Berlin’s Festival of Lights and Britain’s headless seagull

In a wondrous celebration intended to greet the onset of winter, the Berlin Festival of Lights is currently illuminating buildings across the German capital. It’s a special year, as the city marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many projections follow a theme of peace and unity against the odds. The history of the divided city, the Cold War and reunification, are played out on the Brandenburg Gate and the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic, amongst others.

It makes for a fascinating series of light projections of iconic moments from the period when the city was ideologically and physically divided. There are scenes of the wall being built, watchtowers searching for East Germans trying to escape to the West, the Berlin Blockade, and Allied air lift that was a lifeline for West Berliners. JFK delivers his famous speech, Willy Brandt and Ronald Reagan make an appearance. It’s another sign of how Germany has owned its history.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The message is clear, together we are better. That is doubly emphasised by the ever present flag of the European Union accompanied by a simple message: Europe United. The British Embassy is taking part in the Festival of Lights this year (it was noticeable by its absence last year). As I left the euphoria of Germany in 1989 at the Brandenburg Gate behind and turned the corner towards my own embassy, I hoped for an equally compelling message of hope.

Actually, 10 metre high letters spelling out the words “We’re Sorry” would have been enough for me. What I wasn’t expecting was a chilling insight into the current state of British society and politics. There, high above me, was a montage of British landscapes, including a sheep and a headless seagull. Intentional or not, is there currently a more accurate metaphor for Brexit Britain? Whatever led to the British projecting a headless seagull next to a sheep onto their embassy, it definitely seemed political.

I had to stop myself from explaining this theory to two young Americans who walked past. American number one looked at the embassy building and said, “What it it?” To which American number two cautiously said, “I think it’s a seagull.” The response of American number one was both unerringly accurate and damning of the British body politic. “That’s rubbish,” she said. It’s not easy being British in Europe right now, but I wasn’t about to disagree with that withering assessment.

The Festival of Lights is one of the best moments in the city’s calendar, and hundreds of thousands of people make the effort to visit. It makes the main sights pretty crowded, but also gives Berlin a carnival atmosphere. It’s fun joining onlookers as they make the slow progression from one place to the next. This has been helped by unseasonably hot weather. I was wearing shorts and flip flops at ten o’clock at night. For an all-too brief moment you can pretend Berlin is on the Mediterranean.

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The festival isn’t about politics – and I’m not even sure the British Embassy was trying to be controversial – but, in a year when Germans remember a divided past and look to a united future, it’s hard not to start dwelling on Britain’s attempts to isolate itself from Europe. I lost myself and my thoughts amongst the crowds along the Unter den Linden, as I headed towards Humboldt University and another grouping of light projections in Bebelplatz.

Argentinian North West: the Ruta 40 to Cafayate

Jumping back into the car after breakfast in Molinos, we got back on the Ruta 40 and headed south to Cafayate and its fabled high altitude vineyards. I’d been looking forward to this part of our journey because the road passes through the surreal landscapes of the Quebrada de las Flechas, including bizarre and impressively huge rock formations.

The Ruta 40 is legendary in Argentina, it stretches for virtually the entire length of the country. La Cuarenta runs for more than 5200km north to south, and vast stretches of it remain unpaved. It makes for a magnificent journey through some of the most beautiful landscapes Argentina has to offer. If I’m being honest, our Volkswagen Gol, even with its raised suspension, was a little under-powered for the rugged Ruta 40 but we persevered…

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Washing drying on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Washing drying on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

The Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Our Volkswagen Gol on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Our Volkswagen Gol on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Church on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

Church on the Ruta 40 between Molinos and Cafayate, Argentina

We managed to time our arrival in Cafayate to perfection, not only were we staying in another vineyard but there was a fiesta taking place in the town as well, with religious processions heading from the church around the town.

Religious procession leaving the Catedral de Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession leaving the Catedral de Nuestra Senora del Rosario, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

Religious procession, Cafayate, Argentina

After a long drive and the excitement of getting caught up in a fiesta we headed a few kilometres out of town to the Vinas de Cafayate Wine Resort where we were able to relax with a delicious glass of chilled Torrontes and watch the sun set over Cafayate and the surounding valley.

Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Balcony outside our room, Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Balcony outside our room, Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Sunset over Cafayate from Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Sunset over Cafayate from Viñas de Cafayate Wine Resort, Cafayate, Argentina

Wild, wet and foamy, Carneval in Tarija

Carneval is exhausting, a lot of fun, but exhausting fun. I don’t know about the performers, who have to dance and sing their way around town while being soaked with water and foam, but a few more days of this and I’ll need a holiday.

Sunday saw the big carneval parade in Tarija: the stands along the parade route were packed, the water guns loaded and cans of foam spray were selling faster than hotcakes. First though, the gathered thousands had to endure a torrential downpour, but since everyone expected to get wet (and covered in foam) at some point during the festivities, summer rain was greeted like an old friend.

Like most fiestas I’ve been to in Bolivia, carneval had its elements of chaos, but that makes it all the more human. I’ve not been to Rio or Salvador for carneval, but I imagine they are more managed. The parade route in Tarija was constantly being plied by a host of people selling everything you’d ever need for several hours of sitting in the stands: food, drink, waterproof clothing, foam spray, masks.

The endless processing of sellers mingled with the performers and spectators alike. Small children ran a-mock amongst the stands and performers. Foam and water were constantly being sprayed at just about everyone who passed by and, every now-and-then, a section of the stands would suddenly erupt into a mass foam fight.

Part of the stand erupts with a foam fight, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Part of the stand erupts with a foam fight, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Our section of the stand did this regularly, seemingly with the sole intention of covering me in foam. I was nearly drowned in the stuff – this photo is after the nice woman behind me had lent me her child’s blanket to wipe most of the foam off.

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A lot of the carneval is non-traditional, with people dressed in a variety of strange costumes, others as mythical creatures, Egyptians, mummies, etc. One unexpected element though is the number of young men who cross-dress for the day, the antics of whom made the crowd hysterical. There is a very strong element of transitory transvestitism in the whole parade.

Anyway, here are some photos from when I was still able to have the camera out without fear of getting it soaked in water or foam.

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performer at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval Queen and her princesses, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval Queen and her princesses, Tarija, Bolivia

First and second 'princesses' of the carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

First and second ‘princesses’ of the carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

King Kong float, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

King Kong float, carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Performers at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Candy floss seller at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Candy floss seller at carneval in Tarija, Bolivia

Jello and cream seller at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Jello and cream seller at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Foam victims at carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in the campo, fiesta in San Lorenzo

If you want to know Bolivia, go to the campo, or the countryside as its known. If you want to see tradition during carneval in the countryside around Tarija head for the small country town of San Lorenzo, where ‘tradition’ is built into the fabric of the town and its people.

I hadn’t expected to witness 20 or 30 horses charging down a street crowded with people, most of whom had been imbibing heavily, but in San Lorenzo the health and safety officers seemed to have taken the day off. I’m grateful that they did, because this turned out to be a fabulous day in the company of people who know how to have fun.

 


The other great thing about being in the country is the opportunity to try ‘artisanal’ wines – made the traditional way with the grapes being crushed by feet. I was assured they used plastic boots these days rather than bare feet, but judging by the taste of some of the wine I’m not convinced. Below is a photo of my recommended carneval outfit, complete with a pint of homemade wine.

Popular carneval outfit with artisanal wine, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Popular carneval outfit with artisanal wine, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Wearing a plastic poncho is a necessity to protect you from occasional torrential downpours during the rainy season, and, much more importantly, from gangs of people spraying you with foam and water. As we strolled into San Lorenzo I heard the the shout, “Gringo, gringo”, and before I could react was viciously attacked with foam. My attackers stayed long enough to ask where I was from, to wish me a good carneval and to pose for a photo. They were charming, but I was still covered in foam.

Carneval assassins, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval assassins, San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

After a couple more foamings and a lot of water spraying I decided to invest in some protection – a large can of carneval foam with a range of about 10 meters.  It is a lot of fun to get your own back. One thing is for sure, they start them young on foam around here.

