Bolivians celebrate growing economy as they build wishings at Alacitas festival

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Yearly event watches throngs of attendees spend money on miniatures and counterfeit money in hopes that their purchases will bring good fortune

The streets of La Paz were strewn with fund on Sunday, as Bolivia celebrated its rising affluence and indigenous pride with an debauchery of wishful consumption at the annual Alacitas festival.

The ritualistic splurge on miniatures and counterfeits was more colourful and creative than ever this year, boosted by a decade-long boom in the economy and the incorporation of once-shunned Aymara superstitions into the mainstream.

At the market in Plaza Murillo, cholitas in traditional bowler hats and shawl hawked thick blocks of fake currency that were stacked high on tables: $500,000 for five bolivianos ($ 0.72 USD ), or a $100,000, 000 block for 25 bolivianos ($ 3.62 ). In the first hour of trading, trillions changed hands. Mere $100 bills were trodden underfoot.

Throngs of consumers snapped up toy cars, tiny crates of plastic brew, little bags of household goods( all elaborately copied from existing brands ), model plots of land and pocket-sized suitcases filled with paper laptops, passports and credit cards.

Each purchase represents a wish. Those who wish to marry buy a plastic hen( representing a bride) or a cock( a bridegroom ). Students pay for tiny reproductions of degree certificates and professional licenses from resulting universities. The sick and their families acquire scaled-down copies of health testimonies from respected hospitals.


A shaman blesses a bike. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

I bought all the things that I want this year, said Milenka Calderon, who was carrying a bag full of toy money, a bag of food and a baby doll, the latter in the hope that her freshly wedded daughter would soon become pregnant.

If you have faith, it comes true, she said, observing that last year she picked up a toy house and then went on to buy a real one.

According to local custom, each item has to be sanctified by an indigenous kallawaya shaman use incense and powders, at a makeshift street shrine to the god of good fortune, Ekoko. Dozens performed the rite, each charging a fee.

Not wanting to miss out, the Catholic church also offered boons. Many in this spiritually eclectic nation lined up to have bags of fake money and goods doused in holy water by priests in the cathedral, or to rub their plastic toys against statues of the saints.

Anyone trying spiritual exclusivity “wouldve been” disillusioned. Like Bolivia, the celebration is very much a mix-and-match affair. As long as luck comes , nobody seems overly concerned about what form it takes. The vendors also offer Japanese manuki-neko cats pawing in good luck and ceramic monkeys, marking the present animal year of the Chinese zodiac, bearing wheelbarrows full of pearls.


Catholics and counterfeit money. Photo: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

The festival, which takes place in cities across the country for two weeks from 24 January, is good-natured fun. Households come shopping. Adults dine at street stallings while their children play with toys. Revellers hand out wads of cash to strangers as a sign of goodwill.

But Alacitas also reflects many of the economic and social changes that have transformed Bolivia in the decade since Evo Morales became the countrys first indigenous chairman, and since the country began employing income from a commodities boom to raise its living standards and reduce inequality.

Alacitas originated in Aymara beliefs and was long left on the periphery of Bolivian culture. The miniatures used only to be available at the Parque de los Monos. Morales, however, put the celebration at the centre of national life by allowing stallings to open at Plaza Murillo outside the congress and presidential palace. Today, its popularity widens far beyond the Aymara population.

There is more faith now, said Juan Carlos Ballon, a shaman. Before, when Bolivia was a Catholic state, all of our notions were concealed. Now, we are a plurinational nation and all faith are respected, so we can practise in the open. This is a good time for us.

Ballon noted that Bolivia, formerly one of the poorest nations in Latin America, is enjoying the greatest prosperity of his lifetime. The items on sale at the festival evince this success and reflect the expectations of a population that has become accustomed to average growth of 5. 1% over the past 10 years.


Ekoko, the god of good fortune. Photograph: Jonathan Watts for the Guardian

Instead of miniature sacks of staple grains, people are buying more luxury fakes. As well as toy houses, they purchase plastic or wood tower blocks with fake architectural blueprints and mini-ownership documents.

I only bought a house today, but next year I might buy a condominium, joked Mercelas Gomez, a local resident, as she ate a traditional Plato Paceno dish with her husband.

With global commodity prices falling, Bolivia will need more than simply luck if its boom is to continue for another 12 months. But for now, at the least, the country is in a festive and generous mood.

As this correspondent was leaving the plaza, a woman pressed three $100 bills into his hand. Here, have this for good luck, she said.

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