It’s 10pm and the Cochabamba Bus Terminal has just been forcibly closed. Streams of enraged passengers are pouring into the streets en masse, chanting in Spanish far beyond my limited gringa vocabulary, although “gringa” is one of the few phrases aimed at my direction that I understand. We have just been instructed to close the curtains of our stationary bus, keep our heads down, stay silent and turn off our mobile phones. I frantically type a Facebook post notifying friends and family of my current location as the clamour outside gains volume and dozens of angry hands begin to slap, punch and pummel stones at the side of our vehicle.
Having moved to Bolivia little under a month earlier, myself and some colleagues had innocently and hurriedly made plans to attend the famous celebration of Carnaval in the Andean mining city of Oruro, nestled between the capital of La Paz and nearby Sucre. Bypassing unanimous advice both from travel websites and locals that we should make reservations months in advance, we had managed to secure a hotel in Oruro and a flight to Cochabamba – a much larger city 200 kilometres away that has gained the moniker “City of Eternal Spring”. Little did we know we would be stuck in the midst of nationwide protests, road blockades and a rather unsettling riot.
Never have I worked so hard to attend a party in my life and never has it been so worth it. Every musician, dancer or reveller-cum-participant glowed with pride and spirit. Carnaval was a feast for the eyes, ears and soul. Despite the chaos that lay outside the city of Oruro, within it, the streets were filled with colour, laughter and song as endless processions of performers snaked their way around the city.
After the painstaking journey to get there, our three days of bliss were far sweeter than I could ever have imagined. To close our celebration, I participated in the local custom of congregating in the mines beneath the Igelsia del Socavón (Church of the Tunnel) and making an offering of a cigarette to the Devil. It seemed a suitably surreal ending to an equally surreal experience.