Week #16:


So this morning the slightly vague man at Migration finally agreed to give me the 90 days maximum stamps in my passport that a Brit is allowed in any one year here. I can stay in Bolivia until April 23rd. Last time I tried to persuade him to do this he told me to go to Peru and come back. So thats what I did, spending the weekend in Puno, a town which Id previously formed a very low opinion of, but which on this occasion invited me to revise that first impression. This had a lot to do with it being scorchingly hot on the Saturday afternoon, and the sun showing off Lake Titicaca at its mystical best. But also, appealing to my love of contrasts, this clemency turned into tempestuous weather after dusk, first flooding the streets in six inches of rain in a matter of minutes, and then hurling hail that formed drifts like snow in the muddy streets.

But what really heightened this drama was the fact that I was experiencing it inside a big top. Yes, the circus was in town. It was a pretty basic circus. A Peruvian backwater kind of circus, with rows and rows of empty chairs, a small frozen audience, small frozen teenage girls on unicycles, and many an awkward moment when the tricks didnt quite go to plan. It had a kind of windswept and desperate air that made me think of Robert Franks photographs. And probably this nostalgic aesthetic wouldnt in itself have held my attention for long, but the thunderous sounds of the hail on the canvas roof, which drowned out all attempts at noise by the performers and the PA, along with the water cascading over the lighting rig and the ever so rickety benches we were sitting on, made this a scene of surreal high drama. Especially when the crew tried to push some of the collected rain from the bulging ceiling with a broom-handle and the panel ripped, several gallons of water pouring to the floor in the middle of some clowning. Sadly no-one was sitting in the chairs below, for it would surely have taken some pressure off the clowns. We left before they brought the lions out.

Returning to Bolivia I hit the main day of the Alasitas (January 24th). This fiesta of small wishes seems to have a truly Bolivian mix of origins. It basically involves buying miniature versions of anything your heart desires and getting them blessed either by a traditional yatiri or a Catholic priest. You then hang them on a figure of the god Ekeko, a chubby little guy who likes to smoke fags, and hope that the real-life version of your purchase will materialize. The exact beginnings of the Alasita are hard to track. Before the arrival of the Spanish it seems to have been a kind of harvest festival, and was celebrated in September. Apparently the Spanish moved it to January 24th in perverse commemoration of the attempted siege of La Paz by the Inca Tupac Katari a classic religious overlaying in an attempt to win converts, presumably.

At any rate, the Alasita is now a cosy mix of religious traditions, and celebrated by all and sundry. And like all the best religious festivals, it basically involves buying loads and loads of stuff. Tiny stuff. Dolls, figurines, toy cars, mini fruit and vegetables, rolls of diminutive banknotes, dinky framed uni graduation certificates. Whatever you want or need. Im guessing most of it was made in China.

Back to the serious stuff next week when Ill be bringing you an interview with the leading light of Mujeres Creando: radical feminism Bolivian style.