Oruro: Gunging Gringos - Carnaval 2011

Trip Start Jan 18, 2011
Trip End Dec 01, 2011

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Aliojmentos Gladys

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, March 6, 2011


 One of the main reasons we chose to travel around the world in a westerly direction is so that we could be in South America during Carnival. This is the time when all good Catholics get rid of their goodies before lent by having an almighty knees up. The most well known and glam of these is held in Rio but the whole of the continent holds celebrations in some form.

The guide books all say Oruro Carnival is the number one thing to see in Bolivia and we'd made sure we’d booked a multi-day tour from La Paz beforehand. Back in the UK, accommodation had seemed impossible to prebook. The whole thing was an unforgettable experience!

Our destination was the grim mining town of Oruro, in decline since the 80s when it had enjoyed considerable tin wealth. We arranged to make our own way there since we would be coming from a different direction.

Friday: Arrival on Carnival Eve

Our first Bolivian bus journey passed without incident but upon arrival we had difficulty finding our non-English speaking agency contact, Jorge. Using one of the many telephone kiosks was a frustrating experience and was getting a variety of baffling dial tones and recorded messages in Spanish. Cue, Lieutennant Juan!

We just need to speak to this guy to get to our hotel.. darkness is falling, the phones are crap, I’m fast becoming the embarrassing shouty Brit.. then out of the blue a Bolivian guy with international accent asks if I would like help.. he tries the phone, then his mobile, what a nice guy! He manages to get through, and helps us arrange to meet in the next 30 mins when Jorge will phone his mobile back. Result..

Turns out he’s on military secondment here and waiting for his wife and kids to arrive and he’s more than happy to help us. More waiting and Lieutennant Juan (Lisa tells me is a rubbish nickname for him but I disagree) reveals he’s worked for the UN in Haiti and Congo – interesting chap. He is actually overseeing the entire security for the festival. He further goes beyond the call of duty by trekking with us around the bus station and we eventually find our guy who takes us to the 'hotel.’

The place is a hole, we thought we’d paid a bit extra for the creature comforts ..
Two bathrooms for about three storeys, a room not much wider than a sized double bed and a Perspex sheet for a window! Oh well, we won’t be here long, we’d been told that tomorrow we’ll be collected by the guide for brekkie and be shown to our Carnival seats. We head out for the evening, but quickly realize we’re not in any place that could be considered as central and it all had a bit of a dingy menacing feel about it. We eventually find the centre of town and it’s buzzing! Pizza and a few drinks as sedative! Zzzz

Satuday – Gunging!

Breakfast was in the building right on the carnival route where the stands were with our seats. After getting over this 8am start, we ate and sat comparing lodgings with a few people. We took our seats and the processions began. Amazing costumes and music! Sequenced dance moves clearly had taken ages of practicing all to pounding brass bands playing traditional tunes. Crowds were filling the stands, market traders selling beer and foam spray cans were out in force. These spray cans which are basically shaving foam are used by cheeky kids (big and small) to wage war. The standard issue Poncho was a vital piece of equipment.
Things rapidly took shape and it was Beer o’ clock very soon and our session from 10am to 4am the next day began! We hung out with a load of Irish folk and had a great day, spraying.. well everyone, you just got covered. You would retaliate, get some other people..Then the spraying would subside in our stand – then begin again! The bands and hundreds (and hundreds) of dancers were getting better and costumes more colourful. The music got louder and the giggling more ubiquitous. Day turned into night and they all just kept on going, and so did the gunging, we’d spent about a tenner on aerosol cans!
There seemed to be some definite rules and clear etiquette to this stupidly fun game.

Rules of Engagement

  • No spraying of dancers and any performers. You don’t want to get the spray on the costumes, even if it is just detergent

  • If you know what’s good for you, don’t get parade officials, police or military men.

  • It’s not cool to get people with cameras really..

  • Do retaliate! It’s a dog-eat-dog world, get or be got etc

  • Defend honour – If Lisa was been got – spray back.. hard.

  • Don’t spray people selling stuff

  • Feel free to get people already covered in foam

  • Or people wearing sunglasses after sundown

  • Definitely get civilians who are just walking down the parade route.

  • Be wary of children. They can hold a grudge and may be on a constant sugar high. They have little or no concept of ethics.

Sunday: Rude Awakening.

As I mentioned, it was a very long day and were glad to hit the hay. We’d managed to find out what time we had to leave on Sunday despite varying accounts from different staff members. The true time was only made known to us when it was far, far too late (or early!)

Our friendly guide chose to wake us all up at 10am because we had to vacate the room! After about 5. Hours. Sleep!! I emerged from our room to confront her knocking, in pants -  with my voice about an octave lower…  trying to make sense of this whole situation. Put our luggage in the coach?? Breakfast? This early?  I fantasized about the discarded gunge can being full of sulfuric acid. Revenge could be carried out with extreme prejeduice.

But, that would have ruined the tale.. and very slowly, we started to pack. Again.. and get ready. With extremely sore heads.

The only cure was sustenance and we stumbled out in the amazing sunshine and found a local place. The menus were not straightforward and the most we could manage was just to point and hope for the best.  What I thought was a toasted sandwich was much better! A large joint of unknown origin, loads of rice and salad and potatoes. Added to that a load of sugary orange drink and things are on the up.
We buy a replacement poncho and some more spray cans on the way back to the parade route and we are back in the game! We soon became involved in a dog fight with a Bolivian. I used my seat protector as a make-shift shield. Lisa accused me of being cowardly but I was acting as her rear gunner. My waiting game paid off and the Bolivian moped off in submission.

We both had an amazing time at Carnival. We met some really fun people, and the atmosphere was like a music festival. Everyone was just having a great time. The costumes were amazing and the music was constant. It became clear that it was a great honour to get into a parade troupe. It took many months of practice and could be very competitive. It felt very South American. Traditional dance moves often acted out scenes like colonial oppression.
A very authentic experience, I would recommend to anyone.

Next up, Peru and the Inca
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