Child with foam, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Child with foam, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

The start of proceedings had been delayed by an hour or so due to a huge cloudburst, but once the rain stopped and the sun came out again the carneval
got underway properly with traditional dances, music, horse riding and lots and lots of water and foam.


The music, using a horn and small drum, often played while riding a horse, is unique to this part of Bolivia and while lively is also quite mournful.

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

 


A little like the Brazilian carneval there are some floats in the parades, but these are largely for small children to ride on and have the occasional tableau relating the the countryside.

A young girl on a float, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

A young girl on a float, Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

No Bolivian fiesta would be complete without a large amount of traditional food being served. All around San Lorenzo the smell of cooking, especially the barbecuing of meat, was in the air. A typical dish is pig barbecued ‘a la cruz’, a sight that welcomed us to the main street of the town.

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in San Lorenzo, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval in Tarija, Dia del Ninos

With only a few hours sleep under our belts following the comadres festival, which marked the start of four days of festivities for carneval, we found ourselves back at the scene of the previous night’s crime for the children’s parade.

After ten months in Bolivia I should have known things wouldn’t start on time. Billed to start at 9.30am, the parade finally got off to a somewhat shambolic start around 11.00am. Not that anyone was sat under a relentless sun for over an hour waiting, oh no. Still, once it got going it was fun, despite the ever present danger of being splattered by water bombs, blasted by high powered water guns, or sprayed relentlessly with canned foam.

In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue that carneval is predominately about getting wet and foamy for three or four days before the authorities step in and make everyone go back to school/work. Huge fun for the kids and quite a lot of fun for adults.

Children's float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Children’s float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A sugary float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

A sugary float, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Everywhere you go unscrupulous people are selling cans of foam to anyone with the money to buy, regardless of age and whether the foam will be used ethically and only for defence. After being foamed several times I started to view these people as ‘arms dealers’ or ‘dealers in foamy death’. Although to be fair to them, I did use there services from time-to-time.

Arms dealers selling spray foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Arms dealers selling spray foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

You've been foamed, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

You’ve been foamed, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

More foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

More foam, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Note the sheer joy on the face of this child assassin…

Gangland killing carneval-style, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Gangland killing carneval-style, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Meanwhile, back at the parade, the children’s event is something of a curtain-raiser for the real thing on the Sunday of carnvel, and although not that well attended everyone involved seemed to have fun.

Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

An alcohol-aware zebra, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

An alcohol-aware zebra, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Disney does Tarija, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Clown, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Clown, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Armed and dangerous, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

Armed and dangerous, Carneval, Tarija, Bolivia

The world’s biggest hen party, Tarija’s Comadres festival

“There are no wives or girlfriends today, only singles.” Was how one Chapacos (the name given to residents of Tarija) explained the comadres fiesta to me.

“The women start gathering in the square in the morning, there is much drinking. In the afternoon the men come and hang around the square waiting for the women.” Was another attempt to explain an event that was taking on an increasingly sinister vision in my mind.

Comadres is traditionally held the Thursday before carneval and seems to mingle elements of a school disco, a giant hen night and a female drinking Armageddon. During the day the action is centred on Tarija’s beautiful Plaza Louis de Fuentes y Vargas, a plaza that wouldn’t be out of place in a provincial Spanish town. For comadres however, it more resembles Liverpool city centre on a Friday night.

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

The plaza slowly filled with women, and some men, throughout the day and there was indeed an indecent amount of drinking and drunkenness, but, unlike Liverpool on  Friday night, not a hint of trouble. One side of the plaza featured a huge disco that seemed to have the volume set at a level intended to communicate with outer space. On the opposite side of the plaza things were more sedate, with an older crowd, a traditional band and much dancing.

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

There is a real purpose to comadres, I’m not sure what it is, but it involves friends giving large baskets of fruit, vegetables and other goodies to each other. Although not before they have danced the night away with the basket. The baskets often feature a largish cucumber as a not-so-subtle sexual reference…it really is a hen night.

Everyone seems to be carrying one of the baskets, decorated with flags and balloons. The one below even came with a bottle of whisky.

