It’s very hard to draw a defining line between work and play in Bolivia. There is none of the stoic solemnity surrounding work that seems to be the norm in the west. Most of the time the attitude towards work is frustratingly casual, while leisure is taken very, very seriously. Nothing is observed as fastidiously as the long lunch break, or the long night out.
Given the difficulties we gringos face in distinguishing work from play, it is very helpful to find one of Bolivia’s largest festivals, celebrated in and around Tarabuco, a town not far from Sucre, is named Pujllay, or ‘Play’ in Quechua.
Confusing matters slightly was the fact that I was sort of attending Pujllay in a work capacity. Although Condortrekkers is still not quite legally registered, we its representatives found ourselves taking a group of backpackers along to the festivities. This was never meant to constitute more than sharing transport, but somehow things got mixed up, and we ended up more or less as guides for the weekend.
The weekend was scorchingly hot, and the first to really feel the heat was the truck that was to take us to Tarabuco, which ran out of drive on a hill, and could go no further. We were forced to find another ride, and ended up perched in the back of a much larger truck, watching the green valleys roll by.
Tarabuco was its usual tranquil self on Saturday; the real festivities started out in the countryside in the tiny pueblos, and would only converge on the town on the following morning. We had a contact in the nearby pueblo of Pisily, and so with our group – who had turned out to be a rather excellent mix of open-minded and enthusiastic travellers – we hiked out of Tarabuco and up a long valley of flocks and fields. On the occasions when I make it out into the countryside I am always struck by its simple loveliness; the tiny stands of crops (who knew that potatoes grew such pretty purple flowers?), the lonely, elderly shepherds, the adobe houses and the steep hills and valleys.
On our route we passed a couple of other groups already returning, and when eventually we reached Pisily the sun was casting long sideways planes of gold across the land, and the people were resting after the festivities. Still, before the sun went down and the multitude of stars and satellites took to the sky, there was time to share the best meal of the weekend, and some very local firewater, as well as to see the men dance and play their hoarse pipes and flutes.
The Tarabuco region is famous for its handicrafts, and for this weekend the men were assembled in their finest gear. Leather hats styled upon the helmets of the conquistadores, and wide ponchos of deep red and black. When they danced they danced in thick-soled wooden shoes and enormous, clamouring spurs.
Despite our untimely arrival we were met with great warmth by the tiny pueblo. We numbered twelve and this was a huge number to make space for, and yet the only hesitation was that of the shy children, who hid among mothers’ skirts and could barely find a word to say to us.
We trekked back in the dark, the night cool on faces tinged poncho-red by sun and moonshine. All of Tarabuco turned out for a concert that evening, but few of us saw this through to the end. We were no match for the seriousness of local merrymaking.
Sunday was fiercely hot, and before our patio breakfast was done skin was burning and the Australians amongst us were scampering for sunscreen, hats and scarves. Overnight Tarabuco had transformed, with every street crammed with stalls selling handicrafts or snacks.
As we left the hostel a helicopter buzzed overhead, lowering itself over the fairground. Word surged through the streets that Evo had come, and instantly there were running, shouting forms everywhere as the whole town turned out to greet their president. Sucre may be anti-Evo, but this province as whole is pro-Evo, and this is particularly true in indigenous Tarabuco. By the time we reached the fairground people were already leaving, their heads hung low; it wasn’t their hero Evo, it was only the vice-president Alvaro Linares, a former guerilla turned intellectual. His motorcade stormed through the narrow streets and was well-greeted, but the momentary fervour aroused by the possibility of Evo had dissipated.
With Linares seated on a pavilion in the main plaza, the dances and processions and music began. They would continue almost unceasingly for the rest of the day.
Pujllay commemorates a battle during the struggle for independence, in which Tarabuco essentially won its freedom by beating back a Spanish contingent. Every year on the main fairground a giant Pukhara (a tall, decorated scaffold of wood) is erected, and offerings of fruit, cheese, beer, jars of olives, bottles of mayonnaise, and other wares are hung from this. At the top of the Pukhara the fresh carcass of a cow presides over the events, while down below the dance troops circle and cavort, until eventually some men climb the Pukhara to collect and distribute all its bounty to the waiting throngs below.
By the early afternoon the fairground was filled with people. Clouds of dust were kicked up by the shuffling, stomping feet of the indefatigable dancers, and thin skeins of bluish smoke drifted about the hundreds of hotplates and barbeques. The drink of choice during Pujllay is chicha, a local brew made of fermented corn and almost anything else. Traditionally the process is started by chewing the corn, though this is less common today. Under tents great buckets, barrels and vats of chicha were opened, and communal cups were dipped and passed, every drinker offering a brief libation to Pachamama, or mother earth, before throwing back the draughts that tasted of peach or orange or corn or foot.
We passed the entire day under the Pukhara, passing cups of chicha and chasing the shade. The dance groups continued relentlessly, the media descended upon the vice-president, and when he left he was farewelled warmly, the disappointment of his arrival forgotten. This was no doubt aided by the huge volumes of chicha consumed. As the day progressed the number of people stumbling into the river beds and arroyos to vent bursting bladders increased, as did the number of scuffles, the number of amorous intertwinings, the number of comatose forms lying in the dust, and the number of locals eager to talk to gringos, and to share yet more chicha with them.
As shade re-took the field men scrambled up and onto the Pukhara, and soon the grounds were flooded with celebratory breads and sausages and cheese and fruit and bottle of beer and mayonnaise. The cow remained nobly mounted at the top of the tower, and was still there when we left, cramming ourselves into a mini-bus, which surged into the twilight and towards Sucre, racing and dodging the other speeding buses, vans and trucks filled with dozy revellers. There is nothing as exhausting as play in Bolivia, and I would welcome the return of the week, of the working days, so I could get some rest before the next weekend bout of play.