I was woken up a few nights back by my neighbours, which is no surprise. It happens all the time, but not usually as late as 3 in the morning. My apartment building and theirs face each other over a small garden that, rather annoyingly, has perfect acoustics: pretty much any conversation held on the balconies overlooking the garden travels directly into the windows on the other side, making it sound like the speaker is standing over your bed having a little chat. Its creepy.

So, having been woken up at 3 by them pulling up chairs and popping open the champagne, I then lay awake the next few hours trying not to listen to their conversation. It seems one of the girls had recently broken up with an errant boyfriend. He said this, she said that, then you’ll never guess what she said to him!!

Well I didn’t have to guess, because I heard it all intimate detail through my ear plugs. I can inform you that her ex really was a naughty boy. But I don’t care what he did with that girl from over the road. when sleep deprived I have very little sympathy. Being a light sleeper has turned me into a terribly grumpy neighbour.

Anyway, it was a few days later that I worked out why they were sitting on their balcony at that time of the morning. It was the solstice! And I totally missed it!

Last year I spent the solstice at the ancient site of Tiwanaku, waiting for the sun’s rays and Evo Morales alongside several thousand Bolivians. They year before, I was in Peru celebrating the neo-indigenous ritual of Inta Raymi at Cusco. The previous two years before that, I was at Stonehenge, dancing the night away. This year, I passed the solstice in bed in Chicago, listening to teenagers lamenting their love lives. It was a bit of a let down, to say the least.

I should have known it was getting close though, as I’d read in the media a few days before that the police were going to be cracking down harder on visitors to Stonehenge this year. Because that’s what’s really needed in the wake of all the great press the police have had recently: more aggression. If they were being heavy handed its a pity, because the two times I went to Stonehenge for the solstice the already over-intimidating police presence was the only blight on an otherwise incredible experience. Right up there on my top ten things I think everyone should do is spend a solstice at Stonehenge, while you still can.

Its strange to have spent this year’s solstice in Chicago though, and even stranger to have missed it altogether. Its made me feel a little despondent about still being here so late. Over the last few years I’ve made my annual visit of pseudo-pagan/neo-indigenous/reclaimed solstice celebrations at archaeological sites into something of a tradition. At some point I wanted to write something about the contemporary uses of archaeological sites in this way, but researching it is a tad tricky when you only get one night a year to compare with. Missing out on this year’s example is a bit of a faux pas.

As a result, however, the solstice has turned into a personal marker for me. Not a marker in the “welcome the sun”/”connect with mother earth”/”mark the new year”/”blah blah blah” kind of way. Its just that, every year for the last four, its been a little bit of reoccurring research for me. That I missed it this year just reinforced the sense of frustration I’ve had for the last six months, hanging around in Chicago waiting for the bureaucracy to work out so that I can leave and go do my fieldwork. That I’m still in Chicago for the solstice, and hence missed it, becomes just another sign of having wasted too much time waiting this year. So in my mind, the solstice has become a ritual that marks me being “in the field”, doing research. Where ever I am that day, it reminds me of where I was that day for the previous few years. The solstice doesn’t mark the middle of summer so much as marking me watching other people marking the middle of summer.

My friend Keith, the one who spent last year at the South Pole, was telling me last week that the mid-winter solstice is a really big event there. Given that they really are affected by the turning of the seasons there, the midwinter marks the point when they can start to look forward to some sunlight returning in a few months time, and eventually to going home. I’ve always been a tad skeptical about the archaeological tendency to interpret every damn monument built anywhere in the world and at any time in prehistory as a calender for the solstice. Partly because I think there has to actually be some reason for caring about the middle of summer/winter.

The South Pole experience I can understand. My reason is a bit off-the-wall and personal. The usual explanation given in the archaeological interpretations is that its necessary for agricultural communities to know when to plant and so on. But I wonder if that’s really the case. Do farmers really need to know the exact date iof the middle of summer in order to be able to plant? As opposed to, say, being able to judge the weather that particular year? I heard on the radio this morning, for example, that farmers in Illinois this year have been totally fucked by the torrential rain we’ve had in the last few weeks, which means they are struggling to get crops planted this week while its still just about dry enough and warm enough. So I’d assume there are so many variables to growing crops than the exact date of the middle of the season isn’t really that important. I’d be interested to ask some contemporary farmers who live somewhere that doesn’t have an extreme climate whether they even notice the solstice. Maybe our contemporary tendency to think every archaeological site is somehow aligned to the solstice has more to do with our own obsession with accuracy and dating.

This time next year I’m not sure where I’ll be. Quiet possibly back here in Chicago, enjoying a break after a year of fieldwork. Where ever I am I’ll make sure I pay more attention. If only because, if I’m going to miss it, I might as well get a decent nights sleep.

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Its ironic, somehow, that I only come back to the city for 24 hours a week to check email and do my interneting, and that the last two weekends the internet has not been working for about 23 of those hours. It feels very 2005 to be sitting in an internet cafe again, trying to work out the Spanish key board. Though I´m glad to see the prices are lower and the connection better than last time I was in this position.

Last weekend I too exhausted when I was back here to drag my sorry arse even out to the internet cafe. I spent Sunday lying in bed watching James Bond movies and eating a large box of chocolates. The emergency suspension of my otherwise strictly kept diet plan and internet needs was due to having spent the entire previous night awake, celebrating the solstice in Tiwanaku. When a girl´s been up all night getting her yearly dose of cosmic energy, she´s likely to be too exhausted to do much else the next day.

