PILGRIMAGE: La Paz Witches’ Market, Bolivia—Trusting In God Alone by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

La Paz Witches’ Market, Bolivia—Trusting In God Alone by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

La Paz, Bolivia, sits in a bowl-shaped valley 12,000 feet up in the Andes.  Hundreds of tiny brick houses climb the steep slopes like a tattered blanket of brown ivy.

Iris, our private guide, is escorting three of us on an afternoon tour of La Paz, the world’s highest capital.  With me are a young Chilean couple, Carlos and Elena.  We’ve left our hired taxi for a few minutes to stroll up a cobblestone street in an old quarter of town.  Its official name is Calle Linares, but everyone calls it, “el Mercado de las Brujas,” (“the Witches’ Market”).  The street is lined with little shops and sidewalk stalls displaying love potions, magic charms, animal skins, medicines, and folk remedies.  Iris explains that all of these have been used for centuries in Aymara, the native Andean culture.

Women in bright-colored ankle-length skirts and tiny bowler hats stand watch over their wares as potential customers and foreign tourists file past.

“What are those?” asks Elena, as she holds tightly onto Carlos’s arm and points at some odd-looking dried-up objects in a cardboard box.

“Those are dried frogs,” answers Iris.  “They’re supposed to be good for attracting money.”

Looking up the street at the unbroken row of stalls and shops, I ask her, “So, all the people running these shops are witches?”

“Not necessarily.  Some are medicine women; others are folk doctors, or astrologers.  There are fortunetellers, too, and sorcerers.”

Suddenly she stands still and tilts her head back slightly.  “Can you smell the smoke?” she asks.  “That’s from the animal sacrifices.”

I sniff the thin mountain air but can’t smell anything in particular.  I’m glad, though, that she’s stopped walking for a few moments: I’m short of breath, and I’m getting a little light-headed.  These are typical symptoms of soroche, altitude sickness.  Having been here only twenty-four hours, I’m still getting used to being two miles up.  I’ve been noticing the strange quality of the sunlight up here, too: it’s clear, almost harsh, but in a watery sort of way that’s hard to describe.

“What was that old lady back there saying to us?” asks Carlos, who doesn’t seem bothered by the altitude.

“She was inviting you to come into her shop and offer a sacrifice to Pachamama, Mother Earth, to ask for health and happiness.”  Carlos gives a noncommittal grunt and walks on.

We wander over to a sidewalk display that is being tended by an old woman with a wide, toothless smile.  She boasts about the powers of her toad talismans, owl feathers, and stone amulets.  Then comes the sales pitch for the different colored candles, which release their magical powers when lighted: the blue candle brings good luck at work, the yellow promises health, the green one money, and the purple one happiness.

When she invites us to step into her tiny store, we decline politely and turn to move on.  I get a quick peek, though, through the open door into the shadowy interior; a dusty stuffed armadillo rests on a shelf beside a random collection of dozens of old liquor bottles containing murky, odd-colored liquids.

We move farther up the street, walking behind a young Bolivian woman.  Like many of her sisters, she is using a cloth draped over her shoulders to carry a large bundle on her back.  The bright red blanket with yellow and blue stripes glows in the afternoon sun, bouncing gently as she walks.  Just as I start to wonder what she might be carrying in there, a baby’s head pops out; from under a thatch of coarse black hair, two big brown eyes blink curiously at me.  I can’t help laughing with delight at such a charming little surprise.  A moment later the tiny head disappears again under the blanket.

Off to my left I notice two strange, shriveled objects hanging on the outside wall of a shop.  I’ve already seen several of these in the stalls along the street.  Brittle, dark brown carcasses almost two feel long, they remind me vaguely of the skinned rabbits I’d seen hanging in the windows of French butcher shops.  I ask, “Iris, what are those things?”

¡Ah, Si!  Those are dried llama fetuses,” she explains.  Shocked but fascinated, I take a closer look; I can make out the bulging eyeballs.  Our guide continues, “They have a lot of uses.  Many Bolivians wouldn’t think of building a new house without burying a llama fetus in the foundation.”

Suddenly I start to feel uneasy – I begin to see the quaint, colorful scene in a different light: all these talismans and candles and spells are human attempts to control the spiritual powers that affect our lives.

Witches claim to understand how these mysterious forces work, and claim to be able, for a small fee, to direct and control them for us.

Christians try to leave themselves as vulnerable as possible to God.  Some of the things we do in the monastery, in fact, are meant precisely to help us put our lives in the Lord’s hands.  For example, the common ownership of goods and our frugal lifestyle remind us to rely on God rather than on possessions or pleasures.  When a new monk professes his vows, he stands at the altar in front of the rest of the community and with hands stretched toward Heaven sings three times, “Sustain me, O Lord, as you have promised, that I may live.  Disappoint me not in my hope!”  Far from trying to manipulate God, the new monk is crying out publicly, asking the Loving One to guard him and support him all his days – especially on days when events are beyond his own control or understanding.

In the ercado de las brujas, on the other hand, you try to do exactly the opposite: you hope to gain the upper hand over the great mysterious powers of the universe and make them subject to you.  There is nothing here that gives your life a deeper meaning, nothing that challenges you to become more fully human, nothing that calls you to self-sacrificing generosity toward your neighbor.

¡Aqui estámos!  Here we are!” Iris announces.  We’ve come to the other end of the street, where our taxi is waiting for us.  As we climb in, Iris tells the drive, “Vamos pues a la iglesia de San Francisco – let’s go to the church of Saint Francis.”  “Good,” I think to myself, “a visit with the humble patron saint of animals will be a pleasant contrast to the witches’ market with its llama fetuses and dead armadillos.”

The old Ford taxi lurches ferociously into the traffic, its horn blaring.  We barely miss an old woman bent under a giant bundle of weird black leaves.  When she turns her head slowly and skewers our driver with an ominous stare, it crosses my mind that if we had hit her, it would probably have meant months of very bad luck for all of us.

Reflection

Lent is a good time to stroll into your own personal witches’ market.  Walk in and take a careful inventory of the things you tend to rely on when God is not enough, or when God is not answering as quickly as you would like.  Make a list or two or three, and sit with it for awhile.  Are there things or behaviors on your list which you could easily get rid of by simply “fasting from” them during Lent?  If there is one that has been there for a long time, ask the Lord to help you to let go of it.

Ask God to help you to stop relying on created things and depend on the Lord alone.  You might try standing up and extending your hands toward Heaven and praying three times, “Sustain me, O Lord, as you have promised that I may live.  Disappoint me not in my hope!”

Sacred Scripture (Deuteronomy 30:17-20)

But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days.

Rule of Benedict (Chapter 4, “The Tools for Good Works,” v. 4)

Place your hope in God alone.

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