Bolivian Fighting Ritual Draws Crowds

The Associated Press
Thursday, May 17, 2007; 3:13 AM

MACHA, Bolivia -- The locals come down from the mountains drunk, dancing and ready to fight. The police come to make sure no one dies. And the tourists, reporters, and documentary filmmakers come for the blood.

The outside world has discovered Tinku, an ancient ritual in which indigenous Quechua communities gather each year in a remote corner of the Bolivian Andes to dance, sing and settle old scores in staggering and bloody street fights.

The largest Tinku takes place early each May in Macha, about 210 miles southeast of La Paz, where this year's festival provided a stunning and sometimes uneasy combination of culture, spectacle and violence.

Relatively unknown outside the Andes for centuries, Tinku remains on the fringe of Bolivia's growing tourism industry. But its heavily asterisked listing in the guidebooks (Lonely Planet calls it "a violent and often grisly spectacle") is beginning to draw both backpackers and media curious to witness the peculiar event firsthand.

The attention has not gone unnoticed by the locals in Macha, a bitterly poor village of adobe houses and narrow dirt streets tucked between cold, dusty hills some 13,100 feet above sea level.

Tinku fighters generally resent the foreigners' gaze and now ask for money to have their picture taken. When drunk enough, a fighter may take an occasional swing at anyone in the street carrying a camera.

Tinku ("encounter" in Quechua) is a pre-Colombian tradition meant to solve conflicts and release tensions within the local community while honoring the Andean earth goddess Pachamama. Participants believe the spilled blood brings fertility to the rocky soil, and the death of a fighter forecasts an especially abundant harvest the following year.

The challenge for Macha city officials is to promote Tinku's authentic heritage while preventing the spotlight from turning its sacred rituals into meaningless blood sport.

"Before, Tinku before was something shared," said Abelardo Colque, who was selling press passes in Macha's one-room city hall. "They didn't just fight; they fought and ended up shaking hands. But now it's turning into just fighting without any point."

The festival includes several days of ceremonies blurred together by sleepless and spirited binges on grain alcohol and chicha, a tart homemade corn beer. There are prayers to a Christian crucifix, llama sacrifices at dawn, and an endless stomping, shuffling dance to the eerie strains of cane flutes and rhythmic, two-chord songs beat out on mandolin-like charangos.

On its climactic day, May 4 this year, fighters marched down the hill into town _ still dancing, still singing _ with their eyes peeled for particular rivals, intent on resolving everything from love triangles to land disputes.

While most fights are short-lived, death is not uncommon; one person was killed at a smaller Tinku in Macha in February. But with more foreigners turning up each year, local officials have brought in extra police to reduce the violence, and even broadcast radio announcements asking revelers not to attack street vendors.

The police immediately took control of this year's festival, forming an improvised ring in the town square and refereeing the fights. A sergeant selected combatants of equal size and age _ women, too _ and set a few ground rules ("No kicking!"). Fellow fighters cheered each pair on, while journalists and tourists crowded in, holding their cameras high to catch the bare-knuckle action.

The police ended each clash after only a minute or two, after drunken punches had bloodied one or both of the fighters' faces.

By late afternoon, the increasingly intoxicated crowd repeatedly overran the ring, hoping to revert to Tinku's traditional free-for-all. But the police drove them back each time, occasionally popping a tear gas grenade to clear the square.

Foreigners seemed both relieved and mildly disappointed to learn that Tinku had been toned down.

"Are they making it less violent so that people have a different image?" asked Portuguese backpacker Pedro Pimentel, 28. "It shouldn't have to be changed just by our presence."

Just what the world wants to make of Tinku _ cultural celebration or a drunken brawl _ remains to be seen, but increased exposure seems inevitable. "It's something that belongs to the world," Pimentel said.

In one Macha boarding house, a poster on the wall advertised an academic conference dedicated "to the rescue of the original Tinku of our collective memories" as a grainy video showed wince-inducing highlights of a previous year's street fight.

Out in the street, a tourist snapped the picture of a defeated fighter stumbling through the crowd, his face streaming with blood.

"Gimme a peso, you (expletive), if you want to take my photo!" the fighter bellowed.

Stiffening with fright, the backpacker quickly dug into his jeans for a coin.

Reviewing the picture later on his digital camera, the tourist was disappointed: The Tinku fighter held his head down to let his blood drip in the street, and his face was covered in shadow.

"I'm going back to take another picture," the backpacker told his buddy. "And this time I'm not going to ask."

© 2007 The Associated Press