The Two Faces of Carnaval
Oruro Travel Blog› entry 22 of 115 › view all entries
I had one of the most pleasurable moments of my trip here in Oruro. It didn´t involve a girl, or (much) alcohol, and it wasn´t big or clever but none of that matters. I was in a stand watching the carnaval procession and getting fully involved with the biggest water fight I have ever seen. It was absolute war with the people in the stand opposite us with water bombs by the hundred winging their way across the 20 yards separating the two sides.
A stocky local guy in a white T shirt had been taunting me and a few of my friends for over half an hour as we had been missing him with all of our shots. But just for a moment, when things had quietened down for a minute, he looked away from us. I flung a fat bomb at him and it slapped directly into the side of his face, exploding and thoroughly soaking him.
It felt just like I´d scored an important goal in a big football match - our side erupted with cheers and jeers. And what did the guy do? Was he annoyed at taking a direct hit? Not a bit of it - he looked at me, raised his beer can and saluted the shot like a true gent. Now that´s the spirit of Carnaval.
But there is another side to Carnaval, the dark side that they would rather you ignore or forget about. At surface level it´s all about the crazy costumes, dancing, singing, deafening music and general whirling mayhem, but not far beneath this swim both the criminal element and a sheer hysteria that whips the locals into an annual lather that sometimes sees them go too far.
When we arrived in Oruro on Friday, running water fights were already ongoing throughout the town, we bought some water balloons and guns and did our best, but the superior firepower of the locals soon saw us soaked through. We then tried to get into the central square to buy seat tickets for the parade on Saturday and Sunday. We were immediately pinned back a troop of local youths who, with cries of "Gringo! Gringo!" flung and fired as much water as possible at us. We backed off a bit to decide what to do, but whilst we were still considering the best approach, the two American girls that were with us both ran off round the corner from us into the square. What happened next was pretty shocking.
From what they said, once around the corner, the girls were immediately surrounded by packs of local teenagers baying "Gringo! Gringo!", then hemmed in against a wall and shoved and groped (intimately) for a couple of minutes. When I heard this, at first I was angry at myself that I didn´t follow them straight away, but then I didn´t think that the water fights were anything more than harmless fun - I had no idea that this would happen. It´s clear that girls, both local and foreign were being targeted for special attention in terms of water and foam, but the line seemed to be crossed only with the gringo girls.
We didn´t really see this kind of out of control pack mentality throughout the rest of the weekend, the majority of people we met were simply there to enjoy themselves. Nonetheless, it´s important to recognise that this kind of shit does happen, and it happens because Carnaval is there as a hedonistic release valve for the locals that is sometimes opened too wide.
On Saturday night, after a thoroughly enjoyable day watching the parades, drinking and water fighting, we headed back to the hostel. It was when we were halfway there that I realised all my trouser pockets were empty. My camera, my wallet, even my watch with a broken strap were all gone. I can only assume that it happened as we left the main square in a crush of people. I never felt a thing.
I spoke to at least seven other people who had also been robbed whilst in Oruro. Most, similar to me, had lost cameras and wallets to the pickpockets. One guy had his entire backpack stolen from our hostel. Another English bloke avoided being robbed but was very lucky to do so - he was sprayed in the face by a man with a can of foam (not unusual, this being as much a part of Carnaval as the water) whilst another slashed at the front of his jacket with a knife to try and get at his wallet. The English guy grabbed at his wallet and managed to hang onto it but was left with a thin cut in both his jacket and his chest.
There are other stories but I think that about sums up Carnaval for me. On balance I´d say my experience needle swung well into the positive: as a spectacle of energy, entertainment, colour and spirit, it´s tough to beat. But if you do go - keep your wits about you, keep your eyes open for trouble and take padlocks for your pockets.