This blog entry was supposed to be all about carnivals in South America. As Wee Mo and I couldn’t stretch our budget to go to Rio – and quite frankly didn’t fancy the danger – we managed to arrange things so that we would be compensated by three other carnivals in three other countries.
I was going to start by telling you about the Gualeguaychu edition, in north east Argentina, and how polished it was, to the point of feeling a bit sterile. I was going to describe how, despite our dreadful hostel, we had a pretty good time watching expensive floats and lavish costumes swagger past us to the samba bounce. I was even going to comment on how everything seemed to move except the rigid, terrifying breasts of the dancers who, for the most part, conformed to the age-old universal truth: Body Off Baywatch, Face Off Crimewatch.
Then I was going to tell you about the Paraguayan version, held in the sketchy town of Encarnacion. I was going to say how it hardly had any money by comparison, but that it was a lot more fun, mostly because of the people in the crowd. Then I was going to put up this wee video and you were going to have a laugh at my expense.
But then we went to Boliva, to Oruro, and everything changed. So instead, you’re getting this:
When my brother and I were young, we were asked to solve a crime. Our father had been assaulted and we were to go to the scene of the attack just around the corner from our flat and work out what had happened. A feral alcoholic at the time, he had absolutely no recollection of anything from the night before, so we were to try and find out more on his behalf. My brother and I headed out, and sure enough we found his jacket – a cream thing, dirty and wet from the previous night’s rain – lying on the ground, next to a half open garage door. So far as anyone could tell, he had simply walked into the thing, blinded by the bevvy, then somehow contrived to strip himself of his jacket. We brought it home and reported our findings, but not before we’d checked the pockets for money. There was none.
I’m thinking about this sorry scene as I lie on a comfortable mattress, starting at the ceiling, trying to solve my own crime. First, I try to fathom the extent of my discomfort. This is relatively easy to do: most things hurt, but my back and legs are particularly painful. Alarmingly, I also have a small chip out of one of my front teeth.
I sit up gingerly, trying and failing not to disturb Wee Mo. The second step is to work out exactly what is missing. I know my wallet is gone, but what else?
Just what the hell has happened to me?
Unlike the other carnivals, which took place every Saturday and Sunday in February, the Oruro edition is spread over a single, extremely long weekend in spring. Having arrived in town via a hellish overnight train from Tupiza, we decided to skip out Friday night’s festivities and start early on Saturday. By early I mean before noon, but the Bolivians were out dancing by 7am. By the time we were in the centre at around 11am, the tickets for the stands that fringe the central plaza were already sold out. Most alleyways were already full of semi-conscious bums and wastrels who had seriously misjudged their capacity for booze. A huge number of people were pissing all over the place (though in Bolivia this seems to just be the way of things, carnival or not). We quickly realised that this wasn’t the quaint cultural event we’d thought it might be, but instead the Bolivian T in the Park, without the open fields to absorb the piss, shit and puke.
So we held our breath here, and gagged a bit there, and tried to find a couple of seats, which was virtually impossible. When we did finally find a tout, he was asking for £50 for both us us to sit on a wooden plank for two days. And bizarrely, that was pretty much the set price. Despite Bolivia being by far and away the cheapest country we’ve been to (it costs £1.60 for an entirely edible four-course meal) the price of its carnival is ridiculously high. By comparison, the Argentinian equivalent was under a tenner each – and the Paraguayan one half that.
But by luck as much as design, I somehow sniffed out some free seats, allowing us to take some photos for the best part of four hours before we were rumbled and hustled out of there.
Up close the Oruro carnival is indeed spectacular. These people may live in the poorest country on the continent, but they are clearly decent tailors, competent musicians and skilled prancers. The fact that they actually play their own music (rather than have it played over speakers as in Argentina and Paraguay) gives the whole thing a sense of authenticity too.
But like I say, our ruse only worked for so long before we were hunted off elsewhere. It was around this time that I started drinking at an accelerated rate. It’s not just the food that’s cheap in Boliva: fat cans of acceptable German beer cost less than £1. This became the fuel to my fire as we stood around, trying to peer over the top of locals and gringos alike to see more of the 12-hour parade.
