The Bolivian society defines itself as Roman Catholic; however, the heavy syncretism with old pagan practices creates a fascinating kaleidoscope of beliefs. Here are some of them:
Kari Kari is a term kept for local male-witches. According to the locals, they can appear as black dogs, black birds or as a person dressed in black and that his face cannot be seen. The Kari Kari approaches his victims while they are asleep and takes out a bit of fat from their abdominal regions. Human fat is considered to be a powerful medicine and the Kari Kari uses it for healing his paying customers. As his customer heals, the person the fat was taken from dies.
At every Bolivian mine there is a Tio. “Tio” means “uncle” in Spanish but that obviously is not the case of the creature facing the miners. To understand the concept, it must be known that the Quechua language lacks the consonant “D.” Hence, the Spanish “Dios” (God) became “Tio” while the Quechua people pronounce it. Yet, the figure being worshipped there is not God, but Satan. Painted in deep red, with big horns on his head and goat’s feet, it resembles a sitting satyr with a huge erection. The miners bring him cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol and soda drinks on a daily basis. Miners live in a double world, ruled by God while they are outside the mine, and by the devil when they are underground.
The February Carnival in Bolivia (there are several similar feasts along the year – see my other Bolivian journals) is dedicated to “Diabladas,” (Devilish) dances, which are part of a devil’s cult which was merged with the local version of Roman Catholicism. The devil’s masks and customs give testimony to a rich imagination, in sharp contrast to the monotonous brass music played by the bands and the slow, unsophisticated, undulating moves of the dancers. The heavy dresses accompanying the men’s masks allow the dancers only clumsy, pendulum-like moves. The women use peculiar customs: hats belonging to 19th century London, long-sleeved, colored blouses, high-heeled boots reaching above the knees and skirts that seem to end before they begin. Each dancing group carries signs showing to which workers union it belongs. Interestingly, the devils have blue eyes.
Llama Fetuses and Beer
One of the strangest sights in central La Paz, especially around Sagarnaga Street (the main tourists’ center) is the dried-up llama fetuses offered for sale. According to local traditions, they are buried below every new building so that the Pachamama – the earth daemon-god – would be pacified and would not attack the house owners. In a related practice, Bolivians spill some of the drink they are about to consume on the ground, so that the Pachamama spirit would get some of it and would not harm the drinker.
One Sunday – while visiting a Bolivian church – I witnessed a strange event. A young mother approached the altar, began crying and told everyone her girls were dying. It was strange because I knew the girls and they were perfectly well and happy, sitting on one of the back benches. Worried, I approached the mother and asked what had happened. “Nothing, everything is OK,” she told me drying up her tears. “Everything is OK,” the members kept telling me. Sensing something strange, I kept pressing until one of them finally told me: “It was the older girl’s birthday, so the mother spoke like that to fool the spirits not to take her girl since she is already dying.”