Visions of Bolivia

No, we’re not going anywhere. It might be a long time. And honestly, I’m getting a little tired of being urged to watch travel films or read travel blogs as a substitute for the real thing. But here I go.

This time last year I was in Bolivia, loving everything about that country, from the lush, sweaty jungles of the south to the barren moonscapes of the Altiplano.

Alpacas graze in the rugged landscape of the Bolivian Highlands. Photo by Cynthia LeCount Samake from A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Peru & Bolivia.

I loved the people, though I doubt that they loved me. Especially the people of the Sucre and Tarabuco region. So fiercely independent. So eccentric in their world view (by our standards). So visionary in their crafts, from the surreal aksus of the Jal’qa to the fantastic fauna of Tarabuco tapestries to the tiny, agitated figures that animate the chuspas of the remote village of Candelaria—and that’s on an ordinary day. Go back for Pujllay, a blowout of a Christian-pagan festival in March, and who knows what you’ll see. I haven’t been there. Yet.

A weaver’s visions are woven into this extraordinary Jalq’a aksu. Photo by Cynthia LeCount Samake from A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Peru & Bolivia.

These year-old memories prompted me to pick up a book we published just a bit more than a year ago, A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Peru and Bolivia by Cynthia LeCount Samaké. Reading through the section on Tarabuco, I realized that for all my deep memories of that trip, there was so much more that eluded me. It came alive in ways you might miss if you’re constantly on the move. Just read this excerpt from the book, watch this little film clip, and let your imagination fill in the blanks.
My grandson once said, in his four-year-old wisdom, “Why is it my brain looks so little from the outside, but inside it is HUGE.” That’s where books come in these days. To help fill your huge stay-at-home brain with visions and experiences. Ours have taken us not only to Bolivia, but to Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico. It’s not the same, but what is?
—Linda Ligon, Publisher

Pujllay in Tarabuco

Tarabuco is a small town at 10,740 feet (3,273 m) in the Andes of central Bolivia, about 40 miles (64 km) southeast of Sucre; it’s renowned for the Sunday market and the March festival called Pujllay. Inhabitants are called Tarabuqueños but the term refers also to the populations of surrounding villages.

Even though the joyous participatory affair called Pujllay has grown to include national spectators and international tourists, this important festival remains a fascinating celebration to experience—and a great place to see typical textiles in action. On the third Sunday of March, the usually quiet town of Tarabuco fills with villagers, tourists in the know, and urban-dwelling spectators from other towns, all ready to celebrate the 2-day event. The Quechua name means “play” or “celebrate.”

Local men in traditional dress shop on market day in Tarabuco. Photo by Cynthia LeCount Samake from A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Peru & Bolivia.

Festival beliefs blend mysticism and pagan rituals with observations to honor the ancestors and memorialize a historical event—their hard-won independence over Spanish forces in 1816. People from nearly sixty indigenous Quechua-speaking communities converge from the surrounding countryside to dance and play music in a procession. They give thanks to Pachamama for the fertility of potato crops and for the rain that waters their lands.

The most distinctive characteristic of Pujllay is the pukara, an enormous ladder-like structure about 15 feet tall, decoratively and symbolically festooned with foodstuffs such as bread wreaths, net bags of grapes and potatoes, ears of corn, cans of beer, and baggies of coca leaves, all offerings to Pachamama to convince her to send a good harvest. The revelers dance around the pukara and play monotonous flute and drum music for many hours until finally the goodies are doled out to the crowd.

Tarabuqueños dress in their most elegant traditional clothing. Men start out with long, loose black bayeta woolen tunics, with wide, mid-calf-length white cotton pants underneath. Then they don either of two types of accessories. Some groups of men wear a handwoven burgundy poncho with yellow, red, and green horizonal stripes, tire sandals, and a hard leather montera or helmet. Other dancers hang two cotton back panels embroidered with sequins from their shoulders and one or more small square, shoulder ponchos called kunka unkus whose quality of intricate woven motifs grant importance and prestige to the wearer.

Tarabuqueños in traditional festival dress. Photo by Cynthia LeCount Samake.

It’s interesting to note that woven pieces have warp-faced patterning and four selvedges, that is, they are rarely cut but are woven to size with a circular warp (two identical pieces make a poncho or lliqlla). On top of the small ponchos, these dancers pin incongruous capes of hot pink satin fabric. They decorate their rigid leather monteras with three gathered pieces of tissue paper or cloth, filled with Brillo pad cleaning puffs. They hang several chuspas over their shoulders, and on their feet, they wear the wooden platform sole sandals with oversized metal spurs that will give their feet serious blisters halfway into the festivities. The spurs and the helmet-like monteras, are intended to resemble Spanish conquistador clothing.

Dancers from Tarabuco in traditional Pujllay celebration clothing, complete wth knitted leggings, tire sandals, and hot pink cape. Photo by Cynthia LeCount Samake from A Textile Traveler’s Guide to Peru & Bolivia.

For festivals, Tarabuqueñas (women) wear a more complex version of everyday dress. An especially fine vertically pleated aksu (or ajsu) is attached with a wide belt over one hip, over a simple black woolen dress called an almilla.

Women draped in handwoven askus and traditional hats shop for weaving yarn at the Tarabuco market.

Over her shoulders and over the aksu, she drapes a spectacular shawl (manta) or carrying cloth (awayo) and pins it with a tupu (shawl pin) or a big safety pin. Women sometimes appropriate the men’s black montera or wear a more feminine red wool boat-shaped hat called a killa. Pujllay’s spectacular rituals, music, and dance performances earned the UNESCO “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” designation in 2014.

—Cynthia LeCount Samaké
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