Bolivians know how to celebrate. There’s no doubt about it. There is a constant stream of festivals, public holidays and important dates throughout the year that need to be marked in some way or another. As in most other Latin American countries, Carnaval is the most important event in the month of February. In Bolivia it’s a celebration that spans the whole month with various days of preparation and festivities. There’s compadres which is always a Thursday and can be likened to a huge bachelor party where the men get together and drink, and drink, and drink. But the ladies aren’t left out and they get their bachelorette party the following Thursday when men aren’t even allowed into bars and clubs. It’s basically a citywide ladies’ night called Comadres and it marks the start of Carnaval weekend.
But one of my favourite parts of the Carnaval experience has been Martes de Ch’alla which is the equivalent of Mardi Gras, or, as we in Britain like to call it, Pancake Day! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to make any pancakes that day but I was lucky enough to witness a ch’alla or two. Ch’alla is a Quechua word and refers to the ceremony held in many homes and businesses around Bolivia to ask the gods, particularly the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, for good fortune and a prosperous year. My friend’s family is building a new restaurant at the moment so the ch’alla is particularly important for them this year.
Friends and family gathering for the ch’alla
So, we headed off to the building site with all the necessary components for a successful ch’alla. It starts off with decorating the entrance and property with balloons and streamers so it starts to look a bit like a child’s birthday party. Then the fire, or the q’oa gets started and the offerings begin. On top of the fire, someone places a package containing money, sweets, miniature cars and houses, and herbs, which has been prepared by a shaman, or bruja: a spiritual guide, or witch. All of these things represent luck and the things that one hopes for for their business and family that year. The fire is not a blazing one and is kept small by splashing beer or chicha over it. Then comes the actual act of ch’alla which is when every person pours chicha, beer, or wine at each of the four corners of the fire. This ritual is then conducted in each corner of the property as the fire is carried around and followed by everybody throwing sweets and confetti on the roof for good luck. The last part of the ceremony is placing a llama foetus on top of fire as a final offering to the gods. I found this part a bit difficult seeing as I love llamas so much, but it wasn’t the first time I’d seen a llama foetus so at least I was partially prepared! How fast the fire burns gives you an indication of how your year will be. For example, if it burns quickly then you will have good luck very quickly and it will come easily for you. But if it all burns very slowly then it means your luck will not be quite so good and you’ll have to work harder for good fortune that year.
The q’oa with offerings of sweets and money
After lunch there is a tradition of water fights and foam fights in each neighbourhood. I can’t remember the last time I filled up water balloons, took delight at throwing them at neighbourhood kids and ran around with a couple of 5 year-olds as well as a few 20 year-olds behaving like 5 year-olds. On the drive home it was like a warzone with drive-by shootings from water guns and canned foam and it was hilarious to see my friend’s dad, who is usually a pretty serious guy, slow down, swerve and help us spray passers-by with foam. So, after a long day of ch’allas, barbecues, water fights and beer I decided that Martes de ch’alla is definitely one of my favourite Bolivian celebrations.