The Bolivian Way

"No gringo will tell us how to behave," a Bolivian friend told while commenting on another gringo’s words and this journal was born.

Kari Kari, Diablada, Tio and other Daemons

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on July 3, 2007

The Bolivian society defines itself as Roman Catholic; however, the heavy syncretism with old pagan practices creates a fascinating kaleidoscope of beliefs. Here are some of them:

Kari Kari
Kari Kari is a term kept for local male-witches. According to the locals, they can appear as black dogs, black birds or as a person dressed in black and that his face cannot be seen. The Kari Kari approaches his victims while they are asleep and takes out a bit of fat from their abdominal regions. Human fat is considered to be a powerful medicine and the Kari Kari uses it for healing his paying customers. As his customer heals, the person the fat was taken from dies.

At every Bolivian mine there is a Tio. “Tio” means “uncle” in Spanish but that obviously is not the case of the creature facing the miners. To understand the concept, it must be known that the Quechua language lacks the consonant “D.” Hence, the Spanish “Dios” (God) became “Tio” while the Quechua people pronounce it. Yet, the figure being worshipped there is not God, but Satan. Painted in deep red, with big horns on his head and goat’s feet, it resembles a sitting satyr with a huge erection. The miners bring him cigarettes, coca leaves, alcohol and soda drinks on a daily basis. Miners live in a double world, ruled by God while they are outside the mine, and by the devil when they are underground.

The February Carnival in Bolivia (there are several similar feasts along the year – see my other Bolivian journals) is dedicated to “Diabladas,” (Devilish) dances, which are part of a devil’s cult which was merged with the local version of Roman Catholicism. The devil’s masks and customs give testimony to a rich imagination, in sharp contrast to the monotonous brass music played by the bands and the slow, unsophisticated, undulating moves of the dancers. The heavy dresses accompanying the men’s masks allow the dancers only clumsy, pendulum-like moves. The women use peculiar customs: hats belonging to 19th century London, long-sleeved, colored blouses, high-heeled boots reaching above the knees and skirts that seem to end before they begin. Each dancing group carries signs showing to which workers union it belongs. Interestingly, the devils have blue eyes.

Llama Fetuses and Beer
One of the strangest sights in central La Paz, especially around Sagarnaga Street (the main tourists’ center) is the dried-up llama fetuses offered for sale. According to local traditions, they are buried below every new building so that the Pachamama – the earth daemon-god – would be pacified and would not attack the house owners. In a related practice, Bolivians spill some of the drink they are about to consume on the ground, so that the Pachamama spirit would get some of it and would not harm the drinker.

Happy Birthday!
One Sunday – while visiting a Bolivian church – I witnessed a strange event. A young mother approached the altar, began crying and told everyone her girls were dying. It was strange because I knew the girls and they were perfectly well and happy, sitting on one of the back benches. Worried, I approached the mother and asked what had happened. “Nothing, everything is OK,” she told me drying up her tears. “Everything is OK,” the members kept telling me. Sensing something strange, I kept pressing until one of them finally told me: “It was the older girl’s birthday, so the mother spoke like that to fool the spirits not to take her girl since she is already dying.”

Bolivian Music and Dances

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on July 4, 2007

The Music

Despite Bolivia’s significant size, the local musical tradition is quite limited; one of the causes for that is the local conservativeness. No musical group would venture into innovating something, thus all of them within a given style end up with a similar sound. It is very difficult to remember a specific song or theme.

From an ethnic point of view there are two well defined regions in the country; each of them created distinctive musical traditions. The Andean High Plateau inhabitants are mainly Aymara and Quechua, while the Amazonian Basin and other lowlands are populated by Tupi-Guarani people.

The Andean Plateau population uses instruments of wind and percussion, though cheap electronic synthesizers have conquered the market in the last years and have created a distinctive deterioration in the produced music. The most distinctive wind instrument is the quena (kae-naa), which is made of several bamboo-like tubes joined together to form a boxy structure. They appear in varying sizes; the longer ones are bigger than a man and demand a significant dexterity in their use. Other wind instruments are the pinkullo, the sicuri, the pututo, the huankare and the tarka. Percussion instruments – namely drums – are called here Pululu and caja.

