Bolivia’s competitive advantage: fun

In another guest post, I would like to feature Juliette, my lovely if definitely kooky Californian flatmate (she’s the one on the left) who has been great company even if she uses loads of wierd american slang that mean nothing to me. I thought spanish was hard…

Here she describes the joys of escaping the US to join carnivaling and even furniture shopping in local markets.

When Bush was re-elected in November 2004, I knew I had to leave the country.  I needed to get a perspective on why the country’s values where so different than my own.  I needed to go somewhere that nourished and inspired me because clearly the work to create a conscious society in the U.S. was going to take a long time.  So I chose Bolivia. Little did I know how much this plucky Andean country would rock my world!

Everyday here is filled with bits of magic.  On a recent Sunday, I hopped in a trufi (collective taxi) and climbed up the steep hillsides of La Paz to explore one of the largest outdoor markets in the world, called the 16 del Julio, in El Alto. 

I recently moved into a sunny flat in La Paz to work with social movements and the new Bolivian government
on advancing a “people’s” trade policy.   President Evo Morales is navigating the demands of a small but powerful elite who want Bolivia to join Peru and Colombia in signing a trade deal with the U.S. He needs all the help he can get to chart a different course.

Winding in and out of the blue-tarped stalls in the crowded market I stopped to buy cotton tights, bright colored carpets and second-hand furniture.  Beyond the hustle and bustle, as if keeping watch over the mayhem, lay breathtaking snow-capped peaks. With the help of my affable  British roommate, Nick Buxton, [don’t know why but this makes me sound like I sit around in dressing gowns and drink port. ed.]I picked out a cream colored sofa set, a bed, a large chest, and a table while the rain poured down in short bursts.

We hired a man with a cart to haul the whole lot through the mud to a taxi driver who convinced us he could fit it all into his Toyota station wagon.  A half-hour later, we were winding our way back down to La Paz with the 3-piece sofa set tied precariously to the roof, towering high like the nearby mountains. 

Along the way we passed laughing couples decked out in their traditional carnival outfits – the men in large clown costumes called pepinos and the women in bright, sequined skirts that cascaded in layers like a wedding cake. 

When the women dance, the skirts spin out in wide arcs like colorful tops. And do they dance!  At the end of
February, the entire country takes to the streets to celebrate carnival. With a bottle of beer in one hand
and a dancing partner in the other, the fun-loving Bolivians partied themselves silly from dusk to dawn for a week straight.

Carnival is also open season for water fights.  At first it was mainly just kids throwing water balloons at their squealing friends.  But then, any passerby became fair game, and I seemed to be a favorite target. Water came at me from every direction: from the rooftops and from drive-by shootings with monster plastic guns. The worst was shaving cream sprayed in my ears, hair end even my mouth!

I celebrated carnival in La Paz and joined the four days of dancing in the streets.  Day one was the children’s parade, which meant the biggest water fight ever. The second day was a street festival for adults in costumes. On the third day, the traditional folkloric  “entradas” or dance troupes performed in endless marches.

The last day was dedicated to partying at home or the workplace with close family and friends.  This day of
“cha’lla” or “blessing” fell on my 33rd birthday on February 28, so I felt like the entire country was celebrating in my honor.  Rainbow colored streamers, balloons, flowers and confetti filled the streets and hung from every doorway, on the roofs of cars and around the necks of party goers.  Pachamama should have been pleased. I certainly was.

Carnival is a time of collective rejoicing, a societal catharsis that gives adults permission to be children again.  We all need time to for playing, teasing, flirting, dancing, getting wet and silly and dizzy. 

If only I could gather up all the Wall Street bankers and workaholics in the US and transport them here for a few days, maybe I could slow down the money-making machine and restore a bit of humanity to the system.  It doesn’t make sense that a country as culturally rich as Bolivia is judged by how “globally competitive and productive” they are when really what we need is a little more of what Bolivia has in abundance: fun.   

Check out my photos from the festivities at:
(a disclaimer: the photos of the dancers and costumes were not from carnival but a different street festival. You get the idea though!)



  1. Miguel (MABB) March 20, 2006 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    Your intro caught my eye. I remember somewhere having read if you’ve never been outside of your own country, you really don’t know it. You have to at least visit other countries, so you have something else to compare it with.
    Nice article 🙂

  2. Andy March 30, 2006 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    Nick, I’m worried.
    You’ve started to use words like ‘kooky’.

  3. Nick April 1, 2006 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    Andy, you’re darn right. I might be saved by the fact that that groovy far-out chick’s gig in Bolivia is only until May otherwise I would be totally bummed.

  4. BIll Powers April 13, 2006 at 7:59 am - Reply

    Thanks Juliette for this wake up call. Indeed, we need to arrive “beyond compare” and eliminate all relative development indexes from GNPs to SATs. Let’s focus on enjoying the moment in all its rich simplicity. As Einstein put it, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

  5. Sarah September 4, 2006 at 9:26 am - Reply

    I know this article was written a while back and I am a little tardy in my response, but I must tell you, Juliette, that I couldn´t agree more with you. I am a Malaysian-American that came to La Paz to intern with an NGO and essentially to get out of the States (only 2 more years of Bush! Things has better change in 2008.. we´ll see). It was suffocating indeed; I needed the fun and chaos of Bolivia, as you put it. I particularly appreciated what you said about transporting the financial district of NYC to carnival! Maybe that would put life into perspective for some of them. Great article!

  6. michael mcloughlin November 9, 2007 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Reading this article convinced me that i need to travel to another country. i’ve only been out of the US one time, and that was when i was nine.

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