Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Algunas palabras

I spent a lot less time than I should have speaking Spanish in Bolivia, but I did learn some new words. Some are regional or have regional meanings. Here is a sampling:

  • chamarra - a jacket
  • chompa - a pullover sweater. The word is derived from the English word "jumper".
  • llajwa or llajhua - a very spicy salsa
  • polainas - leg warmers
  • wawa - a baby. This is a Quechua word that has entered the regional Spanish.

I also learned two expressions. I knew the words before, but I didn't have the full context for the phrases.

  • gracias / provecho - This is the greeting and reply at the end of a meal, said before leaving the table. Although it amounts to saying "thank you", it is not directed towards the cook, at least not anymore. It is said to anyone and everyone dining with you. A couple of people asked me what the English equivalent would be, and I don't think there really is one, at least nothing quite the same.
  • cuando floresca el chuño - There is a song by this title, which I had heard before my visit. Literally, it means "when the chuño blooms". What I had missed was that the chuño is a dried potato and does not grow or bloom. (I got a chance to taste some, finally. They taste much better than they look.) Thus, this expression means "never", something akin to "when pigs fly".

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

La pasapelotas

I accompanied my host to a fustal game one afternoon. Fustal is like soccer, but it's played in a smaller space, often indoors. The ball is a bit smaller and lighter, but the competition is no less intense.

It wasn't a real game. It was early in their season and they hadn't played in awhile, so it was a practice game or a warmup game or whatever you'd like to call it. Something tells me people were at least loosely keeping score, but people came and went and the teams grew and shrank. They were playing when I arrived and they were playing when I left. Otherwise, I might have liked to talk to some of them rather than just let them guess who this extra person was on the sideline.

Practice game or not, they play very intensely. It looked like fun, but I wasn't invited to join. I've never been especially great at sports, nor have I ever practiced soccer very much (and eighth grade girls' P.E. just doesn't count). It wouldn't have mattered, though, if I had been well trained at soccer enough to outplay them all. Women are simply not invited to join such games.

So I stood on the sideline and watched. I can see why soccer is so popular. One ball (even one homemade out of rags) and just about any open space can keep up to 22 people (not including onlookers) involved in some fairly fast-paced action and good exercise for as long as they'd like. I saw siblings kicking a ball around in one of the plazas and a group of cholitas in skirts playing against each other on a small, public field (one photo I regret not getting, but the bus trundled by too fast). Contrast that with golf, with all its expensive gear and green fees and training. I guess I could see enjoying the challenge of playing if I had nothing better to do with my money, but how golf makes good television, I'm not certain.

I stood on the sideline watching, and I happened to stand on the one sideline where there wasn't a wall. So when the ball went out on my side, I ran after it and returned it to play. I figured it was about the only chance I was going to get to handle thet ball, and aside from watching, that was about all there was for me to do, plus it was a little real exercise. Even at such an altitude, I was far enough into my trip that it felt good.

Nobody said anything to me about it during the game. (In Argentina, I look like somebody who might speak Spanish; in Bolivia, I look like someone who might not.) They acknowledged my efforts with an um-thank-you. I heard about it after we left, at lunchtime, when my host recounted my participation: she ran after the ball like crazy, any time it went out. All the other guys asked what she was doing. He just said he didn't know, hadn't asked me to do that.

I don't think I ruffled any feathers, but I suppose I might have raised some eyebrows. If they had really wanted me to sit and just watch politely, they could simply have asked. Or they could have asked me to chase after and return balls. Had they asked me to do it, I would probably have refused.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010


I bought several things in Bolivia. The sweaters and the poncho I purchased because they are beautiful and fit me well. I think one of them is handmade. The socks are machine made, almost the same sort of thing one could get here, except that they're good socks and they fit my smaller feet well. Yes, the label says "Kiddie" on the top, but I haven't had a problem with them sliding down and bunching up.

But the polainas were an afterthought. I bought them from the same woman as the sweaters for about a dollar, an amount of money that at the very least means more to her than it does to me. They are handmade, probably from alpaca or an alpaca blend, and they are the first pair of legwarmers I've had since the nineteen-eighty-somethings.

Yes, legwarmers. They're not hot pink, and I won't be matching them to my shirt. In fact, I won't be showing them off at all, recent "retro" fashion trends notwithstanding. They go underneath pants, and they keep everything between my knees and my ankles fabulously warm. I returned to one of the rainiest weeks California has seen in some time, and I've scarcely had them off.

