From container to cup

Loading coffee in El Alto

Loading coffee in El Alto

Green Bean Coffee Imports received a very special delivery a couple of weeks ago.  With much anticipation, the container of organic and fair trade certified coffee negotiated back in November finally ended its long journey from Bolivia.

Back in early January, I headed up to COAINE`s coffee processing plant in El Alto to observe the coffee being loaded.  The truck arrived with typical Bolivian punctuality (7 hours late) and after much manoeuvring to park, the loading finally began.  This was the height of the rainy season and several of the cooperative`s workers had been held up in Caranavi due to mudslides, leaving the team depleted.  The container consisted of 260 bags at 60kg (132lbs) each.  I noticed a distinct lack of dollies or other loading equipment and soon discovered why.

The loading of the coffee was an impressive show of teamwork.  Five women, with their billowing cholita skirts and identical two long plaits, stood in a circle and together hoisted each bag onto the shoulders of one of five men, who in turn, strode along a narrow plank of wood into the truck, where another two men carefully stacked the sacks.  The entire process took a couple of hours, after which many clinking crates of beer appeared.

From El Alto, the coffee travelled to Chile`s Port of Arica, set sail northwards to Montreal and finally arrived by train at its destination in Clandeboye, Manitoba, where it was unloaded (by an altogether different method) in sub-zero temperatures.

To sample this wonderful coffee, please visit Green Bean Coffee Imports.  They boast a selection of roasts as well as green (non-roasted) beans for sale.  Their website even has handy tips such as how to home-roast coffee beans.  Who knew you could roast your own coffee in a popcorn maker?!  Not I.

Green Bean also wholesale and deliver across Canada.  If delivery is not your thing, don`t despair!  If all goes to plan, this fair trade, organic Bolivian coffee will one day be available from a micro-roaster near you…

Some of the 260 bags, ready for the road

Some of the 260 bags, ready for the road

60lbs of fair trade and organic coffee

60lbs of fair trade and organic coffee

With Green Bean`s logo, to boot

With Green Bean`s logo, to boot

Loading up in El Alto

Loading up in El Alto

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Walking the plank (is it just me or does the guy in the truck look worried?)

Walking the plank (is it just me or does the guy in the truck look worried?)

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Mario Condori of COAINE

Mario Condori of COAINE

The ladies, post-heavy-lifting

The ladies, post-heavy-lifting

Leaving El Alto

Leaving El Alto

Unloading in Manitoba, two months later

Unloading in Manitoba, two months later

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Unloading in the snow (with a distinct lack of ladies)

Unloading in the snow (with a distinct lack of ladies)

260 bags later

260 bags later

Alix Reid,working her magic in the Green Bean roastery

Alix Reid,working her magic in the Green Bean roastery

Roasted, packaged and ready for sale

Roasted, packaged and ready for sale

Melting glaciers, llama love and hanging effigies

PampalaramaA little while ago I took a hike up to Glacial Khuno Tinkuta, which is situated in Pampalarama, an hour and a half`s drive from La Paz.  Sitting at 5000m above sea level, the glacier was a short hike but a strenuous one nonetheless due to the altitude.  Almost immediately I was out of breath (which I initially attributed to over-consumption of potatoes) and developed a persistent headache, which meant for a slow climb. The landscape was fairly barren and except for a lone shepherd, my friend and I did not encounter a single person on the trails.  Herds of llama and alpaca grazed in the lower slopes, generously obliging my frenzy of photo-taking.

According to recent studies, Andean glaciers have shrunk by as much as 50% since the 1970s.  The nearby peak of Chacaltaya used to be home to the world`s highest ski resort, before its glacier rapidly melted over the years, disappearing entirely in 2009.  Glaciers act as a vital source of water for thousands of Bolivia`s inhabitants in El Alto and the Altiplano, as well as supplying hydro-power.  As a poor, landlocked country, the impact of climate change is felt more than ever and sadly the future looks bleak with Bolivia`s few remaining glaciers receding fast.

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Journeying back into La Paz, we wove our way along steeply sloping cobbled streets in the outskirts of the city.  Several Guy Fawkes-like effigies were strung up on telegraph poles, a sight I was curious about, having noticed them often in El Alto.  As it turns out, these hanging dummies are warnings for rateros (thieves) and potential criminals, in areas where crime is rife.  Often they are hung with accompanying signs, macabre messages professing that captured thieves will be lynched and/or burned alive.  It is perhaps indicative of a lack of faith in the judicial system and local police force (considered to be somewhat corrupt and inefficient), that residents claim to resort to `community justice`, prepared to take matters into their own hands.

