Ten crazy things about Carnaval: Bolivian style!

In the UK, about the craziest we get in the run-up to Lent is a few pancakes with a bit of lemon, sugar, Nutella or, if you’re my mother, salt (weirdy Lithuanian!). And then we get on with moaning about the sudden appearance of Easter bunnies and cream eggs for about six weeks. But not in Bolivia. Oh, no! Their pre-Lent thing goes on for about four days, and none of this frugal idea of using stuff up: this is a full-on excuse for a party, a load of buying stuff and a lot of messiness. So, here goes…

10. Saturday before Shrove Tuesday is Oruro day. Their parade is that huge (yes, that huge) that it’s been UNESCO recognised (in the category of ‘Stuff-It’s-Really-Hard-To-UNESCO-Recognise, which actually has a fancier and more official sounding name) and goes on all day. So for weeks before you’re bombarded with offers for packages to go there, and for weeks afterwards you’re being told that you really should have been.

9. There’s that much drinking goes on (start early, keep going as long as you can) at said Oruro that no-one who actually went can remember it. That’s why you have lots of slightly out-of-focus photos though, right?

8. The ever-flaky Bolivian timetabling of anything and everything gets about a hundred times worse. Try to buy a bus ticket for Tuesday: ‘Ooh, no, we’re not running then’. Monday? ‘Ooh, no, I’m not sure…’ When will you be sure? ‘Monday?’ Grrrr…

7. Despite the fact that all of the Carnival stuff happens every year, it still has to be televised because, you know, there’s nothing else going on. So as if there weren’t enough people clogging up the streets, hanging around the bus station trying to get to Oruro (diving in front of you because who needs queues?), the TV crews are there, getting in the way by interviewing ticket sales people (erm, excuse me, I’m trying to BUY A TICKET here…) and trying to get shots of us tourists, just to prove how popular it is. (Let’s not rain on their parade by telling them that I was actually after a ticket for next week…)

6. La Paz is also fond of parades. Ones that go down the main street, blocking it off for four days. Attempting to get to the station, I was assured by a variety of people that it was simply impossible. But impossible is nothing: I just had to do a detour so long that I was half expecting to be asked for my passport and find I’d ended up in Brazil.

5. Paceños aren’t big fans of rules of the road at the best of times. Get to Carnaval and they just give in altogether. Walk down the middle of the road? Yeah, fine. Set up a little barbecue in the middle of the road? Why not? Set off firecrackers as buses are driving past. Sure thing!

4. Speaking of those firecrackers… So, they don’t do Pancake Day here, they do Challa. And what is that, I hear you ask? Well, in a wonderfully mixed-up Bolivian way, it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, since it’s all about blessing your house/ shop/ car/ pet and asking the Pachamama for a healthy and prosperous time ahead. (Kind of like Alasitas, but without little stuff). There are flower petals, spilling of beer (deliberately: wards off the evil spirits, because you obviously don’t mix your drinks), little charcoal bonfires with a selection of things being burned on them… Balloons are tied to cars, streamers are wrapped around things and people. Loud music (VERY loud music) is played, with the aim being to drown out your neighbour. Dancing on the street ensues. This starts at about 9am…

3. Of course, this means that shops are confusingly closed but with their doors open. Meaning that Monday is a bit of a siege-preparation day, unless you want to live off beer and candied nuts. Or, you know, if you’ve just done a 14 hour bus journey from the other end of the country.

2. But it’s OK, you don’t need food, because you’ll probably end up swallowing a load of foam. And getting covered in water. Water pistols, balloons and cans of shaving foam are sold in vast quantities on every street corner (along with plastic ponchos, but that’s surely defeating the object?) and are put to pretty good use. Dropping from upstairs windows or squirting out of car windows isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. Especially if your target is a tourist. Mother of family joining in too? Of course. And if you run out of foam in your can, just scoop some off your hair and dab it directly on to someone. I suppose it could be worse: so far it’s only been water in the balloons. Or have I just tempted fate?

1. Those firecrackers. Part of the whole blessing ritual, no-one seems to have any objection to letting them off in the most inappropriate of places: covered shopping arcades, offices, the side of the road. And you get worryingly used to being surrounded by what sounds like gunfire (but hopefully isn’t). And flying sparks. Ah, Bolivia, land of health and safety…

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