On Saturday 2nd November, I was invited to visit the neighbouring town of Puerto Quijarro in Bolivia to witness the rituals of ´Dia de los Muertos´. This day of remembrance is known in the Catholic tradition as All Souls Day but Central and South America celebrates it as Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. Starting the day before, families prepare a feast for their loved ones who have died. This includes their favourite food, drink and fruits. On the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, families visit the graves and spread out the feast like a picnic, using the tomb as the table, leaving a place setting complete with a plate of food, drink and empty chair for the deceased, while waiting for the souls to arrive. The popular belief is that the deceased spirits or souls will arrive at noon and depart at the same time next day. White tablecloths are used if the deceased is a child and darker colours for adults. Graves are adorned with bread (tantawawas) made into various shapes. The baking of tantawawas or bread babies in blankets, is another significant part of this tradition that brings communities and families together days before for giant bread-making occasion. Sometimes a ceramic mask may adorn the tantawawa to honour the soul of the deceased child or baby. I was saddened and surprised to discover the high percentage of infant deaths evident at this cemetery in Puerto Quijarro. Speaking with a Bolivian colleague earlier that day, I learned that Dia de los Muertos is actually a mix of Bolivian culture with Catholic beliefs and that the tradition of baking tantawawas is not only indigenous to Bolivians of the Andes region but can be seen in Ecuador and Peru. Walking from grave to grave to witness how each family honoured their loved ones, I noticed large numbers of children going from grave to grave, stopping to say a prayer, usually an Ave Maria. I discovered later that children are encouraged to recite prayers at the graves and are rewarded with bags of sweets and pastries.
I must admit that living this close to the Bolivian border had set my imagination alight with endless possibilities of taking a few side trips and exploring what that country had to offer. So when the offer came to visit the nearby town of Puerto Suarez to do a bit of shopping (I had been told this is a much cheaper option than Corumbá), I jumped at the chance. I even dressed for the occasion instead of the weather which was a big mistake upon reflection as the day turned out to be another scorcher. On my shopping list, a belt to hold up all my trousers and skirts which are now two sizes too small, some toiletries and a backpack (muchila).
Our mini-adventure began with the 10 minute journey to border control where we witnessed heavily armed police and crowded queues of people trying to get into the immigration control office to enter Brazil. Once we crossed without too much fuss, paid our toll charge on the Bolivian side, my first impressions did a head long collision with my imagined thoughts of Bolivia. It was so dry and dusty that we had to wind up our windows despite the sweltering heat.
But thank God, this did not last too long. We meandered through the town and made our way on to a single carriageway, Camino a Santiago de Chiquitos, that provided beautiful vistas of the Pantanal. The Bolivian portion is about 10% of the total area of the Pantanal and only 350 metres above sea level but it has a high concentration of flora and fauna.
I was grateful for the mini-stops we made at the eco-tourism viewing gallery, one of the town’s unique churches with its hand-carved doors illustrating the main stories in the bible, and of course the super mercado where all the prices were in Bolivianos and we had to divide by three convert the prices to $Reais. I will let the photos help with the story. Enjoy!
- La tarea (geoamericanista.wordpress.com)