Basket of traditional items, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Basket of traditional items, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

As the curtain closed on the festivities in the plaza, and the sun started to set, the focus of attention turned to the Avenida de las Americas. All the comadres who could still stand joined a parade and danced up and down the street in a more-or-less organised way. Festivities go on long into the night and a lot of the dancers carried grapes – the symbol of this wine producing region.

The women also wear a rose over one ear. A rose over the right ear indicates that she is married, over the left ear that she is single. Although it may be the other way around, the person who explained this to me had drunk her own body weight in booze. As I said, a hen night.

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancer, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Dancers, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Nearing the finish line, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Nearing the finish line, comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Men do get to participate in the comadres parade, but their role is limited to that of musicians or to carrying cans of beer for the ladies.

Musician, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Musician, Comadres, Tarija, Bolivia

Fruit and fiesta in the desert, the lemon-infused oasis of Pica

The blaze of green cutting across the landscape is a sight for sore eyes but still comes as a shock after several days driving through the uniform browns of the Atacama Desert. At first it seems unreal, another heat haze-induced vision amidst the wind-blasted, sun-bleached landscapes of northern Chile.

After all, water is needed for life and this is the driest place on the planet, some areas of which have never received rain and where, scientific research suggests, some river beds have been dry for more than one hundred and twenty thousand years. This poses the question, “When does a river bed stop being a river bed and become desert like everything else around it?”

A green paradise in the desert, Pica, Chile

A green paradise in the desert, Pica, Chile

Thankfully this was no optical illusion, this was Pica, an oasis in the middle of the Atacama Desert that is renowned for its fruit, particularly the Limon de Pica, a small, tart lemon that is famous throughout Chile. Pica’s lush greenery and thriving agriculture is all thanks to underground water sources surfacing in the middle of the desert. The town also sports a hot spring where it is possible to take the waters.

Pica has developed a thriving (for northern Chile and mainly for Chileans) tourist industry based around the hot springs and the consumption of fruit juices. Not that the town seeks to exploit this in a tacky way, no not at all…

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

The (giant) fruits of Pica, Chile

I’m clearly susceptible to not very subtle subliminal advertising, minutes after seeing this fruit display I was found at a fruit juice stall ordering a large mango and lemon drink. Delicious.

Thanks to its water supply Pica has been inhabited for millennia, and it was a vital point on the Inca road system south from Peru. Its also where conquistador Diego de Almagro came on his way to conquer Chile for the Spanish, and still retains some lovely colonial era buildings.

We hadn’t planned it but our arrival in the town coincided with the start of a big fiesta centred around the San Andres (St. Andrew) church and the lovely main plaza. After days in the Atacama Desert the sudden riot of colour and music was fabulous and the atmosphere was all fun. At times the whole town seemed to have joined in the celebrations and the streets were full of people dancing.

Although uniquely Chilean, the shared history and culture between northern Chile and Bolivia was clear from some of the costumes worn during fiesta…

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

As with most fiestas in Bolivia the local saints are paraded around the streets accompanied by performers and bands, and much of the action ends at the church.

St. Andrew, fiesta in Pica, Chile

St. Andrew, fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers pray in the church during fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers pray in the church during fiesta in Pica, Chile

As night descended things stepped up a gear and the whole of Pica seemed to pour out onto the streets and, accompanied by bands, danced and drank their way around the town. While outside the church other performers danced for hours, some with exciting illuminated masks. It was a a fun night.

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

Costumed performers at fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

People party during fiesta in Pica, Chile

The many faces of fiesta

Fiesta is a serious business in Bolivia and in the six months we’ve been living here we’ve been lucky enough to take part in several. Some, like the Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos in the Bolivian Amazon, we went out of our way to get to; others, like Sucre’s Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, were right on our doorstep; yet others we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Fiesta is a glorious expression of deeply held traditional and modern beliefs, as well as being an occasion for an outpouring of joyous fun. People take it seriously but at the same time it is about making sure the party goes with a swing – bands play, dancers dance and both participants and onlookers drink heartily.

Every country in Latin America has its own traditions and costumes – think of the outrageous carnival floats in Brazil – and one of the striking features of Bolivian fiestas is the variety of elaborate masks coving everything from pre-Hispanic mythical creatures to Spanish Conquistadores thenmselves. There’s even a museum in Sucre which dedicates a whole floor to masks of the region, a visit to which made me want to share some of the faces of fiesta that we’ve seen.

