An unforgettable Christmas surprise

My Christmas `bolsita`

My Christmas `bolsita`

Upon leaving work last Friday evening, my boss Gustavo informed me there was a bolsita (little bag) waiting for me, a staff Christmas gift.  I was amazed to discover that the `little bag` was absolutely enormous and too heavy for me to lift, let alone carry home.  I had to make the 5 minute journey by car and ask two people to help haul it up the stairs to my room.  I unzipped the bag to take a peek, noticing a panettone and a box of tea on top and then hurried out for the evening.  The next morning was gloriously sunny and I headed out early to explore one of La Paz`s many markets.  This meant I didn`t get around to opening the bag until mid-afternoon on Saturday.

Marvelling at the generous gift, I savoured unpacking everything from butter to rice to vegetable oil.  As I did so, I detected a distinctly unpleasant smell emanating from the depths of the bag.  Suspecting some fruit had got squashed and was perhaps beginning to rot, I cautiously continued, discovering to my dismay that fluid had leaked onto the bags of sugar and rice.  Pondering the existence of a Bolivian equivalent of durian (a South East Asian strong-smelling fruit – the odour of which I recently heard described as `hot vomit` – though my mum will disagree), I finally uncovered a knotted plastic bag, dripping fluid and stinking terribly.  Upon opening it, I was astounded to encounter the source of the stench: a chicken.  An unsealed, uncooked chicken.  Plucked, with its head still attached and its innards and severed feet tucked neatly alongside it in the bag.

To say I was not expecting an uncooked chicken as a Christmas gift, would be an understatement.  I have since discovered that it is customary in the workplace (though apparently the chickens tend to be frozen, in sealed packages or come with some kind of warning).  Hindsight may be everything, but the experience certainly provided me with some Christmas cheer.

The contents of my Christmas bolsita were as follows:

– 1 x chicken
– 1 x packet of salted butter
– 1 x 5kg bag of sugar
– 1 x 5kg bag of rice
– 1 x 2L bottle of vegetable oil
– 1 x tin of condensed milk
– 1 x tin of peaches
– 1 x packet of pasta
– 1 x bottle of hand soap
– 1 x bottle of dish-washing liquid
– 1 x box of cookies
– 1 x panettone
– 1 x bar of turrón (nougat)
– 1 x bag of strawberry sweets
– 1 x bottle of Bolivian wine
– 1 x bumper box of cinnamon and clove tea
– 3 x fruit-flavoured yoghurt drinks
– 1 x bottle of fruit juice
– 1 x packet of orange-flavoured jelly mix

Happy Holidays, dear readers! x

My Christmas chicken

My Christmas chicken

Gifts galore

Gifts galore

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Hiking up Devil`s Tooth

La Muela del Diablo

La Muela del Diablo

I recently took a hike up La Muela del Diablo (Devil`s Tooth), the craggy peak that features to the far right of my home page image of La Paz.  An extinct volcano, La Muela sits at 3825m above sea level and is a foreboding sight.  Legend has it that La Muela del Diablo and Mount Illimani once fought against one another, sending bolts of lightning across the valley.

Located high above the city`s most affluent neighbourhood, la Zona Sur, La Muela is a pleasant, if slightly breathless from the altitude, half-day hike that begins with winding dusty trails to the grassy base and becomes a rocky scramble to the peak.  I made it to the V-shaped point between the two right-hand pinnacles, beyond which point technical climbing gear and nerves of steel are required.  The daunting climb up the rocky outcrop was well worth it, with magnificent views of the bowl-shaped city of La Paz and the surrounding valleys as a reward.

La Muela is known to attract brujería (witchcraft) and I was warned against touching any evidence of this, such as the small piles of rocks scattered at intervals along the trail, remains of campfires and especially the abundant knotted grasses closer to the peak.  It definitely adds an element of fear, when scrambling up a slope of scree, to know that any deliberate or accidental contact with knotted grass might have ominous consequences.  I was somewhat relieved to leave the witchcraft behind and be picking my way through potato fields and clusters of cacti on the descent.

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Unexpected outdoor restaurant

Unexpected outdoor mini-restaurant

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Outdoor oven in the middle of nowhere

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

Knotted grass

Knotted grass, evidence of witchcraft

…evidence of witchcraft

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The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

The distant skyscrapers in the top left of the photo indicate La Paz`s city centre

With that, I wish you all happy and peaceful holidays!  ¡Feliz Navidad a todos!

Potions, lotions and lucky llama foetuses at La Paz`s Witches` Market

Witches` market

Lucky llama foetus, anyone?

