuspecting revelers you can peg in the face. Hey, they'd do the same to you. The police efforts to ban water balloons and alcohol within the parade area are to no avail; the juggernaut of Carnaval mayhem refuses to be stopped. Just take comfort in the fact that today marks the end...

...or does it?


julie said...

This is great, Hal! I found out that water balloons used to be a part of Brazil's Carnaval--the local lore is that white Brazilians threw water balloons loaded up with flour water at black Brazilians. Fortunately, that Carnaval tradition has disappeared in Brazil.

hal said...

Wow, yeah, that sounds like one tradition best consigned to history!

Somewhat related, I recently learned that most of the Bolivian dance styles featured in Carnaval originated as (sometimes not so) subtle mockeries of the Spanish colonizers.