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Stay tuned for an upcoming coffee-related post, before I head to Buenos Aires on holiday next week!

Carnaval celebrations in Oruro

Feb 107Carnaval is celebrated throughout Latin America, the most renowned being Rio de Janeiro`s Mardi Gras.  In Bolivia, Carnaval is a lavish affair with the biggest festivities taking place in Oruro, a sleepy mining town that bursts into life every February to host thousands of dancers and spectators.

On the Friday preceding Carnaval, a ch`alla (blessing) is offered to Pachamama (Mother Earth) in the workplace to bring about good luck.  At FONCRESOL, this involved draping colourful streamers around the office and showering the floors with alcohol and confetti.  Similar ch`allas take place in homes on Shrove Tuesday, when the celebrations come to a close.

Upon many recommendations, I headed to Oruro with a friend for the renowned Saturday entrada, a day-long procession of indigenous dances in elaborate costumes.  I left La Paz at dawn, joining the masses of Carnaval-bound paceños and tourists.  The 4am bus was packed and the bus station overflowing.  Arriving bleary-eyed at 8am, the dancing in Oruro was already in full swing.  We picked our way through the crowds, dodging drunken revellers stumbling about, presumably still going strong from the previous night.  The streets were lined with rafters, sectioned off with seats for sale, and after negotiating a price we settled in for the day.

Each folk dance, with its own distinct music and costume, represents a specific aspect of Bolivia`s history.  Dances include La Diablada (Dance of the Devils), Morenadas, Llameradas, Caporales and Tinkus.  Every costume tells a story, with the predominant theme being good triumphing over evil.  Somewhat disturbing was the black body paint and chains used in dances depicting the tribulations of African slaves, whom the Spaniards brought over to work in the silver mines.  I honestly could not tell whether one of the dancers dressed up as a slave was a tremendous actor or genuinely lurching about looking distressed because he was heavily inebriated.  Either way, it struck me as one of the more disconcerting dances.

The costumes are incredibly ornate, adorned with jewels, feathers, mirrors, bells and spurs.  Some weigh up to 80 lbs, which makes the energetic jumping that some of the dances entail even more impressive.  The Diablada costumes are particularly elaborate, their devil masks works of art with curved horns and bulging eyes.  Live bands accompany the thousands of dancers, many exuberantly dancing as well as marching, crashing cymbals as they leap.

Rain ponchos are worn by most onlookers, since water balloons and spray cans of foam feature heavily in the festivities.  People hurl water bombs across the processions into the facing crowds and douse each other with foam, tourists being the main target for both (my sneaky attempt to blend in with the locals worked remarkably well).  Although the celebrations continue for several days in Oruro, it is generally understood that the first day of Carnaval is the best, since the event descends into increasing rowdiness and mayhem.  Dancers and onlookers consume huge quantities of beer and chicha (a very potent drink made from fermented corn), the dancing deteriorates with the debauchery and it is not uncommon to find people sleeping in doorways or the middle of the street.

After a full day of spectating, I set off on another bumpy bus ride back to La Paz.  Having had my fill of Carnaval, I chose to forgo the remaining festivities in order to explore Chile during my days off.

Energetic musicians

Energetic musicians

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A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

A condor, Bolivia`s national bird

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Before I sign off, a special shout out to my dad on his 60th birthday –
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD!  xx

As requested, here is a photo of me in a typical Aymará bowler hat.  Petro, the housekeeper, took great pleasure in dressing me up in her cholita attire, though she lamented my hair was not in the traditional two plaits (maybe next time).

Happy 60th Birthday dad! This should make you laugh... x

Happy 60th Birthday, dad!     This should make you laugh… x

Crossroads is recruiting: Fair Trade Advisor

Crossroads International is currently seeking a volunteer Fair Trade Advisor to manage the next phase of the fair trade project I am working on, thus ensuring its long-term sustainability.

For more details about this opportunity: http://www.cintl.org/volunteer/bolivia/2013/fair-trade-advisor

Please spread the word!

Sand dunes and sea lions

Sunset in Iquique, Chile

Sunset in Iquique, Chile

With a few days off for Carnaval last week, I took a spontaneous solo trip to Chile.  The closest destination from La Paz is Arica, Chile`s most northern coastal city, which lies only 18km south of the Peruvian border.  With a major commercial port, Arica manages a large amount of Bolivia`s trade, as was the case for the container of fair trade coffee that left for Canada last month.

