Tag Archives: diary

Errands, Bolivian style

Today, we needed to do four things:

  1. Eat a sandwich
  2. Print out a waistcoat pattern
  3. Go to Interpol
  4. Buy some fabric

It was not a wildly successful trip.

The sandwich

One interesting fact about Bolivia is that there are very few international fast food chains. In Cochabamba, there are no McDonald’s outlets, no Starbucks, and no Subway, although it does have a Burger King.

Instead, there is a little sandwich shop whose clientele, captive in the lack of Subways, pays prices that wouldn’t be out of place in London for baguettes with a nasty tendency to dribble water and diluted mayo. Their main selling point is that the vegetables are “clean”.

It is precisely this shop that my partner has developed cravings for. So, I sat and watched him much on a foot-long pork sandwich for 38 Bs; approximately £3.80. A handsomely-sized “personal” pizza, presumably for a rather large person, at a well-to-do restaurant down the road costs 35 Bs.

The waistcoat pattern

At the first shop I visited, I explained that I needed this pattern in either A0 or lots of bits of A4. The woman’s face went blank at this. She asked a colleague, who had no idea. Helpfully, I took a piece of A4 paper from my rucksack to demonstrate. “Oh, that’s a special size,” she said. “We could do it for you, but it would be 600 Bs.”

At shop number two, the woman explained to me the impossibility of printing just one document. I made a mental note to return if I needed 300 waistcoats patterns.

At shop the third, the man’s face darkened. “Those sizes aren’t standard around here,” he said, adding ominously that it was perhaps common in the US. I sensed that I had crossed some kind of line with my arrogant paper dimension requests. He launched with grim satisfaction into a monologue about how if I wanted to print this funny size, I could go and buy my own paper and find a printer that would take it, but his machines wouldn’t.

My wicked paper imperialism and I gave up at this point.

Interpol

To verify that we aren’t some kind of DAESH sleeper cell or El Chapo, Bolivia would like Interpol certificates from us before we can have a visa. Interpol, we were assured, is on the north side of Plaza Principal – you know, the one that is completely closed and in utter disarray while they refurbish everything from the paving to the pigeons.

We tried to walk along the north side, but a gun-toting policeman told us, while we ducked a falling cable from the works above, that we needed to go round the other side, and also that Interpol was on the other side of town.

On the other side of the work, a dutiful workman informed us that there was no entry. I asked him how, in this case, we were meant to get to Interpol. He seemed to consider, decide that he didn’t know, and then casually ignore the question, but while these expressions were playing out on his face, a stream of people walked past him, so we joined them.

We reached the end of the path, asked another policeman where Interpol was, and he, too, told us it was on the other side of town. At this point, out of time, we decided to postpone it for tomorrow.

The fabric

On closer inspection, the shop on Avenida Ayacucho turned out to be catering for a specific audience, so we decided to look in the market tomorrow. But if you see photos of Andy in a waistcoat made of lacy, floral bridal wear, you’ll know we went back.

 

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Mangoes

Today, we found a fruit seller selling 25 mangoes for the equivalent of £1. We got 12. When we got home, our host mother was shocked at the price.

That was way too expensive, apparently.

They were weird mangoes. Andy said, in a worried tone, that they “feel like water bombs”. They are made of thick juice and hair. You have to suck them. Use your teeth at your peril: you will be picking mango fur out of your teeth for weeks. You often see the stones on the floor, with hair sticking out from the sides like spikes. They look like cuttlefish.

In more Cancha funtimes – La Cancha being the name for the vast market in south-central Cochabamba – when you buy avocadoes, you tell them when you want to eat them and they give you one of the appropriate ripeness. The words “ripen at home” are nowhere to be found. I hate “ripen at home”. They only put that because “we shipped these fruit from places where there be dragons when they still resembled starchy meteorites” doesn’t fit on the label.

Just about the only thing we can’t find here is mushrooms. Andy went to two markets and a supermarket in search of the fungusy goods on Sunday but none were forthcoming. Our host mother eventually found some, somewhere. It is a tiny pack of pre-sliced, cling filmed mushrooms that apparently cost the equivalent of £1.50.

Do you think enough culinary experimentation with mangoes will make them taste like mushrooms?

If not, we could try noni. Anything that looks like an alien, cures cancer* and comes from La Cancha is a good bet.

Noni fruits with leaf on white background

(Image from here).

 

 

*it’s true because the seller wrote it on some cardboard

Diary: Tuesday 3 November, 19:25

Today, we went shopping. In a new country, even shopping is an adventure.

Bolivia does have supermarkets, but judging by the empty aisles, most people don’t use them. The prices wouldn’t be out of place in Tottenham, and in a city surrounded by farms, most people prefer the markets. The exception to this is salads and similar green leafy goods: much as Europeans complain about the spooky procedures our food is subjected to, my average day in the UK is mercifully free from dysentery.

