A Friar’s Account of Cochabamba Carnival

Jim McIntosh OFM Friar News

The report below was submitted by Jim McIntosh, who has been assigned since October to work in the St. Anthony Missionary Province in Bolivia.

COCHABAMBA, Bolivia — The people of Cochabamba celebrated this year’s carnival, the festival commemorated in many countries before the start of Lent, in their usual fashion: by a drenching everyone they could find with water. All thoughts of the problems and tensions of last month have disappeared, as people gathered to soak everything in sight.

It all started a couple of weeks before Ash Wednesday when I began to encounter young men roaming the streets carrying sacks of water balloons. Their targets were primarily young women. The women act bothered by this, but one gathers that they would be more disappointed if they returned home without having been targets.

Then, as Ash Wednesday approached, I began to encounter pickups and trucks filled with young men surrounded by plastic tarps. I began to suspect that things were getting more serious.

The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is the day to ch’alla – a Quechua word meaning “to celebrate new things.” In this context, this means throwing vast amounts of water on anything new: a new car, a new piece of furniture or the new friar in the community.

We were to start with a barbeque lunch, but didn’t even get that far as young friars began chasing around throwing water on each other. After lunch, it was time for some serious water throwing and it my turn to be “celebrated.”

Carnival continued on Saturday as Cochabambinos gathered for a parade of folkloric dancing. I could tell that something was up as I noticed most of the young women – and also a large percentage of older women and men – were wearing raincoats on a warm, sunny day. As I entered onto the street, I encountered a scene of a glorious celebration of water. Hundreds of water balloons were flying through the air; youths of all ages had all manner of water pistols and water cannons, and were happy to aim them at nearly everyone. When a balloon or a stream of water hit you, you were expected to laugh. After all, if you didn’t want to get wet, you wouldn’t have gone out into the street in the first place.

One has to wonder how this festival came to be. This isn’t the stately carnival one encounters in Venice, nor the drunken revelry found in New Orleans, nor even the extravagant, hedonistic fiestas of Brazil. Certainly, water was of critical importance to an agricultural society, and we are now near the end of the rainy season in South America. One can imagine a yearly festival to celebrate a productive rainy season and, when the Christian element of baptism is added, one begins to see how the modern carnival of the Andean region developed and is celebrated today.

On a more serious note, some parts of Bolivia are in serious danger because of excessive rains caused by El Niño. The floodwaters have killed 35 people and are now threatening the city of Trinidad. More than 343,000 people (70,000 families) have been flooded out of their homes. Please remember them in your prayers.

–  Br. Jim is the previous editor of HNP Today; he created this electronic format of the newsletter. In photo, Jim is shown at left with HNP friars and alumni Clem Comesky, Tom Kornacki and Iggy Harding.