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Oruro Carnival

Bolivia (February 2012) 2012)

This annual carnival takes place during February each year and has more than 2000 years of history and heritage. It is the most popular festive event in Bolivia and perhaps one of the top and greatest festivals of the world. In 2001 an international jury of public figures, convened by the Organization of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), declared the Oruro Carnival as a "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."

The event takes place in the city if Oruro, which is known as the folklore capital of Bolivia, situated more than 100 kilometres from the country's capital city, La Paz. There is a very important local legend for the city of Oruro, according to which, the Urus people who live in the area were tempted by the god Wari to follow him, but they resisted. In revenge Wari decided to punish them by sending a giant snake, but the Ñusta (indigenous priestess) cut it in half and turned the pieces into stones. Next Wari sent a giant frog, which was also turned into stone by the Ñusta, and then he sent a giant lizard and the Ñusta cut off its head and also turned the pieces into stones. However, when at last, Wari sent an army of giant ants, the Nusta this time turned them into sand.

The carnival is really the Ito festival of the Urus people. 'Its ceremonies stem from Andean customs, the ancient invocations cantering around Pachamama (Mother Earth, transformed into the Virgin Mary due to Christian syncretism) and Tio Supay (Uncle God of the Mountains, transformed into the Devil). The native Ito ceremonies were stopped in the 17th century by the Spanish, who were ruling the territory of Upper Peru at the time. However, the Urus continued to observe the festival in the form of a Catholic ritual on Candlemas, in the first week of each February. Christian icons were used to conceal portrayals of Andean gods, and the Christian saints represented other Andean minor divinities.

The ceremony begins forty days before Easter. Legend also has it that in 1789, a mural of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared in a mineshaft of the richest silver mine in Oruro. Ever since, the Carnival has been observed in honour of the Virgen de la Candelaria (Virgin of the Candle Mass) or Virgen del Socavon (Virgin of the Mineshaft). The most important elements of the Carnival now occur in and around the Sanctuaria del Socavon (The Church of the Mineshaft). The carnival starts with a ceremony dedicated to the Virgen del Socavon. Marching bands compete simultaneously in the grotto of Pie de Gallo on Sunday, which is the greeting to the Virgin. The highlight of the Carnival is conducted over three days and nights, with fifty groups parading through the city over a route of four kilometres.'

Dr. Fernando Cajias de la Vega, Professor of History and Deacon of Humanities and Education Sciences at San Andres University in La Paz does not agree that the mixing of the two traditions can be called syncretism, but he prefers 'to call it a religious symbiosis, more of a living experience than a union of two faiths'. Further, he says that ‘Carnival’, from Latin, means to say goodbye to meat prior to Lent, so its date is the same in the whole Christian world: the three days before the start of the forty days of Lent. But here, the Christian carnival united with Andean festivals or ‘anatas’ of fertility and harvest.

In the Andean farming cycle harvest starts in February, and with the union with Christianity the key date became the 2nd February, which is that of the Virgin of Candlemass. This was the first union. But later, in Oruro in particular, the Virgin became associated with mining production. The Virgin of Oruro is the Virgen del Socavón [Virgin of the Cave]... the other major association is with Tio de la Mina [a subterranean idol modelled on popular conceptions of the devil], who, for Aymaras and Quechuas, is the god of the mines. In Oruro now the Virgin of Socavon is much more prominent than Tio de la Mina. A large majority believe that by dancing for the Virgen del Socavón they can obtain many more of their heart’s desires. Which is the Andean idea of reciprocity: I dance for you, you help me. I invest in you, you help me. The most important dance in Oruro is the Diablada. The Diablada represents the Archangel Michael in battle against the cardinal sins. But in the Andean vision the devil is also Supay, the god of the underworld who, since it is carnival-time and everyone is distracted, comes up here and takes on a human appearance in order to dance.'

Although not many people around the world are aware of the Oruro festival the scale and quality of the carnival is such that it is clearly destined to become a global phenomenon in the future and attract thousands of foreign visitors to Bolivia. There may be several reasons why this amazing festival is not very well known, for example, in total contrast to the Rio Carnival in Brazil. Bolivia is relatively less prosperous compared to many other countries in South America and the authorities there have not been able or willing to promote the festival internationally. The high altitude of the capital city La Paz and the city of Oruro, which are both situated at more than 3,500 meters above sea level makes breathing difficult for visitors to the country. It takes a few days or weeks for new comers to acclimatise when staying at such a high altitude environment.

