On the Andean High Plateau seasons and other topics of overwhelming importance…


Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 6, 2011

While abroad, even if speaking the local language, talking with denizens may be a difficult experience due to cultural differences. South America displays certain recurring peculiarities that – strange as they are – can be overcome simply by being aware of how language is used there. A useful example is the seasons. Most travelers – and probably most people in the world – look at seasons as being climate related. Rainy season, cold and hot seasons, an almost endless variety that depend on many physical variables. Thailand displays a three-season system. Singapore has only one due to its closeness to the equator. Terms like winter and summer may coincide with its solar definitions, but that would be just a lucky coincidence.

South America is different. Invariably, the solar calendar definitions rule there, despite how far from reality they are. One minute is autumn the next one is winter, even if it’s the hottest day in the history of the place. This is very surprising in a place ruled by the Hora Boliviana (Bolivian Hour). This term refers to the fact there is one hour allowance for every meeting in Bolivia. Don’t expect anybody to be on time or even to apologize for a delay of over one hour (once I was made to wait three hours; I’m still waiting for the "sorry…"). Since locals keep their watches ahead of time – but unsynchronized with each other – making punctual meetings is impossible. The problem cannot be solved easily. It has to do with the way locals analyze time. Some time ago I was talking with a local friend about an event in her far past and she told me in Spanish: "It’s too ahead, I don’t remember." The sentence doesn’t make sense in Spanish, but it’s perfect in Aymara. Simply, in the Andean cultures, the past is ahead of us, because we can see it, i.e. remember it. The future is backwards, because we don’t see it. The result of this worldview is that the future is never taken seriously. Don’t expect to meet people on time even if it was agreed several times (another local cultural point is that only things repeated three times are agreed upon). Yet, the timing of the seasons is holy. Spanish (most Bolivians are at least bilinguals speaking Spanish and another language that varies with location) is a language that inspires rigid thought patterns; that’s a result of several peculiarities I’ll mention in a future entry.

Bolivia is too close to the equator, and parts of it too high above the sea level, for solar seasons make any sense. If ignoring the solar calendar then the Andean High Plateau climate patterns vaguely resemble locations in the northern hemisphere. July and August are sunny and dry while January and February are rainy. This is a very useful rule of thumb, but it is worth remembering also a few other details; they are useful while traveling around.

From late December to March it is rainy, it can rain at all hours, but more often than not it happens during the night. In February, the rain will turn into hailstones. In the lower parts of the city, that seldom happens. In downtown the hailstones would be rather small. In the city upper parts and on the plateau, the hailstones can get surprisingly big, staying out is dangerous.

From April onwards, the weather gets gradually drier and colder. In July the temperatures go below the freezing point at night and during the mornings. Against intuition, this is not the best season for taking pictures. It’s dry, but the air is not clean due to dust brought by the plateau’s winds. The best for this are cloudy, non-rainy days during the rainy season; high altitude radiation also contributes to this limited range. During late July and early August, snow can be expected. The high peaks of the Andes would be white; snow in the populated areas is becoming scarce due to ongoing warming. During late August fierce winds reach the city from the Andean High Plateau; Chicago is not the only Windy City in the world.

September and October are the hottest months of the year; even then, temperatures barely cross the 20 Celsius at noon. From November, the temperatures drop again until the rain arrives in December. Such an unusual system doesn’t fit the solar calendar.

Many travelers like watching large screens at the airports showing CNN weather reports for almost every imaginable spot on Earth. It may be fun for a few minutes, but it is highly useless for destinations like La Paz. Local media reports three different temperatures for the city. Simply the city spans an altitude gap of 800m! Its lower parts are significantly hotter than the upper ones. Moreover, there are other unexpected effects related to extreme altitudes. For example, regardless the external temperature or the season of the year, the sun can cause sunburns after a short exposure. Stand under the sun and you’ll feel hot; move a few meters into the shade and you will feel cold in no time. After all, this is not only a linguistic alien world, but also a physically alien one; that transforms it into a must destination for us, travelers.

High Altitude Sharks

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 5, 2011

In the heights of the Andean High Plateau, you can hear few jokes; people seem to be as dry as the weather. Given the circumstances, I was surprised when invited to try a "shark." My host was offering a small plate with ispi. Considering the fact the average canned sardine is twice or thrice as big as an ispi fish, this was a clear and unexpected attempt to make a joke. High altitude sharks do exist, but they walk the streets.

