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
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,
My personal goal for the night was to not get wasted. This has been a goal I had repeatedly failed at since arriving in
By 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 the ever intrepid lady entrepreneurs of
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