Attack on Good Temper

16 Feb 2007 10:09 pm

I haven´t mentioned to a lot of people that Andy and I are in Bolivia.  We finished working at Bruce Peru on Friday, February 9 and officially moved out of the house the following Monday.  Since I´ll be living across town in our friend Miguel’s spare room, we moved all our stuff over there and went to buy bus tickets for Bolivia.

Two days, five bus rides, and about 6 hours of sleep later, we arrived in Oruro, Bolivia, which is about three hours south of La Paz, the (unofficial) capital of Bolivia.  Oruro, though it’s a dump of a town 53 weeks out of the year, is known as pretty much the best place to go to celebrate the week of Carnaval.  (Carnaval?  Think Mardi Gras in the States with parades only add water balloons… lots of water balloons… will explain later.)  During this week, they deck out the town with paper machet animals hanging over the street, decorations in almost every window, and extremely high accomadation rates.  So when we arrived, our first mission was to obtain accomodation.  To make a long story short, we ended up finding a room for the three main days of Carnaval at only about 6 times the usual price.  Well, then you add in that the beds are somehow much smaller and maybe you could inflate it to 7 times the price, but that’s another story!

We arrived on Wednesday evening, knowing the main parades wouldn´t be held until Saturday and Sunday.  Andy was here two years ago for Carnaval, so he had a general idea of what to expect whereas I was just along for the ride (biting my nails the entire time hoping I’d actually end up enjoying the aggressive atmosphere).  He knew we had to buy seats somewhere along the parade route, so we started searching those out on Thursday morning.  He also knew, as everyone does from having heard horror stories along the backpacker trail, that there is A LOT of water balloons, squirt guns, and canned foam, generally aimed directly at unsuspecting victims, particularly gringos, unfortunately. 

Also along the trail, you hear that people put more than water in their balloons and guns.  I’d met several people who said paint and piss weren’t unusual ingredients.  Thankfully, they peddle panchos on the street to protect your clothes (and dignity) even if it is a little embarassing walking around in a garbage bag. 

I should explain a little about the pancho situation.  I bought one the first day thinking it would become a permanent part of my apparel for the week.  But looking around, I saw only teenage girls wearing them, so I thought maybe I could get away with not wearing mine until the actual day of the parade.  Just after buying my pancho and retiring it to my bag, a little kid walking the opposite direction in pedestrian traffic withdrew a can of foam and got me right in the face. 

I was shocked more than anything and a little distressed that he’d managed to blind me.  I immediatly began to fear that I wouldn’t like this experience of Carnaval after all.  I mean, being gringos, we’re targets for a lot of things and this was no exception.  It hurts a little to always be the ones singled out and fooled or lied to.  And anyway, how the hell was I supposed to enjoy my surrounding when my eye sockets were full of fun foam?  Sounds like a great pick-pocketing tactic to me… blind the victim with fun foam then releive them of their belongings.  So, from the first moment of action, I knew I drew the line at getting shot or hit in the face.  Target the bod, but don’t mess with the mug.  And my pride was a little hurt as my gringoness would really attract attention here.

Two seconds later, I saw another little kid face-foam a Bolivian girl, so I got over my gringo paranoia.  Whew… that made me feel about 10 times better to the point of being able to laugh about it rather than get down about being a victim.  But I still wasn’t cool with the facial targeting.

Thursday was ok.  I only sustained two shots: the aforementioned face foamage and another butt shot from a passer by.  The butt-shot managed to soak only one bun, which wasn’t enough to allow the cold mountain air to chill my skin to the point of uncomfortability.  Thankfully, we’d bought a can of foam just after the prior attack, so Andy went off after the guy and got him a good one in the face.  Take that!  I was laughing about it by night-time, and proud of myself for looking forward to the big parade days despite the threat of being drenched and cold.