Few travelers ever see this dish. It is popular with traditional communities around the Titicaca Lake and can be found also in La Paz; however, this demands knowledge or a big strike of luck. Markets are a good place for finding ispi but there is no need to go especially to one of them. A few months ago the Mercado Lanza was re-inaugurated in a large structure, one of the many improvements done to La Paz for the Bicentennial celebrations. In front of it – and next to the San Francisco Church - a small establishment was opened. It doesn’t have a name it simply announces "Ceviche;" it specializes in ceviche and ispi.

Seldom can a traveler sit here, look at a dish and say: this is 100% local, traditional food. More often than not some foreign ingredients can be spotted among the chuño, tunta, oca, umakhaya, quinoa and all other delicacies of the Altiplano. As such, ispi is an oddity and a must while visiting the area.

The dish looks very simple; the serving includes just mote and ispi:


"Mote" is an Aymara word used for corn kernels when separated from the cob; they are unusually large. They may originate in a number of different varieties of corn, though more often than not they belong to large kernel varieties of light color. Here, it was yellow with very distinctive brownish irregular spots. Note that denizens often peel off the external layer of the kernel before consuming it; fibers are an overlooked part of the local diet. The fact this dish is served with only one variety of carbohydrates is a remarkable oddity.

Here, the fried kernels had an unusual texture - again, the fibrous envelope of the kernels is seldom preserved in the served dish here – fibrous in the outside and pretty much like popcorn in the inside


Recently I wrote a journal on Bolivian Fish, yet I didn’t expand there on the elusive ispi. They can be seen in huge shiny piles in markets stalls, or as dark heaps of unclear nature in fish eateries. Invariably, they are deep fried in oil and eaten whole like French fries. The texture is not different from these; the fish are served crispy and very salty.

Perfect Snack

The obvious result is a perfect snack, containing proteins, carbohydrates and fats while providing a delightful crunchiness. This fact didn’t escape the attention of denizens; ispi can be bought also as a take away, providing an awesome opportunity to those travelers about to depart from the nearby bus terminal. Of course, a soft drink must be added to the package due to the awesome amounts of salts added to the fish.

Another point to keep in mind is that if buying a "ceviche" (see that entry in this journal) a small bowl with ispi is added as a courtesy. That’s the perfect opportunity for trying the snack before committing to a large quantity of it.

The Sixth Vowel

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 6, 2011

"What was heard?" is the literal translation to English of a popular greeting phrase in my language. It makes as little sense in English as its parallel "what’s up?" does in the other language. Each language is different in the way it addresses the world; for the traveler it is essential to understand cultural differences between languages before making embarrassing statements. Not always these would be judged with humor.

While comparing languages from different linguistic families and using different writing systems, the differences are obvious. However when dealing with related languages – like English and Spanish – things can get tricky. Sometimes things are less clear than they seem to be.

Some peculiarities of Spanish speakers are easy to spot. I learned the UK had in the past a king called "Guillermo." They tend to translate names, or find similar ones in Spanish to be more accurate. I learned Beijing is still "Peking," using the old imperial Romanization instead of the more phonetically accurate pinyin. If they don’t like – or understand - a letter, they drop it. Thailand becomes Tailandia. The "h" denotes the "t" before it is aspirated. "ia" is added to the end as a reminder of another striking characteristic of Spanish: the language is vowel oriented. Foreign words beginning with an "s" followed by another consonant would get an "e" at the beginning; "stadium" would be pronounced "estadium." In the "Soochee" entry of this journal I expanded on other examples.

Technically, Spanish has no tones. All the vowels are long and sentences have not a most emphasized word. Syllables are not separated; people try to speak as fast as possible; often far beyond the speed of thought. Despite that, every area where Spanish is spoken has a specific intonation. I described in the past how Aymara and Quechua had influenced the Spanish spoken on the Altiplano; that’s a good example of an intonation which elongates vowels in order to emphasize things. Sometimes, the intonation creates an almost unintelligible gibberish; especially in places where the "s" is often obliterated, like in Chile.

Vowels are a key characteristic. Coming from a consonant – and consonant-roots – oriented language causes me to see Spanish as my antipode language. "There are five vowels" they teach in Spanish schools. They present them as a separate alphabet "aeiou," but they never do the same with the consonants. Vowels are more emphasized than consonants. The last often appear thoroughly separated by vowels, so that people can pronounce the word quickly. "There are five vowels" they keep saying to the extent of denying the existence of others. While teaching my language to Spanish speakers I often found people refusing to pronounce sounds not existing in Spanish. "There are five vowels" is a mantra; anything different must be downgraded into them. Strangely enough, speakers on the Altiplano technically use at least 8 vowels (counting short and long variations); however they won’t admit that.

