A party like no other

Bolivian Independence Day might seem sedate ... at first.
Bolivian Independence Day might seem sedate ... at first. Photo: AFP

Where's the party? We had to wonder as we walked around the city centre, hoping to discover where the real action was.

It was Bolivian Independence Day and the crowds were out in force on the streets of La Paz. There were a few flags being waved and everyone was dressed up in their Sunday best - but it was not what you'd call a party.

Not as we know it, anyway. Back home, Australia Day is an excuse to get patriotically paralytic before the clock ticks over to noon.

That's the sort of celebration we know, of getting down to the beach, draping a few flags around the place and cracking open the tinnies. Kiwis seem to do the same thing on Waitangi Day. Americans take the patriotism thing a bit more seriously, then take to the paralytic thing with as much gusto.

But Bolivia looked different. We hadn't even realised the national day was upon us until we stepped out of the hotel and noticed all the closed shops and well-dressed citizens. My friend Dave and I decided to follow the crowd.

La Paz is a strange place, a city built where no city deserves to be. Semi-finished houses cling to steep slopes as the city radiates from a narrow valley up the sheer sides of the surrounding mountains.

Smart people begin their daily explorations walking uphill, knowing the second part of the day will be all the easier - like paddling a kayak upstream then enjoying the ride home. Anyone suffering altitude sickness just does their best to find an even keel, which is almost impossible.

The Independence Day crowd seemed to be heading downhill to the city centre, so Dave and I obliged. It was noon. There would probably be no Hottest 100 but at least there would be a few tinnies being opened.

Of course, we were wrong. It's hard to know what's happening when you don't speak the language but this was like no party I'd ever been to. So formal. Men wore suits - some tattered but still neat - and ties. Women wore shawls and those sensational bowler hats that are Bolivia's signature garment.

Everyone crowded around the street, many waving flags or carrying banners, to watch a long military procession, a show of Bolivian might. It seemed the soundtrack to this national day was going to be more the rat-a-tat-tatting of parade drums than the bang of fireworks we were used to.

The whole afternoon, wave after wave of soldiers and their hangers-on marched past. Interesting, of course, but not a celebration in the familiar sense.

So Dave and I retired to the backpacker bar we'd been hanging out in every night in La Paz, off to crack tinnies with other people who liked to crack tinnies on days of national independence. We sat there for a few hours, chatting with other tourists, eating fairly average pizza and comparing stories from home before we realised the insanity of our position - whatever was now going on outside, surely it would be more culturally enlightening than this.

So we took to the now-quiet streets again, the two of us determined to wander until we discovered something of interest. There was barely a soul around as we huffed and puffed up those steep paths, aimlessly poking our heads into quiet restaurants and deserted squares.

Finally, around a dark corner, we heard ... a party. Loud music, clinking glasses and shouting and singing.

"Should we?" Dave asked.

I nodded. "We should."

So we strolled into that bar and stumbled upon absolute carnage. Bolivians of all ages, still in their Independence Day glad rags, absolutely stonkered. They would make the louts at Bondi every January 26 look like tea-sipping bridge club members.

There was broken glass on the floor, over which an older chap - tie pulled askew - was trying in vain to lift his rather heavy-set, bowler-hatted dance partner while twirling her in the air. Tables and chairs had been knocked over, a dance floor hastily cleared.

You never know what sort of reception an outsider is going to receive walking into a scene like that. Joy? Derision? Violence?

We needn't have worried. Dave and I had barely set foot in the place before we each had one of those heavy-set, bowler-hatted ladies attached to our arms, happily chattering in a foreign language as they dragged us towards the dance floor.

Just like that, we were part of the party. And what a party. You've never seen anything more unashamedly out of control in your life. This little bar in the middle of nowhere, a joint we'd never be able to find again and it rocked into the wee hours.

We danced. We had conversations in a mix of English, Spanish and Quechua that I don't think anyone understood. We drank ... something. We celebrated Bolivian Independence Day as if it were our own. All we needed was a Hottest 100.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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