I didn’t expect fireworks the night we’d reach the border, or litres of milk punch, dancing around a fire and a gigantic birthday cake, but the best things are always the unexpected.
It was the fiesta of the birth of Carmen, the Virgin Mary. Eduardo, our host in Ollagüe was deeply involved in the organisation and soon after inviting us to stay at his home he asked if we’d like to come along.
Cebolla is even smaller than the tiny two-road frontier village of Ollagüe . Built on the flats by a salar and defined on all sides by volcanoes, there are few huts, a communal toilet block, pick up trucks dotted around the dusty landscape and of course the chapel, decorated with jaunty bunting in the colours of the Chilean flag. When we arrived, a large crucifix was lit outside the chapel with splendid fairy lights flashing red, green, white, blue.
As the single-room stone hut adjacent to the chapel began to fill with people, we watched their actions to learn what behaviour we should copy: kneel in front of a table covered with lilies and carnations, then blow smoke from a pan of charcoal over the flowers as a lady fuelled the burning briquettes with incense.
We in turn covered the flowers with blessings – mint liquor, coca leaves, red wine and blue confetti – while repeating the refrain:
“Es una Buena hora”. “It’s a good hour”.
When the offering was ready, we carried it to the chapel where prayers and blessings were said before the statue of the Virgin. And then a parade around the village, holding the statue high and proud as firecrackers and fireworks were set alight, whizzing and sparkling into the blackness of the cold night.
There was wine and feasting before a cauldron of milk punch was brought outside by an abuela and set aside the wood fire that we – the happy congregation – danced around to keep warm.
“Es una Buena hora”.
And music into the night: a live band that continued the same infectious cumbia beat for hours, as the party danced harder, messier, drunker into the morning.
In a remote mountain village where fun is hard to come by, an excuse to meet your friends, feast on meat and alcohol and dance all night is as welcome as sleep and old as society. And the next morning, our heads throbbing from dryness and altitude, when Eduardo offered us a parrilla and hair-of-the-dog in another remote village, we could hardly say no. Grilled meat, cold beer, Chilean red and clean Andean air is, as I understand it, the best remedy for any night-before.
Our final days in Chile were a success. Time to leave our home for the past three months and open a new chapter: Bolivia. Es una Buena hora.
Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!
As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks