I am not leaving my house. The streets of Cochabamba have turned into a battle zone. Throughout the city people have armed themselves with everything from small pistols to long barreled rifles. From behind walls the unsuspecting are attacked with small hand-held bombs. No one is safe from attack. Okay Mom, don’t panic! There is one other detail I need to mention, the weapon of choice is not bullets, it’s water, by the gallons. It is Carnival week in Bolivia and the entire city of Cochabamba has turned into an all-out, non-stop, no-holds-barred, water war.
Exhibitionists or Water Wars
Carnival - the traditional blow-out just before the Catholic holy season of Lent. All over the Americas people take one more opportunity to party hard before shifting into the season of giving up chocolate, meat on Fridays, or some other personally selected sacrifice. Most people know Carnival for the masks of Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the more hedonistic celebrations in Brazil where revelers take to the streets wearing little more than tassels or some strategically-placed spray paint. San Francisco, a city where people need very little excuse to become exhibitionists, also has a big Carnival celebration. But there the exhibitionists figured out that wearing spray paint in mid-February could freeze your butt (and other parts), so they moved it to May.
But Carnival in Cochabamba - well nothing in San Francisco, New Orleans, or Brazil could hold a candle to this. In early February the arsenals get rolled out in every store and on every busy corner. Water guns, of every imaginable shape size color and power. The dream of everyone under twenty is the one that comes with the water tank back pack so you can shoot for hours without reloading. Balloons, by the thousands, maybe millions, each one just waiting to be converted into a hand-held water bomb and thrown with full force and dead-on aim, at least half of them at me. Then there are the special weapons one finds only in Bolivia, such as the small plastic accordion device used to suck up and shoot fresh ammo from whatever fetid pool of gutter water is close at hand. I call these "hepatitis flingers".
And a Little Incense and Beer for Good Measure
Like most religious holidays in Latin America, Carnival season has evolved into an ad hoc mix of standard Catholicism, pre-Columbus Indian ritual, and human nature run-amok. Overall, it makes or a pretty good holiday.
Last Tuesday in almost every home in the city decorations went up or the annual task to "Chayar" houses against unwanted spirits. The entire valley smelled of pungent incense. Beer was spilled carefully into the corners of rooms inside. Firecrackers were lit to sanctify the corners outside.
Carnival, as the explanation goes, is the time when the "devil" is on the loose and Bolivians were taking no chances. Yet it is the practice of what Bolivians refer to as "playing with water" that is most striking - sort of in the spirit that arsonists "play" with fire. It is a ritual that began many years ago with the occasional tossing of water-filled egg shells and then apparently got totally out of control with the introduction of cheap Chinese-made balloons.
Last Saturday the water wars began. Walking down the street you turn a corner and find yourself face to face with a seven year old holding a two foot-long water rifle. Negotiation is fruitless, running is futile. Bands of teenagers cruise the streets in pick-up trucks, armed with several hundred balloon bombs. And no one makes a better target than a six foot tall, not especially fast, Gringo. Nowhere and no one is safe. Pistol wielders hop on the buses and nail you in your seat. Little old ladies with Bolivian bowler hats, gray hair, and huge skirts will suddenly lift up those skirts, whip out a pink balloon loaded for bear and douse you with the aim of a major league relief pitcher. A friend tried to pass on some advice about wearing a plastic dry cleaner bag. Baloney - you want to stay remotely dry in Cochabamba in mid-February, you go inside and stay there for a week.
Let’s be clear. My kids Elizabeth and Miguel are in heaven. They’ve been wet or two weeks solid. School kids here even get two days off, just so their studies won’t interfere with the more important work of drenching one another. My kids started practicing for the great water wars of ’99 early.
"Oh come on Daddy, just play for a little while, we won’t get you wet."
Yeah, right, wanna buy a bridge? But I caved in. On Sunday I agreed to go out with them to spend the day with our friends at the Amistad orphanage, about an hour’s walk from our house and the scene of my Carnival nightmare four years ago. Not only did I get totally drenched that Carnival season, I also got the special treatment of flour packed into my soaking hair.
One Really Wet Day of Reckoning
Okay, I made it out there without incident and for much of the day I used all the tricks I could muster to be somewhere other than the center of action. By mid-day I’d taken a few bombs to the back but little more. Then after lunch the real mayhem began and I did the only respectable, fatherly thing I could. I told my wife Lynn that she should have a great afternoon with the kids and headed like lightening across the Andean foothills to home as fast as I could.
My walk home was like one of those Disneyland rides where things keep popping out at you. I turned a corner and two little girls came after me with full buckets - a direct hit! I walked past a seemingly-empty house - bam, splash - a flurry of well-aimed water balloons. Over and over again I stumbled innocently into the middle of neighborhood water wars which would grind to a sudden halt amidst with ominous whispers of "mira, un Gringito!"
At last I was on my own street, just a few feet from peace, calm and dry clothes. It was just then that I heard the rustling in the bushes. I turned and saw my friendly neighbors, with automobile-sized buckets in hand. Niagara Falls was dryer by the time they were done with me. When my drenched spouse and children arrived home a short while later they took great glee in the sight of my dripping clothes hanging on the front porch.
"Ha, you didn’t escape!!" What sympathy. Elly, Miguel and I spent the rest of the afternoon lobbing water balloons, from the safety of our second floor, at anyone within range. I was especially impressed by the nine year old who had mastered the art of catching them unbroken in his baseball cap.
Nope, I am not going out again, not if I can avoid it. For this slow Gringo soaking season is over, until of course my kids get home from school.