Carnaval I: Facing Fears, Drinking Beers

06 Mar 2007 10:42 pm

Needless to say, my old fear of not wanting to be engulfed in the crowds had resurfaced by the time the Carnaval parades were to begin on Saturday morning. I knew this would happen considering my early travel history. The ol’ Brodrecht family was no stranger to piling in the camper and driving around the country so much so that I’d seen most of America’s 50 states by the time I entered high school. But ask how many big cities I had been to. I could name probably the 10 that we’d driven through but that was always accompanied by a memory of dad stiffly perched in the driver’s seat, gripping the steering wheel with both hands, and bitching like hell as he carefully steered us and our camper through the traffic on the interstate. We never stopped in those places. There wasn’t enough room and there were too many people for the ‘rents to be too comfortable. We didn’t even go to any of the Olympic soccer games that were held in Birmingham in 1996 because of the crowds. And Robert and I went to Mardi Gras with a group of friends while Mom and Dad waited in the bayou for us. The Brodrechts just avoid crowds… It’s part of our nature. So why was I here?

Andy had said Friday night that he wanted to get up early to get to our seats when the parades started around 8am. I agreed with as much enthusiasm as I could fake and we fell asleep in our tiny little bed. But I’ll tell the truth. I woke up on Saturday morning at about 8am and quietly wiggled around to see Andy, still slumbering away. I could have woken him up. I should have woken him up. But I didn’t. I was scared of what would happen the moment we stepped out of the door. I didn’t want a repeat situation of the plaza bombing.

We got out the door at about 10am, Andy only slightly grumpy that we’d overslept. Swathed in ponchos, we took a left out of our hostel to try to walk down to our seats on the same road we’d walked the day before. We got to the end of the block to find they’d constructed bleachers on the parade route, effectively blocking us from passing through. Through the boards and metal of the bleachers, you could see pretty women with colorful feather-decked heads and blinking sequins shaking their hips to the beat of an ensuing band of men. Your whole body was engulfed by the sound, and the fear of having a pee-filled water balloon dropped off the back of the bleachers onto your head, which made the 1000 people we were waiting with a little impatient. We stood there for about 10 minutes waiting to get through until everyone started pushing. Andy and I decided it’d be best to take the longer but safer route around the train station to get to our seats. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy getting trampled first thing in the morning especially not in those streets. It was muddy and wet with God knows what.

As we were rounding the corner, wedged in the crowd, I felt my tummy grumble. Damn. I told Andy I might should get something to eat before we got too far in it or I’d be up again within the hour looking for food. In that Andy-not-happy tone of his, he reminded me that there would be vendors coming around to sell stuff, so I didn’t have to worry about it. “Wonderful,” I though, “street food. Fried, greasy street food that I wouldn’t normally touch with a ten-foot pole.” Andy got dysentery from eating street food the last time he was at Carnaval in Oruro. I could just imagine the hours and hours of bathroom time I’d receive for eating such things.

We approached the bleachers from behind and beneath. We were standing under there, about 50 people’s shoes hanging over our heads, watching a little Bolivian mountain women fill water balloons with a hand pump that looked like a neon green and white striped accordion. Great, water balloons, the bane of my existence, and there was enough for everyone! We found the backside of our exact seats (fourth row up, numbers 14 and 15) and proceeded to tap a gentleman on the back of the ankle so he could move over and let us climb up between he and his wife’s legs. Very classy.

On the topside of the bleachers, I found pretty much exactly what Andy had described. Row after row after row of bleachers lining the streets of the parade route absolutely packed with people, only the most uninformed of which were not wearing ponchos or wielding umbrellas. Down in front, on the street, you had an excellent view of the parade and just beyond that, you found yourself facing the people in the bleachers on the other side. Andy had told me these people were to be our archenemies in the water-balloon war that would inevitably begin once everyone had gotten a few beers in them.

Speaking of which, up walked a beer guy… Two please! And the drinking began. It would mark the first time in my life for a lot of things.

One: I had never bought a beer at such a wonderfully low price. Only 62.5 cents per can!
Two: I had never gotten drunk during the day before. Ladies only drink after 5pm… Well… 2pm, as my grandmother says.
Three: I had never drunk beer for breakfast.
Four: I had never drunk beer as breakfast.

The list goes on, but we’ll get to that later. The most important thing, maybe, was that I forgot that altitude makes alcohol a little stronger and that, when you don’t eat before drinking, it all goes straight to your head. Chug-a-lug…

In no time, Andy and I were best buddies and the five inebriated Bolivian guys sitting in the seats around us were like long-lost friends. We had mastered the art of clapping in time with the bands that passed by and hooting for the dancers to keep up the good work.

Sure enough, Andy was right about the vendors that keep the food supply alive. There were definitely more beer vendors than food vendors, though, and the selection of food was just about on par with what I was expecting but with more ice-cream and sweets. They’d just walk along the parade route in front of the stands and yell up at people. When someone on the upper rows wanted something, they’d pass their money down through all the people below them then the vendor would pass up the goods. Andy took great pride in being the passer-upper in our area as his hands touched 90% of the upward moving products and he wasn’t averse to getting up and stepping down a stair or two to help out… don’t ask me why. He can be extremely dutiful when he wants to be.

