I went to Carnival in the Bolivian city of Oruro expecting to be blown away by tens of thousands of dancers and musicians, towering devil masks and llama sacrifices in the mines. I was. But even more striking was the pervasive small-scale ritual of “ch’alla,” the offering of libations to the earth goddess Pachamama taking place in the streets and fields during Carnival.
Oruro, Bolivia – I’m walking through a mining tunnel in Bolivia, dark but not too narrow, with a deafening brass band marching behind me. A stumbling drunk miner stops to urinate on the wall near me. The choking smoke of a bonfire inside the mine mixes with the sharp tea-like smell of the coca leaves the miners are chewing. Just ahead of me other miners are carrying four trussed-up llamas, drenched with beer and festooned with ribbons and confetti. The miners forced firewater down the llamas’ throats in a ceremony at the mouth of the mine and now they are bringing them into the mine to sacrifice them and ask for safety and abundance in the dangerous shafts.
Ask any altar server or visit any busy Chinese temple and you can smell for yourself that incense can be overpowering. But is it a mind-altering substance? A kind of drug that puts the faithful at ease and fosters feeling of peace and togetherness? And if it is, why aren’t more people flocking to services where clouds of incense billow up out of swaying golden thuribles, rise from joss sticks lit by the faithful or fill the air at other religious rituals?