Last Saturday I took a stroll around La Paz`s Mercado de las Brujas (Witches` Market), marvelling at the unusual array of items on offer.  Nestled at the end of a narrow, cobbled street where tourist shops stock colourful alpaca hats, woollen jumpers and hand-woven bags, a cluster of small shops overflow with ingredients for Aymará rituals and witchcraft.  A pungent, unfamiliar smell greeted me upon entering, a musty mix of animal corpses and herbal remedies.

Here you can find potions, perfumes, incense, candles and powders for a whole host of afflictions and conditions.  Whether you`re battling to quit smoking, suffering from anxiety, in need of financial luck, looking for an aphrodisiac, seeking marital bliss or perhaps beyond that point and hoping to expedite separation…rest assured, a remedy awaits!  I even noticed a `love, sex and money` perfume, for those who prefer an Aymará all-in-one approach.

Most intriguing of all are the dried llama foetuses, reminiscent of the kind of extraterrestial creature about to burst forth from Sigourney Weaver`s stomach in the opening sequence of Aliens.  These poor critters sucuumbed to natural deaths in the womb and are traditionally buried under the foundations of new houses to bring about good luck and prosperity, as sacrificial offerings to the much venerated Pachamama (Mother Earth).  Baby llama corpses are also on display, strung up unceremoniously on hooks in every spare inch of ceiling space.  These perished at birth from the cold or other natural causes.

Brimming bowls of clay amuletos and talismans promote amongst others: health, love, intelligence, protection, happiness, wealth and longevity.  Pachamama charms and statues are available in all shapes and sizes.

7 year old Yessica, whose aunt owned the shop I ventured into, was a well-informed host, helpfully bringing me items and enthusiastically pointing out photo opportunities.  I took a shine to her after she asked my age and expressed disbelief upon hearing 32, announcing I looked jovencita and no more than 15.  (Exemplary customer service skills, I concluded.)

I bought a fridge magnet as a gesture of goodwill, too overwhelmed by the odours and options to make a more adventurous or authentic purchase (this time…).

La Paz`s Witches` Market

La Paz`s Witches` Market

Witches` market

Remedies for all manner of ailments & conditions

Remedies for all manner of ailments & conditions

`Separador` powder promises to help you ditch your partner

`Separadora` powder, a creative alternative to the abundant aphrodisiacs on offer

Witches` market

Dried llama foetus, anyone?

Dried llama foetuses

Llama corpses for luck

Llama corpses

Amulets

Amulets

(clockwise from top left) Tortoise amulet for `long life`, owl for `intelligence`, fist for `money`, couple for `love`, face for `happiness`

(clockwise from top left)                                   Amulets: Tortoise for longevity, owl for intelligence, fist for wealth, couple for love, face for happiness.

Pachamama / Mother Earth

Pachamama / Mother Earth statues

7 yr old Yessica

7 yr old Yessica, customer service extraordinaire

A done deal

Mario Condori (COAINE), Gustavo Diez de Medina (FONCRESOL) & Derryl Reid (Green Bean Coffee Imports)

Mario Condori (COAINE), Gustavo Diez de Medina (FONCRESOL) & Derryl Reid (Green Bean Coffee Imports)

The week-long visit with our Canadian micro-roaster culminated with the signing of a contract, a decidedly positive accomplishment for all involved.

In brief, the history of the fair trade project I am supporting is such that over the past year, Crossroads facilitated North/South and South/North visits, enabling Canadian coffee roasters to visit a coffee cooperative in Bolivia and vice versa.  COAINE cooperative consists of 250 members, impacting more than 500 families.  FONCRESOL (a micro-finance institution in La Paz that promotes economic and community empowerment in marginalized communities) collaborated with COAINE, offering them vital access to a loan in order to finance shipping costs and thus export their premium coffee at market price.  As a result – and with considerable support from my volunteer predecessor – it was with great excitement that COAINE`s first export to Canada took place earlier this year.

Derryl Reid of Green Bean Coffee Imports was one of 5 Canadian micro-roasters who collaborated to purchase the first container.  This month, Derryl was thrilled to return to Bolivia and commit to importing an entire container (in this case, 260 x 60kg bags).  Since April, Green Bean has switched over to buying and selling uniquely Bolivian coffee.  Having a direct relationship with the coffee producers he works with is key for Derryl and it was evident both parties are learning and growing together as their friendship and business relationship flourishes.

Both organic and Fair Trade certified, COAINE produces high quality, 100% washed Arabic Creole coffee.  When asked what distinguishes Bolivian coffee from other varieties he has stocked in the past, Derryl cites its versatility: of a well-rounded quality, it balances the elements of aroma, body, flavour, acidity and sweetness.  With a smooth, mellow favour, Bolivian coffee performs well when roasted at different levels and when blended.

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