Tag: South America

Fighting for a seat at a lucha libre match in La Paz, Bolivia


* image bolivia.for91days.com

The afternoon starts with a minute’s silence for the pope, who died the night before. But that’s the last mark of respect we’ll be seeing today.

When ringmaster John Peralis takes the mic in shiny shoes and a curly perm to announce the first of seven 20-minute bouts, the crowd, each paying a US$1 entrance fee, responds by screaming, “Give it to him.”

It’s Sunday afternoon at a breeze-block gym in El Alto, the poverty-stricken slums that tower above downtown La Paz, Bolivia.

Whole families sit ringside and grandmothers, dressed in traditional Cholita dress of flowing skirts and bowler hats, prepare to lob popcorn viciously at the losers.

Welcome to lucha libre wrestling, the latest sports craze sweeping Bolivia.

Strike a blow

“Lucha libre was born in Mexico but it has developed a huge following in Bolivia since we first allowed women into the ring last year,” says the event’s ebullient organiser Juan Carlos Chavez.

“Life is tough here and lucha libre is a battle of good versus evil – just like real life.”

Bolivia has a tradition of ritual fighting (tinku), which brings together rival villages in the Potosi department for a symbolism-loaded scrap during the Fiesta de la Cruz. But this afternoon’s no-holds-barred grudge match takes tinku and gives it a twist of Big Daddy-style glamour.

First is an all-male round to warm up the crowd. Luxor makes a dramatic entrance in a devil suit while his opponent, Picodo, dressed like a member of Slipknot, arrives to a chorus of the German industrial band, Ramstein.

As the first blood of the day is drawn, a young mother lifts her baby onto her shoulders for a better view.

Triumphant, Luxor stands astride the ropes, dripping sweat and blood. “I am the best,” he screams. “I am the best.”

As his opponent tumbles exhausted from the ring, a slight women steps forward from the crowd to land a cheeky blow to a particularly vulnerable area.

Action packed

As the afternoon progresses, the bouts get increasingly bloody with blows stronger than the whiff coming from the toilets. By late afternoon, the crowd has reached fever pitch for the first of the all-women rounds.

With a cry of, “A la luche” (let’s fight), they take to the ring in spandex, boots and masks.

As the bell rings, referee Barba Negra, a Grizzly Adams type with a flowing mullet, tries to bring a sense of order to a fight that is part WWF pantomime, part bloodfest.

It’s probably the only wrestling match whereby the referee ends up taking an active role. When the wrestlers roll out of the ring, they just carry on fighting anyway.

Star turn

Back stage, the star turn, Satanica, is getting into costume. By day Jenny Almarez works in a La Paz supermarket, but tonight she will take to the ring wielding a flaming torch to the strains of Black Sabbath.

“I came to watch and something just grabbed me. The wrestlers looked like film stars,” she says, finishing her Gothic make-up.

“Now I fight, I take it very seriously — the night before a fight no booze, nor sex.”

Her opponent, Jennifer Two Faces, takes to the ring in a figure-hugging leotard and gold boots. After trading insults, they launch into a catfight involving hair pulling and the improvised use of a soiled nappy commandeered from the crowd.

It makes the male bout look like a petty scrap at the local kindergarten.

“I always go home covered in bruises,” smiles Jennifer, who is declared the winner after setting Satanica’s legs on fire.

“My mum says wrestling is a man’s sport, but we prove that it’s the women in Bolivia who really have balls.”

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This story first appeared in the Weekend FT in 2005. Liked this? Try also The Tinku festival in Bolivia.


Story of the week: Dancing a Highland fling for Burns Night in La Paz, Bolivia


Abdul probably has the best legs in La Paz.

As he strides around the de facto Bolivian capital in his kilt – a tartan from the Steward clan borrowed from a Scottish friend – he attracts attention not only for unusual attire, but also for his finely-crafted calves.

Then again, Abdul Aspiazu is not your typical 25-year-old Bolivian man about town.

As the first Bolivian dance enthusiast to join the Las Paz Scottish Dancing Group three years back, he is now more likely to be found dancing a highland fling than salsa-ing the night away in a steamy Sopocachi nightspot.

“I travelled around Scotland with my grandfather when I was 17 and fell in love with the Celtic culture: the music, the countryside, the whisky,” he smiles, adjusting his sporran.

“When I heard an advert on the radio for new members to join a Scottish dancing group here in La Paz, I had to give it a go.”

