Devils, Dancing, and Debauchery

Trip Start Jan 23, 2010
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Trip End May 31, 2011


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Where I stayed
Sumaj

Flag of Bolivia  , Potosí,
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Potosí  is famous for two things.  The first is for being the world´s highest city, with an elevation of 4000+ meters ´(or about 13,500 feet).  The second is the Cerro Rico, the site of what was once  the world´s largest silver mines, many of which continue to be mined today. 
The mines can be toured for a modest price, but the conditions of the mine itself are apparently quite appalling, The miners, none to few of which are children, work with minimal protective gear, if any, mine using the techniques of colonial times, i.e by hand, and generally die from toxic exposure to chemicals and dust within ten years of entering the mines themselves.
Thus, while tours are famed for their full on, in your face quality, I could´t help but be turned off by the idea of taking a tour of others` suffering, and as such had decided to skip the famed Potosì.

However, the night before my departure from Sucre, I was made aware of the apparently little known fact that one of Bolivia`s greatest festivals would be taking place in Potosì in just two days and it was not to be missed.  I had learned of this festival, which normally takes place at the end of August, via the film "The Devil`s Miner", though this time around the festival was postponed as the result of a month long series of strikes that effectively blockaded the entire region.  Anyhow, as a result of the festival, Potosí was back on the itinerary.

I arrived in the city around 10pm on Friday night, the evening before the festival.  As per usual, I sought out the nearest tourist office in search of a map of the city.  Logically, the other two tourists on the bus; Dario from Rio de Janeiro, Brasil; and Cristian, from Buenos Aires, Argentina did the same.  It was here that we learned more about the impending festival, the general manner of Potosinos,that none of us had accommodations and that the tourist office was out of maps.  Two hours later we emerged, mapless, and with a mission to find a place to sleep. Again two hours later and after MUCH walking around, we finally settled on a mediocre hostel (accommodations were fine but the staff were gruuuuumpy) with the agreement to renew our search the following day. This moment marked the beginning of our inter-American democracy (we put everything to a vote) and two days of  festivaling adventure.

My Partners in Crime
Dario is a  30 year-old minister of something for the government in Rio de Janeiro and currently on a 6 week trip around South America.  He speaks Portuguese, English, and a lil bit o Spanish;  we only speak in Spanish as Cristian knows no English.  He is loose-footed, dances with the hip shaking swagger of a true Brazilian, and eats with foodalloveryourmouth gusto. He is a vegetarian, and doesn´t smoke, drink, or do drugs.

Cristian is a 34 year-old architect and professor in Buenos Aires.  He is on a 3 week vacation and heading back to BA when we meet in Potosì.  Dario and I quickly convince him to delay his bus and join us for a weekend of revelry.  He speaks Spanish, a little Italian, and Portuguese, though we speak only in Spanish as I know no Portuguese. He drinks Mate like a pro (YES!), shhhhhss all of his double ll`s and y`s, and is fun-loving, self-depreciating, and kind.  Cristian loves meat and frequently joins me in giving Dario´s vegetarian-self a hard time.  He is Mormon (that´s right folks, there are Mormons in South America), drinks the occasional glass of wine (mostly with me :), and has numerous questions about Salt Lake City, Utah.

Devils

From what I gathered,the festival honors the Tio, or uncle, which is essentially the deity of the mines.  The idea is that above ground, God rules; but below ground, God`s law and sanctity do not reach, and thus the miners seek protection from the Tio, a devil that must be appeased in order to assure one`s safety.

In order to honor the Tio, miners present offerings within the mine, including coca leaves and rum.  On a grander scale however, the people of Potosí have an annual, all out party in his honor.  This includes an ongoing parade filled with music, dancers, and costumes.  This parade officially continued for two days, though two days after the festival had ended (and weeks before it began), dancers and their respective bands could be found speckled throughout the city.

Dancing
Dancing is the name of the game this weekend, and it  is most easily found on the streets.  On our first night, Thursday, the festival had yet to begin and so we decide to go out for a drink ( meaning I decide to go out for a drink) and struggled to find a place with music.  when we finally did locate something, it was filled with 10 extremely intoxicated women, one man apparently working his way through all of them, and us. Note on this, the female to male ratio in Potosì is disproportionally high.  One contributing factor is said to be that the men generally die after 10 or so years of working in the mines, thus leaving behind a large number of single young widows.

On Friday we did some roaming around and running errands, and during the evening again attempted to go out dancing.  Strangely, everything appeared to be shut down by 9 pm.  Is this Latin America?!"?!? on a festival weekend?!?!?!?
Finally we found one hole in the wall bar where apparently anyone and everyone who wanted to go out dancing could be found.  In the smokey, fog-machine filled bar,  the guys and I tried our hands at salsa for an hour or so before reggaton overtook the scene and Cristian and I bailed while Dario was kidnapped  by  a slightly intoxicated group of young women.

On our way home, Cristian  and I stumbled across a Peña, which is more or less a local
joint with traditional folkloric music.  There was a 8 piece band and about 5 tables filled with empty booze bottles and men that had left their wives at home and I, needless to say, quickly became the highlight.

