Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Feast of Desire

All night long it rained. It was still raining when I got up and went out to the street. Water ran down the paving stones as if they were the bed of a stream, instead of a public street.

I am back in Copacabana. When I was here a couple of weeks ago, it was warm and summery, now it is chilly and gray. At this altitude, when the sun is blocked the temperature plummets. Everyone wanders around bundled with clothes and complains how cold it is.

Into the rain I walked with my umbrella, one I bought in London, after my other umbrella failed as I was leaving Berlin. This new one recently seemed like it would not make it much longer. One spoke lost its tip and the cloth fanned out free. Its tie had also broken. But, Juan Carlos somehow stitched it together so it arched outward and covered my head.

At the market I stood under the ledge, by two vendors with their large baskets of fresh bread. Several older men, with colorful caps, were standing stonily nearby, watching the rain. Two women, in front of me, bought a couple of meters of plastic each. They had the vendor slice of a corner, once they had folded it in half and then again, to make them a rain poncho, which they then slipped over their heads and went into the wetness.

The vendor of plastic opened the market door and went in to the warmth, where people were sipping coffee, chocolate, or api while eating bread, pasteles, or buñuelos. “Four meters” he said, “I have four meters left. Who wants plastic for a poncho? I only have four meters left.”

I was waiting outside for Amanda, my student. We had agreed to get together here for some api and to catch up. While I waited the man who sells dried coca leaves, tipped the plastic cover he had over his stand to make the water on it fall in a flood, and then set his chair out and began ordering his merchandise to sell, even though the rain kept falling in sheets.

Once Mandy arrived, we opened the door and went in. We were lucky. Seats were just then opening up at Doña Natalia’s stand. She smiled a warm greeting and said “Where did you go to, where have you been?” as we sat and ordered api.

It tasted wonderful in its cinnamon and clove tang, with just a hint of citrus. I looked at the pasteles, shaped like empanadas with a carefully folded edge, but puffed up from frying into rounded pillows, and wondered how they could make them so perfectly by hand.

Of course master craftsmen practice until they can do them perfectly, and only then do they take them to market. Funny how I would assume that only a machine could attain perfection, never human hands. Thus I betrayed my origins in a world where handicraft, and pride in it, have almost died.

As we handed her our empty cups and the plate in which there had been pasteles, Doña Natalia said “Don’t forget to come and say goodbye before you leave?”

Today is a feast day. The town is filled with people. Even though it is raining heavily they are out and about. Cars and trucks overrun the streets by the Basilica as people decorate them with flowers in preparation for the priest to come out and bless them.

It is also the last weekend of summer vacation, so the town is full.

I can hear bits and pieces of the morning mass creeping out of the Basilica’s walls to compete for attention with the patter of falling rain.

Artisans push and pull carts loaded with merchandise and materials to make a stand and protect it from the rain. They are mostly going up to a place called Colquepata, or the place of Gold, where there is a small salmon-colored church with a piece of the True Cross. Behind it opens the entrance to the twin hills that simply are called Calvario, or Calvary, even though one side is officially Catholic and the other officially pagan. Yes one is capitalized and the other not. Hum... equality?

Behind the arches, on the broad esplanade that once housed a temple to the moon when this was one of the most important shrines in the Inca Empire, the merchants are setting out their wares. Flower petals, food, and miniatures of all sorts, especially vehicles, houses, hotels, restaurants, diplomas, cereal boxes, and of course, statues of Virgins and toads.

It is Alasitas. The word is a hybrid, a Spanish noun form made from an Aymara conjugated verb which says “buy from me”. This feast comes almost in mid-summer, when the rains are falling, flowers and potatoes are blooming, and there is lots of food. It is a time of play, called Anata in Aymara, when people can stop and dream about what they would like to have. Desires, like flowers, can bloom and hope to create more flowers.