Burns[Photo via VisitScotland.com]

Every Saturday afternoon a 20-strong group of European ex-pats and local Bolivians gather at a ballet school near La Paz’s Plaza Espana for a two-hour dance session. With a shared love of Celtic music and a token contribution of five Bolivianos (about US$0.75), the group is growing fast.

With Burns Night [pictured above] this weekend, the group will be out in force.

“We have seen the Bolivian membership grow dramatically since the political turmoil of last year,” explains Valerie Mealla (nee Black), a native of Sterling, who leads the practice sessions.

“Bolivians love to dance and, while Scottish dance involves complicated routines, I’m constantly amazed how quickly the locals pick them up.”

With anti-gringo feeling running rife since a popular uprising unceremoniously dumped the previous US-backed Bolivian president in October 2003, the social aspect of these weekly sessions provides a means to foster mutual understanding and tolerance between La Paz’s small foreign community and local Bolivians.

“Dancing provides a great medium for solidarity and friendship,” says Valerie, casting a beady eye over attempts to master a new routine.“Despite the country’s political divides, we all support each other. For us, the music and love of dancing provides a common language.”

It’s also tremendous exercise. Given that La Paz is one of the world’s highest cities at 3,600m, the sessions can bring a whole new meaning to ‘out of puff’, even for those well-prepared for the effects of altitude sickness.

Regardless, the group last year broke the record for the world’s highest Scottish traditional dance, performing a Dalkeith Strathspey (a slow dance) at the Chacaltaya ski resort outside La Paz – an altitude of 5,260m above sea level.

The Guinness Book of Records refused to acknowledge their achievement but, undeterred, the group is now planning a trip to the Scottish Highlands.

“I like dancing and I like the music,” says the group’s youngest member, eight-year-old Erika Guerra of La Paz’s Miraflores district.

“I want to go to Scotland and eat haggis.”

Back on the dancefloor, the group are attempting a Burns Hornpipe routine. Valerie shakes her head wearily: there’s a lot of practice needed before the group is ready for its next performance at an Anglo/Bolivian fiesta.

After practice, as night temperatures plunge across the Bolivian Altiplano, the members bid their farewells in a mix of English and Spanish.

Abdul pulls on his boots and strides out into the La Paz night.

“We all take the dancing and the traditions of Scotland very seriously,” he winks, sinewy calves glistening in the moonlight.

“That’s why I’m not wearing any underwear.”

This article was first published in the Weekend FT in January 2004. Liked this? Try also In the footsteps of Che Guevara in Bolivia.

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Story of the week: Visiting places associated with Eva Peron in Beunos Airies, Argentina


She was the ultimate First Lady.

She secured the vote for the women of her country in 1947 and was feted as a saint after her tragic death from cancer at the age of just 33. The woman in question?

Eva Maria Duarte de Peron, better known as ‘Evita’.

Back in the headlines with a new production of the eponymous musical opening on June 2 at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End, the show features lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and stars Argentine musical star Elena Roger in the starring role.

In her home city of Buenos Aires the legacy of Evita lives on with her face adorning monuments and her name evoking displays of devotion and vitriol in equal measure.

City guide 

I joined a tour, arranged through Destino Argentina, to learn more about this special lady. A two-and-a-half hour jaunt, it’s a great way to get your orientation of the city as you can either hire a private guide, or do it independently by taxi or public transport.

I opted for the latter and started in the city’s western Palmero district at the Eva Peron Museum, which tells her life story through a series of exhibits and video montages.

A former shelter for homeless women and children, as bought by the Eva Peron Social Aid Foundation in 1948, it was shut down after the 1955 military coup, declared a national historic site in 1998 and reopened in 2002 as a museum and Eva Peron Historical Investigation Foundation, managed today by her grandniece, Cristina Alvarez Rodriguez.

The museum is split between two sections; a permanent exhibition of her life, and temporary exhibitions focusing on the political and social evolution of Argentina in the era of Evita. Video screens show some of her most rousing speeches while her huge collection of gowns, shoes and accessories is on permanent display.

Heading east along Avenida del Libertador, I follow the wide, European-style boulevards towards the downtown district known as the ‘microcentro’, the high-rise buildings bringing a modernist touch to the cityscape and well-dressed locals adding a hint of big-city bustle en route.

Plaza Ruben Dario is a small grassy park where Eva’s statue, crafted by Argentine sculptor Ricardo Gianetti, peers out across the Recoleta district. She and her husband, President Juan Domingo Peron, had a summer residence close by.

Private box

Jumping in a taxi, I headed along the city’s main thoroughfare to the Colon Theatre, where Evita had a permanently reserved seat in the presidential box.

