Today we had intended to look at the railway line from Sucre to Tarabuco which has not been used for some time and will soon be disposed of. However, the campesinos had other ideas.
After looking at the part of the line that runs through Sucre we set out by road for Tarabuco, about 70 km. We followed it to the first station and passed through the police check point where we paid the toll. Going on, we passed four truck loads of policemen, all in riot gear, travelling in the opposite direction.
Just beyond this, we came to a line of rocks across most of the road and stopped behind a group of vehicles waiting in the road. Up ahead, we could see many campesinos sitting on the road and it was evident that we could be in for a long wait. It was decided to return to town, particularly bearing in mind there was a gringo (me) in the car. We returned to the police post where one of the police trucks was parked. Our driver told one of the policemen about the road block. With a big sigh, he went into a hut and returned with a well used tear gas grenade launcher. The policemen put their riot shields back into the truck and turned it around ready to do battle once more.
If this incident had an up side, it allowed me to experience the opening day of carnaval in Sucre. Around four o’clock, I was walking into the main square and heard a band. Coming towards me was a motley group of small dancing kids being lead on by older people, possibly teachers, with a band bringing up the rear. People on both sides of the street were bombarding them with water balloons and they were returning fire.
No sooner had they left the square when another group entered from the opposite side. These were teenagers and the crowd really went at them. Small boys circulated through the combatants with plastic bags of water balloon reinforcements. A third group entered, and for a moment, there was confusion as neither seemed prepared to give way. The two groups settled the matter by bombarding each other and one veered off in another direction.
This went on for five hours without a break or let up. I think there were about twenty groups of dancers criss-crossing the centre area. Some bands lost their dancers but just carried on playing and some dancers lost their bands and carried on dancing. Some pretty sophisticated water throwing equipment was used, the plastic water rifles cost a lot of money. People were firing from behind parked vehicles. The Dinotruck, a local tourist attraction which takes tourists to see dinosaur footprints, pulled up behind a parked car to let off its passengers. The combatants soon got the range and showered the truck load of unarmed gringos with water bombs. They were trapped in the open box truck for some time until they could escape, soaking wet.
The venders were selling water balloons and aerosol canisters of foam to both sides. The foam produced spectacular results. One small boy received a face full of foam – rather like being hit by a cream pie. It looked so funny and everyone around was laughing but the kid was not happy. The teenaged girls pretended to need to be protected while the boys acted in a very macho fashion and demonstrated how far they could lob the balloons.
As night fell the dancing – and drinking, became more intense. Gradually the sodden dancers became engrossed in themselves and didn’t bother to retaliate. On the whole, the musicians were not too wet, as the centre of attention was the dancers and not themselves. Water balloons explode in a very satisfactory shower with a myriad water droplets glistening in the lights.
It looked as if it was going to be a noisy night but things calmed down about ten o’clock and I had a second pleasant night’s with plenty of oxygen.
Saturday 9th February 2002
Return to La Paz
It may seem difficult to believe but it took all day to return to La Paz. It is normally an hour or so by plane but we had been routed on Lloyd Aero Boliviano (LAB) through Cochabamba. Sucre is a difficult airport to get out of. They use Boeing 727’s but the runway is short and there are plenty of hills around. This, coupled with fog and high winds, makes this airport somewhat unreliable. LAB were over an hour late in arriving and we were correspondingly late in getting to Cochabamba. We had a three hour layover while the plane went to Santa Cruz and back. This gave us ample opportunity to go into town for lunch. We faked using the airport bus until the taxi fare dropped to 15 bolivianos and then piled into a cab into town.
Cochabamba has a tropical climate and the air is oxygen laden and quite soupy. There are bright flowers everywhere and it is quite pleasant. We took a quick walk around and then headed back to the airport only to learn of further delays because of a plane change in Santa Cruz. We finally made it back to La Paz about three hours late but it produced a magic moment from my right side window seat.
Approaching La Paz from the south east we passed by the snow clad Mount Illimani. I could then look into a deep valley and pick out Calacoto where I am staying. 500 feet higher up this extinct volcano, I could see La Paz with its sky scrapers. A thousand feet higher up still was the flat brown altiplano with the town of El Alto. As we circled the airport I could see the altiplano rising slightly past Tiahuanacu to the shining Lake Titicaca with the Isla del Sol.
A magical way to end a very interesting journey.