Another popular instrument in the plateau is a local variation of European string instruments called charango. Originally it was made of armadillos, a small mammal of the Andean Plateau which has a strong armor suitable for constructing the instrument’s body.

The lowland people have completely adopted the Spanish instruments; guitars and drums are the main music producing devices.

For the fiestas and carnivals, the bands walking with the dancers do not use any of the traditional instruments. They are exclusively brass bands producing a noisy, metallic and monotonous sound.

The Dances

The Andean High Plateau cultures were communal rather than individual ones, thus also the dances were performed by them in groups rather than in couples. As with the music produced by the groups, this characteristic resulted in monotonous, un-innovative dances, with the dancers moving in slow, unsophisticated, undulating steps.

The heavy dresses accompanying the colorful men’s masks allow the dancers only clumsy, pendulum-like moves and represent archetypal figures from the colonial past. Devils and slaves, patrons and daemons, are all exquisitely represented. The women use peculiar customs: hats belonging to 19th century London, long-sleeved, colored blouses, high-heeled boots reaching above the knees and skirts that seem to end before they begin. Bolivians being heavily organized in unions, each dancing group carries a sign showing to which workers’ union it belongs.
The dances which can be seen during the many carnivals and fiestas filling up the Bolivian calendar are related to the Huayño, a dance in which the groups whirl around while moving down the street in a “Pandilla” (“gang”). The best known such event is the Diablada of Oruro, see the dedicated entry in my Oruro journal.

In the lowlands, the Cueca (koo-ae-kaa) is the favorite dance. It has Spanish origins, and is closely related to the Fandango. If invited to a wedding in the Santa Cruz area, most probably a group performing cuecas would be seen. South of there, in Tarija religious processions are popular. The best known one is San Roque on the first Sunday in September.

Speaking Bolivian Spanish

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on July 5, 2007

The Spanish immigrants who defined the future language of half-South America arrived from South-western Spain, and shaped the peculiarities of the regional dialects after their own. For those who learned Spanish as the Spaniards speak it, the South American versions are a bit difficult to comprehend at first. In Spain, the "c" is pronounced similarly to an English "th," however, in the whole of South America, the "c" and the "z" have been atrophied into an "s." The "ll" is a lateral consonant peculiar to the Spanish; in South America its pronunciation got lost and each region pronounces it differently, sometimes as an English "sh," sometimes as an English "j" and sometimes like an "ee." More than one variation can appear in a given area. The "y" in the middle of a word is treated as a "ll," adding thus to the complexity. Another peculiarity is that the "b" and the "v" are used randomly; for example, in Bolivia, the word "votar" (to vote) can be pronounced "votar" or "botar" (an archaic form of "to throw away").

Bolivian Spanish can be treated as a subset of the South American one; more often than not the "ll" is there pronounced as an "ee." However, Bolivians attempting to sound cool use the Colombian pronunciation, namely a "j," or the Argentinean one – a "sh."

The Bolivian Accent
Most Bolivians live in the Andean High Plateau, where the main indigenous group is the Aymara people. To emphasize a word, Aymaras pronounce one of its vowels longer than usual. The practice permeated into the Bolivian Spanish which tends to create unusually looooong words. The result benefits newcomers; Bolivians are slow speakers and the extra effect of enlarging vowels makes understanding them easier.

The Bolivian Vowels
The Aymara language has only three vowels "a," "i" and "u," while the Spanish has five; the result is that "i" and "e" can get mixed when pronounced by Bolivians. The same is true for the "o" and "u."