Relations between Bolivia and Chile are strained due to a long-standing dispute over Bolivia`s loss of access to the ocean.  (More to follow on that, once I witness the `Day of the Sea` next month).  The hostility between the two countries has been apparent in conversations I`ve had with both Bolivians and Chileans.  Indeed, Bolivia`s lack of access to the sea features on a list of taboo topics of conversation – along with coca production and politics – that are apparently best avoided in the workplace.

On the whole, I found Chileans exceptionally friendly and open.  Chileans speak far more quickly than Bolivians and with a different accent so I floundered to keep up at first.  In Arica, I stopped to ask three city workers for directions and ended up chatting with them for well over an hour as they gave me their take on the Chilean/Bolivian feud, poked fun at my accent and questioned my decision to spend seven months in Bolivia rather than Chile.

A local woman runs a Santuario del Picaflor (hummingbird sanctuary) just outside of Arica, having created a haven for the birds with exotic flowers and plants in her enormous, beautiful garden.  It was already dusk by the time I found out about it but I hurried there anyway (I have an even bigger affinity for hummingbirds than bats) and though most were sleeping, I came across one very sweet bird nesting in an olive tree.

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Jorge, Freddy & Alberto - friendly Chilean city workers

Jorge, Freddy & Alberto – friendly Chilean city workers

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Hummingbird in an olive tree

Hummingbird in an olive tree

My stay in Arica was fleeting, since I was eager to reach Iquique – a 5 hour winding, desert bus ride away, further down the coast.  Back in 1907, Iquique was home to a massacre of hundreds of striking nitrate miners and their families, committed by the Chilean army.  Nowadays, Iquique is a vibrant city and a popular holiday destination for Chileans, travellers and particularly surfers.

Iquique was a welcome break from congested, chaotic La Paz and I was in seafood heaven, indulging in fresh fish and crab empañadas.  I also sampled my very first pisco sour (yes, it`s possible I`ve been living under a cocktail rock) – definitely not my last.  I felt considerably safer as a lone traveller in Chile and it was refreshing to be able to eat street food freely (unfortunately not advisable in La Paz) and to rediscover the joys of traffic lights.  After only a few hours, I resolved to try and extend my holiday and ended up spending the rest of the week there.

Huge sand dunes rise up abruptly behind the city and the desert climate is hot and sunny even during the winter months.  The city centre – with its beautiful, brightly-coloured, often crumbling buildings – is a fairly peaceful place, since the nearby sprawling `Zofri` (duty-free shopping zone) keeps most of Iquique`s commerce outside of the centre.  A bustling hive of activity, the port is home to fishermen, pelicans and sea lions that loll and grunt on the docks, piling on top of each other like giant, whiskered slugs.

The beaches are lovely and I spent a couple of blissful afternoons being tossed around in colossal ocean waves that come crashing down only metres from the shore.  Merchants offer ceviche, fresh fruit and ice cream, clamouring to be heard as they haul their coolers across the sand.  Some go to wild lengths to be noticed and the result is hilarious.  Each has his or her own distinctive cry and they compete loudly like crazed birds experimenting with mating calls, making for an entertaining spectacle.

All in all, I had an idyllic stay in Chile and was so glad I made the trip (despite the tedious 18 hour bus ride home).  Stay tuned for a full report of Carnival festivities, which preceded my Chilean getaway!

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Iquique`s town theatre

Iquique`s town theatre

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Fisherman`s market

Fisherman`s market

Expectant sea lions

Expectant sea lions

Sunbathing sea lions

Sunbathing sea lions

Also, they like to fight...

Also, they like to fight…

...a lot

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Sand dunes rising up in the distance

Sand dunes rising up in the distance

Pelicans

Pelicans

Big hopes riding on small goods

Ekeko, household God of abundance

Ekeko, household God of abundance

With its roots in ancient Aymará traditions, the annual Alasitas festival was originally held in September (Bolivian springtime) in order for farmers to ensure a bountiful harvest.  Nowadays, the festival begins on January 24th and runs for three weeks or so.  Alasitas means `buy from me` in Aymará, and is celebrated with a huge fair in La Paz where everyone buys miniature representations of their wishes and aspirations for the coming year.  These items are offered to Ekeko (`dwarf` in Aymará) who is the household God of abundance.  Statues of the diminutive, rosy-cheeked, mustachioed Ekeko are laden with offerings of money, alcohol and cigarettes to keep him satisfied and benevolent.

