TIME ZONES : 20 Minutes at an Alasita Fair in Bolivia

Big Dreams Embodied In Small Tokens

Priscila Pearanda, 20, receives a rooster  --  representing a boyfriend or husband  --  from her mother, Angela Tapia, who is hoping for a wedding in the coming year.
Priscila Pearanda, 20, receives a rooster -- representing a boyfriend or husband -- from her mother, Angela Tapia, who is hoping for a wedding in the coming year. (By Evan Abramson -- For The Washington Post)

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 3, 2007

LA PAZ, Bolivia Angela Tapia shouldered her way through a swarm of shoppers, bumping toward the vending stalls that offered an exhaustively eclectic selection of sale items.

"Diplomas!" one vendor yelled. "Houses!"

Almost everything sold at this outdoor fair was a miniature reproduction -- tiny but tangible reflections of the shoppers' most impassioned desires. The two-week fairs, called Alasitas, are held throughout Bolivia each year beginning in late January. The idea behind them is rooted in centuries of indigenous tradition: Get a scaled-down version of something at the fair, and the real thing will be yours within a year.

Want a new house? That split-level model on a plywood base, complete with a cricket-size coupe in the driveway, is almost as good as the real thing. Want to finish that long-delayed home improvement project? The delicate wheelbarrow filled with cement sacks the size of tea bags is a start. How about a divorce? Squint at the laminated court document announcing a legal separation, and see the future writ small.

Tapia was keenly aware of two supplementary superstitions said to intensify the prophetic power of the objects. First, the magic is stronger if the items are received as gifts. Second, it helps if they are purchased before noon on the first day of the two-week fair.

This was the first day of the fair. It was 11:55 a.m.

Tapia had already filled a small plastic bag with miniature household goods, including cans of soup with hand-painted, pop-art labels that suggested admirable dexterity and heroic patience by the artisans who made them. But she lacked some items she wanted to give to family and friends.

"Where are the passports?"

Tapia's tone indicated she wasn't in the mood to dally, and the vendor quickly proffered the requested item, daintily holding it between thumb and forefinger, as if she were about to slip it into a Barbie doll's pocket. Tapia planned to give it to someone who wanted to see the world. For good measure, she bought a suitcase small enough to ensure compliance with the strictest of airline standards, even baggage weight limits of, for example, five ounces.

By 11:57, she still hadn't located the most important items she sought -- a ceramic rooster and a hen.

Explanatory interruption: In most cases, the items sold at the fair have direct symbolic value, meaning that even the most unimaginative observer can follow along by assuming the items represent exactly what they depict. But the roosters and hens violate this normally sound rule of thumb. A rooster represents a boyfriend or a husband; a hen represents a girlfriend or a wife. No one seems to object to the association.

Tapia, with three minutes before her deadline, enlisted her daughter's help in finding a rooster and a hen. Priscila Pearanda, 20, happened to be at a nearby stall that had them, and she grabbed one of each.


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