Historically, Copacabana was divided into two halves, called moieties in anthropology. The upper half has the enormous Basilica that towers over the town and all the feasts associated with her. The lower half, the more indigenous half, has the twin hills, the piece of the True Cross, and the toad. This amphibian comes from underground, or from the waters of the lake, and brings wealth. On the backside of the hills is a composite rock, very different from the igneous stone of the twin hills, that is simply called the toad. It stands by the hole called the “mouth of the toad”, the “boca del sapo”.

Collquepata’s little church, because of its elevation, actually stands higher than the towers of the Arabesque Basilica. One can look out and see it dominating the other half of the town.

The Basilica and its Virgin are connected historically with an ancient God known as Copacabana who was represented as part human and part fish. In contrast, the dual hills and Colquepata embody an ancient myth of two nyads who during the time of carnaval--Anata or high summer-- would come out to play.

The story is that well prior to the Incas these two fish were consorts of the rain God, Thunupa who controlled lightning, wealth and, of course, fertility. They became the twin hills, called by the magical name Llallagua, or “it is double”, which today is the name of the neighborhood by Colquepata.

This is a place of fertility and its main feasts are high summer and harvest time.

Along with the merchants pushing their wares, I walked up to Colquepata. As soon as I walked through the free arches marking the entrance, some one shouted “David, David.” I looked and it was my friend Elias Quispe.

I first met him when he was a teenager, maybe sixteen or so, and I was doing fieldwork in the rural community of Huacuyo, which is just over the mountains from here. At the time Elias was going to high school in Copacabana, since there was no high school in his community. But he would always come home and we would talk and joke around.

Elias walked towards me to say hello and then pulled me back to where his son, a young man in his mid twenties, was helping set up their booth with cars, trucks, houses, and hotels. “David, this is my son Richard. He is a student in La Paz.”

It turns out that Richard, a wiry young man with an intense gaze as if people were documents written in sixteenth century script needing careful deciphering, studies history at the National University of San Andrés in La Paz where he is in his third year. In conjunction with another young man and with the sponsorship of the local mayor’s office Richard and his friend have penned a history of Copacabana which the Mayor’s office is publishing. “If you want, I have it on my flash drive and can give it to you.”

It was still drizzling and there were not many people set up yet. Though more and more were arriving. Noon was the critical hour. According to what people say, at noon you should buy what you want, in miniature, and then get it blessed with a local healer as well as with holy water. Then, if you have faith it will become true. You can have your desire. The miniature will become the thing, as if it were just a seed needing ritual planting and tending to sprout and grow.

At the door of the church stood a ceramic figure of a Mestizo man, plump and happy, with a thin mustache. He was dressed in a light blue, long sleeved shirt, and dark blue slacks, over which someone had placed the red and black wairuru poncho of a leader. a person of respect. He also carried a ch’uspa, a woven bag for coca, and had on the knit cap and hat of local people.

According to popular belief he is the Eqeqo, the bringer of good fortune. Many people have him in their home and places of business. They say you need to give him gifts of alcohol, and perhaps a good smoke, and he will give you back what you want. So you load him up with your desires in miniature, so he will know what you need and want.

He was at the front door, with his arms stretched out to welcome all, while inside the church they were preparing for mass.

At 11:45 when I returned, the esplanade was packed with people, somewhere between one and two thousand, probably. I tried to count but they were milling, looking at miniature wares, and buying them. They were subtly pushing one another, and I had trouble keeping count.

Once people bought what they wanted they would also buy a sack of flower petals. Then they would take their purchases to one of the zahumeros, or ritual specialists. There were five of them scattered on the esplanade. They would take your desire, then toss some grains of copal incense on a brazier and smoke it while imploring God, the Virgin Mary, and the Pachamama, as well as the mountains and the banks of the world to make it real. After passing it over and over through the incense smoke, they would sometimes add flower petals to it and sometime coca leaves, but they would always drizzle it with a little wine and then a little cane alcohol. The would do the same with the hands of the desirer and then the ritual leader and the desirer would exchange an abrazo, a kind of hug.

People would also take their miniatures to the Eqeqo and touch him with them while covering him with offerings of flower petals and serpentine streamers. They also drizzled alcohol and wine on him, in what is called a ch’alla. You would both do it to him as well as to your purchases.

At noon, after mass, the priest came out with a bucket of holy water and a plastic flower on a stick. People crammed forward, me among them taking pictures. They held their purchases aloft, for the priest’s blessing, as they called out “Here father, here.” “I hope you had a good breakfast father, so you have the strength to reach me with your blessing”.

The priest dipped the plastic flower in the bucket and began scattering droplets of holy water on the purchases and on the assembled people. At one point, with an ironic smile, he deliberately drenched a young woman’s shoulders when her back was turned.

As more and more people pushed forward, the priest asked them to circulate, for the ones already blessed to leave and make room for more people to come close. I pulled back, somehow having avoided getting my camera and myself drenched.

When the priest ran out of holy water a generalized “no” went through the crowd. He had to go in, get more water, and begin the process again.

The rain had lifted as noon approached and the sun came out of the clouds so the priest’s blessing was the only drops of water falling at the time. Sun came out, an intense sun, for the rest of the afternoon.

As I moved back into the crowd, away from the hoard massing the steps of the church for the priest’s blessing, a man and his son stopped me. They held out a miniature certificate of ownership for a hotel and asked me to sign it as a notary public. “Today you can be the official”, he said. I signed their paper and asked where they were from. “Arequipa, Peru,” the man said as he and his son posed for a photograph with their miniature hotel.

Later a ten year old girl came up and thrust a hand-full of small hundred dollar bills into may hand saying, “it is for my pension”, the money to go to school. I was confused, until her mother came up and said, it is a down payment so she will have the money to go to school. She is giving it to you, so that it will return to her in real money for her to be able to go to school.” I thanked her for the gift, rather stunned, and wished her well as she disappeared into the crowd.

I returned to Colquepata at 4:00 pm, along with my laptop, to get the file from Richard. His father’s booth was mostly empty, although people were still buying houses and cars. Richard was on the other side watching an empty booth. He signaled me over and lifted the plastic covering the booth for me to hunch under. He pulled out his flash drive and we loaded the file, hidden behind plastic from peering eyes. Richard invited me to visit him in the Vice President of Bolivia’s archives, where he works in La Paz, and told me that he is writing right now a history of football (soccer) in Copacabana, because he loves football.

The Eqeqo was mounded high with petals and streamers, as well as drenched with alcohol, his eyes barely visible. People kept coming up and adding more, although some took some away and dropped them in the bags where they had their own purchases. Others squeezed droplets of alcohol from his ch’uspa onto their purchases. And others just touched him with their goods.

I retreated to a new coffee house that has just opened in Copacabana. It is owned by an Irish man and his Bolivian wife. From Sucre, a beautiful city in far off southern Bolivia, she was born sickly. Her parents are great devotees of the Virgin of Copacabana. They brought her here and attributed her subsequent good health and life to the Virgin’s blessing and so they return. The woman and her Irish husband have decided to settle here, open their cafe, and hope to build an eco lodge, while making a life. As she said, “Here we hope we will have children, raise them, live our lives, and die near the Virgin. Every day we want to get up and look out on the lake. That, will be a good life!”


  1. Very interesting! I love the formal ritual of the miniature and it calls immediately to mind my own belief in manifestation...and my less formal rituals surrounding my own action in trying to manifest things into my own life. I wonder what the most popular miniature is. Do you know? And can you buy miniatures for things like love and happiness?

  2. Hi Sandy,

    I do not know about "happiness" but I know they sell miniatures for "parejas" i.e. couples. That is not the same thing as "love" though it is in the right direction. If you ever come to this part of South America you can consult with an Amaut'a, a ritual specialist, who can answer your questions far better than I who am merely an observer and wanderer. Hope you are well.