GLOBOS IN ORURO

Carnival time in Oruro meant water warfare. Tourist tactics to stay dry. Quick footwork to sidestep the oncoming bomb; skill to catch it and hurl it back at your assailant, in one motion, and without bursting it. Globos were small balloons which, once filled, would be an emu egg sized weapon to be used against you, whenever or wherever. Tourists were great targets; girls seemed to be water magnetic.

I had met two Dutch girls on the train from Cochabamba and, together with a Canadian guy, had rented a room for the four days of Carnival. They had been telling how irate they were becoming at continually being bombarded with these water bombs. Kersplash! And a missile broke just to our left. Ima turned and glared at a group of young guys who were chuckling on the distant corner. We continued to walk; the subject turned to the oppressed state of women. Why they had to be the targets of this liquid warfare.

At the moment that the globo burst onto Ima's shoulder I knew that things would not transcend towards peace. The attacker was obvious. Standing arrogantly and smirking in a most irritating way. I tried to persuade her to silent non-violent action, that this was tradition. But she had already turned towards the guy. He stood his ground. He had never been frightened by females. They were a commodity of sorts. Whistled at; kitchen hands.

As that last piece of information was filtered through his system, Ima had walked straight up to him and with the fluid stroke of a tennis player, slapped his face. Telltale silence from his group of friends. A barrage of shoving further stunned him and piecemeal threats in broken Spanish phrases totally unarmed him. A soldier in shellshock.

Once rejoined with us, I could see she was quite upset. Shaking and crying. "Nobody wins at war," I murmured silently to myself. I could both hear and sense the bad karma throbbing away behind us, but didn't dare look around. As a strong and healthy European girl, she had been taller than her attacker. Her retribution had crippled him with belittlement. If "machismo" was a problem in Australia, it was certainly in epidemic proportions here, and Ima had just trodden at its centre. A barrage of multi-coloured bombshells suddenly started to rain upon us. I demanded non-violent action .... so we ran!

A bizarre twist to the sagas of water inundation emerged that afternoon, as we returned to our lodging. A quick entry through the gate so as to keep the pigs in the front yard enclosure was met with the startling sensation of a bucket of water being poured on us from the balcony above. I could picture the steaming temples around me. The statement was pure and precise; dead black hair, toothless smiles and two giggling girls. The daughters of the owners.

But generally it was good humour which rained. Both "dutchesses" had great sense of fun. They were practical jokers and would, at uncalled-for occasions, break out into part of a specially adapted Peruvian teeny bob pop-song. It had been adapted for me. "Vamos a la playa ...." etc., ("Let's go to the beach, let's go Uncle Peter").

The title of Uncle Peter (Tio Pedro) had been bestowed on me at the first sighting of my solitary grey hair. It was always only that opening line. Repeated. Eventually they confessed that this was the only part of the melody they liked.

Their major quirk of habit was paying bills. Simple things like buying an orange or apple from a street seller always seemed to cause raised eyebrows. I wasn't sure whether they were aware, so I broached the subject. Unbuttoning the top button of their jeans, pushing their hand into the fronts of their pants to secure money from their awkwardly placed money belts, had probably caused many a creditor moments of discomfort.

Oruro was alive. Communities from outlying areas had been pouring into the city. Backs of trucks laden with costumes, celebratory produce and people. Musicians played; large ensembles of pan-pipe players with huge bass drums parading through the streets in their wildly coloured regional costumes. Chicha, the potent five X brew made from fermented maize, helped fuel the energy of celebration. Standing inconspicuously, in the corner of the central plaza, listening to the razoring sound of overblown pan-pipes and thudding drums. A passing community. A line of people from the street, hands joined, snaking their way past me. A hand juts out and grabs onto mine and I'm immediately devoured by good cheer. I felt honoured to be accepted into their celebration. And besides, I loved to dance. What a pity there had been such inhibitions and stigma placed on us as teenagers. Getting up to dance had seemed a bigger hurdle than passing exams. I wondered why? Peer group pressure; the massed thinking that I so despised. There had been very little room for individuals; of freedom of expression without intense or even physical ridicule.

We made our way further and further away from the plaza. Over an hour passed and still the musicians played. Almost in a trance-like mode, I perspired profusely beneath a lightweight sweater, but it was too cool to take it off. We danced and danced. Upward. Not normally a problem but, as we were already at around four thousand metres, it meant that the lungs were grasping heavily at the workload. I didn't want to stop. I kept dancing until my legs turned to rubber. At the point where they had gone to jelly, joints faltering, I slipped out of line under the guise of having to re-tie my shoe laces.

During that time of dance, I had been offered many glasses of chicha. My head spun wildly; the brain-cell killing fields. Heart pumping and calf muscles cramping. I had no real idea as to where I was. I breathed deeply, bending my head backwards to stretch my abdominals, and take in the sky. The stars, the endless black of knowledge. Untold theories, the key to the big questions. The street became quiet. The procession of sounds moving off into the outers of Oruro. An old lady hobbles past in quick time.

Cobblestoned streets all seemed to have a downward side, as we'd been dancing continually upward I figured that down would be an excellent clue to navigation.

Because it was Carnival time, all the hotels were full. Consequently, we had ended up in a small room with two single beds. Four people, two beds. The two Dutch girls decided to share a single bed and Australia drew straws with Canada. Result: loss to Australia. At the point that the double-dutch stopped giggling and moaning from love pangs and loneliness for boyfriends back home, we all fell to sleep.

Five o'clock. Squelching, scrambling, electronic waves gone haywire. Then, some heavy rock music played in excessive quantities of watts. We bear through that. But at the outset of the first pangs of Julio Iglesias singing passionate love songs, we all break into laughter. Cries of, "save me", "spare me". Who is creating such incongruous sleep vibrations.

The sounds are coming from the room next door. In the drowsiness and cool of the pre-dawn no-one is volunteering to go and inspect. To see what madness prevails. I'm an adventurer, I will go! "Radio Loud", as we called it. A private backyard radio station run by Cesar, the eldest son of the family we were staying with. I had knocked and entered to a world of dreams. Egg cartons on the walls as soundproofing, dust silting heavily on the turntable and a small, but battered library of records on makeshift shelves. Cesar turned and smiled to me as I came towards him. He took the opportunity to switch vocal tones into his "radio personality voice" and read the six o'clock news. The paper he read from was over a week old. But he was in his element, alive, creating. I sat down and chatted. Life story in ten minutes; jailed brother in the US, drug running of sorts, failed marriages, failed business ventures. But he had his radio station. He was only young, early twenties, softly spoken and a twinkle in his eye which almost sparkled, the angle of his eyebrows giving him an air of alertness.

Things continued on a path. The Dutch girls became increasingly humorous, the Canadian more focussed in his "need for love", the inundations of globos continuing and the dancing joyous.