Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In the name of Pachamama and St Patrick

Nothing says welcome to my home more than a bloody pig head skewered on a butchers hook and hung outside the front door. If you can get past the pigs head we’ll be happy to offer you a cup of our finest “chicha”, a beer brewed from corn fermented with our very own saliva. If the chicha isn’t enough to get you up and dancing with us, we’ll hit your legs with a long stick until you do! They certainly don’t teach this kind of hospitality in those snobby finishing schools but this is Bolivian hospitality at its best!

When I signed up to spend a night in the small town of Tarabuco, about 2 hours bus ride from the city of Sucre, in central Bolivia, I didn’t know what to expect. A hostel with beds and sheets was promised but for 150 Bolivianos (about £15), including transport, I was understandably sceptical.

The only thing that regularly draws visitors to Tarabuco is the weekly textiles market and perhaps the very gory statue in the main square but this weekend was an exception. This weekend was the annual Pujllay Festival, Bolivia’s largest indigenous festival, drawing people from all over the country. Sunday was the main event but as Bolivia’s best band was being billed as a not-to-be-missed event on Saturday night, it seemed logical to head to Tarabuco the day before.

To my relief, the bus ride was uneventful and once in Tarabuco we were chaperoned through town to our accommodation. Our “hostel” was essentially a large room lined with beds off the courtyard of a small house. Primitive, but if the place was ever to appear on Hostelworld (highly unlikely), the thick blankets on the beds would definitely bump up the ratings, considering the rapidly dropping temperature! Vegetarians and animal lovers however, might not have approved of the fresh pig head hanging about 5 metres from our bedroom door. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we weren’t served up bacon for breakfast and the animal remained there all weekend.

Once we got settled and ran out of bacon jokes, we found ourselves in the middle of a Bolivian party, being accosted by little Bolivian ladies scooping large cups of “chicha” out of big buckets. Chicha is a traditional tipple made from maize, which is often moistened by human saliva as part of the brewing process. A big part of travelling is trying local food and drink, however I’d had a minor bout of food poisoning the day before and the thought of these lovely ladies fermenting what I was about to drink was making my stomach churn. I managed to down the first cup, which was readily refilled and the ladies looked on at us “gringos”,eager for us to drink more. It was only about 6pm but this party had kicked off well before we arrived and it was pretty quickly becoming clear that our hosts had already downed a lot of chicha. They danced in a circle around the tiny room, sloshing more chicha onto the floor than what they were managing to drink. I made a quick dash for the door before more chicha was forced upon me. The gringos who stayed were treated to more dancing and when they weren’t deemed to be dancing enough, one of the locals produced a big stick and started hitting their legs with it until they moved!

Getting into the much hyped concert was a bit of a farce. The concert was free but you still needed a “ticket”, which was essentially a white square of paper. The line for a “ticket” was separate to the entry line but this logic was a bit beyond gringo logic and by the time we worked this out, all the “tickets” were gone. In a nod to gringo ingenuity however, I tore up a photocopy of my passport and we all managed to get in without a second glance from the bouncers.

Once in however, getting out proved difficult. Unfortunately the bands were a little underwhelming and the Bolivians in the crowd were so subdued it was more like they were watching a session of question time in parliament then about the see their country’s best band. We made for the exit, only to be told we could only leave via the opposite exit, where we were told we could only leave via the exit we’d just come from. We were locked in and the fear of being locked in a stadium with thousands of people was only heightened by the fact that the police bought in for the event had started using tear gas to subdue the crowds waiting to get in the main entrance. I’d just convinced myself I could probably survive a jump out of one of the windows around the top of the stadium when they decided to start letting people out.

