November 8th. A day of feast and fandango in Bolivia. La Paz, Sucre and Oruro get to the height of alcohol, party and verbena.
On the eighth day of the eleventh month, Bolivians celebrate the day of the Ñatitas, (a reference to the nose in several South American countries). This party has nothing to do with psychotropic inhalation, but rather with those who long ago lost their noses and with them, their sense of smell.
Women skilled in crafts and weaving sew hats and colorful robes for the guests; men buy a little more alcohol, beer and chicha, a couple of extra cigarette boxes and fragrant green coca leaves to entertain those who will come.
The music plays on the street for them, alcohol flows and splashes along the sidewalks and floods the bodies of participants. It's a holiday, because on this day in this Andean country, the dead return to life.
Many Bolivians still proudly preserve the traditions of their pre-Columbian ancestors, the ajayu. Ajayu is the Aymara word for soul, which never completely abandons the body, leaving fragments clinging in the skull after life is extinguished from body.
This is why many Bolivians dig up their dead to entertain them on this holiday. Many even go to the main cemeteries of their cities and take the skulls of the dead for a walk among the living.
The skulls are placed in wooden boxes, decorated with roses and hydrangeas, warmed with colourful knit caps. While they are walked around the parks, people offer the poor skulls gastronomical delights, lit cigarettes, coca leaves and singani drinks: the typical Bolivian alcoholic drink which is a hybrid between wine and aguardiente.
Family that host the deceased do everything to make the skeleton and its lingering piece of soul feel good, and pray for the skull to bring them good fortune. But a skull that does not have a good time during its time among the living will bring, like all bad guests, grief and hardship to those who took him from peaceful sleep.
Illustration by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat
Photo by Szymon Kochański