"There are four seasons!" They also say with the same level of accuracy and thought rigidness. I expanded on that in the Seasons entry of this journal. Guillermo, Tailandia, aeiou, 4 seasons, Peking. Are these unrelated curiosities or do they provide a meaningful insight into these cultures?

I met Spanish speakers claiming their language is phonetic (i.e. the transliteration of sounds into letters is straightforward and constant). When confronted with the obviously different reality (for example "que" is pronounced "qe"), they find excuses (it’s an exemption) or simply deny it.

You walk down the city’s main avenue and see a military parade fir of the 19th century. Cobbled streets, adobe houses. What about economy?

In the electronics’ market you search for a digital camera. The sellers do not know well their merchandise and use odd selling techniques. "The first item of its kind is always the best; quality deteriorates with newer generations" is a claim I heard many times. This is what in economics is known as a negative market environment; people search for the cheapest merchandise, inducing a negative spiral of prices and quality.

Eventually an image of a culture forms. I apologize for the brevity, but any of the examples brought here can be easily expanded by travelers staying in the area for a while. A conservative culture, to some extent stuck in the 19th century. Driven by a negative market mentality, the conservative strike is continuously reinforced. Then, a language with a highly dogmatic attitude seals out the culture even more. Interesting for a traveler seeking out for lost worlds; sad for those entrapped in a world without the sixth vowel.


Member Rating 5 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 5, 2011

"This is the South American Soochee" my host said emphatically, maybe a bit too emphatically.

By now I new better than answering the wild statement, or than correcting the pronunciation of the word; I was happy to have recognized the "soochee" immediately. Spanish doesn’t have a "sh" sound; most South Americans have troubles pronouncing it. "It’s like silencing somebody" I tried to explain in an occasion. I was looked at with disbelief and my listener refused to even attempt pronouncing the obscene sound; I’ve seen this attitude often in the context of pronouncing foreign words, but can’t still explain it. Since the closest Spanish sound to "sh" is "ch" (like in "chalk"), "sushi" becomes something like "soochee," with no pause between the syllables; Spanish is spoken with no stops as if they had no time. Probably that’s to balance up the otherwise over-relaxed attitude.

"The Japanese learned it from us!" Suddenly I was reminded that unfortunately I wasn’t alone.

"How do you know? Did you ever see sushi?" I ventured.

"I don’t need to see soochee, we have ceviche!" Surprisingly, a flag wasn’t pulled out of the pocket to emphasize the fervent and inexplicable nationalism.

Ceviche, the Dish

This wasn’t the only linguistic problem in the preparation of this article. "Ceviche" itself is an odd word; it appears also as "cebiche" and "seviche," providing an easy mnemonic on Spanish non-phonetic nature. The word is of unclear origin, thus there isn’t any agreed spelling. Ceviche, cebiche, sushi, soochi. Bolivia, Volibia.

Ceviche is a dish made from fresh raw fish marinated in lemon and spiced with chilli; it must be prepared fresh to avoid the potential for food poisoning, specifically of cholera. The dish originated in Peru during colonial times. Back then, Bolivia was such a region of Peru and was called Alto Peru. Even now, the cultures of both countries are essentially identical. As such, it is not completely surprising that a coastal dish migrated up and reached four kilometers above the Pacific Ocean.

Ceviche, the Establishment

I review here the ceviche prepared by "Ceviche," the same central establishment used for the Ispi entry in this journal. The point is that this is a delicate dish with a high potential for undesired contaminations. Enjoying it in a trustworthy establishment with a high turnover is important.

Surprisingly, I was recognized despite having returned after almost a week. It was just another reminder of how foreign – and thus easy to identify – I look here. While waiting for the ceviche, the smiling attendant put a small bowl of ispi in front of me as a courtesy snack.

The Ceviche

Soon the watery dish was placed in front of me. I had ordered the "mixto" option, which adds octopus slices to the regular dish. I was a bit worried about the octopus since it had made all the way up from the ocean, but it turned out it was fresh. It had obviously arrived by truck and spared the effort of crawling up to the plateau. The other fish didn’t worry me at all since it was trout grown locally at the Titicaca Lake. Being the most popular local fish, I have reviewed its fried version in Bolivian Fish. Before I managed to taste the soup, the attendant was back at the table with a plastic bag full of bread slices. I was supposed to pick a slice out of the bag.

