Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Bolivia: the food, the folks, the fun

I hope from my last post you got something of a flavour of Bolivia's natural beauty. The vast, untouched areas of this land provide great enjoyment for those intrepid enough to explore. I also wanted to give you a flavour of life in the city of Cochabamba, where I lived for two months, and some snapshots of everyday Bolivian life.

Let's start with what always ends up being my priority: the food. Cochabamba has a bit of a reputation as being the foodie capital of Bolivia, but it took me a while to separate the wheat from the chaff (so to speak) and sample some really good food. For the first month in the city I was living with a family in a homestay, so that I could really experience Bolivian life and to improve my Spanish quickly. This meant that I had all of my meals cooked for me by my wonderful Madre Boliviana (Bolivian Mother) Tania, so although I got a good feel for home cooking Bolivian-style, I didn't get to sample much of the street food and traditional delicacies until after I'd moved out of her house.

A typical meal at home, with added salad!

Madre Boliviana

Tania is an extremely hard-working, enterprising woman, with many irons in the fire for earning a living for her family. Her husband drives a Micro (pronounced 'mee-crow'), one of the garishly-painted buses which carry passengers all over the region, so spends much of his time away from home. Tania has built an annex to her home to house lodgers, earning her rental income, and she also has a little 'tienda' (shop) at the front of her house, with stock similar to a regular corner shop in the UK or elsewhere, where her 93-year-old father-in-law earns his keep by serving customers, as well as tending the garden and fetching the morning bread. Every day Tania cooks for 30 people – her family, the five of us lodging with her, and the rest packed up in tupperware boxes and sent out to various third parties for a small fee. Meals are therefore by necessity something which can be easily and cheaply cooked en masse and transported – invariably rice, potatoes and some kind of meat (chicken thigh or leg, mincemeat etc). Vegetables and salad made a rare but welcome appearance in the Arnez household in the month I was there. (Her 'two-carbs-and-meat' diet put some squidgy padding around my belly which I affectionately call my 'Tania layer' and which is now slowly disappearing with the fresh, light fare of the Mediterranean.) Her family often came to sit with us while we ate, and we enjoyed getting to know them, in particular little 'Gabito' (Gabriel) her grandson, who was a chubby-cheeked little monkey, ruling the roost in that household as so many sole children do!

Fellow housemates Cristina and Donna with adorable kitty Celeste

Each day Donna would write out what meals we would be home for

Little Gabito ruling the roost!

Cuddling Celeste

Look at those eyes!

Alex and Gabito

Drinking Chicha for Donna's farewell

Tania is a robust, no-nonsense woman, with a stern motherly hand, a cheeky glint in her eye, and a mountain remedy for every ailment. When I caught sunstroke and was laid in bed feverish and ill one evening, she burst into my room with a tray full of sliced tomatoes and proceeded to layer them on my face and chest, soaking up the heat and putting the tomato's acidity on my skin. When one of my housemates caught a stomach bug they were placed on a strict diet of tea and crackers for three days, gazing longingly at the full plates of the rest of us. Tania sure can tell a story, too. Even with my limited Spanish her mealtime tales brought tears of laughter to my eyes. I will remember my time at her house fondly, and I really appreciated her maternal influence while so far away from home.

Tania and her daughter Gaby

Alex helps Tania skewer Anticucho

Cristina's happy birthday pineapple

Cristina, Gaby and Heather

Ready to grill

Grilling anticucho

Cristina's delicious tortilla

Bolivian backyard barbecue

Girls gone crazy!

Chicha-inspired backyard dancing

So it wasn't really until after I moved out of the Arnez house that I got to experience Bolivian food in all its glory, with my ever-diversifying diet. The Bolivian meal tradition is that breakfast is usually a simple affair – an early bread roll and coffee – and they usually have 'second breakfast' or a mid-morning snack of something such as a salteña. I'm a big fan of second breakfasts so enjoyed partaking in this tradition. Salteñas are little pockets of hard sweet pastry filled with mince, potatoes, peas, one quail's egg and an olive, swimming in gravy (which makes them tricky to eat without pouring brown sticky juice down your front). Sold on most street corners for about 80c (50p) they fast became my most-consumed food, and I soon found my two favourite vendors in town.


Donna enjoying a Saltena at Los Castores

Lunch (Almuerzo) is the main meal of the day, and most people have 2 or 2 and a half hours off work for lunch, giving them time to come home or go to a restaurant to have the three-course meal traditionally eaten with one's entire family. Little hole-in-the-wall places line most main roads, and they advertise their 'Almuerzo Complet' each day, where for about $3 you can get a starter (usually a stocky soup with pasta, rice or quinoa and plenty of vegetables as well as some unidentifiable meat for flavour), a main course (again usually rice, potatoes, meat and occasionally some salad or veggies) and a desert (often jelly with fruit suspended in it or some kind of rice pudding) accompanied by fruit cordial. This tradition of eating a large hot meal in the heat of the day definitely took some getting used to, but by the end of my stay in Bolivia I was enjoying the sociable nature of this arrangement and became used to eating the small dinner they tend to follow it up with.

