Dancing with the devil

BOLIVIAN ADVENTURE: A beautiful woman beckoned the writer from atop a giant dragon.
BOLIVIAN ADVENTURE: A beautiful woman beckoned the writer from atop a giant dragon.

Our room didn't have an en suite, so every hour I would make a dash for the unisex bathroom, facing the bowl whichever way the sadistic flamingo dictated.

As always, it all stemmed from a single decision. My Sliding Doors moment. To brush my teeth with the water in a developing country, or to not brush my teeth?

I should make one thing clear: I really, really wanted to brush my teeth. It had been three days driving through the desert, through the surreal landscape that is southern Bolivia. Salt plains reflecting in wide open skies, rocky claws reaching from never-ending sand, pink flamingos in mountain lakes.

Michelle Duff
Michelle Duff

My husband and I were in one of the highest places in the world. We were impossibly high. At night, it seemed you could reach out a shivering arm and pluck a star from the sky, they hung so close. It was freezing, dropping to -16 degrees Celsius at 4000 metres above sea level, and coming into winter.

But during the day, the sun blazed hot. My tongue was dry, and the coca leaves handed out to help with the high altitude had turned my teeth black. I looked around for bottled water, but there was none. I picked up my toothbrush, and I took the risk.

Bolivia has its own carnival, a little earlier than its famous cousin in Rio de Janiero. We were excited to find out it would be on while we were backpacking through, and had changed plans so we'd be in Oruro, the festival town, for the country's biggest party.

Dusty and fatigued from the salt plains, we trekked into town and booked into the first hostel with a spare room. I say room, but it was more like a cell - tiny, with concrete walls and one small window.

By the end of the festival it would resemble the hotel scene from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Outside, city workers erected the last of the bleachers on the streets, along which more than 40,000 costumed performers would dance the diablada, or dance of the devil, for three days and nights, in homage to both Christian and indigenous gods. Old Quechuan women presided over food stalls, while excited kids were already spraying each other with water pistols and foam - a festival tradition.

It came without warning. One minute I was fine, and the next I desperately needed to go to the loo. I returned to the table, pale-faced. "You okay?" asked my husband.

"Yeah, I'm sure it's nothing," I said.

Spoken like a true rookie. On the walk back to the hostel, I had to duck into two more restaurants. By the time we got there I was clutching my stomach, where a miniature flamingo was trying to flap out.

So it began. Our room didn't have an en suite, so every hour I would make a dash for the unisex bathroom, facing the bowl whichever way the sadistic flamingo dictated.

In the morning, the drums started up. My husband put a wet flannel to my forehead. "How do you feel?" he asked.

"Better," I lied. "Give me an hour and I'll be ready to go."

At 6pm he came back with crackers, water, tissues and stories of the fantastical parade. Brass bands preceded every costumed group down the street, men in grotesque masks gyrated in a pastiche of the god of death as the crowd cheered and drank.

I smiled weakly. Was that my head pounding, or the drums?

By lunchtime the next day, my toilet trips had reduced to two-hourly, and I decided to brave the streets.

I looked ridiculous. Unprepared for the temperatures, I wore a preposterous outfit: three-quarter pants and rugby socks with jandals, layered cardigans over a T-shirt and gloves.

Add to that my foreign looks, and I was a target for anyone with a water pistol, which was every second Bolivian. My husband was also dressed like a homeless person but, with his darker skin and features he was somehow managing to pass for a local.

Within 3 metres, I was soaking wet and covered in foam. I felt like crying, blindly stumbling through the crowd.

The parade was incredible, the half an hour that I could manage. Eventually, "I have to go", I wheezed, lunging back to the hostel.

The nightmarish pattern continued. My husband, torn between looking after me and wanting to see the festival, ran to and from the room with supplies. I alternated lying on the bed groaning with occasional trips to the stands, where I sat in stoic silence with my husband and his gaggle of new Bolivian friends as globs of foam hurtled into my face.

By day three, I was slamming back every prescription drug in the medical kit you bring on holiday but never think you'll use. Antibiotics, plugger-uppers, Panadol . . . I took it all. The street reeled. Googly-eyed demons grinned and receded. A beautiful woman beckoned me from atop a giant dragon.

I woke up at 10am drenched in sweat. I sat up, taking in a mud-trampled room strewn with toilet paper, discarded water bottles, towels, beer cans and empty medicine packets.

The streets were silent and empty. A lone woman squatted to pee in the gutter. My sickness had ebbed, and the festival was over. The gods of evil had been banished back to the Andes.

And I really needed to brush my teeth.

The Dominion Post