Since we were stocking our new home with everything from detergent to soy sauce, we opted for the supermarket. The most remarkable prices were Special K cereal for BOB65 (£5.94) per box and Abuelo rum for BOB75 (£6.85) per litre.

Our host family were taken aback when we said we would need cooking facilities. It was as if we’d asked to build a permanent packing crate fort in the living room. We were perplexed: how else were we supposed to get our food into our tummies? Apparently, it’s unusual for young Bolivians to cook. They live with their families for far longer than Brits, and often, mum is cooking (equality for women being a whole different ball game here).

Since our hosts weren’t expecting two cooks, our kitchen is out in the garden, on a broad, wood-beamed terrace. We have gas from a canister and a huge grill for BBQs. A willow tree shelters the lawn, and the leaves of the lemon verbena shrub by the kitchen door can be made into tea. It’s tranquil, except for the dogs.

The dogs live outside. They spend most of their time attempting to eat each other in a playful way, unless we’re around. Then, they make a concerted attempt to eat whatever we’re eating.

Niko is a seven-month-old German shepherd who doesn’t know his own strength. Paco is probably a Yorkshire terrier, and is so energetic that he gambols like a lamb. When he twitches his ears, he looks like a gremlin.

This is his exact facial expression.

When we bring food out, there is no peace. They have their eyes on the prize. Before you can sit down, Paco has jumped onto your chair. Just as you’ve shooed him off, there is a great heaving from below as Niko sidles up next to you and dumps his head on the table. He is so big that he doesn’t need to climb anything to get to the table, but his facial expression suggests that this won’t stop him from trying. Before long, he will be able to walk under the table, arch his back, and walk off wearing it like a tortoise.

The only thing that will reliably remove both of them is the meowing of a cat. Fortunately, a cat has adopted our family. At the first glimpse of a whisker-tip, the slightest slink of a shadow, the dogs dash off to harass it, leaving us to a couple of unperturbed bites of avocado sandwich.

The remote-controlled auto-meow machine is a work in progress.

Diary: Monday 26 October, 10:00

We left home two weeks today. You could easily say that things have gone pear-shaped. My planned volunteering fell through. After spending nearly a day on another application, they said they “won’t be taking anybody for the foreseeable future”. Andy’s phone got stolen on day four, and after three visits to the police station to get a certificate, his insurance company told him phones weren’t covered. After contacting them once saying it was a phone.

Probably the single greatest setback is our discovery that we won’t be able to re-enter the country in January without a special visa. The letter of the law is that tourists can stay for 90 days per calendar year. Great, we thought. We’re going in October, so we get our 90 days in 2015, followed by our 90 days in 2016. On Saturday, we found out that they define “calendar year” as “365 days from the date you entered”. Some say we would have a good chance of just blagging at the border, but we’re not convinced.

This means we both need some kind of solid volunteering or work lined up within the next two months, and that we have a mountain of paperwork to look forward to.

But things haven’t gone pear-shaped. I’m learning more Spanish every single day. My contact book – well, the contacts list on my Bolivian Pay As You Go Nokia – is growing. We spent two days in Torotoro National Park, where the earth is blue and red and condors glide. And we’re checking out intensive language courses and volunteering positions with Sustainable Bolivia.

Torotoro is remote. From Cochabamba, we had to get a minibus for four hours. Paved roads soon turned into cobbles, which gave way to dirt tracks. Our co-passengers were two Quechua families. A lively three-year-old kept playing peek-a-boo with me and Andy, while a baby just put its face against the headrest and stared at us. It had a very round face, and its cheeks wobbled like jelly every time we went over a bumpy bit.

When people say things are “breathtaking”, they usually mean it figuratively. They mean that a place is stunningly beautiful. Torotoro was breathtaking in the more literal sense that hiking at 3,700 metres puffs you out, like that dream where you’re trying to run but every step is like wading through treacle.

Torotoro National Park Bolivia

We hiked through caves, over ruddy domed rocks on mountain tops, and through a cleft leading to a waterfall. We saw cactuses in bloom, rabbits with tails (did it have a fling with a squirrel? What?) and condors. That was a really special moment.

Viscacha rabbit with tail Toro

We also went on a caving expedition that was so hair-raising that I’ve pitched it to a large magazine. With any luck I’ll be linking you to it there.

Andy’s blog, with a longer entry and more photos, is here: http://captainsamericalog.blogspot.com/

Yesterday, we went back to the market for the first time since Andy’s phone was nicked. We bought quinoa and fresh vegetables, and cooked them into a lovely, healthy lunch with a German hostel-mate. Nothing was stolen this time and it was a really chilled afternoon.