I've also turned my furnace down, at least in the mornings when I'm the only one around. Somewhere between the polainas and the sweaters, I'm keeping quite warm without it.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An equal and opposite reaction

I spent probably too much of my time in Bolivia explaining to my hosts, "We do things differently in California." My focus was partly intentional. They have never visited North America, and we don't know when they will have the opportunity to do so.

Partly, it was the engineer in me speaking. I'm interested in the use of resources and how things are done. I don't travel long distances for the express purpose of seeing shower heads or trash cans, but I do notice (and even photograph) such things when I'm away from home, and that's why. (I have a photo somewhere of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. I also have a photo somewhere of a not-so-famous downspout off the baptistery roof there.)

People do things differently in Bolivia, of course, and I tried to be open minded toward those differences. I missed sometimes. I fretted about things that are bigger concerns at home. Schedules and refrigeration of foodstuffs are two such things. Bolivians have, at least in social matters, a very flexible sense of time. We arrived at least two hours late to one party to find that it had only just begun. Groceries are purchased fresher and in smaller quantities than here, and the entire city is cool and dry. (I'll stand my ground on my use of mosquito repellent and frequent hand washing. I came to meet people, not germs.) I hope I wasn't too tiresome to my hosts, but my fussing often met with a gentle but emphatic, "You are in La Paz."

Almost a week after my return home (my sleep schedule is still somewhere besides California), I'm seeing not, "why do they do that in Bolivia?" but "why don't we do that in California?" Why don't we use a clothesline when we have ample, dry heat from the sun? Why don't we wear warm, fuzzy sweaters and leg warmers and blankets instead of cranking up our furnaces? Why don't we ride public transportation? Why don't we insist that vehicles be full? Why don't we heat water when and where we plan to use it, instead of keeping a large tankful warm all the time? Why don't we eat a large meal at midday and something lighter in the evening?

In many cases, the difference on both sides is economics, more than altruism or some higher social or cultural context. Downturn notwithstanding, Californians live in relative affluence, and we act in ways that Bolivians would find far beyond their means. Californians are, as a whole, very concerned about the environment, but we're settled in to our comforts. We're accustomed to drying laundry in a powered clothes dryer and driving cars. We have high hopes that we'll develop solar and wind energy and more efficient cars. Bolivians, likewise, act in ways that Californians would not find economical. Many Bolivian vehicles are older and emit dark smoke for lack of maintenance, but fewer people have cars, more people walk, and Bolivian minibuses and taxis going longer distances seek out a full load of paying passengers before going anywhere. A sweater saves not only money on heat but often heating a home at all. It is less costly in Bolivia to buy locally grown, fresh foods than to buy packaged, processed or fast foods.

Even accounting for the aging, smoking vehicles, I'd imagine that the typical Bolivian comes in far ahead of the typical Californian in terms of overall impact on the environment, carbon footprint, overall use of resources, and most other such measures, simply because energy and many other resources are costly.

I hope my hosts were interested in my accounts of California. I also hope they take them as curious tales of a foreign land and not necessarily as ideals to emulate. I think people in La Paz have things pretty well figured out, already.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Huevos batidos

Somebody asked me if I cooked while I was in Bolivia. I meant to cook pancakes and perhaps some other things. As it turned out, I spent most of my time either tasting foods that were cooked for me or doing something else (such as seeing the country). I never did make pancakes.

I did try one bit of cooking. There, as here, scrambled eggs are a common breakfast food. (It's not common in Italy. Some hotels serve scrambled eggs in an effort to cater to visitors from elsewhere, but I would advise visitors from elsewhere to choose anything besides eggs to eat in an Italian hotel.)

I tried my friend's scrambled eggs. They were good, but they were nothing like the scrambled eggs I make at home. Preparation can make a huge difference. One guest prepared scrambled eggs when he visited me at home, and although I watched him do it, I have never quite replicated his results. My Bolivian friend did several things I usually do differently, so the next morning that we ate eggs, I asked to cook them.

At his suggestion, I prepared three eggs, one for each person eating. I've done this many times at home, with reasonably consistent results. I preheated the pan (he did not). I diced and sauteed a small onion to add some flavor. I scrambled the eggs in a bowl before I poured them into the pan (he cracked his directly into the pan). I added salt, pepper, and a bit of leftover cheese.