In my own case I found I was out breath and could only walk very very slowly for the first few days. My physical abilities for walking, carrying things, etc. only increased gradually. I was in fact scared to go there in the first place when I read on the internet about the potential problems that one can experience from altitude sickness, which in some cases can lead to loss of consciousness and death. However, I was reassured by Emma Donlan, an English Lady, who lives in Bolivia, who made arrangements for my stay in La Paz and helping to book various tours for me including a 3am night travel to experience the Oruro Carnival. She told me that her father was more than 70 years old who came to La Paz to visit her from the UK and had no problems with the thin air of Bolivia's high altitude places.

I tried to read as much as possible about the Oruro Carnival and Bolivian history before going there so that I could understand better and have more appreciation of what I see and experience. When I got to La Paz on 10 February I spoke to many people and took several city tours before going to the carnival in Oruro on 18 February. By the date of the Carnival I developed a reasonable understanding of what it was and how people in Bolivia feel about it, especially in the capital city, where I stayed.

On landing at El Alto Airport at about 2pm on 10 February I was extremely nervous of leaving the aircraft as I was not sure whether my lung could cope with the low oxygen level, particularly as the airport was situated at even a higher altitude than the city of La Paz. As I had to disembark I took my camera and laptop bags on my shoulders and walked out very slowly and immediately started to feel very weak and experienced breathing difficulties. My heart also started to pulsate faster. I thought on several occasions what if altitude sickness was to affect me really badly and something terrible happens. I learned from the internet that air stewardess and staff at the airport are trained to deal with foreigners who experience altitude sickness on arrival and they have emergency oxygen supplies. At least that gave me peace of mind that I would get the right kind of help if needed. But I was also worried that my whole plan to go to Oruro to see the festival and cook Bangladeshi food for Aymara indigenous people may be ruined if I was to experience any adverse reaction to the low oxygen level in the thin air of Bolivia's highlands.

Although my worries were based on real possibilities the actual impact was low. As I walked out of the airport and got into the taxi waiting for me I started to feel more confident that I would be ok. The landscape from the airport to Emma's house located in the Mallasa district of La Paz looked very strange. I had never experienced such a strange mountainous regions previously. True, it looked very strange but it was also very beautiful. Within very short distances the mountainous landscape sometimes changed completely and dramatically, which added to my interest in Bolivia further.

I stayed in one of the volunteers houses within the complex where Emma lives with her husband Rolando and two young kids. The complex is situated on the edge of a hill on one side of a deep river valley. The view one gets from that position is quite awesome. During my stay I met a number other volunteers, mostly young people from the UK and one lady from Holland. It was a really fun place to be with lots of singing, eating together and playing enjoyable games, especially during the evening. I was also invited by the Mayor of Mallasa Town Council to deliver a presentation on my experience of social and economic regeneration programmes in London.

From the second day of my arrival I started to go to the city centre to explore, and I found the place to be very different from anything I experienced before. I had never been to South America and cannot speak Spanish so most things were new for me and my communication and interactivity with people were quite limited. For the first time in my life I saw face to face native peoples of the Americas and I felt very good as I thought most of them have been killed. I knew Bolivia had a native majority but never really expected to see so many in the capital city. If it was not for the Spanish language and many native ladies wearing old Spanish dress I could have easily mistaken myself and thought I was in Thailand, Malaysia, etc. as so many people look very similar to people from South East Asia.

From the third day onwards I started to go on guided tours and the three tour guides that showed me around were fantastic and I learned much from them. It was clear from the beginning that I was in La Paz during a very important festive season. There were a lot of things happening and at the centre of the city there were stages set up for entertainment. Banners and posters informed people about the upcoming carnival in La Paz and many shops had posters of the Oruro festivals offering competitive rates for carnival tours. There were children and young people engaged in foam and water fights all around the city centre.

I had to get up 3 am on 18 February and take a taxi to go to a rendezvous point for pick up to the city of Oruro. The microbus that drove us for several hours was not very comfortable but excitement of going to Oruro compensated for the discomfort experienced during the journey. The microbus got there at around 8am and we were all provided with breakfast and then taken to our designated seats.

The carnival experience was amazing - continuous dancing and band playing music marching nonstop one group after another for 20 hours. As the day progressed the crowd became larger and the setting area became more and more crowded and squeezed. Our group stayed until 8pm and during the 12 hours at the Carnival I took about 2,000 photographs and 3 hours of video footage.

The festival went on until 2am at night but as by 8pm things started to become a bit disorganised due to alcohol consumption by many carnival visitors we decided to depart early.

All the costumes worn by the dancers are produced completely new every year and they are entirely handmade. Some of the costumes are said to be up to $1000 per piece and the communities save hard to ensure they can pay for their participation in the carnival. In 2012 about 30,000 dancers took part in the festival, of which, more than 50% were women. However, before the 1950s all the dancers used to be men.

On the next day, 19 February 2012, I went to the city centre in La Paz to see the Anata Carnival, which was a very wet and highly charged fun event.