We walked up to the door and sure enough we saw the hand-written advertisement for fuegos artificiales. There were four buzzers scattered around the door, so Pete pushed the one closest to the writing, which was labeled Gustavo. There was no response. “We could try the phone number I guess,” I said, and he nodded. Under the word “BOMBAS” was an 8 digit Bolivian number which I put in my phone and called. I usually need to psych myself up for phone conversations with people I don’t know. Even in English. Even when they’re expecting me to call. But somehow the strangeness of all this made me forget to hesitate until I had already pushed send.
“Hi, I’d like to buy fireworks.”
“Oh. Ok. Well, what type would you like to buy?”
“Oh. Eh……[looks a Pete whispers “what kind do we want?” He shrugs.] Just little ones I guess.”
“Yes, but what kind?”
“Well what kind to you have?”
“I have all kinds. When can you meet?”
“Oh, I’m at the door now. I saw the number on 658.”
“Oh, on Calle Rodriguez? Can you wait 5 minutes? I will come there.”
And so we waited. For 35 minutes (because that’s approximately what “5 minutes” means here). We discussed what might be under the tarps we leaned against, which had obviously been left by some vendor who was taking the day off. I briefly considered checking, but thought the woman across the street selling api might start yelling, thinking I was trying to steal something. Two gringos standing around on this street just talking for 30 minutes looks suspicious enough.
Perhaps I felt suspicious because the whole operation felt very illicit to me. I grew up in a state where fireworks are illegal. They’re easy enough to get, but you have to drive a few hours and cross the border to Indiana. Inevitably, practically straddling the state line, rises a giant red barn-like building. “FIREWORKS!!! This exit,” a billboard will announce. Presumably, one just pulls off the highway, stocks up on bottle rockets, some multi-break shells, and a roman candle or two, turns right around, and heads back to Illinois. I certainly had a fair share of family friends that would do this. I never went along, but I was privy to watching the displays put on off rooftops or out of farmhouse backyards at July 4th parties. I’m not sure what exactly could happen to someone caught possessing fireworks in Illinois. It never really seemed a pressing matter, yet, I think the illegality of it gave it a bit more of a sense of danger. A sense of excitement.
We walked out and I found I had a text message from my earlier tipster saying Hipermaxi probably has fireworks as well. We decided maybe we should just walk over to the Sopocachi supermarket and leave our friend Gustavo without a purchase. So we did just that, enjoying the warm early afternoon sun on the mostly downhill walk. We arrived at Hipermaxi and wandered around the aisles, with no luck. We asked a stock person who informed us they had none, so we decided to buy ingredients for mac n’ cheese instead of fireworks (that’s an all-american patriotic dish, right?). No easy mac today. They didn’t have any elbow macaroni, so we settled on bowties. In all we spent around 100 Bs. Far more than we would have on 2 nice meals at a touristy restaurant. But the cheese itself was about 50 Bs.
Later in the evening, after being told that one of the local backpacker hostels was having an “Anti-American July 4th Party” I made my way over to the area near the bus terminal. I climbed the four flights of stairs, and went directly to the bar for my free shot (you know, because I’m American). It was a nasty rum, but I filled up on locally brewed Saya beer afterwards, which washed the taste down far more pleasantly than Paceña, Bock, Huari, or Authentica ever could. I was just wearing a gray hooded shirt and my black fleece, but was rather jealous that Pete showed up later wearing a long sleeve bright red t shirt, with an Indianapolis Colts tee over the top. Alas, my patriotism failed.
Fortunately, we were both fulfilled when Chad, the bartender told us he had successfully found fireworks for sale in the touristy witches market. Sure, on one hand our adventures with Gustavo lacked an appropriate culmination, but at least we’d get to see some explosions. So once all those from the US had consumed their free shots, Chad called everyone to the roof deck for some fun with fire. First up, 2 bottle rockets. Despite their precarious leaning against the larger circular firework framework, they were lit and flew up into the air without a hitch. Once they were aloft however, they made about as much light as those lifesavers candies do when you bite them in the dark, and didn’t even pop loudly. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) the other firework set was more exciting. There were four explosive packages, wrapped in different colored papers (which I assumed meant they would explode in different colors) attached to a circular scaffold that somewhat resembled a double tiered tomato plant support. It took a bit of discussion to decide where and how to light the thing, but once several know-it-all guys from the US had their input, Chad announced “I’m probably about to injure you all” and held the lighter to wherever it was the consensus had agreed upon. Almost immediately fire started shooting out of the thing horizontally. The tomato stand framework bounced from the picnic table to the floor and then over to the corner. Everyone dashed to get behind the clear glass panel next to the door back to the bar. Most of us spilled our giant mugs of beer on ourselves or at least on the floor. And then the fire ball stopped shooting. We all breathed relief. The 3 people that had been trapped in the far corner moved out and toward the door, and we all started to go inside. And then it started again. Another flaming projectile toward those remaining outside, and then it finally died for good. Oh, Bolivia. You did not disappoint me today.