Friday, June 25, 2010

Happy Aymara New Year!!

Right under the freshly installed, freshly painted, white cross sat the Association of Elders of Potosi. A boxy woman in full skirts sat at the head of the bonfire and ceremonially gifted a crate of beer to the attendees on behalf of the Association. Attendees - in ponchos, down jackets, hats with skull graphics - answered cell phones between cups. We were on top of a mountain overlooking a sprawling, orange-lit Potosi, celebrating the Aymara New Year - year 5518.

Earlier, I had sat through a slew of power point presentations regarding the new year and the traditions that surround it. Mostly I confirmed for myself that the Bolivian education system needs to re-evaluate itself hard. The tourism students, all in ponchos and knit hats, read off their slides then slipped into the back room to drink. Their professor, Jaguar, appeared intermittently, shhh-ed them, and made garrulous rounds taking shots from each cup within peripheral vision.

After they'd finished we made languid passes towards the mountain, via the liquor store; at each hilly corner we seemed to lose members of the crew and replace them with canines. Jaguar skipped around like a speeding fairy picking flowers and each time he talked he opened his mouth wide, smiling, and spit chewed coca bits at you excitedly. When the crew - many drunks, one blind man, and one man with a broken knee - finally reached summit, we found four bonfires and one boombox.

The only thing I'd been told about this night was that it'd be cold and that at sunrise the masses would raise their hands up high and twinkle their fingers at the sun. The latter did not seem to justify the former, especially with the increasingly intoxicated Crew, so I wandered off to the other bonfires and found something completely unexpected.

Quiet groups - some of them in hats identifying them as Aymara (vs. Quechua), others in clothes that identified them as from the countryside (vs. Potosi, the city), yet others in imported American gear from, perhaps, the '90s - sat around fires drinking coffee, chewing coca, and meticulously preparing offerings for the new year. Children wrapped in blankets dozed by the fire and women with bare legs sat regally and gazed into the flames.

Potosi is mostly Quechua, and though it's been dubbed the more generalized Andean New Year, I've been told it's return as a national holiday is the "whim of Evo," an Aymara and Bolivia's president. The fact that the Association of Elders set up shop under the cross and were blessing it that night further confused things - as far as I understood, the revalorization of this date was another anti-Colonial, and hence anti-Christian, poke by Evo. Further, while the new year on June 21st was made into a national holiday, San Juan, a Christian holiday which falls on June 23 and is traditionally celebrated with bonfires in Bolivia, was effectively banned when bonfires were made illegal due to "environmental hazards." Do you feel relieved to not have to celebrate San Juan or sad to lose the tradition? one man was asked. Relieved, he said, because it's a foreign holiday that's been forced on us. (He also told me that he's no longer a Catholic, but not because the Catholic church kind of sucks, but rather because he got kicked out for wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt to mass...which I guess is one of the things that makes it kind of suck.) Never mind that he's the umpteenth generation to celebrate San Juan of free will and, probably, secularly. In fact, the celebration of the New Year had a relatively small turn out and in addition to the Crew of tourism students I spotted some tourists (including the blondest man I've ever met, manning a huge Chacana (Andean) flag) and met a bunch of professors and intellectual types who probably know about the New Years traditions from studies and were helping the population remember this thing of their collective (or not, since Potosi is largely Quechua?) past.

My personal goal for the night was to not get wasted. This has been a goal I had repeatedly failed at since arriving in Potosi some months ago to work on a photo documentary about the mining industry, but one I continued to set for myself every time I ventured out of the house. What makes this incredibly difficult to succeed at is the fact that the drink of choice here is Ceibo, a 96% alcohol diluted with some water often, soda occasionally, and hot, sweet tea when you're expected to stay up all night, apparently. Also this: you are handed cup-fulls of this poison by friends and strangers alike and they watch, threateningly, for you to down it before grinning at you lopsidedly. These quiet groups seem promising! I thought. And these Elders are positively serene under the cross and the stars, sipping beer instead of rubbing alcohol!

By 3am one of the hillsides, dotted with patches of dry grass sprouting like mohawks on the bald mount, was aflame. Silhouettes wandered between the flames in a smoke screen; this incredibly bad idea was incredibly beautiful to look at, framed as it was by a star heavy sky and a twinkling sea of orange, below. By 4am the ever intrepid lady entrepreneurs of Potosi had made their way up and set up gas stoves with steamy venom, bulbous porridge and sweltering pots large enough to fit small children. Others unfolded tables full of cigarettes and candy. By 5am at least one member of the Crew was slumped against a rock wall, folded into himself like a hedgehog, and unconscious. Echoes of the first band approached from somewhere below and their sound climbed towards us, an invisible wave of drums and zampoñas lapping at the darkness unhurriedly until they emerged into the light of the multiplied campfires. By 5:30 buses brought the hoards.

The Elders, up at the cross and looking down on the growing swarm below, were starting to prepare their offering (and in a surprising turn of technology, using a level tool to do so.) They had slung a pretty bag of coca leaves around my neck, as a thank you card for visiting, and a beer in my hand. I think I mumbled, "I'll be back," before heading down but the clever Elders knew better.

The quiet groups were no more. They had invigorated, stood up, acquired bands, and were now stomping and dancing around their fires energetically. One man grabbed me and we went round and round the fire until he released me and another rewarded me with, of course, steamy Ceibo. Groups with chunky flutes and hirsute drums and matching, embroidered tops played while maintaining a circular, slow stepped procession around a smoky fire fed by aromatic branches. Another band was all zampoñas and sang in bass unison about Bolivia's natural wonders. A man and woman huddled over a spread of offerings dipping a carnation into a dark liquid and dabbing the spread hurriedly with it, as if time was running out. And time was running out! To me, the bands seemed to play faster, to walk around in their circles faster, to wave their flags more briskly as the horizon started to bleed light hues into the overwhelming canopy of cobalt. When the sun appeared above the horizon everyone did raise their hands and twinkled their fingers at the blinding disk but it wasn't at all cheesy and I couldn't help but grin stupidly at the gold lit fingers that undulated all around me. (The pessimist in me cowered [briefly] at the sight of the rays and was maybe going to disintegrate but found refuge in the dark annals of my most important organ.) And, I wasn't wasted!

1 comment:

suzanne said...

Dear Irina,

Happy New Year to you. I love your writing! It was like being there.