Our Copacabana Pilgrimage

Our first ten minutes in La Paz, we met Nelly and Xavier who were looking for the same hostel as us (and pointed us in the wrong direction). We ran into them later at Plaza San Francisco and made plans to head north for a trek in a few days. After waiting around La Paz for a few days, Nelly and Xavier became convinced (thanks to fellow travelers) that staying in Bolivia for the week of the referendum wasn't safe, and decided that they would head to the border with Peru. With no trekking companions, we changed our plans and joined them for their trip to Lake Titicaca.

We ended up in the lakeside town of Copacabana at its busiest time of the year. The Bolivian national holiday and the annual pilgrimage to the virgin of Copacabana occur in the first week of August. Travel to Copacabana during this week is not recommended, due to high risk of theft and violence against tourists. Local authorities had posted warnings in all hotels and restaurants telling us not to go out after dark and not to carry any valuables with us at any time. By the time we found our hotel room (thanks to Nelly's Spanish negotiation skills) it was dark, and we were hungry, so we ignored safety tips and headed out for dinner. We ate lake trout (not for the last time) and ran into two Bolivian filmmakers that had been on the same bus as us from La Paz. Xavier and I were both interviewed outside the restaurant, drawing some excitement from the local crowds.

Small stands set up all along the main plazas of the small town, most of the activity was centered around the white-washed church of Copacabana, where little old ladies sold candles and plastic religious paraphernalia by day, and hard liquor by night. Home-made firework setups were put together for evening shows, during the day the local school children paraded around in ornate costumes accompanied by brass bands.
In the afternoon we followed the crowds of Peruvian pilgrims as they hiked up to the top of a local hill to pay homage to the Virgin Mary that looks out over Lake Titicaca and Copacabana. On the stairs leading up to the virgin, dozens of vendors set up their displays of miniatures. Wishful pilgrims pick out various objects that they hope for in their lives; houses, cars, trucks, livestock, money, university degrees (the poorer the pilgrim, the fewer miniatures they can afford).
Past the vendors, we got to a large plateau, where dozens of stone altars had been set up, each one of them manned by a Peruvian shaman presiding over pious families and their collection of miniatures. Since I had bought myself a pack of fake money, I thought that I should get it blessed by a shaman. Once I approached a vacant altar, there was nothing we could do to stop our enthusiastic priest. After I negotiated a small fee for the ceremony he first shuffled me over to his official "supplies seller" who had to equip me with the necessities: five rolls of streamers, two bottles of coloured water, one bag of confetti and a pack of firecrackers. Now I had been sucked in to spending way more than I wanted to for my blessing (and Yann was refusing to help me get out of it). But my spending spree wasn't over, I had not bought my two bottles of cerveza to shower over the altar. When they quoted me the price for the two bottles of beer, I realised this whole operation was going way over budget, but the shaman was adamant that the ceremony could not go on without the beer. Thankfully Nelly intervened and explained that I would only do the ceremony without the beer. Our shaman was extremely disappointed, as it seemed that for most of the wobbling shamans around us (including our own), that the bottles of beer were their main form of payment. After much debate about the validity of the ceremony, our shaman agreed to go on. (In retrospect I probably should have bought the beer, because I do believe that it is actually an integral part of the ceremony)

Nelly agreed to take part in the ceremony, and our shaman proceeded with a lengthy ritual of chanting and gesturing. He was disappointed by our lousy pile of miniatures (two packs of money) but encircled them nonetheless with the streamers and doused them with holy water. Our shaman stumbled slightly on the grand finale, when he opened up his arms to the sky, expecting the firecrackers to go off at the same time. After three or four increasingly frustrated attempts at simultaneous arm raising and firecrackers he eventually got them to go off and concluded the ceremony by covering us in confetti. Dozens of these ceremonies were going on all around us (including the ritual of shaking up the bottles of beer and covering the altar and each other with beer, then letting the shaman drink up the rest). We continued further up the hill, past the queue of hundreds that were waiting to have a glimpse of the Virgin Mary statue. All along the stairs, people waited with offerings, and shamans performed ceremonies. People ate and drank, and played music with the amazing Lake Titicaca in the background. And we were quite pleased to have seen it all.

1 comment:

2par4 said...

Do you have that Shaman's phone number or email address?