Pronunciation is important, but dialects are characterized by more than an accent:

The Diminutive
The Spanish uses a diminutive suffix, the "ito" (m) and "ita" (f), for nouns. In South America and Bolivia it is used to express care or love to the person addressed, and it can create startling effects. A sentence without at least one "ito" sounds harsh and impolite to the locals; but creates illogical constructions. For example, in a Bolivian market I was offered to add "aguita" (small water) to my coffee. The most startling word I ever met in this category was "muchito" (little much), a perfect oxymoron.

The Articles
The Aymara language lacks Indo-European articles, thus locals often confuse the proper use of Spanish articles while speaking Spanish. A similarly related problem is the confusion between the genders in the plural forms.

Archaic Forms
Bolivian Spanish froze in time, a silent testimony to other cultural idiosyncrasies. Some idioms date back some five hundreds years and are hard to understand for those who had learned the language elsewhere. "Grave" they say instead of the modern "serio" when something is "serious," "harto" instead of "mucho," for "much" and so on; learning all the variations takes some time. Some of the words adopted for modern words are equally strange: for example, the word "movilidad" (mobility) is used for car instead of "auto."

"God Will Pay"
In the far past, the Ayamara culture was shattered and its language almost destructed; the Ayamara language broke into several dialects and a substantial part of its vocabulary is made of adapted Spanish words. While listening to it carefully, peculiar idioms can be heard. "Dios pagara" they say, using the Spanish for "God will pay" whenever they want to say "thank you," a word originally missing from their harsh culture.

"To Know See"
Some constructions used in Bolivian Spanish are direct translations from Aymara. For example, t

Eating in Bolivia: Bolivian Bromated Bread

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on July 9, 2007

Many different Bolivian dishes have been described in several journals of mine (see for example the "Eating in La Paz" one). This entry is dedicated to several generalities which were not fit of other specific entries.

Quantum Food
Most foods in Bolivia are sold in a quantum fashion, since most locals do not trust neither the scales nor the people managing them. Most fruits are sold by the unit, as the bread is. The most popular breads are tiny loaves called "marraquetas" and "sarnas." Since they are sold by the unit, the producers have an interest to make them as light as possible. The result was the adoption of sodium bromate as a regular addition to the bread; unluckily, it is a carcinogen forbidden for use in food in most of the world. One of the pictures attached to this entry is of a newspaper from the 07/07/07 officially acknowledging the dangerous fact. While in Bolivia, bread should be avoided.

Carbohydrates Kingdom
Bolivian food is characterized by another peculiarity: most dishes served in markets and restaurants contain a very high percentage of carbohydrates and oils. Most dishes include rice, noodles, and potatoes (if mixing up rice and noodles they are called "mixto") and are served with half a loaf of "marraqueta" bread. Generous amounts of reheated oil are used in the preparation of meats. Care should be taken while consuming such dishes.

Potatoes Empire
The Andean High Plateau is where potatoes originated. There are over two-hundred types coming from the area and consequently they are present on every dish; Bolivians don’t feel to have eaten if potatoes weren’t included in the meal. Some of the special potatoes are very tasty. The Black Potato (actually it is kind of violet) is sweet and has a pleasant texture; while the tiny Oca has a taste very similar to a yam. To preserve them for long periods of time, potatoes are dehydrated with the kind help of the freezing plateau’s nights. The most popular dehydrated potatoes are called "chuño" and "tunta." The first is black, has a bitter taste and a grainy texture; while the second is white and has a more pleasant taste. However, the morning after the potatoes are frozen, they are stepped on with bare feet in order to extract the semi-frozen liquids inside it. There are neither health nor hygiene controls on the process and thus they should be avoided.

Safe Snacks
The most popular and safe snacks in the country are the salteñas and tucumanas. See my entry "Lost in Geography: Tucumanas and Salteñas" in my" Deep Down in the Valleys: Cochabamba" journal for details.

Fixing Up the Dish
The carbohydrates mix in every dish creates quite tasteless dishes. To fix that, a mixture of chopped chillies and tomatoes in water is put on every Bolivian table, allowing spicing up the dish. The spice is called "llajua" (ee-aa-hoo-aa) and is added to everything – including soups – except for sweet desserts.