The other big tradition in Cochabamba is the street food. Sydney may think it's all cool with its recent trend of food trucks popping up on every street corner, but the Bolivians were here first, serving all manner of food in the evening from little caravan-esque trucks parked on the streets. Some of them aren't even trucks, they are just a woman with a portable stove parked somewhere for business. If you can cook, you can be very enterprising in Bolivia. I have eaten Lomito (kind of like a veal burger), Pico Macho (chips with chorizo, strips of beef, tomatoes, onions and a boiled egg), Choripan (delicious chorizo sandwich), tripitas (fried cow's bladder, I really didn't like this one) and my favourite, Anticucho (cow's heart served with potatoes and a delicious peanut sauce). The markets in Cochabamba were another thing I loved. My local was '25 de Mayo', a large covered market where ruthlessly negotiating people hold stalls selling all manner of fruit and veg, meat and dry food. The biggest in Cochabamba is 'La Cancha', a huge bustling market taking up several blocks where you can find absolutely everything if you're prepared to search hard enough. When my multi-plug adaptor broke I even found a single Aussie to Europe adaptor which has since come in very handy.

With friends about to eat anticucho

Street vendor cooking anticucho

Alex selling sausages

Street butcher



Sopa de mani, my favourite soup

I also got the chance to cook in the shared kitchen at Casa Principal a few times while in Bolivia – a rare joy while travelling. Sustainable Bolivia hold regular 'charlas', or talks, where someone is invited to come and speak on a particular topic and someone else makes a meal for everyone who comes along to the discussion. They are usually held in the garden or art studio and when we held a charla on 'Adoption in Bolivia' I cooked a meat chili and a vego chili for about 30 people, which was lots of fun! For the opening of the World Cup we had a 'bring a dish from your country' night, so I made mini-pavlovas to represent Australia. For the Cristo clean-up event, our friend Yudoska made massive vats of 'mogonchinchi' for everyone – amazing boiled and chilled fruit juice thing containing rehydrated dried peaches. And every Friday morning after the Cristo clean-up we came back to Casa P to share homemade pancakes.


Brazilian flag pancake

Mogonchinchi on the stove

Bottling mogonchinchi

Paul and Alex bottling

Paul bottling the lovely drink

The Cristo clean-up was an initiative which was born out of Sustainable Bolivia and was about cleaning up the litter around the city's main tourist attraction, the giant statue of Christ which watches over the city. The largest statue of Christ in the world (bigger than Christ the Redeemer) this is reached after a long walk up steep steps, which are unfortunately lined with litter. Every Friday morning we would get up before dawn and climb up to the Cristo, pick up litter for a couple of hours and head back down to Casa P. Little by little we were cleaning up the area and teaching others about our message of civic pride, litter-consciousness and sustainability. One large event on a Sunday garnered lots of media interest and glavanised the local community.

View of CBBA from the Cristo steps

Pathside litter

Some loon in legwarners

Cristo, with a little Alex for scale

Pre-dawn view of the Cristo from my yoga rooftop

Casa Principal became a real focal point of my time in Cochabamba, and it's where I lived for the last few weeks of my time there. The central point for Sustainable Bolivia's operations it's a wonderful sprawling share-house with a big garden perfect for outdoor screenings or yoga, a big kitchen, a sunroom, lovely places to chill out or have Spanish lessons, a kitchen garden where fruit and veggies grow and two resident dogs who caused havoc and weedled their way into my heart. Charlas, parties, gatherings and farewells are all held there, and it is the heart of this great organisation.

Heather in the sunroom

Resident artist Ben preparing a canvas in the garden

Resident dog Pina having a snooze

Peruvian hairless Chuno models her new sweater

While in Cochabamba I spent some time volunteering in the local children's hospital. I knew I wanted to do some volunteering on my travels but I wasn't sure where. When researching my way through the myriad of possibilities in South America last year, I stumbled across Sustainable Bolivia and liked their ethos and the kind of projects they are involved with. They partner with over 30 organisations, and projects range from orphanages, programs for street kids, shelters for abused women and centres for kids whose parents are in jail, right through to sustainability projects focusing on remote Andean communities with little access to electricity or modern technology. The range of the people and projects they support is magnificent, and their impact is consequently surprisingly far-reaching. As some of my main interests are about empowering women and living sustainably, I was drawn to their values. Then on the 'testimonials' page on their website I saw a friend who I had last seen at a wedding in the UK, smilingly saying her three months there had been a joy and she enjoyed being able to make a difference. Sold! I signed up and let them decide which project to place me with.

