Social catharsis

By Published On: May 25, 2007Categories: Indigenous peoples0 Comments on Social catharsis

The man, his dark lined skin contrasting with the brightness of his multicoloured andean hat, swayed treacherously. The room span. I put out my hands to catch him as he slumped onto me.  A woman in a velvet-red pollera (basket like skirt) shouted in Quechua and started to push him as he got to his feet. He seemed to be trying to gather a little clarity in a drunken swirl to push her back.

A couple of people rushed forward to try and separate them but found themselves caught up in the spinning alcoholic blur, falling into two distinct piles of rubbled clothing. Strangely next to them, two pretty women with long black plaits, beautiful polleras and embroidered blouses seemed completely unruffled by the incident, not losing a step as they continued dancing, their shiny shoes changing colour to merge with the mud on the floor.

Alcohol as you can might have gathered from this blog is a very present part of Andean culture here. And most of all it can be guaranteed at any festival, which in Bolivia are very plentiful. Of course for most cultures, the dependence on alcohol is true, something my mum can attest to in her work with people (mainly young men) with alcohol abuse problems in Birmingham. In fact I can guarantee an email of concern from her anytime I even mention alcohol on this blog. I think she has some kind of cross atlantic empathy with my liver that I don’t even have.

So the alcohol fuelled sprawl perhaps could be seen as not much different to a punch-up as pubs spill out in most British cities. Alcohol universally can become cover-ups for empty lives, for boredom and frustration, for a desire for escapism that can then descend into addiction, violence and destruction of peoples’ lives.

Yet the drunken squall I witnessed took place at one of the most important annual festivals in a stunningly beautiful agricultural-based village  in the hills above Cochabamba. Undoubtedly tough and at times precarious lives lead to drink, but I can’t help wondering whether alcohol and festivals also have other social purposes that go far beyond a good time that sometimes gets out of control.

I had first been invited up to the festival in Pachuni when Juliette, a friend Graciela and I visited the village in the mountains over Easter Weekend. We had been blow away by the existence of rich fertile green valleys, bubbling with brooks, carpeted with flowers and brimming with trees just four hours walk up from where we live. We had also been touched by the freely-given hospitality, shown when a young campesino (farmer) wordlessly stepped in after watching our hopeless attempts at starting a fire with damp wood and took it to cook on the school gas stove, and when Graciela woke up in the morning to find two boys outside our tent with a bottle of coffee that their mother had prepared us.

We were reminded of the festival by a friend, Martín a youthful looking wise friend in his fifties, who is involved in a network of Bolivian cultural activists fighting to reassert andean culture and values as a form of resistance and construction in the face of an often destructive western model of "globalisation" and "development." He had developed relationships with the community over many years, and had persuaded them to revitalise the andean tradition of k’oa, a ritual ceremony of burning, at a festival marking the change of seasons in May (Yankaku) that the Catholic Church like many festivals had turned into a festival of a Saint (Saint Isidrio).

So we ascended (with my newly arrived cousin, Joanna) to Pachuni for the second time with a lot of expectation. We arrived at the top of the ridge that overlooks Cochabamba as the sun’s rays mellowed, running shadows along the rippled ridges. Two bullocks, decorated in brightly coloured foil stars and flowers, ploughed a communal piece of land. Campesinos of all ages milled about on the curve of the hill. A Catholic mass had just concluded.

Alcohol flowed from the start. Whilst people started sharing around chicha (fermented maize drink),  Martín laid out the k’oa, a burnt offering of wood, incense, coca leaves, llama foetus, herbs. He splashed alcohol around the fire as a blessing to Mother Earth. An elderly hunched-over woman passionately shouted out words in Quechua with a surprising force and started to dance, swaying around the smouldering sacrifice. The ritual for her clearly unleashed a pent-up force and a recollection of traditions that had been repressed for many years.

Noticeably, young people of the village, in jeans and western clothes stood back apparently disconnected. I couldn’t help noticing that the Mass had engaged far more people. Here at least, it seemed, the Catholic Gods had won out against the Andean ones.

Yet as the fiesta gathered energy, those differences seemed to minimise. The arch of flowers and vegetables built for the outside mass appeared more nature-based, the festival seemed to have its own dynamic distinct from creeds.

Festivals in Bolivia seem to be about creating a time outside ordinary time, beyond daily work and rituals. It explains in part why they feature so strongly in Bolivian culture here. They are both an escape from daily routine but also an intense engagement with dance, ceremonies and celebration. Alcohol appear to be an essential part of providing that intensity. Even though, I hardly drank anything, I could still feel the surreal, exaggerated atmosphere of "letting go" that alcohol was providing.

What is remarkable in supposedly impoverished communities is how alcohol and much else beside flows so freely. In Pachuni, buckets of chicha splashed liberally on the ground for Mother Earth, came also with large plates of pampaku (a delicious plate of spicey mutton, potatoes and parsnips which is cooked in ashes underground). I, a rich westerner, paid nothing. In the fiesta, abundance rather than scarcity reigns.

The drunken fiesta also seemed unlike Britain to be thoroughly embedded in community. In part it was about reinforcing bonds between neighbours. Everyone seemed to gather and then follow the festival as it unravelled throughout the beautiful mountain valley. After the mass and k’oa, people headed down to one person’s house and crammed themselves into a little adobe hut. It was the most cramped discotheque I have ever attended with dozens of campesinos dancing to the sounds of a distorted radio, overlooked by a bemused statue of a saint.

Then at about 10pm, a hidden signal marked an exodus, and I found myself with Juliette carrying a small table (intended for the Saint) up the hill in the pitch dark feeling our way along tiny pathways through dense woods, into waterlogged irrigation ditches and along rutted fields. As we walked, already-drunk villagers stumbled, giggled and gossiped their way up. There was a minor disaster when someone dropped the tape recorder, but a huddle somehow found a way to put the unravelling spools of tape together. In the school room (home to the villages only solar panel lit room), people regathered, chewed coca, danced and yet more buckets of chicha appeared. The Saint’s beatific smile remained, even as the scuffle broke out.

Which links to my last observation on drunkeness and festivals. As I watched the two fallen piles of people, Martín smiled at me and said this always happens at festivals. "There are always tensions in a close-knit community like this, fights over bits of land, feelings someone is not carrying their weight, jealousy at someone. But these things won’t necessarily come out in community meetings. It is only during a festival and after alcohol, that people feel able to express these things. Festivals are about airing those tensions, reordering  a community emotionally and spiritually, and bringing about a new harmony and balance." Alcohol and festivals were about providing a space for social catharsis.

I imagine that tensions and divisions in a close-knit community like this can also linger. But as I woke up the next morning on the dank earth floor of Don Pedro’s house, the possibility of harmony and renewal seemed quite possible. Outside the house, the sun shone brilliantly, the concrete city of Cochabamba looked alluring, and there was a gentle calmness in the interactions with Don Pedro’s family. I had some tea and a few potato leftovers and started to make my way down, cheerily greeting the surprisingly unhangovered campeinos back at work in their fields.

Pachuni was back, not to its sober self which suggests dullness, but changed back from its exaggerated wild festival spirit of the night back. Life was flowing again like the bubbling brooks that burble across this lush-green paradise.


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