Typically, Bolivians rush to the crowded fair at noon on the first day of the festival, clamouring to make their purchases and to have them blessed by a yatiri (witch doctor).  The blessings are a mystical, aromatic affair, with much murmuring and the spilling of alcohol and scattering of flower petals, amidst billowing clouds of incense.

The variety of objects on offer is remarkable, but by far the most popular item is the tiny replica currency – Bolivianos and dollars – to ensure a prosperous year.  Merchants wave wads of mini bank notes at the hordes of passers-by, shouting out tantalizing offers such as `un peso para mil dólares americanos!` (1 boliviano for US $1000).

Stalls overflow with miniature handcrafted hens and roosters (for those seeking a romantic partner), replica passports, visas and suitcases for those wishing to travel, toy cars and houses, construction materials and tools, diplomas and job contracts, certificates of marriage, divorce, birth and death(!), and tiny doll`s house sized packages of flour, rice and all manner of food products to ensure an abundance of food in the house.

I settled on a job contract, a certificate of good health, money and a driver`s licence.  (Ekeko will have his work cut out, since that very night I dreamt I ran over two people while driving a bus.)

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Houses and land are up for grabs, as well as bags of cement and other construction materials and tools

Houses and land are up for grabs, as well as bags of cement and other construction materials and tools

Hens and roosters for those looking for love

Hens and roosters for those looking for love

University diplomas & degrees, job contracts, certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce

University diplomas & degrees, job contracts, certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce

Skulls feature during some blessings

Skulls feature during some blessings

A yatiri, blessing my purchases

A yatiri, blessing my purchases

Mini versions of national newspapers are released during the first day of Alasitas, containign satirical and comical articles

Mini versions of national newspapers are released during the first day of Alasitas, containing satirical and comical articles

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Spectacular Salt Flats

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Earlier this month, I took a trip to Salar de Uyuni with three Bolivian friends.  At a whopping 12,106 square km (3653m above sea level), the Salar is the world`s largest salt flat and contains more than half the world`s supply of lithium.  It is estimated that 20,000 tons of salt are extracted and processed each year, for sale in Bolivia as well as international export.

Lonely Planet describes the twelve hour ($14/£9) bus ride from La Paz as `bone-shaking` and it was no exaggeration.  The final third of the journey was over dirt road which proved to be a rude awakening at 4am.  Picture the roughest aeroplane landing you have ever experienced (sans seatbelt) and then imagine it lasting for four solid hours.  Suffice to say, I emerged bleary-eyed and more than mildly grumpy after two such overnight journeys (especially on the way back when my window was scotch-taped together and rattling incessantly).  The only upside of the turbulent ride was being awake to witness the sunrise, the sky slowly turning pink as our double-decker bus barrelled through the desert.

Uyuni itself is a fairly uninspiring town, with tour agencies, pizzerias and little else.  Just outside the town is an ancient train cemetery, an eerie and desolate place where the wind whips around rusted shells of abandoned trains dating back to the 19th century.

Uyuni's train cemetery

Uyuni’s train cemetery

Train cemetery

Visiting the Salar requires an organized tour, and unfortunately guide books and the internet are rife with horror stories about drunk-drivers, poorly maintained vehicles and accidents, claiming `it is impossible to recommend operators with any confidence`.  Perfecto.  Dubious agencies reputedly squeeze up to seven people into their jeeps – gas canisters, food and rucksacks strapped to the tops of the vehicles – with little regard for either safety or the environment.  Fortunately one of our group works for a travel agency and had a somewhat reliable contact, and I was instructed to stay quiet (and pretend to be half-Bolivian, if anyone asked) as my friends negotiated a private, made-to-measure tour for the four of us at a `national` price.

We set off with our guide and driver, José, and his 9 year old son, also José.  I waited until we were sufficiently far into the wilderness before attempting to make conversation, thus revealing my non-Bolivian identity.  José senior was a man of few words, but a taciturn driver was preferable to a drunk one, and he admirably doubled as a mechanic when our jeep broke down on day two.

