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What Bolivia’s Aymara People Taught Me About Identity

On a cold winter’s night in the city of El Alto, Bolivia, we arrived at a mystical place where a dozen tiny rooms stood side by side. The cholitas (local Andean women in traditional bowler hats and voluminous skirts) performed rituals by the fires outside, burning offerings of incense, sugar figurines, shreds of wool and juniper leaves to the earth-goddess Pachamama. 

Geetika Jain

They are known as Yatiris, or healers and fortune tellers whose powers are regularly sought-after by locals to remove negativity, get cured or have their wishes come true. It felt other-worldly and exciting, as though I was magically conveyed into an alternate plane. 

A Yatiri ushered me into her over-stuffed chamber. Besides the figurines of Christian saints, burning candles, a llama piñata, plastic flowers, chopped wood bundles and colourful textiles on the walls, there were eight rather ghoulish ñatitas, (human skulls)) in glass cases. Some of them were decorated with beads and flowers. One had sunglasses and a cigarette between the teeth. And there were llama foetuses hanging from the ceiling, one of which, she suggested, would make a nice offering in a ceremony to Pachamama, but I thanked her and opted to have my fortune read by the splashes of alcohol on a cardboard wall and some dried coca leaves. Janette Simbron, who owns and runs Bolivia Milenaria, the company that planned my trip, had been the most enjoyable company and she readily translated the Yatiri’s words for me.

In a homogenised continent that saw Spaniards and other Europeans take over nearly completely over the last five-hundred years, Bolivia stands out, as 55% of its people are indigenous and many still hold on to their ancient traditions. One of the extraordinary joys of travel is to be privy, even for a short spell, to ancient and intact rituals and in this case, an unnervingly accurate clairvoyant.

The twin cities of La Paz and El Alto float high up in the thin air of the Bolivian Andes, connected by a road and a modern and efficient multi-line cable-car system. You would have heard of La Paz as Bolivia’s capital (along with the town of Sucre). El Alto is relatively new, with its own Mayor and its own tax-collection system. This city of immigrants from the mines and fields has grown rapidly with a population of nearly 1 million. 

El Alto sits above La Paz at 4,000 meters, so it tends to be colder there, while La Paz is in a bowl that bottoms at around 3,000 metres. The main difference is that 90% of the people of El Alto are Aymara-speaking descendants of pre-Colonial locals. 

Mi Teleferico is an aerial cable car urban transit system in the city of La Paz Bolivia.

“Ever since Evo Morales (an indigenous native) became president of Bolivia in 2005, they have come into their own,” explained Janette. “Up until the eighties, the indigenous people were not allowed into some of the restaurants of La Paz that had signs saying ‘We reserve the right to admission’. They were looked down upon. Morales made them realise everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. And now, they’re proud of their identity. They wear their traditional clothes to work, and their languages, Aymara and Quechua are taught in schools along with Spanish. The Aymara also have their own flag.

In the fresh fruit and vegetable street market, I was able to interact with the locals, chat with them about their produce and try their homemade fare. I revelled in the visuals of the cholitas, photographing them and sketching them in my notebook. Their figures tend to be rotund, with the Borsalino hat, the multi-layered bolleyera skirt, the blouse, the woollen sweater and manta shawl all topped with an apron with pockets. Many toted a knotted textile on their back, stuffed with their load. They resolutely love hues of hot pink. I cannot have enough of their sunburnt faces, cheery smiles and long braids tied at the back with decorative tassels.

A skinny cholita…no! She has to be curvy. A plump cholita means she’s wealthy.

The clean-shaven, short-haired men mostly wore western-style trousers and jackets, but some of them donned ponchos and the traditional chulu wool hats that cover the ears. I remarked on the curvy-appearance of the women, and Janet said, “A skinny cholita…no! She has to be curvy. A plump cholita means she’s wealthy.” I could tell they were strong by the loads they carried effortlessly even as they powered uphill. These are no shrinking violets. Cholita wrestling (called Cholitas luca libre) is a popular spectator sport in El Alto, where they wrestle and toss each other in a ring with their audience clapping and shouting for more.

Just below, La Paz is a hastily-planned array of sloping streets that rise and fall with plenty of steps to navigate. Janet and I enjoyed lunch at the atmospheric Manq’a Restaurante and explored the colonial-era buildings downtown. While Janette is a descendant of Spanish ancestors, she too makes an offering to Pachamama on 1 August. She took me to the Witches’ Market, where the shops displayed, upfront, foetuses of llamas, chinchillas and vicuñyas. While they seemed creepy to me and reminded me of a failed life, for the locals they were just another object for offerings. The isles were replete with amulets, tinsel, herbs, oils and potions—all used for a multitude of things such as love, romance, marriage, good health, good luck and to find one’s angel. There were also potions for bringing evil upon others and wreaking havoc in their lives. Janet pointed to a potion especially meant for one’s arch-enemy. 

Amidst it all, were cheery figurines of Ekeko, the smiling god of luck, who is laden with all manner of objects of desire such as cars, houses and cash. He’s evoked every 24 January, for Alacitas, the festival of wishes and desires.

That night, as I looked out from the terrace of the Atix Hotel in La Paz where I was staying, the beauty of being in a bowl was apparent. All around me, the homes and edifices on the sides were lit up with delicate coppery lights. I took in the city’s glow-worm topography and breathed in the clean air. \

The following day, we took the cable cars back up to El Alto. In some of the more up-market areas, local Aymara architect Freddie Mamani has designed many unique and ebullient buildings with multi-coloured façades with strong lines and symbols. They hark from the (pre-Inca) Tiwanakan empire that was settled not far from here, and whose ruins can be visited. We explored some of these large, strikingly flamboyant palaces that typically have a basement, a commercial ground floor (which might be an event room or some shops), apartments over the next couple of floors and a chalet-type house on the top. This is where the owners live. These buildings are called Cholets, an amalgam of the words ‘chalet’ and ‘cholo’. These neo-Andean mansions are symbols of local affluence and pride in the vernacular idiom. The wealthy set also announce themselves by holding elaborate fiestas when celebrating their landmark events. I was fortunate to witness one such bash, with men in swish, well-cut grey suits and bejewelled ladies in stylish versions of their traditional skirts and shawls. It might have been a party straight out of  The Great Gatsby. A live band played on stage, and there were over 400 guests, all drinking, chatting and swaying to the music. 

I’d hoped to find a strong local pulse in Bolivia, and the twin cities had been beyond rewarding. At the fiesta in the Cholet, a sense of pride was palpable. Here, in Bolivia, my beloved Andeans had made it. They too were availing of their own talents, their mines and coca and soya fields. They were forging their new selves without letting go of their precious cultural identity.

Source : CN Traveller