Tinku Festival in Bolivia – Part 2, The Fights
Tinku Fighting Festival in Macha, Bolivia – Part 2, The Fights
Breakfast was at 8:30am, and I was the last to arrive. I was still feeling effects of the chicha, the local corn-moonshine we had been drinking with the locals last night when the fiesta began. It was a breakfast that would have pleased me had it been a couple of hours later. But, after a quick meal of bread and jam, my Swedish friends and I headed towards the square to see what was taking place.
Villages of people were arriving one by one for the Tinku Fighting Festival in Macha, Bolivia, the small, dusty, town where we were staying. Everyone was dressed in bright colors to represent their communities and dancing and music was everywhere, though the music was one song played over and over again with flutes and a Bolivian mandolin. Macha, is a town of approximately 1,600 people, but roughly 3,000 people from other villages come to participate in the fighting festival to take place after the annual harvest finishes.
To announce their arrival, each village preform a large round circle-dance in the middle of the town square where they sing and dance while their musicians stand in the center of the circle to play that same song every other village had been playing all day. As we walked around, it seemed like there were a lot of people in the streets who knew me from last night…
By 9:45am, the first fight had taken place. On a paper I had in my pocket describing Tinku it said, ‘…in the presence of indigenous authorities they regin to combat and it culminates until obtaining the spill of blood as a result of gratefulness to “PACHAMAMA” for the fertility of their lands.’ Pachamama is Mother Nature. Essentially, the locals believe the giving blood back to the earth will result in a more bountiful harvest the following year, and thus the Tinku Festival was born. Tinku actually pre-dates Christopher Columbus.
Fights take between a man from the highlands versus a man from the lowlands, one on one, both of equal size and age. Each fight lasted for about 30 seconds and there was a lot of blood. The action was attempt-controlled by indigenous police officers who all had whips in their hands. The whips were made from ropes with huge knots in the end or else rubber machinery belts which they used to keep people back and maintain crowd control. There were a couple of more fights and then the scene returned to the same two chord flute music and dancing in the square. ‘Ching ching chang. Ching ching chang. Ching ching chang,’ over and over and over, while kicking up so much dust in their circle dance that it became hard to breathe and everyone in the watching crowd was coughing.
Our guide who had brought us, Negrito, introduced our group to Modesto who he referred to as ‘Chino’ because of his indigenous features that looked slightly Asian. Modesto was 45 years old, in great shape, and was hoping to be able to fight for his village. However, China was concerned that he might not be able to find a rival his age who also wanted to fight as most of the fighters are between 15 and 35 years old. Negrito said that Modesto would fight after he had a drink, so I went with the two of them to buy Modesto a beer for courage at 10am. He happily disappeared into the crowd after in hopes of finding an opponent.
Sometimes the fighters go to the same school or work together and they are friends, and they will fight at the festival, and then be friends again when they return to school or work.
When the fights got out of hand and the police were having trouble with crowd control, they used pepper spray on everyone. Pepper spray disperses a crowd in a hurry. It is terrible as it gets in your eyes, but mostly it just makes you gasp for air. You cough, you sneeze, you gag, and your eyes burn with pain. Pepper spray is a sort of brown color and in the moment it is sprayed, the crowd runs in different directions to get away. Throughout the day I would guess that I had about 6 or more bouts with pepper spray. It is extremely effective on a crowd of people as it stops an escalating situation immediately. In a massive crowd, you can actually hear where the pepper spray is by the faint hiss of the spray, the noise of the last quick gasps of fresh air in unison, and quickly moving feet to get away.
People were fall down drunk at 10:30am and after a while, a ring of people formed. Inside of that ring, fight after fight after fight took place. The police were in the middle of it with their pepper spray and their whips, making a the ring for fighting with their bodies by interlocking their arms while also maintaining the fighting crowd. There was a bell tower connected to the church which our group was able to climb in order to safely watch the fighting fiasco from above. It is a festival like nothing else in the whole world…villages of people hug or shake hands in the ring and then beat the hell out of each other, even kicking each other in the face if someone goes down. And if a third party jumps into the circle, the police whip them back to their place of peace to await their own fight while the punches are being thrown and landing on faces in the human made circle.
