They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bolivia 03: Traditions and libraries

Bolivia 03: Traditions and libraries

By Edgardo Civallero

In the old times, in La Paz there was a corner in Linares Street where the "Market of the Witches" (Mercado de los Brujos) was placed. In this place, you could find all kind of "magical" things, from herbs to amulets. It was famous because there, people used to sell foeti of llama, considered good amulets for fertility and abundance (if placed inside a house, of course, not hanging around the neck...). In those old times, people used to go there to buy the necessary elements for doing the pagos, the "payments" to the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the spirits of the lakes and the mountains.

Today, everything has become a touristic attraction. The whole Linares Street, an artisans' street in the old times, has turned into a touristic point. In the "Market of the Witches", you can buy expensive foeti of llama or sheep, and some little industrially–made Andean idols.

In the old times, La Paz used to be a very traditional city. Today, La Paz downtown is just a touristic center, where everything is sold to the curious foreigners. But, if you want to know how real Bolivians live their traditions, you can move to the neighboring quarters, or to other little villages near La Paz.

In these quarters, you'll find that, every Friday, people take their time for chewing coca leaves. Even if they can chew coca everyday, Friday is a special day. They buy a good lot of leaves and they select the best ones. Then, they start putting them inside their mouth, one by one, wetting them and making a little ball with them. While "creating" this ball (called acullico), they add a little bit of lliqta, an alkaline substance that is used for avoiding the natural acidity of the coca. Normally, they use bicarbonate as lliqta, but they can use "traditional" lliqta made with the ashes of certain Andean bushes.

When the acullico is ready, they start to coquear. This verb means "to chew coca", but they don't "chew" it, actually. They wet it, and they leave it in the inner part of the cheek, waiting for natural cocaine to be liberated from the leaves through saliva. And it works, even if the effects are extremely soft (compared with artificial cocaine).

On Fridays, they use to give a cigarette to the ekekos, too. Ekeko is a little, fat, smiley idol, representing a good spirit (it's believed that ekeko used to be a God in the ancient, prehispanic times). The idol is funny: it's a fat and short man, smiling, dressed in the Andean fashion, with a poncho and a chullu (Andean cap) and carrying a lot of chuspas (Andean bags) around his body. In these bags, people put corn, coca leaves, money, a little car, a little house, pictures, rice, sugar and all kind of other little things (the idol is not higher than 30 cm). It's believed that everything you put in the bags or over the body of the ekeko, he will give it back to you. So, if you put corn, food will not lack in your house. If you want a car, just put a little car near the ekeko, and ask him...

Well, every Friday, people put a cigarette in the smiling mouth of the ekeko, and light it. They say that they are "giving the ekeko some smoking", just for the pleasure of the idol. But it's believed that if the cigarette doesn't burn completely... your next week will be unlucky and terrible. On the other hand, if the cigarette burns in a normal way and completely, you'll be lucky and you will have a nice week.

Traditions, traditions, traditions everywhere. Two days ago, I was drinking beer with some friends in a nice place in La Paz downtown, a very popular place where you can find a lot of people cooking traditional dishes in tiny rooms. We ate anticuchos, a traditional dish made of slices of cow heart roasted and served in a little bowl, covered with spicy llajwa sauce. You have to eat it with your fingers (no forks, no spoon). Well, when my friends opened their beers (anticuchos were delicious, but very spicy) they dropped the first draught to the earthen floor of the place. This is called challa, and it's a kind of offering to the Pachamama. They do it when they are in places where you can touch the earth directly. After this, I opened mine, but, well, I had moved my beer so much, and, when opened, it made a lot of foam. Quickly, they took the foam and put them inside their pockets, as far as the tradition says that this foam will bring money to you.

Traditions in every corner, as you can see. I have visited several public libraries in La Paz: I was very curious about the conservation of these traditions in libraries. I was really surprised by their organization. They are simply fantastic, and they form a solid network, including every important neighborhood of this big city. Bolivians have a deep sense of "community" and "solidarity", so it's very difficult to find people who are not working in teams or networks.

The central library of this public network is the Municipal Library "Andrés de Santa Cruz", in the Student Square in La Paz, near the Tourism Office. It's a very nice building, created more than a century ago like a duplicate of the Argentinean National Library... It has the only "hemeroteca" (newspapers collection) in the city, with ancient first editions of all the journals printed in Bolivia. It has also a 6000–volumes collection in the reference library, and a collection of 7000 old books.

And yes, I found all kind of traditions, especially in books for children. I found books written in Quechua and Aymara, with old traditional tales. And this is a good new, at least for me, an "indigenous librarian" since years ago. I realized that these libraries need a lot of resources and have a lot of problems, but they are satisfying the needs of a lot of users, specially children and teenagers. Even if I didn't visit them yet, I have been told that in public libraries placed in the poorest quarters of La Paz, the stronger users are women. And that's really good.

I walk the streets of this lovely city, so strange, so mysterious... I say hello to a "lustrabota" (shoe-cleaner) friend I have near my hotel, and I make a call from one of the "human-phones", people wearing bright-yellow jackets who let you use their cell-phones (and control the time of your call) for 1 Bolivian peso (1/8 of a dollar). Suddenly, a group of teenage girls, dressing like high-school students, hang around my neck, surrounding me... "Hi, blue eyes!!! Can you help us with a little, little coin for our annual collect for poor children!!! Please, please, please!!!! We'll kiss you if you do it!!!" I can't hold my laughter, and I ask "Will you, brown eyes?" "Yeah!!" they scream. I can't help: I put a coin in their money-box. My cheeks get red with all the kisses, and they run, looking for more people for their collect (a very popular one in all La Paz, really), laughing and screaming. I smile: this is another hectic and passionate aspect of the Bolivian soul, always funny and active like fire. Tell me: how to resist such a passionate way of life?