Phujillay is a festival celebrating a historic event in the indigenous community of Tarabuco, near Sucre, Bolivia. The indigenous festival that Tarabuco is famed for happens annually on the third Sunday in March every year. It marks a significant victory over the Spanish and the end of their rule over these people.
I had just arrived in Sucre the weekend before the festivities and hooked up with Yao, who was busy volunteering with a 100% non-profit organisation called Condor Trekkers. The organisation’s model was easy as 1-2-3; the customer buys a trekking package has an awesome experience knowing that her money will be going towards village community projects related to education, health and youth empowerment as well as paying off the necessary business overheads.
I decided to go with Condor Trekkers to the festival as they also employ local Bolivian guides that speak English. What with my Spanish still at spainglish level I thought this would be the best way for me to get a rich cultural experience.
Supermoon revellers in Pisily village
Saturday morning, the sky was full of rain as we set off for Pisily, a small neighbouring village to Tarabuco. We arrived in Pisily just as the community were decorating this 5 metre high altar with all sorts of produce including wine, bread, fruits and vegetables, crowned by an animal carcass (probably Llama or goat). The altar was their way of returning what pachamama had given to them; in essence it was a sacred offering. Other villagers were busy getting their costumes in order. They looked immaculate in their signature pink outfits with weavings that told a story of how they perceive the world and their place in it. Several men also wore a very special type of dancing shoe with large bells on the back of it. I was told that the men would perform a dance by playing the bells on their shoes alongside the musicians that would appear in a little while. I found it fascinating how these people’s spirit and indigenous identity endured into the 21st century despite the colonial exploitation their land had been subjected too. To my mind the strength and conviction of the indigenous people I met was unmistakable, they were a pagan earth loving, sun worshipping people who embraced other religions rather than diametrically opposing it.
Despite the constant rain we hung out that afternoon dancing around the altar, drinking chicha and other more fiery alcoholic concoctions. A meal of delicious quina and a curry of sorts was served to all present; there must have been around a hundred of us.
Drinking like a Bolivian
Dusk fell and more drinking and dancing. Some local Bolivian men were now getting very merry indeed as the 69% proof beverage made its appearance. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt clearly in Bolivia is to never compete drinking with them. Bolivians may not drink for weeks, but when they finally do they drink to fall down as was evident that night! The moon, full moon, no less super moon made a welcome and enlightening appearance through the breaking rain clouds and nestled itself for while against the altar as if to bless the offerings these beings had made to the universe. It was a privilege to witness and in some way be a part of this community’s religious ceremony that evening, an unforgettable experience.
The next morning, our host had made a lovely vegetable broth for breakfast, accompanied by a gorgeous homemade bread using maize, coca and quina flours; just what I needed after a rather cold night. We were invited to a local ladies house who was in the process of weaving one of the wonderful creations I had seen on the dancers the night before. In a simple mud brick room, the prized possession was the cloth she was weaving on her loom. The weaving was her artwork, her story, communicating to those who could read and decipher the symbols how she perceives the world. Needless to say, it was a time consuming process that led to an exquisite piece of art.
Off we set saying adios to our host in Pisily, over the hills towards Tarabuco. Patches of blue sky were beginning to emerge and our local Bolivian guides Vincente, Hugo and Henry offered us coca in our open palms to boost our energy, a morning tonic if you will.
It was a gentle hike with rewarding views of Pisily in the background surrounded by cultivated land; fields of maize, quina, potatoes, and other staples. The undulating hills and their rustic colours of greens, reds and browns produced a natural tapestry that filled me with much joy that morning. On we meandered until we reached a plateau of sorts whereby Henry and Hugo proceeded to have a musical conversation using their pan pipes whilst Vincente replenished us with more coca leaves and trail mix of fruit and nuts. Henry and Hugo explained that the musical pan-pipe conversation they were having symbolised the two universal energies of man and woman; a creative act. Hearing the pan-pipes in their natural indigenous setting really brought the music alive for me.
Evo struts his stuff
Back on the trail and I could now hear the carnival that lay ahead in Tarabuco, over the hill and I could see the market place decked with colourful bunting. Down we descended through cultivated fields full of potatoes, wheat and quinao reaching the main square where the heart of the festival was unfolding. Vincente shouted out to me ‘that’s Evo and the Vice president behind him’. Sure enough as I looked into the crowd I saw a group of dancers wearing identical dress to the one’s performing in Pisily the night before and in the middle of the troupe was Evo Morales, shaking his bells like there was no tomorrow. I said to Vincente that I wanted to hear him speak to his people and asked him to accompany me back to the main square where Evo was heading.
Vincente shouted out, ‘she’s from the BBC!’ And before I could blink there I was squared up to Evo Morales who was sitting on a raised platform drinking chicha and being offered shed loads of food. He was taller than the photos I had seen of him. I was eagerly waiting to hear what rays of hope he would espouse to the crowds that were amassing around the stage he was at. Evo, a cocaleria, a man of the indigenous people, who was fighting for their rights. That’s why he was voted in, right?
Three hours later and Evo was still drinking chicha and eyeing up his neighbour’s, Miss Tarabuco’s clay pot of food that was placed in front of her. Perhaps Evo thought that the silver figurine needed some help in waxing off the last remaining morsels… And then out of nowhere, Evo got up, walked down the stairs and joined his dance troupe who appeared miraculously and proceeded to shake his bells with them one more time before getting into a car that the vice president was driving and sped off.
No ‘thanks, the food was great, especially the chicha’. Not even a wave goodbye from Evo Morales to his people. Nada.
To my mind, it was a weird finale to say the least.