The only exceptions to this process were the beer vendors who, being a little more daring (or less caring), chose to throw the cans up to people. At first I was worried if drunk hands could really be accurate enough to catch a flying can but the drunker I got, the less I cared about it and nothing ever ended up dropping on my head. Also, by the end of the day, people stopped politely passing down their coins and just started throwing them into the street and letting the vendor find them amongst the dancers. With most of the vendors being men and most of the dancers being scantily clad women, I don’t think they minded too much.

In general, the parade came in waves. For two or three minutes, there would be non-stop dancers. Group after group would pass, each accompanied by their band, leaving us clapping and cheering away in our happy spots. But then there would be a lag as if one of the groups had fallen asleep up the way and clogged the parade route. We’d sit there for five or so minutes with nothing to watch. Then, thankfully, some dipshit in a poncho would actually try walking down the street in front of us so they wouldn’t have to make their way through the crowds behind the streets, and what befell them? About 200 water balloons, cans of foam, and fire-hose-sized streams of water from Terminator 2 style water guns. No man left that street unbombed. Person after person, tried their luck… men, women, children, families, Bolivians, gringos, everyone… all getting bombed relentlessly at the hands of people laughing at their misfortune. It made me feel 1000 times better about the plaza bombing the day before. They weren’t being malicious… well, not malicious in a personal way. It’s just part of Carnaval.

But when there were no idiots to aim at, the war of the opposing bleachers began. You’d see about 20 people on the other side leaning down and sticking their arms through the stairs of the bleachers receiving water balloons from the Bolivian mountain women with the green and white striped according thingies. You knew then you had about three minutes to get a bag of your own (10 balloons for 13 cents). But usually the bombing had begun while you were still crunched over kissing your own butt telling the lady that maybe you’d like two bags rather than just one.

You’d always have your certain people on the opposing side that you wanted to really hit, normally the ones that were really good shots and managed to hit you or your side with the most accuracy. When this happens, through the haze of alcohol, everyone gets this sense of unity like everyone on their side of the street is this big family under attack. So when the other side starts throwing, you see the older “mom and dads” bring out their umbrellas to shield themselves and the babies (yes, people did bring babies to the parades!!) Then the twenty to thirty year old “sons” would get up and start fighting back as if they were defending the homeland. Like proper little women, we “daughters” would be the ammo supply, holding the bag of balloons and feeding our gunmen, though some of us chose to throw too. Because they were facing the aggressors, the men also were in charge of blocking direct hits to the others. If they saw a water balloon flying at the family, they’d try their hardest to hit it with an open palm so the rest of us only got sprinkled rather than slapped in the face with a balloon.

Finally, you had the kids who were like little secret weapons. They would hop the barricade and fearlessly run to the other side, pelting the opposition, then run back and either take the hits or hide under Mom and Dad’s umbrella. Andy was up in the ranks with the best of the men. I was totally swooning over his balloon throwing ability. I was having a hard time throwing the water balloon all the way to the other side for lack of foot mobility, so I took to fending off the kamikaze kids down in the front. With all of us working together as one unit, we did a fine job for ourselves.

It is worth noting, though, that in war times, the dancers are sacred. As soon as they came back through, the fighting would stop. Occasionally you’d get that one drunk guy who’d continue to throw over the dancers’ heads but he’d be met with everyone on the other side giving him a scowl with a finger wag in place of the normal laughter. You don’t hit dancers. It’s not funny and it’s against the rules. Even the kids know it. Them and their costumes are to be treated with the utmost respect.

By the end of the first day, I was absolutely freezing. My poncho had kept my body dry but had managed to channel a load of water right down into my shoes. I was trying to take pictures, too, but my hands were too cold and unsteady to press the button without redirecting the lens too much. I finally gave up, especially when I realized that the beer had managed to take four 36-rolls of film! Oops.

At about 6:30, the sun started going down, as did the excitement level. Being in 12,000 feet of altitude, it was a little chilly anyway. Then take away the sunbeams and add a slight breeze and you’ve got a recipe for hypothermia if a water balloon catches you with your poncho down. It was a respectful war. On top of the weather, though, it seemed like everyone was pooped by that time. We’d been out there drinking and hollering and singing and playing since the morning, so it wasn’t surprising everyone ran out of steam.

I was probably the biggest victim of this as I almost crashed out on Andy’s shoulder. We stayed as long as we could, trying to live the last couple moments of the day. But I was feeling really dizzy and icky by that point, plus Andy reaffirmed that the parades would be going on until about 10 that night. We left around 7:30 and went back to the room. I passed completely out and slept until the morning. I vaguely remember Andy going out and getting a dysentery burger off the street but I can’t confirm.

After the first day, even though I was passed out cold, I wasn’t so worried about being in the big crowd as I knew what to expect as far as being pelted by water balloons. As long as I stayed out of the street on the parade route, we probably wouldn’t have a repeat incident of the plaza bombing. Tomorrow I knew I’d take better care of my feet by wrapping them in plastic so the water couldn’t get down in them, but that was really the only complaint I had. I figured I’d leave my camera at home so as not to take another four rolls of the same thing and I wouldn’t drink. Maybe then I’d have enough energy to last all day. But for the moment, I was sleeping more soundly than I had the entire trip.

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