I´m becoming a bit of a solstice tourist, I´ve realised. Last year it was the Inti Rami in Cusco, and the previous two years I was at Stonehenge soaking up the summer sun. This year in I stood on the top of a big mound of earth freezing my arse off with 40,000 hippie backpackers and middle-class Bolivians from La Paz in search off their roots. I´m not sure the cosmic energy was worth the near frost bite – this is fucking winter in the Altiplano, after all – but it was certainly a cultural experience. The best bit, I have to say, was that Evo Morales turned up in his helicopter, just before dawn, though sadly the rumours that “Tío Hugo” would be coming too proved to be unfounded. To be honest, Evo was the main attraction, and he absolutely out-staged the rising sun. We had been standing around shivering in our spot on the top of the archaeological mound, overlooking the reconstructed courtyard part of the site where the main ´ritual´ was going on, for about two hours. The crowd around us was as freezing as we were, generally murmuring to themselves and occasionally huddling over to a fire further down the hill. A military band down on the plain below us played rousing marching numbers every now and then, which kept spirits up, but then suddenly someone spotted the chopper coming over the horizon, and the crowd went crazy. A chant of “EVO!! EVO!! EVO!!” went up – the kind you generally hear at football matches – and everyone started waving and clapping. Us gringos jumped up and down with the rest of them, trying to pick the president out from the crowd running around him as he landed. I have a photo I´ll post later on when my internet access is better. [Edit 13th July: Got it! look below, or see the original photo and others here.] You can just about spot Evo by his khaki trousers and casual jacket in the middle of all the media and the military. The national anthem was played (it goes on for ages, and by the end even the gringos knew and were singing along with the chorus); a llama was sacrificed; people cheered and shouted. And somewhere in all the excitment the sun came up, and most of the crowd remembered in time that this was what they were meant to be looking at and turned round to hold their hands up to the cosmic light. And then it was all over. We crawled back to bed for an hour or so, Evo went off in his chopper after doing a few circles over the town, and the new winter sun shone down on the remnants of a long night of 40,000 people drinking and puking.

A friend of mine, the anthropologist Clare Sammels, has written a far more ethnographically and politically nuanced analysis of the solstice celebrations at Tiwanaku than I could muster. Having read some of her accounts, I was interested to see the event for myself. We had been warned repeatedly by both Bolivian and other archaeological friends that it would get messy. The town of Tiwanaku is tiny. Its the kind of place where if you walk in the street for more than a ten minutes you will bump into someone you know to stop and pass the time of day with. I love the fact that *everyone* greets each other in the street with “good morning” or “good afternoon” as they pass, to the point that conversation as you stroll on your way is constantly punctuated with greetings to passers by. Its a town that is growing rapidly, as the expected and gradually realised tourism brings new construction, but also as the changing mood in Bolivia results in growing investment in municipal buildings, school and university infrastructure, and general public works. But its still a tiny place, that for one night of the year suddenly gets utterly transformed as thousands of extra people arrive. As we got closer to the date, there was a palpable sense of the town preparing itself. Extra trucks arrived with beer to the restaurants, new hotels and cafes appeared that were otherwise closed all the rest of the year, people put bollards outside their doors and moved their animals out of harms way, and the museum and the public buildings acquired a fresh coat of paint. Then the night itself, stalls selling food, drink, tourist tat and folk art popped up everywhere. Spaces you hadn´t even noticed existed before suddenly sprouted old ladies selling té con té (alcohol of some sort in hot spicy tea), woolly scarves or various versions of street meat. A stage was erected in the plaza next to Eiffel´s band stand (yes, I mean *that* Eiffel. He went to South America and built things there too, including Tiwanaku´s band stand) that was soon filled with a succession of cheesy rock bands that kept the freezing cold crowds dancing through the night. An art exhibit from the local university was put up in the church courtyard, and a line of folk crafts stalls took over one of the streets. As we wandered through the crowds that night, it was strange to feel so suddenly lost in a town that usually felt so small and homely. But the we found a stall selling fireworks. Ethnographic musings and cosmic energy don´t stand a chance against the sudden prospect of hundreds of cheap Chinese explosives. We brought nearly the whole of the guy´s stock for about $30, and the next hour or two was spent indulging in pyromania in the courtyard of our house. Its amazing we even stopped in time to get up to the site for the sun/Evo.

The next morning the town was one giant rubbish heap of puke, trash and fighting/vomiting tourists. I had planned to stay there and sleep off the night without dealing with the drive to the city, but even as gangs of old women were out sweeping the streets clean again I couldn´t take the mess and caught the bus back to La Paz for 24 hours of recovery. The whole event had an unreal quality to it. Tiwanaku makes a lot of its money each year from the solstice, and a lot of those tourist dollars that are cleaning the town up are generated on this one important night. This weekend is the festival oif San Pedro and San Pablo, which is another big event. But its event for Tiwanaku itself, rather than a tourist money generator. We will be eating, drinking and dancing all tomorrow and Monday with the community we work with, and its going to be great. No choppers, no fireworks – but also no strangers puking in your patio and accidentally burning your fields. Hopefully next weekend my internet will be working properly, and I´ll send a comparative description of more Tiwanku festivities then.