Dating from 1908, it remains the most important classical music venue in South America and has hosted Richard Strauss, Rudolf Nureyev and Placido Domingo during its illustrious history.

Today there are guided tours on weekdays, visiting the two upper floors and three basements with access to the auditorium, white hall and golden room. The interior remains as impressive as ever with an opulent feel and two giant marble lions add a decorative flourish to the faded charm.

Passing the obelisk monument at the heart of the city, I weave through the backstreets, past colourful shops, al fresco cafés and modern hotels to Plaza de Mayo, where the façade of the Casa Rosada (Pink House) dominates the square.

This iconic symbol of Peron-era Buenos Aires was the location for some of her most memorable and moving speeches, her fist raised and her hair tied back in a strict bun.

This is where the citizens gathered to pay their respects amid a giant outpouring of national grief after her death.

The presidential offices are still housed here but, given their now rather stuffy atmosphere and faded charm, the president prefers to make the smart suburb of Olivos his home.

Resting place

Mid afternoon and another short taxi ride takes me into the heart of the city’s refined La Recoleta district and the Alvear Palace Hotel, a grand old building with a stately feel and chic location. This is where Eva would take afternoon tea and, even today, is where the beautiful people hang out in the Winter Garden lounge from 4pm.

Nearby is the Recoleta Cemetery, Evita’s final resting place. The first public cemetery in Buenos Aires, founded in 1822, it’s home to 4,800 vaults laid in traditional Latin American style with tombs built high and slots allocated in communal walls.

The cream of Buenos Aires society has been laid to rest here; politicians, statesmen and writers included, such as the writer Victoria Ocampos, the former president Domingo Sarmiento and the author of the words to the national anthem, Vicente Lopez y Planes.

Evita’s embalmed body was smuggled into the Duarte family vault, among the marble angels and black granite, under cover of darkness in 1974. Free guided tours run on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and her tomb is located on the left as you enter – just look for the flowers and hordes of tourists.

Evita died on July 26, 1952, having rejected the role of vice president one year previously.

Loved by the poor and loathed by upper classes, her legacy lives on amid the hustle and bustle of the city.

She arrived a struggling actress and died the wife of the president.

* This story was first published by the Daily Express in 2006. Liked this? Try this: In the footsteps of Che Guevara in Bolivia.

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Story of the week: The tinku festival in Bolivia


* Carnival season is kicking in but I’m trawling the back catalogue this week for an alternative to the average fiesta.

Follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

The journey starts with a shot of local moonshine.

In between it features an ancient festival to honour Pachamama, the earth goddess; vast, Andean landscapes; and a huge, alcohol-fuelled punch up.

This is the strange world of tinku, a highly ritualised folk ceremony held in Bolivia’s rural Potosi region during the harsh Andean winter.

Ancient rites

Tinku means ‘encounter’ in the indigenous Quechua tongue and Bolivia’s most dramatic fiesta is essentially a harvest festival, celebrating the end of the agricultural year.

What makes it stand out, however, is the colourful clash of Catholic and Pagan beliefs, which draw on the ancient rituals of Potosi’s indigenous communities. Five major tinku are held around Potosi annually with similar, smaller festivals taking place in remote highland communities.

As the tinku builds to its violent crescendo, an offering to Pachamama is sealed in the spilling of human blood.

Traditionally the villagers celebrating tinku have excluded tourists but, in the last couple of years, tour agencies in the city of Potosi, working with the local communities, have started offering tinku tours to witness the rituals of Andean communities that have changed little despite centuries of progress.

The best known of all tinku is held each May in Macha, a 3,000-strong community of adobe houses, daubed with the slogans of local political parties, and dirt-track sidestreets, all built around a central plaza overlooked by a rough-stone church. Poor and remote, it sits astride the Andes at some 4,000m above sea level and is a six-hour drive north of Potosi by bus.

I joined a small group of curious backpackers and amateur anthropologists with tour agency Koala Tours, setting out on a bright but chilly morning from Potosi.

During the Spanish Conquest Potosi was awash with silver and noblemen, but today it’s a windswept place with a vaguely elegiac feel. Cerro Rico, the mountain that looms over the city, is a shadow of its former self, plundered over the centuries for the now-near-exhausted silver reserves.

Before embarking on the trip, our guides makes a cha’lla, a ritual offering to Pachamama for luck on the road ahead, accompanied by a shot of chicha, the local maize-fermented hooch. The drink is as rough as the road that lies ahead.