Dry, Please
A result of the physiological adjustment to altitude is a lower consumption of liquids (see details in the "Urban Height" entry in my "El Alto Heights" journal). The cultural counterpart of the physiological event is the lack of liquids on Bolivian meals. If eating with a local, expect to see no liquids on the table, except for the omnipresent and rather thick soup.

Bon Appetite!

Bolivian Streets’ Survival Guide

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on July 10, 2007

I must apologize for this entry. Usually I try to write funny and informative entries, but as we share the good moments, there is no choice but share some of the bad ones. And if sharing my bad moments prevents other travellers of experiencing them, then it was worth writing and reading them. Some of the following paragraphs are quite funny and describe misadventures awaiting visitors in an unknown culture; others are gloomy facts regarding the sad reality in Bolivia.

Conquering the Gap
Different cultures have quite different body language and diverse ways to manage life in a polite fashion. Here, Bolivians are unique in more than one way. One of the more peculiar Bolivian practices is what people do when approaching from different sides to a narrow gap or passage on a street. In most cultures, someone will give way, and get it for himself afterwards. In Bolivia, doing so will result in the person giving way waiting forever. The local convention says people approaching a gap will enter it sideways and will not stop even if that means creating close physical contact with the person approaching from the other side. It may seem a trifle, but in the over-congested Bolivian cities, that may turn to be a serious and tiring issue.

The Blockade
A related issue is the blockade. Bolivians walking in small groups tend to spread out on the sidewalk and create a tiny blockade; saying "permiso" would solve usually the problem, except when the blockade is a trap. Sometimes, two or three people appearing from nowhere block the way of an innocent pedestrian. At a random moment they stop and prevent him from walking forward. At that exact moment, an accomplice approaches from behind and pick ups the victim’s wallet.

Mind the Gap
I always wonder at the ability of Bolivians to walk while looking straight ahead. If "Mind the Gap" signs were in use by the local municipalities, all of them would overlap since there is no one straight sidewalk in the whole country. Please "Mind the Gap" and walk looking down.

Watch Up!
The Bolivian sewer’s system is quite basic and many houses aren’t connected to it as it was in Medieval Europe. The result is sporadic splashes of liquids from the windows to the streets. Watch up!

ATM Alert
Bolivian cities have few ATM’s, making the job even easier for thieves. Even in those ATM’s protected by armed policemen it is not wise to withdraw money without a friend acting as a personal bodyguard.

A characteristic of Bolivian cities are the para-military units deployed everywhere, dressed up like Robocop; they are called "private guards" and are usually busy collecting money from the street-stall’s owners. If approached by one, do not follow them or show them any document, just ask firmly to see the green (official) police.

Standing like a Bolivian
The blockade is not the only problem awaiting innocent pedestrians in Bolivia. A more serious one is the organized crime, which according to local newspapers is coordinated and helped by the local police. A telling sign of an ongoing operation are the watchers (called here "mirones") placed around the place. An idle Bolivian standing in a street corner is a good reason to move away quickly.

If Robbed
During my stay in Bolivia, I was attacked eight times: seven in the open streets and one in a bus. The decrepit Bolivian buses have a single door and once inside, you are trapped. The streets are very crowded and facilitate the work of thieves, who work in teams of two or three. Bolivians around the victim won’t help in any way. Complaining at the police headquarters, so that a proof that documents and money were stolen would be issued and the issuing process of new documents would begin is a painful process that can take over a month.

Green Police
I’ve never seen a city with so many police officers; you cannot walk one h

Accident in Uyuni

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on June 23, 2008

On the first - and long - weekend of May 2008 a terrible accident occurred in the Salar de Uyuni, one of the main attractions in Bolivia. I reported that on IgoUgo's Message Boards and a series of events that lead to my hurried leaving of the country began. To my best understanding, this article is important not as a reaction to the violence exercised toward me, but as a warning toward other travelers. They still may decide to visit Bolivia, but then it would be a much better informed decision.