I had to go and buy a camera licence to take pictures of the festival for 100 Bolivianos (about $14.50 U.S.). My friends and I walked around drinking beer while watching the chaos taking place around us. A lot of people were very interested in us and learning what country we called home. It was a real treat that this unknown festival only had about 20 or so gringos in attendance. While we were buying beer a guy who I recognized as our friend from last night came up to us to say hello. So, I bought him a beer, only to find out that he was our bus driver a few minutes later. I hoped I had not started a party within him for the day. He would be getting us out of Macha in the evening…
Back in the bell tower, once again we were watching the fights from above. It was more air-friendly as the pepper spray was not such a problem up high as it was on street level. We watched many fights in a row the ring directly below us, one after another, and then I realized there were a couple of photographers in the ring. They did not look to be getting hit by punches, so I decided that I would be one of those photographers and made my way down to the bottom.
Next to the ring, I had to work for about 10 minutes to penetrate the mass of bodies fighting for their best view points. It was like trying to get to the front row at a rock concert. Eventually, I was just behind the human ring of police. As the police broke their body/arm-locks to control the crowd in the melee and chaos, I dashed between two cops and suddenly I was inside of the ring myself. Once I was in the ring, the police seemed disappointed that I was there, but they motioned at me to get down so I squatted low in the fighting ring and took pictures of the fights from the views that were nearly on top of me.
Inside the ring, I did not feel any danger of getting beaten up, as much as I had concern for a missed punch finding me. It was seriously up-close and I got some amazing pictures from there but paid the price by getting sprayed blood on my jeans. It was pretty intense to be inside and the energy consumed everyone. I had to move to get out of the way of the fighters shoving towards me several times. A fight would take place, and when someone would go down or else it got to be too much, the police would stop the fight. Someone else would try to jump into the ring, either to gang up on a fighter, or else to be the next to fight, and the police would whip and whip him back into the crowd. Only after they had control and the last fight was completely finished would they allow another fighter in to rival someone of his class. It was totally thrilling to be a part of that crowd where I remained in the ring for about 10 minutes or so as fists and blood flew.
Historically, the police used to get beat up at this festival as there used to only be five or six of them to control the entire adrenalized festival. Now, there are many police and they have reasonable control of the crowd, except that things do get beyond their tried restraints several times throughout the day. When the whips do not control the chaos they use the pepper spray. And when pepper spray does not disperse a crowd getting too unruly from the fighting, teargas does the job. All of a sudden, you hear the sound of a small explosion. Then a bomb of smoke goes off, and that tear gas is incredibly effective. I had thought that there could not really be anything worse than pepper spray but I was in for a very uncomfortable surprise…
…One of the human fighting rings was breaking apart and people were just fighting each other and punching each other from every direction, something which the police could no longer control. Pepper spray was everywhere and there were not enough police with whips to be in command of anything. That was when the first teargas bomb exploded…
I was with four of my English friends and we knew it was trouble as soon as we heard the blast. The teargas smoke began to fill the air, so we tried to get away as quickly as we could. We started heading for a side street, and I thought to myself, ‘Well now, you have never seen teargas before. Maybe you should stop moving for a moment to take a picture of it.’ Click. I thought it was still a safe distance from me, and I doubt if I would have been able to outrun it anyway, but when that teargas got to me, it went into my lungs and into my eyes. I was running partially blinded trying to get away and I could not breathe. I was vomiting into my mouth and gagging, trying to get any air into my lungs that I could. I had just enough vision that I could see the shape of the running crowd and I ran after them. I could see the ground and I could make out my feet and I just tried to keep running. My eyes burned so much and with no breath in my lungs I wondered what would happen if I fell down. Would I die? Would tear gas kill me if I could not escape it? Would I suffocate? I was fighting with these thoughts, running, trying to find air as we ran down a street in between buildings. It was too scary to think and no one running had time to take a moment to think about which way we were running. We were just running and it turned out that we were actually running downwind from the teargas and it was just following us. Terror was going through me when I saw an open gate behind a building on the street so I dove into the open space, hoping the buildings structures would keep the teargas going past and the air inside of the gate would be fresh. It turned out that I was in someone’s backyard, and as I tried to focus, there were Bolivian’s calling to me as soon as they seen me, “Gringo, Gringo! Come here. Come!” My eyes were burning so much that once I could find fresh air, I could no longer move. The pain in my eyes was immense. It took 5 minutes of standing there before I could really open my eyelids again.