My eggs came out differently than his eggs, naturally. "Like an omelet," he remarked. And they were tasty enough. But my eggs came out more like his eggs than my own eggs at home, and I don't know what the difference was. The color was lighter, and the consistency was all different. It might have been the pan (mine is heavier). It might have been that his is a propane stove (mine is natural gas). It might have been the altitude (I live at sea level). It might have been the eggs (likely fresher and more natural than the typical grocery store fare here in California).

He recalls hearing on a cooking show that, when cooking in a new place, an egg is a good place to start to learn how things will behave. After this experience, I think it is good advice. I never did get around to making him pancakes, but for him to eat my pancakes, he may have to visit my kitchen.


Monday, January 18, 2010

¡Vendame, Casera!

I saw both less and more of Bolivia than I saw of Argentina. I stayed for about the same amount of time in each place. In terms of things like area, distance, and number of landmarks, I certainly saw more of Argentina. I took fewer photos of Bolivia than of Argentina. On the other hand, I saw more of Bolivia in the sense of being closer to it. In Argentina, I stayed in hotels and hostels; In Bolivia, I stayed with a friend I know.

The consequence of staying with this friend is that I got to eat the things he knows and loves, and met many of the people he knows. Besides trying the local restaurants he knows and prefers, I ate many meals at his home, the same things he and his family would probably eat were I not there. For other foods, my friend knows people both in La Paz and in Coroico who sell good foods. Note I say people and not stores. We returned from Coroico and the rest of the family asked if we had eaten Doña Juana's empanadas. We had. She sells them at one corner of the main plaza in Coroico, and they are very tasty. Empanadas are bread filled with cheese and sometimes meat, and either baked or fried. They are a simple enough food, but they vary widely depending on whose hands make them and what local ingredients go in. Doña Juana seems to excel both at the blend of ingredients and at what she does with them.

A casera is a preferred vendor. She (and they are usually women) knows you if you live there, and in exchange for your loyalty, she makes sure you get the best of the products she has to offer. In a world where many products are home grown or made by hand, this can make quite a difference. As a customer, your loyalty makes a difference to her, too. She may get quite upset and even refuse to sell to you if she hears you have been buying from her competition.

The woman in the photo is named Dora. She sells sweaters, ponchos, jackets hats, gloves, and leg warmers on a steep side street in the maze of stalls open daily in the streets of La Paz. Without following my friend, I doubt I would ever have found her booth. (I'm a poor navigator, but without following my friend, I don't know if I could even find my way back.) One of Dora's machine-made sweaters sells for about US$7. The hand-made ones sell for a little more, but not really that much more, considering how long it takes to hand knit a sweater. Hats, gloves (which unfortunately were all too large for me), leg warmers, and scarves all fetch considerably less, perhaps a dollar or two each. She also sold me a large ball of hand-spun alpaca yarn for about US$4. (A smaller, machine spun hank of alpaca yarn in the U.S. recently was priced at $30.) If these prices seem low to you, keep in mind that Dora has many neighbors who sell much the same thing. Then consider that my friend was on my case nearly every time I bought something like this for not haggling down whatever outrageous first offer was presented.

Many things in Bolivia are made and sold on a Bolivian price scale. Much food, clothing, and most basic household supplies do, in fact, cost money that is roughly in proportion to a Bolivian wage scale. Some things, such as computers and air travel, cost as much or more in Bolivia as they do in the first world, and in fact I found myself describing the experience of air travel to various people there who have never tried it.

I don't have a proper source for this figure, but my friend informed me that around 12% of the population of Bolivia has a regular job. The rest earn money at small, individual enterprises, such as Dora's sweater stand and operating the minibuses that ferry people around the city.

For readers who live in the so-called first world, please contrast the idea of a casera with our rough equivalent: a brand name. We use a series of industrial processes (including farming and food processing) to ensure the consistency of our foods and other products. We call the sum of these processes a product, and we assign it a brand name so that we can find it again. In lieu of loyalty or personal relationships, we are guided to products claiming to be superior by product placement deals in stores or paid advertisements in weekly sales circulars that arrive whether we want them to or not. Colgate or McDonald's or Reebok may sell certain sort of "how" and perhaps a particular kind of "what" (after all, others sell toothpaste, hamburgers, and shoes), but they are anything but a "who". Can you name even the person who rang up your last purchase? Presumably, you saw him or her face to face. Almost certainly you cannot name any person involved in producing your last purchase.

