Tag Archives: food

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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Slavery in Thai fish sheds is not new

So why do we keep treating it as a revelation?

Today, I found this story on Guardian Global Development: an Associated Press investigation intohuman trafficking and labour abuses of the most acute kind in Thailand’s fishing industry.

It’s an excellent piece of journalism. It promotes the voices of the Burmese slaves at the heart of the story. It shows both bold groundwork and solid data chasing.

But I have a problem with it.

The story is awfully similar to this report in the Guardian. And this one, on the BBC. And this investigation by NGO, the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Andy Hall, a researcher and migration expert, is in the docks on defamation charges – a criminal offence in Thailand – for authoring a report for Finnish NGO Finnwatch that found serious labour rights abuses in the tuna and fruit processing industry.

Hall’s blog and Twitter, incidentally, are well worth reading if you care even slightly about the issue.

The case studies are different, the angles varied, but fundamentally, they raise the same issue: Thailand has a major problem with human trafficking. Most of the victims are from poorer neighbouring countries in South east Asia, especially Myanmar.

According to the EJF report:

Multiple reports over the past five years have documented abuses of trafficked boat workers in Thailand, including bonded labour, excessive working hours, little or no pay, threats of violence, physical abuse and murder. 12/13 A 2009 survey by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) found that 59 per cent of interviewed migrants trafficked aboard Thai fishing boats reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker.14

These reports go back at least as far as 2009. So why are big media constantly running these stories as if they were scoops? These reports are billed as “revealing” the issue, but this is something we have known about for a long time.

It’s hard to build popular pressure for change if every story about Thailand’s slavery problem is billed as a revelation: something we didn’t know, something horrifying that we have just found out, something that shocks us.

In the meantime, hoards of tourists flock to Thailand: over 900,000 Brits every year, according to the Foreign Office. Trafficking is not limited to the food industry: as this report from the Pulitzer Center notes, many of the women doing dangerous work in Thailand’s sex industry have been trafficked or are in bonded labour, largely in service of western tourists.

According to the Pulitzer Center:

The sex industry has rapidly accelerated the spread of HIV after the virus first appeared in Thailand in the 1980s, but the Thai government is reticent to address the problem lest it scare away coveted tourist dollars.

Many people who visit Thailand are energetic, open-minded and politically aware. So, where is the boycott? Where is the protest movement? When I traveled to South Africa, it was as though liberals felt compelled to brandish their credentials by mentioning the inequality problem.

Unlike the spectre of South African apartheid, bullet holes in Balkan walls, or begging children on Indian streets, slavery is largely invisible to the country’s visitors. Locked away in sweltering sheds in industrial zones away from the pretty bits, Thailand’s trafficking victims are out of sight, out of mind.

Reporting on this issue is vital to keep it in the public eye, especially in a country which earns so much from exports and tourism. But we must stop treating every fresh report as a shocker, a revelation. To do so is to deny the masses of accusatory evidence in existence years beforehand.

Ask about the cause of these problems and you get a strange sense of deja vu: the authorities have not been trained to handle the issue, corruption prevails, it’s easiest to ignore it. The same problems keep rearing their heads every time we look.

When I was reporting on the food industry, the Thai fishing industry held a seminar during which we were reassured that the problems were being tackled and unannounced inspections were standard practice. That was well over a year ago. So why are these reports still appearing?

If you’re going to Thailand, presumably it’s for a refreshing tropical holiday with beaches, elephants and exquisite food, rather than a grim primer in modern-day slavery. But go with a critical eye. Because shrimp paste goes into those curries. Those guys in your hostel might not admit to it, but ping pong patrons come from somewhere. The least you can do is be aware.

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.