Friday took a turn for the worse.  In the morning, we had to switch hostels to the place where we’d be spending all of Carnaval.  This is when we found out the bed was about 2/3 the size we expected even though we’d paid quite dearly for it.  We raised some hell in the lobby, which brought the attention of a Chilean guy and his family who was having a similar problem with bed size.  He ended up graciously giving us the key to his room, which was also a ”double,” presumable with a larger bed than the single-looking, one-pillowed piece of crap we’d gotten.  When we went and checked out the bed, we found the exact same size… small.  So it turned out it was all down to cultural difference.  A double bed in the Western world would actually be expected to accomodate two people, whereas a double in Bolivia is not a double at all, but a single, especially when it’s topped with only one pillow.  All smiles there as we tuck-tail sulked out of the lobby… double defeated with ”double” defined in the Western sense. 

Breakfast also turned out to be a drab.  We’d been talking about going to this one restaurant for breakfast as they supposedly served up a plate of hot pancakes.  I was also really excited as they have an extensive menu of fresh brewed coffee as opposed to the powdery instant shit you usually get. 

It turned out we weren’t the only ones who had the idea to eat there so the restaurant was packed.  We ended up waiting about 45 minutes for our food and, when it finally arrived, was all cold… coffee, pancakes, extra plate of unordered eggs that they’d try to charge us for later… all of it.  Obviously, they’d had it prepared for the last thirty minutes but just didn’t bring it out.  Why?  Because we’re in Bolivia, kids.  To top it off, I loaded my pancakes up with the honey they gave us.  Why not?  Honey is honey, right?  hahah… no.  They had, for some reason, added lime to it, giving it this soury-sweet sickening flavor.  I was reminded of when we accidentally bought 8 cans of green peas in Australia only to find they had mint in them (?!?)  We pawned them off on an Aussie couple… I pawned my sour pancakes off on hungry Andy. 

The real fun came later that afternoon when we went for a walk to the other side of the town to see some cool paintings they do on the road along the parade route.  To get there, we took side streets then decided to cut right, running us straight through the main plaza where a lot of the parade celebration takes place.  I had just gotten out of my mouth that today wasn’t a ”pancho day” and I could easily get away with not wearing it until the actual parade days.  Mmmm…

When we started to enter the plaza, we found that the sidewalk was lined on one side with the 15-20 year old boys who typically throw the malicious face shots with water balloons.  Damn.  By the time we saw what we’d walked into, it was too late.  They were actually nice, though, as they didn’t throw the balloons, the impact of which can really hurt, but just popped them on my clothes.  No biggie.  I was still laughing as we walked forward.

But then hell was unleashed.  From the bleachers (benches, as Andy calls them), a water balloon hurled through the air and hit at our feet.  We heard laughter.  Lots of laughter.  Then another two from above.  God, we were surrounded by bleachers and there were boys all over them with bags of water balloons.  They kept coming, hitting us from all sides.  Andy could see they were all being aimed at me (boys generally throw at girls and vice versa) so he tried to guard me by wrapping around me from behind.  It was no use.  The longer we stood there trying to sheild ourselves, the harder they threw.

By this point, I had already been hit so many times in the head and upper body that I was starting to get worried about getting robbed.  We kept pushing forward though, hoping that once we got on the other side of the bleachers, we’d be out of their reach.  Only ten feet away lain salvation but it seemed so unacheivable.  Hit after hit… there was water in my ears and all over my face.  My clothes were drenched and everyone was laughing and still throwing more balloons.  How could we have been so stupid as to walk right into this?!  I felt the anger boiling up into my chest.  I was pissed off at myself for not having been more perceptive.  I was angry at being attacked relentlessly knowing that the more it hurt the harder they’d throw.  I was embroiled at them getting so much pleasure out of my distress.

In the middle of everything, with my fear and anger and distress all churning around inside me, my fighting instinct surfaced.  With blinded eyes, I wanted to start throwing punches at the boys closest to us.  I pictured body-wrestling them to the ground, popping every f%·ing balloon in their bags all over their dry, fresh clothes and beating their faces into the pavement.  Dear God…  But if I did anything, all his friends would be on my back in a matter of moments.  Then I’d be the one with pavement bits in my bloodied face if I even survived.  I ordered my limbs not to fight back, just keep trying to get away.