Those of you who know me well will know that I am incredibly squeamish and can't even watch hospital dramas on TV, so the thought of working in a children's hospital was not the most appealing. But I thought it might be a good thing to confront my fears and see how I felt when on the ground. I mainly spent my time in one of four wards – the ward for undernourished babies, the ward for children who needed operations or were recovering from surgery, the cancer ward and the burns ward. To be honest I spent most of my time with the babies, because I felt I had more purpose there, helping the doctors and nurses at feeding time, playing with the babies when things were quiet and soothing them when they were crying. Some of them were really tiny and looked much younger than they actually were. But primarily I was struck by how smiley they were, how happy they were to see me each day and the joy that filled them, even when they were really sick. It made me feel that my work there was valuable, even if I don't have any direct medical experience to offer. For obvious reasons I haven't got any photos of the children or inside the hospital, but I did meet some wonderful kids and my time there will remain with me in my memory. I also spent time colouring and doing puzzles with the older children who were recovering from surgery. Some of these kids became my Spanish teachers by default, as I tried to improve my language and vocabulary. Others were from more remote areas of Bolivia and only spoke Quechua, one of the main indigenous languages. The hardest ward for me was the burns ward, as the kids in there were really badly injured and their injuries were by default more on display. I found this ward really challenging to spend time in, and often had to leave because I felt faint. So it seems that by confronting my fears I wasn't really curing them! But I'm glad I tried. The organisation also runs a shelter for the families of some of these kids who can't afford accommodation when they come to Cochabamba to be near their child in hospital. They house and feed the families on only 50c a day. In total, not per person! Astonishing. I was constantly filled with admiration as to how resourceful and enterprising those running these small NGOs were.

Caring for young girls in the community

A baby's clothes dry in the home for young victims of abuse

From victim to victor: teaching life skills to young women

Learning to weave

Learning to cook

Biblical quotes on the walls of the house

I met many other volunteers during my time in CBBA, many of whom have stayed firm friends. It's such a fantastic world to be a part of and I love the energy and enthusiasm of those who choose to venture overseas and help those less fortunate than themselves. Also when you have a wide range of experience, skills and knowledge, you can make much more of an impact in a place where those skills are in short supply. It felt so rewarding to be a part of such a motivated and eclectic community.

Cristina, Heather and Anna


Serving Saltenas and Mogonchinchi with Sinja at the Cristo Clean-Up

With Heather and Cristina at Paul's despedida

I baked a banana cake and carrot cake for Ethan's 21st

Tap beer

A mariachi band for Ethan's 21st

With Canadian Mark

Some other scenes from Cochabamba life are worth a mention. Dancing is a massive part of Bolivian culture, in a way which really appealed to me. Every evening in our local neighbourhood square, Plaza Sucre, the dancing began at around 8pm. People would rock up with their portable stereos, pop them on the ground in a corner or section of the square, and groups of people would dance. But not just any old dancing. They have several set dances where the steps must be learnt, rehearsed, refined and finally performed. So each little gathering would be rehearsing a different type of dance. I loved to wander through the square watching people throw themselves into the dancing, of varying degrees of aptitude, but united with their strong enthusiasm. This dancing culminates in an annual performance during August when the streets are closed and people dance all day. Unfortunately I left Bolivia before this festival but luckily I was able to go and see a dress rehearsal of the dances in Quillacollo, where the streets were all blocked off and the dancers paraded for hours showing us their talent. Each group was followed by a band of brass and drums, which led me to believe that Bolivia has the highest per capita brass instrument players of anywhere in the world. I took a few videos to show what the dancing was like. My favourites are the Tinku and the Caporal.



Amazing heeled, corseted women

The bands

Also while I was there, as well as the bloquao in Uyuni, there was a bus drivers' strike in Cochabamba. Organised protests such as this are apparently common and very effective. I'm not sure what they were protesting about exactly but they closed off all the streets and effectively shut down the entire city for the day! Early in the morning the drivers took their buses and parked at diagonal angles across all of the main streets and intersections, and left them there all day. It was great for us spectators as we got to spend a day walking calmly through the streets and not having to fear for our lives in the hectic traffic! Some of the drivers played football in the streets. Others marched in the squares. Everything shut down, people couldn't get anywhere and there was strangely a carnival atmosphere. Although many of the protests are trying to raise awareness of real injustices, there is still an air of fiesta about Bolivian protests.

I was also there for the World Cup, which screened on a giant screen in one of the main city squares. Although both Australia and England performed pretty pitifully, it was great to be in a South American city for this sporting event, as the Latin Americans sure are passionate about 'futbol'.  

Here are some other scenes from Cochabamba life.

So many wires

Ice cream place

Kids manning a stall

Do you think they pay royalties?

Main square

Watching a local futbol match

Mice living in an opticians case. Of course.

I also spent some time in Bolivia's capital city, La Paz.

But for me it was really the ordinary everyday people and scenes which really made me fall in love with Bolivia.