The specific preparation method change the taste of the meat, due to changes caused to the molecular structure of the proteins by the citrus acid, thus even the trout didn’t taste similar to its usual serving. The octopus was a bit chewy and the trout seemed angry at the cooking method, but overall they were tasty. Of course, an integral part of this experience is the marinade, which wasn’t too acidic here. It wasn’t spicy at all, since the chopped chilies were put next to the dish, so that the diner can add them as per his preferences.

The ceviche included also two other key ingredients: onions and yams. The onions were fresh and crunchy. The yam was remarkable. The first time I saw an Altiplano yam I was impressed. Actually there are hundreds of tubers here, and each one appears in several varieties, making for visitors from other parts a bit difficult to identify the items upon first sight. Yams – called here "camote" – have a bright orange meat and are very tasty and sweet. Their inclusion in the ceviche was cataclysmic in its consequences. It created the first truly balanced dish I tried here. Sweet and sour, crunchy and soft, liquid and meaty, all in one. For a moment I imagined myself in Asia.

Shortly after, I attempted to pay. It cost 14 BOB ($2 as of March 2011).

"Don’t you want the soup?" I was asked with a smile. The word used was "caldo" meaning a clear soup; Bolivians use the term "sopa" to denote the thick soups served as first course during their lunch. Soon, a very hot serving of a delightfully fishy soup warmed me up in that rainy and cold Altiplano morning.

Bolivian Boliviano

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by SeenThat on March 9, 2011

Dealing with different types of money is one of the travelers’ troubles; knowing local prices and payment methods is essential for assuring a pleasant trip. After writing a journal of Bolivia for almost every week of the year, it is time to dedicate an entry in one of them to the Bolivian Boliviano.

Actually the situation in Bolivia is much better than one would expect from such a country; the fact Bolivia is a producer of energy – though a low-profile one – has created a rather stable currency. There is very little chance the traveler would meet devaluation related problems. Yet, troubles can appear anywhere, and awareness to local issues can significantly smooth the path of the traveler through this mountainous bastion.

The biggest surprise I had after entering the country for the first time was that it is a coin-oriented economy. Most of the items one would purchase while walking around cost less than the lowest denomination note. Coins exist in denominations of 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2 and 5 Bolivianos. The last is worth almost a dollar; the first two are seldom seen. The 2 Bolivianos coin appears in two sizes; the smaller is very similar to the 1 Boliviano coin, thus attention should be paid to its segmented edges. As of the beginning of 2011 two variants of each coin can be found: the old ones have engraved "Republica the Bolivia," while the new ones state "Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia." The country changed name after the new constitution was approved in 2010.

Notes appear in 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 Bolivianos. Invariably, getting change here is difficult; thus at least for small purchases it is recommended to pay with the smallest notes. That means requesting them while getting money at the bank. By law banks must supply them, and the clerks never object to that. This point is important… don’t use the ATMs, but make money transfers at the inner counters. In the last year, two times the ATM I was using acknowledged the transaction but issued no money. Luckily I was in La Paz and able to approach directly the national financial authority responsible for international transactions. I was told there it happens roughly twenty times a day (!). Eventually I was refunded, but on the second case there were problems and delays. The way to avoid that is approaching the desk at any bank and asking to withdraw money as a credit card transaction; it is called an "adelanto." It takes longer and you pay a small fee, but it solves a serious problem. Moreover, it assures getting small denomination bills, which are essential for a smooth experience.

Many travelers move around with foreign money and exchange it on the go. Bolivia is very open in this, with the American dollar being widely accepted. Even coffee shops may accept them; those that do have a sign stating the used exchange rate. However, exchanging dollars into Bolivianos is wiser, as invariably the exchange rate at specialized shops is better. Beyond exchange shops and banks, many independent traders exchange money on the street. They should be avoided at all costs; in the best case, the place is watched from nearby by the abundant thieves plaguing the city.

This is the moment to mention another local peculiarity. Most notes are brand new. Old notes are often checked and re-checked before being accepted; forged money abounds here, luckily fake notes are easy to spot. The new notes are of high quality with plenty of security measures that makes checking them out a breeze; there is no chance to accept a fake note if you look at it carefully. However, those bringing old dollar notes from abroad may find them rejected upon the least problem: an ink mark, a tiny missing corner, or just for having been folded too many times. This is very similar to what I have reported on Cambodia and Myanmar. Arguing on that is useless; if that happens try a few shops, or wait for the next country. If a Boliviano note in your possession gets too ugly to be accepted, do not despair, banks exchange them for new ones provided at least one of the note’s ID numbers and one of the signatures are still visible.

Bon Voyage!

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