‘The whole country is just one great big Fellini fest’, said Jim in the run-up to Carnival. Sucre was awash with music and parades; dancing in the streets, folklore, traditional costumes, youths throwing balloons filled with water, kids shouldering massive water pistols, and squirting spray foam. It was just one big party. And it went on for weeks.
Bands – groups sometimes of fifteen to twenty people – played guitars of varying sizes, brass and wind instruments and drums. ‘Bong, bong, bang’, sounds resounded around the plaza, and floated up to our apartment on the hill, a fifteen-minute walk away. More than music, this was pure joy and enthusiasm. Each band member seemed to do their own thing, dancing while they played, running around in circles, jumping up into the air; some did ‘Shadows’-style kicks. Individuals, but together. Apart but a whole. Spontaneous but with just enough discipline to give cohesion. It was great fun. And whenever we could we followed the band, willing them to play more. We trailed our favourite group into a closed courtyard. While they played, the family who seemed to have hired them, danced. A child stood and watched, in open-mouthed wonder. A band member took a small girl by the hand and still playing, they danced conga style – as the rest of the band followed behind, unfurling like a khaki coloured ribbon. Other family members handed out food and alcohol – to anyone and everyone. We were not excluded. After half an hour or so, the band stopped playing, packed away their instruments and left – like a flash-mob disappearing into the crowd. It was almost as if it had never happened. But it did, time and time again.
Bands played on ‘Compadres’ day while the men ate, drank lots of ‘chica’ (a fermented corn drink) and ‘tigre de leche’, and socialised in celebration of their friendship. Women waited on them but a week later on ‘Comadres’ day the bands played again, when roles were reversed and women took centre stage.
Bands played again during the ‘carnival of yesteryear’ parade. Group after group of dancers twirled and whirled their way down from La Recoleta to the plaza. Masked faces, flaring skirts, feathered hats, linked arms, yards of lace, and tired eyes. It was a blur of colour and excitement. During brief moments while dancers paused to catch their breath, children hurled balloons filled with water and covered each other with spray foam, shrieking and laughing. Boys bombarded girls. Girls ganged up on boys. All ran back to mum when it became too much, wiped their faces with a towel, and refilled their super-soakers before returning to the fray. Sellers worked the crowd amongst the pandemonium, scurrying past the kids, shielding their wares with an arm or a hand. Candy-floss, sunshades, ice-lollies, sweets and blow-up spider men. It was seaside in the city, a holiday for all.
Carnival ended on what we call Shrove Tuesday. In Bolivia it’s Challa. One last chance to go crazy before the onset of Lent. Amidst the music and the water fights, people give thanks to Pachamama or Mother Earth. The first sip of a drink is poured on the ground as an offering to her. Marcelo and Karla burned incense and decorated their home and car with coloured streamers. The little garden at the back of the house filled with their family. Elsewhere in the city, families held impromptu barbecues on their doorsteps as they ate and spent time together.
Carnival, a celebration in the true sense of the word.