From what I can tell , the folkloric dance style consists of the women gracefully floating around (bah!, me graceful?!?), sometimes with a handkerchief in hand, while the  men to something similar until they burst into a sudden show of machismo and pound their boots around in apparently ankle-breaking maneuvers.  Meanwhile, the woman (me) continues her graceful prancing, but now, instead of more or less mimicking the man, prances back and forth until the man rejoins her in the twirling.  Thanks to Cristian (who had quite a laugh), videos are coming soon.

On Saturday, we headed out to enjoy the spectacle of the festival where we encountered all sorts of devils, women in scantily clad clothing, others dressed in traditional poofy  tapered skirts and sparkly shirts, men in suits and panama hats, and marching band after marching band after marching band, all pretty much rollin` on  the same rhythm but entertaining none the less. Both the dancers and the bands have been marching along for quite some time, many of them in stilettos, and the fairly intoxicated crowd are quick to offer their assistance, handing  out small cups of water, bootleg liquor, soda, and the occasional swig of beer.  In fact, many members of the parade had taken matters into their own hands and were sporting their own bottle of booze. 
Which leads me to...

Debauchery

Contrary to some of my other festivaling experiences in Latin America, the debauchery this weekend didn´t really include me (nor Dario or Cristian).  Instead, we rolled more on the observer route.  However, we had two distinct  experiences that gave us insight to what one might call the feo (or ugly) side of Bolivian culture. 

First, Cristian stumbled across an unconscious, middle-aged man lying face down and bleeding in the street. Admittedly, there were a number of unconscious, passed out festival-goers lying around, but this man is distinct in that, judging by his injuries, he went from standing to the ground in one fell swoop.  Contrarily, the others were making a slow, general decline to the unconscious position: standing- sitting- and eventually slowly slumping over.

So, we checked his breathing and his pulse (he had both), but no one  (by this time it was Dario, Cristian, and myself as well as two other Bolivians) would let me go any further as they all feared that I would get arrested for robbing him if it appeared that I was too near or too interested. At the very least,  I felt comfortable with the fact that he probably wasn´t going to die and so I didn´t argue. Then we began the extremely unsuccessful process of calling an ambulance.

In Bolivia, you have to pay for practically everything-the bathroom, to take photos in a museum that you´ve already paid to enter, to depart from a bus terminal in which you´ve already purchased a ticket, etc.  As it turns out, you also have to pay to get arrested (and released) or a ride in an ambulance.  Granted, we have to pay for ambulances as well,  but in this case, the person calling the ambulance has to pay a fee upfront.  And, for this reason, NO ONE would call.  D, C, and myself had no phones, so first (before the other two Bolivians arrived) Cristian returned to our hospadaje to have them phone.  They kindly explained that it was a bad idea, that they wouldn´tphone (even when Cristian said he would pay), and that perhaps we should get him to the red cross, which charged as well, but less.  Unfortunately, the red cross doesn´t pick people up, so transporting this bleeding, unconscious man would be up to us.  This returns us to the risk of getting arrested for robbing him.  Regardless, we couldn´t leave him there, because if he didn´t die of some unknown injury, he would most certainly freeze to death.

Eventually, Cristian returned, upset and empty handed.  He and I decided to walk down to the festival and find the police while Dario stayed behind with the newly arrived Bolivian kid and tried t phone them.  Well, Cristian and I looked and looked, but there wasn´t a cop in sight.  After much hapless wondering (remember, during all this dude is passed out and bleeding on the street), we stumble upon not 1 but 25 policemen. However, not a one was even willing to stop walking and talk with us, much less walk up the hill and check on the man or call an ambulance, despite our pleading. Once again, we returned to the man on the street.

Meanwhile, a second local man had arrived and was apologised for the backward way of his country (his words, not mine).  They had, however reached the police and they were apparently on their way.

The police arrived, and one got out of his car saying "yes, yes, he must be drunk" (mind you, this is before he even laid eyes the unconscious man), approaches the man, uses his foot to roll him over while having his head on the other one, and waits for the ambulance.  I, of course, nearly die knowing that dude now has a serious problem if he injured his neck in the fall. Then the "ambulance" arrives, One of the Bolivian guys pays them and the police, and we lift the still unconscious man on to a stretcher and they chuck him into the back of a truck and off they go.

The next incident was down in the festival.  One of the dancers had momentarily stepped out of the parade and was off to the side talking to some man.  I looked over a few minutes later and he had his hands around her neck as she is choking out Basta! ( Stop!).  I hesitated for a second, hardly believing what I was seeing and than ran over there and pushed him off of her.  She glanced from me to him, rubbed her throat and walked away.  He too looked at me, then her, and turned in the other direction.  Cultural lesson number two- domestic violence is quite prevalent in the country.

This must be why Cristian and Dario don´t drink.

Anyway, I don´t want you all to think it was all drunken debauchery, as it really wasn´t.  I think we were just touched by the borracho (drunk) fairy and played witness to more than our fair share of excesses.  Regardless, the festival as a whole was really an impressive sight and I had a wonderful time enjoying with D and C.

The following evening, Dario and I accompanied Cristian to the bus station and said our goodbyes.  Dario left the following morning and I hung around for one more day, checking out la casa de la moneda (the money house) before setting off for Uyuni.

Ciao Potosì, era un gusto!


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Comments

marc armstrong on

thank you for the great story and education!!

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