Water Balloon Wars

Dear Readers:

Well one of the saving graces of being away from Bolivia this week is that I will not be a giant waking target for water balloons during Carnival. Believe me, a six foot tall gringo makes a popular target. But not nearly so popular as a young woman and a foreigner. For a perspective on what it means to walk in those soaked shoes this Carnival season, we bring you this Blog by The Democracy Center’s Lily (aka “Sploosh”) Whitesell.

For my own take on Carnival season, read here.

Jim Shultz

Water Balloon Wars

It is one of the most unique wonderful things about Cochabamba and Carnival (and there are many). It’s a time that mischievous kids (and kids-at-heart) await eagerly. It comes when the sun beats down the hardest, and when all Bolivia is preparing for the huge parties of Carnival.

The whole city decides, at once, to have a giant water fight.

Old women pump water guns, little kids throw water balloons out of third story windows, and young men (and women!) go out on the backs of trucks or motorcycles for drive-by-water-balloonings. Woe is the innocent pedestrian who decides to take a weekend walk up Calle Pando, where jovenes line up on opposite sides of the street to hurl balloons at each other (and anyone else) for hours.

As both a 20-something woman and a foreigner, I am something of a quintessential target. The other day I was the last person to squeeze onto a trufi, which meant I was left standing in the doorway. As the bus made its way up the Prado, I narrowly missed getting nailed with a bucketful of water that hit the back of the bus, and my fellow bus-riders quickly urged me to come further in, not wanting to become unintended casualties.

Each year, I walk around with water balloons stuffed in my purse, ready to strike or, as is more often the case, to defend myself. I’ve ducked behind candy stands, hid behind old ladies, and used other water-ballooners as shields. I’ve learned the techniques for making the balloons (small so that they’re easier to throw and don’t use up as much water), tying them (tie them tight so that they burst on contact instead of just bouncing off), for maximizing impact (if you have a group you want to get, throw a balloon at the tree above their heads; it will break there and soak them all), and for throwing them out of the window of a moving vehicle (don’t forget to take into account the motion of the car in your aim). I don’t miss out on the fun.

However, as with everything else in this world of ours, there are some negative aspects to what would otherwise seem to be a purely innocent, temporary break in the norms of society. I won’t be able to wear a white shirt for a month. The contents of my purse have to be safely wrapped up in plastic bags. When walking around the city between the hours of 10AM and 7PM, there is the constant fear of the water-fight equivalent of a land mine: the bucket from the balcony. And some days you just don’t want to walk around with a wet spot on your behind or you just don’t feel like dodging the balloons.

But mostly, it’s just about enjoying it or, for those that are less fond of the Bolivian tradition, finding your peace with it. This is not only the warmest time of year; it’s also the rainy season, which means that it can be 95 degrees out with the sun beating down and then rain a half hour later without any kind of internal inconsistency. Clouds can come over the mountains to transform the skies at surprising speeds. It’s part of the spontaneity of this season that I think helps inspire these water wars. You never know whether you will come home wet or dry when you go out anyway; San Pedro is playing with water, why can’t we?

Now, for the well-informed Cochabamba aficionados out there, many of you will say, “Hey, isn’t this the city that had protests over the privatization of their water system just a few years ago? Isn’t this the city where people still only get water to their houses three or four days a week?” The answer is yes, and Cochabambino water balloons are notoriously small for that reason. But this is also a city where people know how to celebrate, how to give thanks when there is abundance. And in the one time of the year when there is water aplenty, Cochabamba knows how to celebrate that abundance.

Some key Spanish phrases for the weeks leading up to Carnival:

Jugar con agua – Play with water

Globear – To go out with water balloons (often bringing up to 100 balloons and a group of friends with the intent of using them all within an hour or two)

Lanzar/tirar globos – To throw water balloons

Chisguetes – Water guns

Perdicion inminente – Impending doom — the feeling you get when you turn the corner onto a deserted street and 15 yards away is a group of four Bolivians with plastic shopping bags bulging with different colored water balloons

uuuaaaiiiiiiii!!!! – The noise you make when a water balloon bursts unexpectedly on your back

Written by Lily Whitesell

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