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Carnaval! Oruro, Bolivia

I could feel the tears starting to well up in my eyes. We were stranded at the Bolivian border. Our cell phones didn't work, we had no cash, there were no ATMs, and credit cards were not accepted anywhere. My tears seemed to soften the Bolivian border guard. He looked concerned and pulled out his radio. He asked for our tickets and then started talking on his radio. Yes, it was official our bus was gone.

The guard then started boarding other buses. At first I didn't understand what he was doing. Then I realized that he was checking busses to our destination in order to find empty seats for us. The empty seats would solve part of our problem, but we still had no money to buy tickets for the seats until we arrived at our destination. The first few busses to Oruro were full, no empty seats. After a few more minutes another bus to Oruro came through. There were a few empty seats. We attempted to board the bus but they wanted us to purchase tickets and all we had were Argentinian pesos, which no one wanted. We were denied a seat.

Finally, the border agent took charge. I think that he was tired of dealing with the helpless Americans. He boarded a bus, talked very rapidly, and escorted us to two empty seats. He told us that he had ordered the driver to put us in his empty seats and that he was taking us to our destination. We didn't discuss payment but it appeared that he left us to work out the payment later. I didn’t care that he wanted to get rid of us, we were no longer stranded at the border and we were on our way to Oruro, Bolivia!

We settled into our seats for the three hour ride. After a few minutes a bus employee approached us and asked for our ticket. I explained that we didn't have one and that the border guard placed us on this bus. The employee then asked for money. I explained that we didn't have any but that when we arrived at the terminal we could get cash from an ATM. This did not seem to satisfy him. He scowled and walked away. A few minutes later the bus slowed down and pulled to a stop at what looked like an extremely small and poor rural community. I grabbed Ol's hand. I was sure that the bus driver was going to force us off the bus and again strand us with no money and no ride. This time we wouldn't have a border guard to help us. We held our breath.

We watched as a few people boarded the bus. This was apparently a regular stop. No one asked us to leave. We let out a sigh of relief. The remainder of the drive was uneventful, and after a few more hours we arrived in the city of Oruro.

Oruro, is a small mining town high in the Andes, at 12,144 feet above sea level. Oruro’s Carnaval is Bolivia’s most famous festival and one of the most famous and oldest festivals in South America. It is one of UNESCOS’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Knowing this, I was still not prepared for the chaos when we got into town. There were buses and people everywhere. Traffic was snarled and the terminal was a sea of humanity. Even though I was worried that I would lose Ol, I ran off to find a bank machine in the terminal so that we could pay for our bus ticket. Ol waited for the driver to unload our bags and would explain to the driver that I would be back with money. I found an ATM, obtained some Bolivian currency, and made my way back to the bus. Ol was standing there with our luggage, but the driver was no where to be found. Ol said that the driver had unloaded our bags and told us to take them and go. He didn't care about the payment. So, with money in hand, it was time to get a bite to eat. I was starving.

We walked out of the bus station and began to look for a restaurant. It quickly became apparent that we would not find the selection of foods that we had become accustomed to in Chile. Oruro was a small working class town reminiscent of some of the more rural areas of South America. Our choices for lunch were grilled chicken, baked chicken, or just plain fried chicken. It was always served with a side of rice and fried potatoes. I gladly chose chicken and a delicious cold coke. Ol reluctantly joined in, only because there was no pizza restaurant to be found.

After my chicken dinner, I was ready to join in the Carnaval! We had no idea where our hotel was, so we decided to grab a cab. The first two we flagged down told us that it was not possible to get to our hotel because of the parade. The map on the phone showed the hotel to be about a mile away. Luckily we tried one more time and finally found a cab that would take us.

We could hear the festivities before we could see them. The buildings were colorfully decorated and we could see people in costumes wandering down the side streets. Every square inch of the streets were lined with vendors selling food and crafts.

The driver let us out on a side street and said that our hotel was a block away. This was as close as a vehicle could get on parade day. We paid the $3 fare and immediately realized that our hotel was not only on the parade route, but had several large balconies overlooking the main parade square. Bolivia was getting back in my good graces!

The front of the hotel was lined with bleachers for watching the festivities. We eventually made our way into the hotel lobby. I had to pinch myself, our hotel was fabulous and we had a balcony on the parade route! Ok, anything would be fabulous after traveling for 24 hours and spending the night on a freezing bus (see previous post).

The music and dancing from the street was contagious, I was revived. I couldn’t believe the beautiful costumes. Ol and I hurried to our room and threw open our curtains and windows. We had to laugh at the sign on the back of the door, asking us to keep our feet off the walls (maybe we were in for a wild weekend after all). As I stepped out onto the balcony, Ol headed back down to the convenience store in the lobby for a few cold cervesas.