My English friends had run into the yard with me and once we could function, the Bolivians had something like Vic’s Vapor Rub that they put under our noses to clean the pepper smell out. Then they wanted to drink beer with us. We obliged them in our gratitude as the pain subsided.
I was certain that gateway had saved us. As my friend Mike said, “It is very special. You are watching a bunch of people in a village fight and suddenly you get tear gassed.”
When we finally ventured out towards the town square again, we would see that even the police in the streets had been vomiting from the tear gas. From that moment forward, it was a matter of ‘hear’ the teargas bomb, ‘see’ where it lands, ‘and run’ as fast as possible in an upwind direction as soon as one can react to the situation. I would be aware of which direction the wind was blowing for the rest of the time we were in Macha.
By 4:30pm, there were kids fighting and throwing rocks at each other that the police were unable to control, so more teargas was set off to disperse the insanity. More police arrived on the scene as the festival got more brutal, which made the police mre brutal. A lot of police whipping was taking place to control the crowd that was almost entirely intoxicated and extremely aggressive. One of my English friends got punched in the mouth as he was in the town square by a man walking with his wife. People in the festival were just walking around, punching, falling down, and then their wives would drag them away.
There were people unconscious in the streets and the women were turning those knocked-out onto their sides so that they did not die. It was getting very chaotic and frightening on the street level so we had retreated to the safety of the bell tower to watch the most insane festival that the world has happening directly below our feet. We were just watching crazy things take place, like a woman whipping a drunk man in the back with a rope while the guy next to her would stumble around fighting the booze and fighting off the pepper spray, while some other guy would be standing next to him playing a Bolivian mandolin. There was just mass hysteria going on everywhere at the same time.
Another fighting ring had formed and in the hectic state of the situation, police began to kick men out of the ring who were too drunk to fight. Then things got really ugly as a massive rock fight began and got totally out of control. There were rocks being thrown from everywhere at everyone. They were even coming towards us up high in the bell tower. The police totally lost any form of regulation so a lot of teargas bombs were detonated. There were at least five tear gas bombs set off stop the crowd, the rock throwing, and the fighting. A teargas bomb shot against the tower we were in, which scared the hell out of us as there would have been no escape had it come inside. Down below, there were unconscious men in the teargassed alleys and still the occasional rock was being thrown. It was clearly time for us to go, so we made our way out of the bell tower to find our group in the yard of the church. The last image I have in my mind of the Tinku Fighting Festival from the top of the bell tower is of men picking up the smoking teargas bombs and throwing them at their rivals.
We were all gathered in the gated church courtyard and we awaited Negrito, our guide who was the owner of the agency which had brought us by bus. We he arrived we looked at him and he was so drunk that he had pissed his pants. As a man was helping him to walk, Negrito pointed at the man and said in a Spanish accent, “He is very drunk!” A man with piss running down his legs was accusing another man of being intoxicated. I liked the entertainment value of that!
We awaited our leader and his pissed pants in the bus when I realized I needed to go to the toilet before we began the four-hour journey from Macha. I got off the bus and walked around the corner towards the outhouse. A Bolivian man sort of tried to stop me from coming his direction. I deterred him as I was determined to head towards the toilet no matter what. As I got around the corner, there was Negrito. He was sitting against the building with his pants around his ankles and his friends where helping him clean the shit off of the back of his legs that had obviously been inside his pants as well. Wow, Bolivia, you sure have shown me a lot of misplaced feces and urine in the past four days. It is more than I have encountered in the past ten years accumulated.
Crazy Tinku Fighting Festival Video Footage:
Everyone loaded into the van except for poopy-pants who was left behind. We drove our bus with locked windows through a part of the town square where the fighting was again taking place. It felt uncomfortable to us, maybe like a prison break, the way we gringos were trying to escape the drunken fighting town in a bus. We were contemplating whether we should duck down so as not to be seen and have our bus attacked in the chaos of total chaos… In that moment I did not even think about whether the bus driver was drunk or not. All I cared about was our getting out of the insanity of Macha and the Tinku Fighting festival.
We made it out of town, and headed four hours back to Potosi with our bus driver who turned out to actually be sober. Great. What a day it was. The Tinku Fighting Festival is like nothing even an imagination could ever create. That event was pretty amazing for so much we were able to witness… Nothing is stranger than life and cultures.
(See gallery below!)