Since we have been in and out of reach from the much adored wifi signals, this post features lots of pictures to make up for lost time. To get that over and done with, in order of our visits: Sucre, Tarabuco, Maragua, Santa Cruz and Concepcíon + San Javier. The theme of this post is a subject that ties all these places together: Religion.
Bolivia is the country that, when I thought of it beforehand, just entered my mind with lots of bright colors. The tradidtional outfits and lushious nature attracted me, even before reading up on possible things to do in this remarkably diverse nation. Until now, I am not disappointed.
Creative Catholic combination
Before Catholicism was, for a lack of a better word, introduced to Bolivia, the gods that ruled were the Andean ones, like Pachamama (mother earth). The rituals that came with the new religion, never washed out the old ones completely, leaving Bolivia with an interesting mixture of ways to worship. Outsiders like us may never fully understand it but to witness, and sometimes even take part in, this way of life alone is worth a trip to Bolivia.
Sacrifice (but do not waste)
While visiting the Pujllay festival in Tarabuco, we saw a real offering first hand. No, we were not watching an animal being actually slaughtered, but rather an enormous wall filled with fruit, vegetables, drinks and yes, pigs. This offering is made to Pachamama, so she will return the favor by providing a generous harvest and fertile land.
Since we were curious, we asked what would happen with all this food afterwards and were glad to hear that the food gets appointed to a family. They divide it over all the villagers and the next year, they are in charge of a new wall.
When you realize that until 2009 Catholicism was the state religion it is remarkable and a relief that so much of indiginous elements remained intact.
Color does matter
Our next encounter with crossover culture was at the starting point of our hike to Maragua, a naturally formed crater near Sucre. With our awesome Condor Trekkers guides and group, we ate breakfast at the Chataquila chapel which was founded after a Llama broke loose and its owner had a vision of Mary while looking for his animal.
In the chapel there were candles in different colors and our guide explained that all the colors had their own meaning. Pink if you wanted a baby girl, blue for a boy, white for almost anything, red for love, green for a good harvest and yellow for good monetary fortune. The last option was black. Forbidden in most places, it can be used to have someone die or at least be the victim of an accident.
After each receiving a handfull of coca leaves as if they were a communion wafer, we offered them to the virgin Mary and hoped to be protected for the rest of our journey. Offering or not, we had beautiful views, nobody fell down while crossing steep ridges, Dagmar momentarily joined an indiginous Bolivian band and Thomas made a new friend when he donated his harmonica.
Thanks to our guide and driver we made it to the bus station in time for our overnight bus to Santa Cruz. If you look up this route online, death and destruction are talked about and there is one main advice: Take. A. Plane.
Maybe we have a good eye for buses or maybe it was Pachamama being pleased with us but we slept like babies and had a very smooth journey. So far, so good. When we got to our hotel, we felt like we entered the matrix. The streets were filled with men all wearing the same blue dungarees, shirts and either a cowboy- or baseball hat.
Appearently Bolivia harbors another religious surprise: The Mennonites. In their search for religious freedom, they ended up in, amongst other South American countries, rural Bolivia. Being of Dutch descent, they look like us but also seem from another world.
Part of the procession
On to our next destination: Two Jesuit mission towns in Eastern Bolivia. In short: When the Jesuits arrived, they traded conversion to Catholicism for education and kept indiginous people safe from being enslaved by the Spanish Crown. They founded several missions and we wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
Turns out, these towns have the prettiest churches ever made. An abundance of woodwork and decorations that seem a mixture of indiginous art and Barok. We accidentally happened to be there during one of the biggest religious celebrations: Semana Santa.
The kind lady (even though there seemed to be only kind people there) of the turist information happily informed us that there was a mass that night, followed by a procession and that we were more than welcome to participate.
The church was packed and other than being quite a bit taller and paler than the rest, we really felt like part of the parish. When the shaking hands part of the mass took place, people went out of their way to whish us the Peace of Christ. The sermon was about being all the same but remaining individuals and coincidence or not, he even mentioned Gringo’s.
After the mass we went outside to join the procession. There were songs, there was silence and there were a lot of hail Mary’s and Our Fathers. It was a truly amazing experience. The one complaint that Thomas had, was that normally when he joins me to church, he is rewarded with more and better food than a knockoff Oreo cookie.