Sunday, September 13, 2009
Breathless in Bolivia
This Copacabana was about as far as you could get from the Barry Manilow song you’ve probably now get in your head. The shores of Lake Titicaca (stop snickering) were beautiful to see first thing in the morning but there were no showgirls named Lola nor gangsters named Rico what there was however was a show every Sunday in front of the cathedral. Every Sunday there was the blessing of the cars, and buses, and vans, and taxis by the priest. We had heard it was a must-see so we were going to must-see it.
On the way out of the hostel we ran into Colombia Geoff checking out of the hostel on his way to catch a bus to La Paz. We said hi-bye and then continued on our ways. In front of the Cathedral there was a line up of vehicles wrapped around the small plaza. And in the plaza there were numerous stalls all selling flowers and beer and devotional objects which the proud owners were using to decorate their vehicles. Beer? You may be asking. Well, the beer was the most important part of the blessing. The owners were spraying their cars and the ground with alcohol as a blessing following it up with a chug of the beer for themselves – it was the Bolivian version of "one for me and one for my dead hommies" complete with the tricked out rides. At some point the priest was supposed to come out and officially bless the vehicles but he was still a little distracted with the Sunday service which was heaving today as it appeared to be the confirmation or communion day for every kid in the region.
While we waited we found a spot to sit and watch the local indigenous folks in their beautiful costumes as they entered the church. Inside the cathedral we could hear church music but there was a twist. Instead of typical droning church music the songs sounded indigenous. The women were singing in Aymara to Aymara music. We popped our heads inside to check it out but respectfully kept the camera in the bag. Around the side was a small votive room. Inside the walls were thick with smoke and candle wax and thousands of candles being lit the room as people made offerings. We could hear the service ending so we went back outside to wait for the priest. But after an hour he didn’t appear and the high altitude sun drove us back to the hostel.
After a quick pit stop at the hostel, we headed back out to conquer the daunting hill behind the hostel. We aren’t climbers, hikers or trekkers but this hill was more than just a great vantage point to check out the surrounding area. Like that morning’s ceremony at the Cathedral, the hill was a place of worship, where the locals mixed their Aymara culture with Catholicism. The hill was called Cerro de Calvario, as in Cavalry, as in something to do with the stations of the cross. After visiting the stations, the penitent practice some of those merged beliefs at the top. But before we could experience those we had to get up the hill and that wasn’t going to be easy. Even making our way through town to the path was tough. The streets were so steep that we walked up backwards in an attempt to relieve the burning in our thighs. Then we were at the path, or rather on the path because when we looked at the station numbers we were already 4 stations in. Goodie four down, only 7 or 8 or was it 9 to go. But before attempting to climb them we had to take a short rest and luckily there was a clearing with benches where we could relax. As we caught our breath we took in our first taste of the hill ceremonies. Next to us an indigenous holy man was performing blessings for a couple of families. For one he had a miniature house full of grass that he lit on fire. He tamped down the flames so that the grass just smoked and then passed the house over and around the family. For the other family he chanted some sort of prayer and then blessed them all with a bottle of beer that he shook and sprayed over their heads – much like the car owners had down at the Cathedral. Just behind all this, we spotted an older Aymara couple on the side of hill facing the lake. They were performing their own much quieter ceremony that involved laying out rocks in a pattern/message on the ground and building a fire. As the next families appeared for their blessing we stood up to conquer the path.
Now before I continue, I want to spend a moment describing the actual path we were supposed to take. At one point some enterprising fellows had out stairs made out of rocks. But these rocks were more like boulders and very uneven so you could only tell they were stairs if you squinted. Of course squinting makes Adrian and I look like Angelina and Brad, so that really doesn’t mean anything. Needless to say this uneven, sorta, maybe path was not going to make the climb to the top any easier. We were passed by little old ladies wearing heals and kids that were running at full speed oblivious to the danger. But we were happy to hear that many of the locals were huffing and puffing too, sure many of them were carrying large rocks which they would drop at the various stations on the way up. In the end it took us an hour to get to through the 14 stations as we had to stop every five feet to catch our breath in the thin air. It was a good thing we were now spending more days here to acclimatize before our trip to the Isla del Sol, an island that’s all hill and where there are no vehicles.
I worried about how we were going to get down put that out of my head so we could enjoy just making it to the top. But being so high up on such a tiny path did give me a bit of vertigo and the urge to throw up. So I stopped looking over the edge and that helped. And once we got to the top of the mountain the beautiful view of the city far below killed all the vertigo. We could see the Peruvian side as well as the Isla del Sol that I noticed was about the same height as this hill (oh great more climbing). We decided to celebrate with a beer that was readily available to buy from women vendors at the top of the hill. Adrian was in awe as he realized that these tiny women carried up crates of stuff everyday to sell to the believers on top. And it wasn’t just beverages for sale. The stalls also had miniature cars, houses, hotels, wads of fake money, suitcases and even fake diplomas for sale which the locals burned as an offering as they prayed for success in whichever they choose (home, career, school, money). It was really an interesting sight.
Once we were suitably refreshed we began the descent. It was easier than I thought although my knees were burning by the time we got to the bottom. There would definitely be no trekking tomorrow.