So, I apologize if I troubled anyone in Bolivia by not haggling or surprised anyone by buying quite as many sweaters as I did, but Dora has a charming manner and a charming smile. Her sweaters are wonderfully warm and comfortable, and she helped me patiently to find the ones that fit me well (Bolivians are built smaller than most U.S. department stores cater to). Besides, I don't know just when I'll have the chance to come back.


Sunday, January 17, 2010


La Paz and its surrounding regions range from about 3200m to about 4400m above sea level. (Nearby Illimani, which was shrouded in clouds the whole time I was there, reaches 6,438m). For those of us who dwell in valleys near the ocean, there is no particularly good way to arrive at such a place. I hiked up California's Mount Lassen a couple of years ago and despite about three miles of huffing and puffing, I saw only an altitude that would probably not get me into La Paz at all. A ballooning bag of potato chips went only as far up as the base of Lassen where the parking lot is. Water boils at 87C at these altitudes.

I spent a few days before my trip in the mountains in northern California, a higher altitude than home but a far lower altitude than my destination. I do not know whether it really helped very much. Despite flying into El Alto, I did not have any trouble with altitude sickness as such. At least, I didn't have a headache or feel queasy.

I did feel very out of breath for the first few days, any time I tried to exert myself. Many of the streets are quite steep. Some sidewalks and many alleys consist of stairs, and my friend's house is up a hill and then some stairs, meaning that it is a long, steep climb from the nearest place the taxi could leave us.

The first few days, I accepted help carrying luggage. I packed as lightly as I could, but I packed books and gifts for my friend. Walking slowly wasn't too difficult, but climbing anything meant stopping every flight or two of stairs to catch my breath, and even catching my breath took longer.

People who live in La Paz and elsewhere in the Andes and the Altiplano develop larger hearts and lungs to compensate, but I think even people who live there all the time still tire sometimes.

By the end of three weeks there, I was making it up the hill to my friend's house all in one go. I even tried racing him up it once. He won, but I think I put in a pretty good attempt, for a foreigner and flatlander.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Flying first class from the third world

I'm going to start with the end of my trip and work (as usual) in no particular order.

Flying out of La Paz, I had taken my seat well back in coach when one of the flight attendants asked me if I'd like to change seats. The reason went whizzing past in Spanish a bit faster than I could keep up, but it amounted to somebody wishing to sit with a travel companion, I think. The upshot was that they moved me to first class.

The trip home was in three pieces, a short hop from La Paz to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a much longer flight from Santa Cruz to Miami, and then, after customs and immigrations and another trip through U.S.-based security screenings, the usual cross-country hop of about 5 hours between Miami and San Francisco. I changed seats again in Santa Cruz, but from La Paz to Miami, I ended up flying first class.

Good deal, right? Well, sort of. The food was better, if a little too ample after a trip like that, and as glad I was not to be eating Airline Chicken Product (isn't it wonderful what they're doing with plastics nowadays?), I felt a bit rushed by the pace at which the flight attendants hustled the Warm, Mixed Nuts off of the tray to bring out the Seasonal Green Salad, and so on. I chose the chicken picante (not so picante, at least not in the wake of llajwa) and puree of yuca. If you've never tasted yuca, it's not unlike potatoes, whether fried or mashed. Dessert was ice cream with hot fudge sauce, also pretty plainly from the Bolivian end of the trip. (The flight crew, incidentally, hailed from Argentina and Chile.)

I'm sure I'll also be in a very small (literally) minority for preferring the size of coach class seats, but I'm not a very tall being, and even with a first-class, extra large pillow behind me, my carry-on luggage did double duty as a footrest.

Unjustified bellyaching aside, the thing that felt wrong about it was that I'd just come from a country where most of the population does not drive, or have a car, or have a washing machine. Water is heated only at the shower head, if it is heated at all (dishes and laundry and hands are all washed in cold water). Houses are not heated, and in the mountains and the altiplano, that choice is certainly not the result of mild, tropical temperatures. It's the result of the fact that many people live on something like US$100 per month. Goods that can be produced there readily (corn, potatoes, fabrics, and so on) are generally proportionally cheaper than they would be here, but many items (computers and plane tickets, to name a couple) are not any cheaper than they would be in the developed world. In some cases, they're even more expensive.

The unscheduled shuffle to first class also had the result that I was among other first-world passengers. I don't think I've met a lot of good friends by accidentally sitting next to them on an airplane, but if there was one thing I really loved about Bolivia, it was the people I met there, and I think I would just as soon have spent that last few hours among people who had lived on the other end of that voyage.

It's good to be home, but I think I'll see my world differently after this trip.