It is difficult to describe just how stunning the scenery is, nor do my photos do the landscape justice.  It felt as though we were crossing through different planets, as we sped across the vast white expanse of salt and bounced our way through the desert.  At times bleak and eerie, the desolate desert plains stretched for miles, turning from arid cactus-laden hills to rust red sand.  Volcanoes tower above the sands, some of them active, while Andean peaks as far as Chile are visible in the distance.

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Desert sunset

Desert sunset

Desert sunrise

Desert sunrise

Herds of llama and vicuña (a wild relative of the llama) graze in the brush, scattering as jeeps approach.  As we lurched along, I was lucky to spot two rare rheas – Bolivia`s version of the ostrich – bounding through the dusty plains with their feathered middles fluttering like tutus.  Everyone but the driver was asleep and we were moving too fast for a photo, so it was a surreal moment that I half-wondered if I`d imagined (I was heartened when I later Googled ‘ostriches in Bolivia’).

We stopped at various lagunas, where flocks of flamingoes gather to feed on minerals in icy, rose-coloured water.  After a lunch of llama steaks, we piled back into the jeep to visit surreal rock formations and geysers, spouting clouds of sulphuric-smelling steam from their depths.  José senior broke his silence to make a wry comment that the odd feckless tourist has been known to slip and fall to their death in the geysers while posing for photos.  (I chose to believe him, though that particular Google search came up empty).

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La Laguna Colorada

La Laguna Colorada

Flamingoes

Flamingoes

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Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree)

Arbol de piedra (Stone Tree)

Bubbling geysers (they look fascinating and smell revolting)

Bubbling geysers (they look fascinating but smell revolting)

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Salt hotels have sprung up to accommodate visiting tourists, but we stayed in cheaper, basic accommodation (beds of stone rather than salt) in the middle of the desert.  The weather is extreme in the Salar, switching from burning hot during the day to freezing cold at night.  Breakfast was served at 5am, and we set off on the long and bumpy ride back to the Salar, with a brief mechanical failure and lunch at an island that looked like a pincushion of cactuses.

One week prior to our trip, a group of five Australian tourists and their guide became lost in the Salar for five days before being found safe and sound.  Since returning two weeks ago, two more groups have survived being missing for several days.  Rain obliterates the trails of other vehicles and plays havoc with visibility, and in these vast salt flats, an inexperienced guide can easily become disoriented.  Guides rely upon the distant volcanoes as navigational markers, but when heavy rains strike, there is nothing to be done but come to a standstill and wait.

The salt makes for a blinding surface, akin to driving across an enormous mirror.  It is a breath-taking, brilliant white expanse that seems to be endless.  At some points the surface is slick and smooth, at others there are cone-shaped mounds of extracted salt, and yet further, hexagonal salt tiles spread as far as the eye can see.  We had fun taking some obligatory cliched perspective shots and later watched the Josés demonstrate salt extraction with a hammer, locating cracks in the tiles that conceal deep, salty pools.  After chiselling and banging away, they unearthed glistening mounds of crystallised salt.

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Cecilia with her beloved Kermit (Rana René in Latin America)

Cecilia with her beloved Kermit (Rana René in Latin America)

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José & José, extracting salt

José & José, extracting salt

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This post is coming a little late since I`ve been busy with work, travelling to attend FONCRESOL`s three day AGM (where I presented to the five regional offices, causing a predictably disproportionate amount of anxiety).  The meeting took place seven hours away, just outside Cochabamba, a city renowned for its abundance of food (five hearty meals a day) and whose inhabitants possess possibly the greatest name ever: Cochabambinos.

Burning brakes and bat caves

Gruta de San Pedro

I escaped the hustle and bustle of La Paz for a weekend sojourn to Sorata just before New Year.  Sorata is a picturesque town perched in the valley beneath Mount llampu and Ancohuma, in the Las Yungas region (where Caranavi is also located).  Back in colonial days it provided access to the Amazon Basin, as well as the goldmines and rubber plantations of the Alto Beni.  These days, Sorata is a popular retreat for Bolivians and travellers alike, the idyllic setting acting as a base camp for hiking and mountain-biking trails.

The 3.5hr journey involved yet more hair-raising twisting trails with steep drops.  As we wound our way down the valley towards the town, the minibus I was travelling in began to emit a strong smell of burning (I suspect from overworked brakes) and I breathed a big sigh of relief when we arrived.

