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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Aymara Mystery, Bolivia

Written by Katriina Virtanen
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Lying underneath a starry sky on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca while wearing a traditional Cholita outfit is not something I ever thought I would experience. On the small island of Isla de la Luna however, a controversy like a blonde Finnish girl in an indigenous Aymara dress is only the beginning of the strange contrasts.


The island of Isla de la Luna on Lake Titicaca relies mostly on fishing as the main source of income for the locals. The island has an exciting history and hosts an ancient Tiwanaku temple, dating from the old Andean culture that lived from around 300BC to 1000BC. Isla de la Luna has also had a run in with the Incas, who decided to make the Tiwanaku temple theirs by adding their own design elements. Due to this rich nature and history, the 25 families that live on the island have also begun to encourage tourism. This is how I, in the course of my 3-month stay in Bolivia, got the opportunity to spend three days as one of the daughters of the delightful Mamani family.


Papa Edwin is originally from the island, whereas Mama Juana is from the other side of Lake Titicaca. The couple got married in the beautiful church in Copacabana and have since then lived on Isla de la Luna where they brought up their four daughters. The family belongs to the indigenous Aymara ethnic group that live mostly in the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America. The Aymara have their own language, although luckily for me the Mamani family also speaks Spanish, and the Aymara women, known as Cholitas, have a very traditional way of dressing.


Looking at the Mamani family would give the casual observer the impression that deciphering the family’s way of life is pretty straight-forward; they speak Aymara and they dress Aymara, knowing about Aymaran culture must surely mean knowing the ways of the Mamani family? In the course of my 3-day stay with the family however, I discovered that like the weather on the island, which can vary from a sweltering 26 to a freezing 2 degrees Celsius in the course of a few hours, or the half Inca, half Tiwanaku temple, the customs and beliefs of the Mamani family are a mixture of polar extremes.

My first glimpse into the contrast that is the Mamani family was when I was introduced to my room. Above my bed was a miniature Jesus dangling from an elaborate crucifix, while on the opposite wall was a poster advertising the Aymara spring equinox celebration called Alasita. Papa Edwin explained that during Alasita the local people sacrifice some of their produce to Pachamama, the Aymaran equivalent to Mother Earth, in order to ensure a good harvest. For the Mamani family their Catholicism and indigenous beliefs and traditions pose no kind of controversy. Like the ancient Bolivians who, to the confusion and disappointment of the Spanish colonialists, were very happy to accept the Christian Lord as one of their many gods, the Mamanis see their two religions as complementing each other.


Although the oldest of the four Mamani sisters is only 17 years old, the 8-year-old Luzmila is the only one who still lives at home. The other sisters, who are 11, 14 and 17, go to school a boat ride away from the island and only come home for the weekends. Like any father with teenage daughters, Papa Edwin is not excited about the prospect of his daughters meeting boys while away from home. He knows this is a realistic threat; Papa Edwin and Mama Juana met each other while at school. The older daughters are beginning to show worrying signs of rebellion; one refuses to wear the traditional Cholita outfit, and one gets a phone call on her mobile phone while we are having dinner as a family. In a community so close to its history and traditions, things like common teenage mutiny seem very out of place. Globalisation is slowly creeping into the community, in the form of the oldest sister’s Samsung phone or the youngest sister’s Minnie Mouse jumper. 


As I lie on the island’s sports field in my four Cholita skirts that Mama Juana let me borrow, with my hair braided in the traditional way by my youngest sister I look at the stars, which due to the 3,800m altitude are in plenty. Although my Finnishness might not be an obvious match with the culture I’m attempting to infiltrate, this contrast is just one of many on the island. The different layers of Aymara culture can be seen both in the history and geography of the island as well as in the Mamani family. The Mamani family is like a more concise version of the island. The whole island is a contrast; from its weather to its history. This pattern is recreated in the family; like the Catholicism the family was willing to accept as a part of its existing religion, so will the new traditions created by the new generation, including more Western aspects like Disney and the mobile revolution, become a part of the complicated web of the family’s own culture.


©Katriina Virtanen

Last modified on Thursday, 31 October 2013