We finally reached the gap between the bleachers and rushed past.  Finally, I thought there was relief.  But from behind the bleachers, more came.  First, a 13 year old looking boy with a giant smile on his face aimed a can of foam right into my eyes.  I wiped it away and blinked just in time to see a water-balloon headed straight for my face.  I tried to block it, to no avail, and it crashed into the side of my face.  I heard Andy bellowing from behind me as I kept blinking, trying to get the foam out of my eyes without losing my contacts. 

I kept walking, trying to distance myself from the bleachers as much as possible even though I couldn’t really see where I was going.  Thankfully, I hadn’t felt anyone touch me, so I wasn’t too worried about having been pick-pocketed.  Apparently, I passed an old guy that was standing in the door of his store.  Andy said he was just staring at me, not laughing or pitying, just staring like he was confused.  Maybe he’s never seen a gringo girl, clothes soaking, hair dripping, digging foam out of her ears and eyes.  I got to the other side of the plaza and didn’t know what to do.  There were bleachers everywhere with kids and boys and people weilding bags of water balloons.  It looked like we weren’t going to be able to escape without another similar situation.  So I just gave up and sat down.

I sat there, the cold air starting to make the goosebumps rise all over my body, my hands trembling, and my eyes watering from the foam and from on-coming tears.  I replayed the situation in my head.  I came to the part where I wanted to resort to violence and immediatly felt ashamed.  What on earth had happened that had made me want to hurt someone.  It was Carnaval and everyone was just having fun and we happened to have gotten in the middle of it.  I can’t remember ever having wanted to inflict physical pain on someone like that.  I didn’t feel like myself anymore and wished so much I could say I hadn’t thought it.  But I had and my trembling hands were evidence of it.  I was so disappointed with myself that I couldn’t say anything.

We decided to go home after I realized how horribly cold I was and how long it would take my clothes to dry.  We wrung out the long sleeved shirt I was wearing and Andy got a good bit of water out of the short sleeve shirt that was underneath.  While we were standing there wringing out my clothes, a poor man and his idiot friend came to spectate.  That annoyed me enough but then, through stained yellow teeth and bits of coca cud, he actually asked me if I’d give him my wet shirt.  We told him no several times until his idiot friend started asking for money… I couldn’t be bothered saying no anymore or explaining why him asking for my clothes and my money at that moment was completely inappropriate so I just walked off.  My dignity and humanity were absolutely shot to shit… obviously.  Then some asshole gringo speaking crap Spanish asked Andy why he hadn’t protected me.  I’d had enough.  I marched my ass home as quick as my shivering-cold little legs could carry me.

On the way back, I got to wondering why my mind had gone so haywire as to have suggested violence.  I narrowed it down to several factors.  First was the feeling of being attacked.  That’s something I’ve never really felt before as I was fortunate enough to grow up with an older brother who never pushed the limits and a mother who insisted that ”Please stop” means stop immediatly.  I’ve never been pushed so far knowing that it would only go further.

Second was the feeling of helplessness.  I was blinded and the constant impacts of the balloons kept me from opening my eyes for longer than a second.  My hearing was muffled with all the water in my ears.  So, essentially, three of my five senses were stunned if not rendered useless.  I panicked as I think most mammals would do in a similar situation, and fight seemed a more viable option than flight… it was too far away.

And finally, I couldn’t find any humanity on their part.  They were laughing and enjoying my uncomfortability and even pain.  I can’t say what they were thinking, really, but I don’t think they were putting themselves in my shoes.  Why would they? It’s Carnaval and they’re just having fun.  Maybe that last thought is the only thing that saved my ass and kept me from swinging.  It’s just awful to know that only one person is on your side and that’s the other victim! 

In the end, I was wounded internally by myself.  I’d get over the bruises from the water-balloons and I’d eventually be able to laugh at the situation, but I was upset with myself for having reacted that way.  I guess that’s sorta what traveling’s about though, isn’t it?  It tests your limits so you really get the true you in a variety of situations you’d never otherwise encounter.  Although the thoughts did enter my mind and although I am horribly ashamed of it, I can say my logic overcame, even in a time of extreme stress.  I guess that’s something, right?  Next time I’ll know not to go through the plaza.  But we’ll see what Saturday and Sunday bring with the parades.  They’re supposed to be quite wet as well.


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