We rumble over crater-strewn tracks, stopping at a ramshackle hut by the roadside for a plate of soup with rice and potatoes and a last chance to stock up on biscuits and bottled water.

Village life

Arriving in Macha at dusk, we find the town square bustling with a pre-tinku market. Stalls selling fruit sit next to men with ancient machines for sharpening knives and stitching shoes.

Our guesthouse, meanwhile, is hardly five star: bleak dorm rooms with stained mattresses, a toilet block without doors and a loose hose gushing ice-cold water for a shower. By the time we are served a simple dinner of soup, rice and coffee, some of the group look to be already cursing their curiosity.

After dinner we find Hernan Tarqui, the 33-year-old Catholic priest of Macha, sipping coca tea in a shabby house next to the church.

“These are country people are still living by the Old Testament.”

He adds: “About 90 per cent are Catholic but the traditions of the ancient civilisations are still very strong in this region.”

The next morning we’re back on the bus, trundling out across vast, dusty plains. Dropped where the road dissipates, it’s then a 20-minute, cross-country yomp to the village Cruz de Machacamarca, where the first official day of tinku is in full effect.

A tiny pueblo with llamas and dogs roaming free between the adobe huts, it is surrounded by a thin, red soil eroded from the surrounding hills.

Village elders from the scattering of nearby rural communities, many dressed in costumes modeled on the Spanish conquistadors [see above], carry large crosses, carved with images of Christ, to a stark, white church to be blessed by the local priest.

The rest of the villagers, meanwhile, are dressed in brightly coloured ceremonial clothes and whipping themselves into an early frenzy by swilling moonshine, dancing and indulging in isolated minor scuffles.

Around the periphery, women and children huddle beside fires with bubbling vats of beans and corn. Some of the early victims, sporting black eyes and split lips, lay slumped by a stone wall.

The carcass of a freshly sacrificed llama is being ransacked for the pot. We watch the dancing, keeping a judicious distance, but already the atmosphere feels tense as if building towards a dramatic climax.

“This is a subsistence farming community with people living on 40 Bolivianos (£2.50) a week,” explains Hugo Mondocore Gabriel, the village elder of the Uluchi community. “We only decided to invite tourists to witness the tinku four years ago.”

“We needed to bring money into the community as we have 450 schoolchildren in these villages.”

Old scores

After the blessing of the crosses in the communities, rival villagers start to come together on the second day in Macha to dance, drink and settle their differences from the past year with bare fists.

But this is not just some drunken brawl. Tradition dictates that spilt blood on the final day brings fertility to the rocky soil and a dead villager ensures an especially abundant harvest for the following year. The death often goes unreported, however, and is handled behind the closed doors of the community.

Before that, in Macha’s sun-bleached town square, indigenous women, dressed in the traditional garb of long flowing skirts and embroidered shawls [see below], patrol the crowds with whips to administer a whiplash of community justice to anyone fighting dirty. The cow skin hats they wear are tough enough to withstand a sudden shower of stones and missiles from the crowd.

Positioned on a balcony in the town hall, we can see how, as the afternoon gives way to evening and the shadows loom larger on the stone cobbles, the drinking and dancing is increasingly fervent.

As rival factions charge drunkenly into each other, some lashing out with fists, the women build the rhythm, performing a shuffling, feet-stamping dance routine to the eerie strains of cane flutes and charangos, a mandolin-like Andean instrument.

The chanting and goading intensifies with dancers engulfing the main square. The market traders continue to man their kiosks, interrupting commerce only to throw water over dancers stumbling into their wares.

Meanwhile the dull thud of a CS Gas canister heralds the arrival of the local Police, trying to exert some influence over the crowd. But the dancers simply retreat to sidestreets to lick their wounds before relaunching themselves into the brawl.

Darkness delivers the first serious casualties to Macha’s tiny hospital. Outside women are looking for their injured husbands while the ground is thick with blood and urine. Our guides have warned that us that, as guests, we should leave on the third and final morning of tinku to leave the community to complete the annual ritual away from the prying eyes of foreigners.

Night terrors

As we climb into our sleeping bags in the guesthouse that night, the sound of rocks crashing off the roof lulls us to sleep.

But before bed, we go in search of Father Hernan one last time. He will be staying up all night and shakes his head wearily as we say our goodbyes.

“Of course the Church opposes tinku. We want to see a coming together of communities to share their blessings,” he says, as an assistant arrives to tell him the church has been secured for the night.

“But we can’t just change the culture overnight.”

* This story was first published in Geographical magazine in 2007. Liked this? Try also In the footsteps of Che Guevara in Bolivia.

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