Unable to see much, the whole thing descended into a mass foam fight, with people from all over the world blasting each other with pressurised cans of the stuff. The more I drank, the better my aim, but despite hitting perfection somewhere around that point, I kept drinking, and drinking, and by the time nine cans had come and gone, not much was making sense. Then I noticed that Wee Mo had run out of drink and I offered to go get her some. She refused, but I’d become that disgusting greedy way and wanted to keep drinking myself, so lurched off to get more. I turned a corner and there, waiting for me, was the abyss of a blackout.
The first sensation after that was pain. Pain and suspicion of the small Boliviano trying to help me. He spoke virtually no English, and in my state, my Spanish was utterly miserable. The pain, though, that translated pretty well – it felt like searing hands gripped my spine and kidneys. Even through the booze it was excruciating. I knew I should be making my way back to Wee Mo – how long I’d been away at this point is anyone’s guess – but I could barely walk. The Boliviano, Jose, offered to take me to hospital. I accepted.
Over the next few hours I went back to black a few times, and what I can remember comes with Vaseline smeared on my memory’s lens. I know this: the ER was packed, mostly with people in much worse condition than me; the pain was constant, until they gave they injected painkillers into my arse; and when it came time to pay the bill, I couldn’t find my wallet. A bag of beer and spray-foam I’d had was gone too. Thankfully, whatever had transpired, I still had our camera bag, with almost £5000’s worth of equipment intact.
When I finally got chucked out at 12:45am, Jose was still with me. Somehow his family had arrived too. They took me back to the hostel in a taxi and paid everything, with me promising to reimburse them the next morning. For some reason, I took a picture of them.
I shambled into the room and found Wee Mo distraught with worry, then quickly furious. She had spent hours looking for me and had gone through all kinds of hassle and distress in the process. Evidently Bolivianos aren’t simply content with pissing all over their streets and businesses – gringos also make for excellent targets. Add that to finding someone’s hand in her pocket on the rob and getting hit with a firework much earlier in the day and, for her, it was comfortably the worst day we’ve had on the road.
And all I could offer was that I was in pain and that I’d been in hospital. The rest was a mystery.
When Jose arrived the next morning, I paid him and asked if he had any idea what had taken place. He didn’t – he’d just found me limping along the road, holding my side. I crawled back up to bed and spent the rest of the day a paranoid mess.
Perhaps I was mugged, but then why didn’t they take the camera bag, and why was my back so sore? Maybe I was run over, but then why wasn’t I seriously injured, and why were the cameras all fine? Ultimately, the most likely scenario was that I simply fell over and landed awkwardly. The missing wallet was probably stolen earlier in the day, or just lost by me, deep in the grip of uselessness.
But with a chipped tooth and a trace of blood in my first painful piss of the day, it must have been some fall…
Without any evidence, we decided to try and put the whole sorry affair behind us. Now circumstances are forcing us to leave Oruro 24 hours earlier than we had planned. Some genius decided that as the Tuesday after carnival is a national holiday, absolutely no buses should run which makes for a grand panic as everyone tries to get the hell out of town on the Monday. Outside of the Carnival, Oruro has very few attractions and no one wants to have to wait as long as Wednesday to leave.
So now it’s now and we’re checking out and heading to the station – me still feeling glum, Wee Mo justifiably pissed off – to join the scrum to find our bus. I’ve accepted that I will never know what happened to me because, just like my father before me, I’m no witness to my own crime.
But then, out of nowhere, a small family comes up to us.
“You! You! Are you OK?” The boy offers me his hand, I shake it and put my other on my wallet. This reeks of a scam.
“We saw you on Saturday – are you OK?”
“Hold on, do you know what happened to me?”
“Yes, you were drunk,” he says.
“That much I know, but did you see what happened to me?”
“Si, si! Are you OK?” Asks the mother.
“I have a problem with my back, but I spoke with a doctor and I am OK. What happened?”
“There were three men,” says the boy. “They were in your jacket.”
“They got my wallet… Were they hitting me?”
“Yes, and one of them had a knife.”
“We shouted: ‘Policia! Policia!’” Says the mum. “And they ran away.”
I thanked them and offered to do something, anything, to show my gratitude. A meal in La Paz? How about some cash? They refused it all.
So maybe my back and ribs are sore because I was protecting the camera bag while they lashed at me. Perhaps my tooth is chipped because I bit someone (I have a history of biting) but really that’s all speculation. As I got on the bus, all I knew for sure was that I’m a lucky bastard – and that these blackouts must end.