Again we couldn’t believe our luck. This was at least our fourth time that we had a hotel room on a square, with a balcony, during a festival. We were supposed to be in Uyuni, Bolivia visiting the salt flats, but changed our plans because of the weather. It all worked out perfectly (yes, I was on my second beer and the Bolivia border incident was now long forgotten and forgiven). We would be in Oruro, through Ash Wednesday and the end of Carnival.

Ol and I love Mardi Gras, but to really understand Ororo’s Carnaval, we had to understand it’s history (

The Oruro festival blends the pagan religious practices of the region with the Catholic religion of the Spanish conquerors. The highlight of the festival is the three day and three night parade of 48 groups of folk dancers over a four kilometer route. In all, there are over 28,000 dancers and about 10,000 musicians in 150 bands. It is overwhelming and exhausting.

The festivities begin with a pilgrimage to the Virgin del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft). The patron saint of the miners. We did not realize when we booked the Hotel Socavon that the hotel was just around the corner from the church and the mineshaft where an image of the Virgin miraculously appeared.

For the next 24 hours we were treated to marching bands, costumed dancers, and religious pilgrims making their way to the church. The competing bands intersected on the street just below our balcony. We had front row seats!

After visiting the church, the pilgrimage culminates in the enactment of two medieval-style plays which take place in the streets of the parade route. The first is about the Spanish conquest with it’s condors, Spanish conquistadors, Incas, slaves and llama herders.

The second play was introduced by the Catholic clergy in 1818 and is a battle between good and evil, with the Archangel Michael triumphing over El Tio, the Devil, and the Seven Deadly Sins.

These tableaus were performed with hundreds of dancers and musicians in the square in front of our room. To see the performers in their elaborate costumes dance and parade for hours non-stop is something to behold. There are no floats, just a beautiful moving devotion of music, song, and dance.

We were also treated to native folk dances from Bolivia and the ancient ritual dances of Bolivia’s indigenous communities. The costumes were colorful, beautiful and mesmerizing.

Walking in the streets among the revelers was insanity. In between dancing groups, the streets would fill with people of all ages holding giant cans of spray foam. Within minutes the parade goers were doused with foam and water. Anyone carrying a spray can is fair game. I also suspect that foreigners are particularly susceptible to a good soaking.

The thing that surprised me the most about the revelry was the lack of alcohol. This parade was a family event and a religious celebration. Ol and I only saw a few people who may have had too much to drink. This was refreshing, considering some of the events we have seen in South America. Not to mention our own Mardi Gras celebrations back home.

For Bolivians the week long event is televised and it is a great honor to participate in the festivities. It takes months of practice and conditioning to be ready for Carnaval. Each Krewe performed an entire thirty minute tableau in front of us. They then marched the four kilometer parade route, stopping in at least three more squares to perform all over again.

After twenty-four hours, the revelry was finally winding down. The parade lasted into the wee hours of the morning. We were exhausted and all we did was watch. We went to bed with the sounds of marching bands still echoing down the city streets. The next morning, after some much needed sleep, we decided to see a little of the city. We boarded the city’s cable car to get to the top of the mountain overlooking the city, where a gigantic Virgin del Socavon statue keeps watch over the entire region. We stopped and watched children sliding down a hill on cardboard boxes on the street adjacent to the church.

People were still partying in front of the church while the stairs and walkways were getting a good washing. As we went up the cablecar, we could hear fireworks throughout the city reverberating off the tin roofs. When we reached the top we had a great 360 degree view of the city and the plateau. We decided to pay the $1 USD to visit the museum located at the base of the Virgen. It had a great museum showing the origins of Carnaval with great photos going back to the 1880’s.

We spent the rest of the day looking for something to eat. The entire city was closed because of the holiday and we couldn’t find a restaurant open. We ended up eating peanut butter, crackers, and soup, in our hotel room. So much for a Fat Tuesday for us, our Lenten fast was starting sooner rather than later.

On Ash Wednesday, we packed up and headed to the bus terminal. We would be heading three hours north to La Paz, which would serve as our base for the next few weeks as we toured the rest of Bolivia.

As we settled in for the evening we heard a very loud explosion. It was much more intense that the firecrackers that could be heard non-stop. In fact the explosion rattled the windows to our hotel and we could actually feel the building shake. We were more than a little upset and saddened to discover the next morning that the explosion was actually from a bomb that killed several people and injured scores more. A terrorist had targeted the Carnaval festivities. We were fortunate to not have been on the streets at that time. The United States State Department actually ranks Bolivia as one of the safest countries in South America for terrorism. It is much safer than most areas. However, we have learned that Bolivian political divisions are strong and deep. It is against the law for foreigners to engage in political demonstrations in the country. We would have no problem following that law.

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