While Americans were stockpiling bottled water and canned food in anticipation of the end of the world, I thought it best to be as close as possible to Heaven, just in case. So I heeded the call of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, and joined thousands of people from around the globe to celebrate the end of the Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new period in human history at 12,507 feet above sea level on the island where the sun was born, according to the Incas.
Before I set sail towards Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca (in between Bolivia and Peru), I made sure to check the news for potentially catastrophic events, like how close Israel and Iran were to nuclear war and how many views Justin Bieber’s “Baby” had on YouTube (813,602,242). Then, I checked the weather, smelled the air, and looked up into the sky and all seemed… normal. That’s good, because most of the indigenous tribes on Isla del Sol saw Dec. 21, 2012 as an end to capitalism, the ego, and the prejudice against the number 13, not the destruction of the earth.
These evils, among others, according to Aymaran indigenous tradition were part of a dark period called the Macha or “no time,” which started as soon as Christopher Columbus wiped his ass on American leaves for the first time on October 12, 1492. The next period, called the Pachakuti, will slowly eliminate these evils and bring harmony between Pachamama (Mother Earth) and humankind, as tradition goes.
“It is time to find answers for a new time to put peace instead of violence, love instead of hatred, joy instead of sadness,” a government pamphlet for the event read. To put these enormous feelings into practice, Bolivia’s government organized 13 different public forums on such things as climate change, food crisis, health, and capitalism at the event and online to discuss concrete solutions to these problems.
(party) to mark the change and the summer solstice (opposite of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere on the same day) attracted 40 indigenous groups from five continents—but mostly from South America—as well as a grand variety of hippie tribes including, but not limited to, South American hippies who frequent the Summer Solstice annually in Bolivia for the coca leaves and anti-capitalist attitude, the great tribes of the ‘dready’ from Europe and the Americas, and, oddly, the Hare Krishnas. One Swedish tattoo artist told me he came to the island in search of a home to build for his wife and two kids and chose Bolivia because it is less strict and particularly more lax on marijuana policy. I think I broke his heart by telling him that the Bolivian forces are known to be harsher on marijuana than cocaine.
United under a multi-colored flag (not to be mistaken for a gay pride flag), which predates the modern Andean states of Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, everyone at the festival was really friendly—think South American Burning Man. This is mostly thanks to the Morales administration's official declaration that Bolivia is a “plurinational state,” made up of dozens of groups as opposed to a lone national identity like in the US or a binational one like in Canada. Since this official proclamation, groups like the Aymara, Quechua, and Chimané along with an estimated 33 other Bolivian ethnicities have become emboldened to identify as members of their indigenous communities and are generally not ashamed to dress in their traditional tribal attire.
However, as development progresses and rural tribal members move into the city, many can be seen wearing Western clothing. Thus, Dec. 21st offered a rare treat for touristas, the media, and the other tribes to gawk at ancient ceremonies from a vast variety of cultures, for free—free entry, free exposure to traditional songs and dances, and even free food. The traditional Bolivian food of beef, rice and potatoes, however, was protected by a great anti-gringo force and it made me to puke chunky yellow sacrifices to Pachamana after I ate some. Yum! All day and night, the tribes danced, sang, and prayed to Pachamama. The Incans performed their elaborate Matrimonio ceremony equipped with wooden battle axes and shell instruments, the Quechuan women sang in their hypnotizing high pitched voices and danced in a circle while spinning their multi-colored skirts, and the Hare Krishnas danced around repeating “Hare, Hare, Hare…”
“It is enough with Coca-Cola!” yelled one of the many impassioned leaders about the drink that is suspected to contain Bolivia’s prized coca leaf extract (Coke denies this, but won’t release the recipe for their “secret formula”) and contributes $270 million annually to the Bolivian economy according to Forbes. In July, Bolivia’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, declared that “the 21st of December has to be the end of Coca-Cola and the beginning of Mocochinchi [a local soft drink],” but the Foreign Ministry later retracted the statement saying it was taken out of context. Perhaps the government is afraid of losing the sale of their precious coca. As a former coca grower union leader, Morales says that Bolivians have a right to grow coca regardless of whether it is illegal in other countries or not. According to the government, Coca has been used for centuries as a spiritual and even day-to-day snack for “vitamins and alleviating hunger and thirst, but when the Western man, always seeking gold, would use it unnaturally, the opposite would happen, its juice would become disgusting and vicious.” All of the tribesmen at the event could be found looking half-gerbil with a cheek-full of coca throughout the event and during their traditional ceremonies. If they didn’t have any on them, a member of the Ministry of Culture would give them some.
“It is coca,” said a tribal leader in a red poncho to me as I leaned in to take a photo of the bed of hundreds of little green pick-me-ups. “You know, cocaina,” he said. While coca is used openly all over Bolivia and Peru, especially with the indigenous, the refined white stuff is meant usually for the gringos who frequent the region’s magnificent tourist sites like Machu Picchu, the Salt Flats, and the infamous cocaine bar Route 36 in La Paz.
Recently, Morales named Sean Penn as Bolivia’s honorary ambassador for coca, but it is not clear whether the American celebrity has said yes especially since he accused Bolivia of corruption earlier this month for holding New York businessman Jacob Ostreicher for 18 months without trial.
Even though the tribal leaders preached the need for an end to capitalism, mercantilism, and corporate greed, capitalism weaseled its way onto the island—sneaky bastard! Rows of alpaca clothing (part of every gringo tourist’s get up), indigenous art, and left-wing literature lined the far side of the island in what one might call a multi-colored market due to the elaborately bright clothing of the cholita (traditional Aymara or Quechua women) vendors. You could even buy burned DVDs containing three Incan Matrimonio dances for just five Bolivianos (about 71 cents).
Even the government-owned internet provider Entel handed out calendars celebrating the end of the dark “no time” period. Entel engages in some of the most extreme advertising in La Paz—they pay people to paint whole buildings blue with their logo. Not exactly Marx.
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