The Accident in Uyuni

On Thursday, May 1, 2008, between 2pm and 4pm two vans collided front to front between the "Isla del Pescado" (the Fish Island) and the Salt Hotels in the Salar de Uyuni, near Potosi. Ten tourists died together with three out of the four Bolivians accompanying them.

The vehicles were traveling on the Salar, a dried surface of salt where the visibility is unlimited and there are no roads; they were traveling freely and on what was by all accounts a safe environment - thousand of vehicles could travel side by side there. However, the vehicles exploded upon an unnecessary front collision.

One of the vans belonged to Natur Tours (the guide and the driver died), while the second belonged to Kantuta Tours (the cook died, the driver survived). The only survivor admitted that both vehicles were traveling at over 100kmh at the time of the accident and that gasoline containers were attached to the vehicles fronts. The last detail accounts for the explosion and total burning of the vehicles. Beyond that, he claims to remember nothing and blames the driver of Natur, the other company, of having fall asleep.

The most probable scenario is that both drivers were playing the "Iron Man," traveling head to head and trying to be the last to deviate the vehicle from the collision path. A third van from Turismo Balsa arrived minutes later, but could do nothing to save the victims.

The Media Coverage in Bolivia

As expected, the international media showed little interest in the event. In Bolivia it appeared on one of the main newspapers front page, but no follow up was done.

Slowly, the facts began to emerge. The internet edition of a popular Bolivian newspaper (La Razon) was a bit more informative featuring at least two short entries on the topic.

The only Bolivian survivor was interviewed on the local television but he looked frightened and was careful to say nothing of value.

My Coverage

Shortly after the accident, I posted a short note on IgoUgo's Message Boards, recommending avoiding the area.

The post coincided with my publishing elsewhere - and not for the first time - regarding the methods used by Bolivian authorities to spy on its citizens and foreigners living on the country. Bolivian authorities openly admitted the events, while making clear they will continue the operation. The disturbing topic was widely featured by the Bolivian newspapers on January 2008 - I can supply scanned newspapers clippings on the topic. This time I had mentioned the video cameras placed on the Andean Plateau rim and watching over the city of La Paz; innocent pictures are featured daily by the "Al Despertar" program of the Bolivian Unitel television network.

This attitude is not new. Luis García Meza Tejada was a Bolivian general who gained power through the "Cocaine Coup" of July 17, 1980, which was performed with the help of the Argentinean army. His Minister of Interior, Colonel Luis Arce, said shortly afterwards on the Bolivian television that all Bolivians opposed to García Meza’s illegal military regime should "walk around with their will under their arms." His young officers are the generals leading the army and police nowadays; their victims were never compensated.

Bolivian Reaction

Apparently, this time the Bolivian Military Intelligence decided to show the gringo who runs the show. Shortly after the posting I got a verbal and unspecified warning. A few days later, on May 7, at 12:20PM, while standing at the front entrance of the Papiro's Internet Café on Pasaje Iturralde St, La Paz, a Coca Cola truck rapidly approached me driving backwards, stopped next to me and immediately - with no one of its doors being opened - dropped a box full of empty Coca Cola and Fanta bottles over my head.

Thanks to God, a fraction of a second before that - due to the strange trajectory of the truck and an unusual noise emanating from its back - I began moving. The box landed an inch from my right foot. Shattered glass covered my trouser and temporary damage was caused to my right eardrum, but beyond that I was unharmed.

A Bolivian citizen witnessed the whole event and provided me with a written declaration. I doubt that my preference of Pepsi Cola over Coca Cola was the reason for the event; moreover, even in Bolivia, bottles do not fall from the skies without a reason.

This is all part of a long attitude of Bolivian governments attempting to cover-up uncomfortable events at all costs. I am confident travelers would have trusted much more a government openly denouncing of the companies and people involved, taking away their operation licenses and a conducting a completely transparent report of the event. Against my will, I left Bolivia on May 27; these lines were written from the US.

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