This first selection comes from the Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe in Sucre.

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Bird Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Mask, Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

Potosi’s Ch’utillos Festival, or the Festival of San Bartolomé to give its correct name, is a three day extravaganza held in the highest city in the world. It is home to some unique  costumes and masks, and also to some of the hardest drinking you’ll ever see at a Bolivian fiesta.

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

Masks, Ch’utillos Festival, Potosi, Bolivia

The Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos in the Bolivian Amazon is one of the highlights of Bolivian festivals, imbued with typically Amazonian themes and taking place in a small village with hardly any tourists in sight. One of the outstanding features are the wooden mask and leather hat wearing Achus who represent the Spanish and cause mayhem wherever they go.

Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Fish Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Sheep Masks, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Jaguar Mask, Fiesta de San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia

Finally, walking through La Paz one day we just bumped into a small fiesta in a barrio near the San Pedro prison.

Masks, La Paz, Bolivia

Masks, La Paz, Bolivia

Anyway, we’re off on an overland trip to Chile tonight so hopefully lots to report in coming days…

Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead

Bolivian hospitality is something to marvel at and there is no better example of this than on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day – whichever name you prefer. After the very public display for Todos Santos (All Saints Day) the previous day at the cemetery, Sucre’s citizens retreat to their homes on November 2nd for the Day of the Dead and invite people to join them to commemorate their deceased relatives.

It is a lovely tradition that is part commemoration, part celebration, and while it is a fairly formal occasion it is clear from the moment you set foot into the house that it is also a party – a party where it is firmly believed the deceased is present and participating. Accompanying several Bolivian friends we visited four separate homes where we were welcomed like long lost family members – the hospitality is real and overwhelming.

A shrine to a deceased relative, Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

First you are greeted at the door by two or three people offering you a hollowed out pineapple or a gourd full of chicha (Bolivian homebrew), and a shot of singani (a powerful Bolivian spirit made from grapes). You don’t have a choice about whether you want to drink it, you MUST drink it to honour the dead and gain entrance.

Once you’ve finished the entrance drinks it is traditional to greet the family and thank them for inviting you, then visit the shrine where prayers are offered up to the deceased. Elaborate altars are erected in people’s homes and are decorated with all the foods and drinks that the deceased most loved in life, added to this are religious objects, both traditional and Catholic, and many symbolic bread objects that are baked only for this celebration.

A shrine to a deceased relative, Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

Once this is done you are served a delicious plate of mondongo – pork cooked in a spicy red sauce and served with rice, potatoes and choclo (a sort of creamed corn dish). While you’re eating the mondongo there is a constant stream of people bringing more chicha and sangani which, again, you’re obliged out of politeness to drink (this really is my sort of country). Eventually someone will place a bucket or washing-up bowl full of chicha by your seat so you can just help yourself.

A shrine to a deceased relative, Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

Bread baked specifically for Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

The drinking is quite ritualised, with the server toasting your health with a drink then inviting you to drink, once you’ve drunk you invite the next person to drink, and the person serving the drinks gives them a glass of chicha or singani. At every house when you try to leave some of the older women will feign shock and insist on you having one more for the ‘camino’.

To refuse would be the height of impoliteness, and by the time you make it to the exit you may have had three or four more drinks poured down your throat. Needless to say, people get quite squiffy.

Similarly, it would be incredibly rude, and mortifying for the family, if you didn’t eat the mondongo, luckily people don’t mind if you can’t finish everything on your plate. By the time we reached the fourth house the prospect of yet another plate of mondongo was weighing heavy on my stomach, but some of the people I talked to had been to the houses of ten friends or family and were planning to visit several more before the day was done. You need stamina to be Bolivian.

A plate of mondongo, Dia de los Muertos, Sucre, Bolivia

After several hours, four plates of Mondongo, numerous shots of singani and enough chicha to re-float the Titanic our merry band rolled out into the street and headed for a well deserved lie down – well, the gringos headed for home, remarkably the Bolivians in our group headed off to visit another couple of relatives for more of the same.