October 25, 2006

The witches of La Paz

La Paz, Bolivia's Witches' Market -- el Mercado de las Brujas -- is the place to head for some Halloween decorations that will one-up anything the neighbors might put in their yards. Let them have their fake cobwebs and molded plastic gravestones. You, my friend, can scare the pants off the trick or treaters with your collection of dead altiplano animals...

From the Plaza San Francisco and its massive colonial cathedral, I headed up La Paz's steep Calle Sagarnaga and found Calle Linares, where “witches” in wide, bell-shaped taffeta skirts and bowler hats sat at stalls and tried to entice me into buying sacks of amulets and talismans to repel evil and attract good fortune.

Piles and stacks of neon-colored soaps and candles shaped like stars, birds and alpacas; soapstone figurines of Inca gods and goddesses; unlabeled bottles of homemade aphrodisiacs.

And heaps of deep brown, dried llama fetuses that looked like the skeletons of giant, prehistoric birds.

The witches explained that nearly every Bolivian household buries a llama fetus, a sullu, under its house, often at the threshold, to keep evil from entering and taking up residence. Workers at Bolivian construction projects want assurance that a llama fetus, complete with a witch’s or soothsayer’s blessing, has been buried at the site before the men will pick up their tools. I watched a vendor wrap a fetus for a Bolivian customer. She blessed the sullu, laid it on a cloth atop a pile of bark and plant material, and tied a thick strand of dyed llama wool around its thin, brittle neck.

I asked permission to photograph the fetuses. The vendor, switching from witch to businesswoman mode, made me a deal. I could photograph anything at her stall and her neighbor’s provided I bought something from each of them.

I thought I might have some trouble with the customs agents when I reentered the U.S. at Miami if I were toting a bundle of South American llama DNA, so I opted for a fetching stone carving of Pacha Mama, Mother Earth. Before handing Mama to me, my witch blessed a magenta and cobalt cord of twisted wool and tied it around the statue’s neck. The yarn enhances the figurine’s power to bring me luck, and I will never remove it.

I shot half a roll of Fujichrome, then moved to the next stall to finish it off. As payment, I purchased a small glass bottle, sealed with tar and tin. Inside swam bits of brightly colored plant parts and snail shells -- and a tiny, rusted charm depicting the Virgin Mary. My witches had covered all the bases.