Tips for Independent Travelers
Tip #2: Seek Out Traditional Festivals
When people come together in a traditional celebration they are usually honored to have you attend and eager to show you their culture.
One New Years eve I was hiking along a gorge at 12,000 feet in rural Bolivia when I entered Amarete, a small, impoverished town on a slope surrounded by terraces. Children herded cows and a few peasants led donkeys carrying potatoes and sugar down a dirt road. Women with one or two babies on their back continued to work the fields.
Within 15 minutes of my arriving, a 25-year old man, Pedro, insisted that I come to his party that night. He arranged to meet me around 9 p.m. at the general store where I had rented a bed. For the following three hours several other young men argued that I should come to their neighborhoods party, not the "less exciting" one. Apparently the five zones of the town were carrying their rivalries into the New Year.
At 9 p.m. sharp Pedro led me by flashlight through dark alleys to a small adobe hall. Just three hous before midnight the town was still quiet and only five young men were present. They insisted I sit on one of the benches lining the walls of the room and offered me coca leaves to chew. We talked about sports, the U.S., and food we like as scores of young and old men took places on the benches. Around 10:30, young boys began serving cigarettes in a very orderly fashion. Bags of coca leaves were passed in the same direction in case our mouthfuls needed replenishing. Soon after, women in the ubiquitous bowler hats entered shyly and sat in a circle on the dirt floor in a corner. Two women started pouring grain alcohol from a vat into shot glasses, which the boy then distributed to all the seated men.
Pedro demonstrated to me a ritual that helped me to get through the night: blessing "Pacha Mama" or Mother Earth by spilling some of your drink onto the ground before imbibing. With a very low tolerance for alcohol, I was overjoyed to get rid of almost half the liquor before swallowing. As the only gringo in the room now filled with over 150 peasants, many eyes were fixed on me. The boys kept serving and the bags of coca kept circulating. It was a true show of abundance.
The puddle under my seat grew as I blessed Pacha Mama with more shots. Loud firecrackers signaled the arrival of the New Year. The tipsy men remained seated, while the women remained separate.
There was never any music, dancing, or other active entertainment. By 2 a.m., the women had dutifully returned home and the men were solidly drunk. Despite several pleas to stay, I thanked Pedro and my hosts and took my leave. Navigating through dark streets, I saw several women struggling to carry home their unconscious husbands, fathers, and brothers.
The New Year was off to an eventful start, and I was grateful to the villagers of Amarete for inviting me into a center of their lives. They gave me a lot to think about with regard to village politics, feasts, and gender roles in the year ahead.