Once out we faced the conundrum of what to do in Tarabuco on a Saturday night. Like teenagers to a McDonalds carpark, we headed to the main square to see if anything was happening. And like the McDonald’s carpark, there was nothing at all going on. There was only one thing for it then, rum! We scoped out every shop in town and nowhere did they sell rum. The last shop we visited and our last hope smelled like a horse stable, sold everything from liquor to nails but no rum. We were eventually forced to settle on a bottle of Singani, a nasty white spirit. A woman and her very elderly mother manned the shop, the older woman had a furrowed face that made it impossible to guess her age but suggested a life of certain hardship. The bottle of Singani we bought, and the accompanying bottle of coke, may have been as old as her because the younger woman had to wipe a very thick layer of dust off both. Just at that moment the lights in the entire town went out and we had to complete our transaction via candlelight. This proved very convenient for our shopkeepers, who charged us 50 Bolivianos for the alcohol, even though once in the light again we realised the bottle was marked very clearly in large black writing, 40 Bolivianos. We had to forgive the ladies though, as judging by the smell and accumulated dust in the shop, it had probably been quite some time since they had seen any custom.

So we drank our Singani and coke out of plastic cups in the darkness of the main square until we were invited to a local party in the courtyard of a nearby house. An improvised bar was selling 1.5 litre bottles of some kind of warm alcohol that looked like Pepsi for 15 Bolivianos, or about $2, a certain recipe for a headache. We listened to traditional Bolivian music and drank alongside the locals into the wee hours before returning to our room, being careful to avoid the pig head on the way in the door.

The next day was the day of the festival, when all the locals and their indigenous cousins from the surrounding area descend on the town in their traditional dress. Groups from the different communities danced through the square and down one of the main streets to a large grassy field where a massive totem pole had been constructed. On the totem pole hung huge carcasses of meat, cigarettes, bottles of alcohol and other goods, offerings to the god Pachamama (Mother Earth). The groups took turns to dance around the pole. Many of the men wore colourful ponchos and headdresses, as well as platform shoes with huge spikes on the back which had potential to cause serious damage to unsuspecting tourists getting too close to the action in thongs.
The streets were lined with ladies selling all different types of meat, parts of which I couldn’t even identify, and all of which would probably cause serious problems for a gringo stomach. As the day wore on, the chicha kept flowing, the casualties of which could be seen passed out in doorways along the streets. Before things got too out of hand it was time for us to leave and make the trip back to Sucre.

Footnote: The 2013 Annual Pujllay Festival just happened to fall on St Patrick’s Day and as I was in the company of a couple of very festive Irish people, it was only right that the festivities should continue once we got back to Sucre. We headed to the local pub for drinking games. One of the boys had bought a tiny fluffy yellow chicken from the festival for a huge 1 Boliviano (about 15 cents, so cheap the feed cost twice as much as the actual animal). The chicken quickly acquired the name“Chirps” because of the constant noise it made and was brought along to join in the fun at the pub (no health regulations in Bolivia). It was the centre of attention and also became the centre of a couple of enthusiastic drinking games. Being a Sunday night, the pub closed far too early for our liking and we were left with very few, actually only one option, a karaoke bar.

Had I known exactly what this bar was like I probably would have opted for bed but it seemed like a good idea until upon entering we were hit by the overpowering stench of vomit. We were led down into the basement of the building to the karaoke area where the smell seemed to improve, or we just got used to it. The club had black lights which would have done the job of illuminating the white tablecloths, if they had ever been washed, and a trip to the bathroom proved a bad idea. Picture every festival porta-loo you’ve ever been too then imagine a toilet in a state worse than that and you have some idea of how bad it was. The English song selection wasn’t huge but we eventually found ourselves belting out the likes of Madonna, Shakira and The Eagles. Even Chirps made an appearance and was serenaded by his smitten new owner to “Hotel California”. Our singing left a lot to be desired but it was far better than the efforts of the locals.

When it came time to leave it seemed we weren’t allowed, de javu it seemed! Apparently the bar was operating illegally and we were made to wait near the exit, security telling us that the police were upstairs and until they left, we couldn’t leave. Thankfully it wasn’t too long before we were out into the fresh air and tranquillity of Sucre and on our way home from possibly the most random weekend of my life. And thankfully there was no pig head hanging on the door of our hostel to welcome us back!