We had heard from other tourists about the Sunday market in Tarabuco—supposedly the biggest in Bolivia. Jill and I decided to check it out and hopped into what the Bolivians call a “micro bus”, a van that appears smushed from both ends. These buses somehow hold up to 20 people with all of their belongings while teetering on four tiny wheels. This mode of transportation made for a very sweaty, uncomfortable hour-long drive.

In Tarabuco, we quickly felt overwhelmed by the rows upon rows of cheap, colourful goods. And yet, few stalls were offering truly hand-made artisan products. A lot of the stuff looked synthetic.

The most authentic experience of the day was eating lunch in a typical comedor. In these makeshift cafeterias rows of women with huge metal pots, each cook up a different lunch menu. For a few cents, you can sit down at a bench in front of any of these pots and be served a hearty meal consisting of a rice dish, stew, salad and drink. My meal was quite good except for the small animal hairs that remained on the pieces of chewy meat in the stew. After the meal, I tried to give my cook a tip but this was such a foreign concept to her that she was convinced that I had somehow made a mistake with my change!

Throughout the market, we kept spotting tables filled with what appeared to be colourful soaps atop piles of herbs. Some were shaped like llamas, others like coins. I approached one woman selling the odd objects and asked, “Soaps?” She shook her head and replied, “Pachamama”. I repeated my question, “Are these soaps?”  She frowned and repeated, “Pachamama”. I knew only that Pachamama was the earth goddess according to indigenous beliefs. As we turned away confused, Jill gasped and pointed to a shriveled, purple llama fetus in the middle of the table… what the heck?!? It wasn’t until the following day that I would come to understand the tremendous significance of these objects and my hilarious ignorance.

The next day back in Sucre, I visited the Museo de Arte Indígena ASUR (Ave. San Alberto 413). I learned about the various styles, colours and weaving patters used by indigenous groups in Bolivia to make their exquisite blankets and clothing. The abstract patterns tell stories of historical figures, ancient beliefs and the natural world.  There were two women weaving inside and they told me that one blanket takes three months to finish, working eight hours a day. Weaving has traditionally been women’s work but, as men realize the profitability of selling to tourists,  they have taken up the craft as well. It was interesting to see that the men’s art depicted darker wilder scenes, often of creatures from the underground.

Weaving, like many other parts of Bolivian life, is full of rituals and superstitions. A whole room of the museum is dedicated to explaining these rituals. Before every weave, an offering ceremony to Pachamama is performed to ask her for a productive session. Twelve platters of offerings are prepared and burned. On the platters are coca leaves, seeds, herbs and the waxy objects I thought were soaps at the market.  Shaped like coins, bread rolls, and llamas, these miniature objects are meant to bring you the thing in real life. At the head of these ritual tables, leading the twelve plates, is a llama fetus (sullu) covered with confetti, cotton, and shreds of gold and silver. My earlier experience in the Tarabuco market suddenly made sense and it dawned on me how silly my inquiries had been. What I had thought were soaps are actually incredibly important ritual objects! As for the llama fetus, it may have turned our stomachs, but for many Bolivians it is a vital part of an offering to Pachamama and ensures that Mother Nature will be good to them. They say that even the President, Evo Morales, makes offerings to Pachamama. It’s all very interesting, but I may take a pass on that cultural experience.