La Gruta de San Pedro (San Pedro cave) is a 5-6 hr round-trip hike from the town and is approximately 400m deep.  It houses bats as well as a large enclosed lagoon that can be crossed by pedal boat.  I`m quite fond of bats, and thus endured the oppressive humidity to watch them flitting and squeaking above, while unsuccessfully trying to photograph them.

The cave`s guide was 15 year old Janet, who explained she was taking her turn in the local community giving guided tours and that it was helpful she could add to her mother`s income.  In flip flops and armed with a small torch, she admitted to finding it spooky when alone in between visits, particularly when the string of electric lightbulbs fail, leaving her in complete darkness.  Children seem to be well and truly incorporated into family and community labour here.  During dinner in the town`s market-place, my waiter was 11 year old Imanol, who single-handedly served the restaurant in between watching cartoons.

Sorata

Sorata

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Blurry bats

Blurry bats

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Sorata in the distance

Sorata in the distance

Look out for Bolivia in the media over the next couple of days:

UK folks:
‘World`s Most Dangerous Roads’ – Wednesday 9th January, 9.30pm on BBC Two
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pw3yx

Canadian friends:
David Suzuki`s ‘The Nature of Things’- Thursday 10th January, 8pm on CBC-TV
http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episode/david-suzukis-andean-adventure.html

Both shows feature the spectacular Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni.  I just spent the weekend visiting the Salar – stay tuned for a full report!

Midnight meals & wishes under apples

Welcoming New Year with a 1am meal of `fritanga` (pork stew)

Welcoming the New Year with a 1.00AM meal of `fritanga` (pork stew)

Having spent eight of the past ten Christmases in a different continent than my immediate family, I was fairly unfazed about the prospect of spending Christmas solita in Bolivia.  I toyed with the idea of travelling, but after some drawn-out confusion about whether I had two days or two weeks of holiday, in the end I accepted an invitation to experience Christmas Paceño-style with a local family.

Traditions vary among families, but generally there is a late meal on Christmas Eve followed by gift-giving.  Households decorate with a tree and usually nativities too.  Christmas trees were adorned with cotton wool for snow, but outside it was hot and sunny in between frequent rainstorms.  The warmer climate added a strange feel to the festivities, not to mention the absence of working in retail for the first time in five years.  It certainly felt like a quieter, surreal Christmas on many levels.

We spun crackly old Latin American records – an eclectic mix of Bolivian Christmas carols, rousing Mexican folk songs and Puerto Rican pop.  Before midnight, we each wrote a wish on a scrap of paper and tucked it underneath a numbered apple, which I was instructed to take home and eat upon waking on Christmas morning.  When the clock chimed midnight on Christmas Eve, prayers were murmured, greetings exchanged and glasses clinked.  At around 12.30am, we finally sat down to eat (I was somewhat relieved I`d snacked beforehand).  The meal included turkey and stuffing, although this is not necessarily standard fare.

On Christmas Day, I enthusiastically sampled buñuelos (enormous deep-fried discs of dough) doused with honey and treacle-like cane sugar and accompanied by hot chocolate.  They were delicious and undoubtedly terrible for one`s cholestrol.  I immediately loved them.

Buñuelos - deep-fried doughy deliciousness

Buñuelos – deep-fried doughy deliciousness

The largest nativity set I have ever seen

The largest nativity set I have ever seen

Wishes under apples

Wishes under apples

Xmas Eve vinyl fun

Xmas Eve vinyl fun

More vinyl fun

More vinyl

Fun fact: At some point, Ricky Martin was a member of this rather greasy-looking band

Fun fact: Ricky Martin was once a member of this rather greasy-looking band

New Year`s Eve is customarily celebrated with a family meal (pork to signify prosperity and abundance) which also takes place after midnight.  Following the meal, many people head out to dance and drink the night away.  As it turns out, I found eating a 1am heavy meal of fritanga (spicy pork stew) with potatoes and corn more conducive to sleeping than hitting the clubs and was content to be in bed by 3am – pitifully early by Bolivian standards.

Bemused to see the local markets overflowing with bright red and yellow underwear for sale, I have since discovered that it is common to wear coloured underwear on December 31st – red for love and yellow for wealth.  Who knew…  I suppose I`ll have to wait another year to test that theory.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!  Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2013!

We lit coloured candles on NYE and received small red bags for good luck

We lit coloured candles on NYE and received small red bags for good luck

The gift bags contained a US dollar and a cinnamon stick tied with metal coins.

The gift bags contained a US dollar and a cinnamon stick tied with metal coins.

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