Bolivia Stories and Tips

Cool the Coffee; Spill the Coke

Isla del Sol - Inti Kala Photo, Isla del Sol, Bolivia

Manners are geographical in nature; while reaching one of the world’s roofs it is only natural to meet some unusual etiquette. Here are some of the most unusual things a traveler may see while exploring Bolivia.

Spill the Coke

If spending some time with a group of Bolivians, invariably somebody will bring a large bottle of soft drink. More often than not, it would be accompanied by just one plastic cup, which would be filled time and again while being passed around. Just before the last sip, the drinker would spin the little liquid left and then spill it on the floor, and then hand the cup over.

At first you may think this is done for hygienic reasons. Then in another event, when everyone has his own cup, the spilling goes on. After a while you ask a local friend about the ritual. "It’s an offering to the Pachamama" the answer would be.

Shake the Coke

Now fascinated by local drinking practices, you can’t help but noticing other peculiarities. Soft drinks are sold in small bottles (190ml, a cup-size serving) on kiosks that cover almost every available spot in the cities. First, you note that this 190ml lasts for an unusual period of time. Then, before they sip, they shake the bottle.

"Why?," you ask the same local friend, who is not amused anymore by your questions.

"Too many bubbles, it takes them out."

"Why don’t you drink non-carbonated drinks?"

"We like the carbonated ones."

Cool the Coffee

The Andean High Plateau can get cold. Eventually, if not standing under the sun, the place is cold at all times. During Oruro’s winter nights, temperatures can drop to minus twenty Celsius, despite the relative closeness to the equator line.
Given the circumstances, one desires hot drinks. Yet, the scenes at the markets are surprising. The already tepid coffee and tea served there is often cooled down by passing it from one cup to another; in a similar way used by Burmese coffee shops to add froth to their chai. "Too hot, too hot" they explain to me, while protecting themselves from the cold under thick layers of wool.

Press the Tea

"Only Bolivians do that," I said while pointing at the tea bag of my afternoon coffee companion.

"If you don’t do that you waste tea!" was the indignant answer.

Tea bags are pressed to the spoon and then squeezed to death with the help of their string.

Clean the Cutlery

It actually made me uncomfortable. In several occasions I was eating with local hosts in upmarket restaurants. Invariably, they would pick up their napkins and begin cleaning their cutlery. The same happens everywhere cutlery is used.

"Don’t you think that’s insulting the restaurant?" I asked at the first opportunity.

"But maybe it isn’t clean!" was the truly unexpected answer.

Cut the Burger

My cutlery-related adventures didn’t end there. Bread is a foreign food in America, despite the few hundred years of history it has here. It reflects in the way it is prepared, served and consumed. Proper etiquette has never evolved and behavior varies.

However, a recurring theme – especially in upmarket institutions – is the use of cutlery with bread related products. I’ve seen toasts and burgers – not to mention a large variety of sandwiches – eaten with knife and fork and always accompanied by a great show of self importance. I have never dared asking for the reason of this one.

Don’t Touch the Fruits

Bolivia offers an awesome variety of fruits, the result of its various climate zones and very fertile ground. One of the joys awaiting the traveler is visiting the markets and buying all kind of unusual fruits. However, a word of warning. Never touch the merchandise in the markets. You may be offered to taste a bit of the fruit, but touching fruits (or any other fresh product) to be sold is almost a death-sentence carrying taboo.

In the same topic, while purchasing items allowing that, asking for a "yapa" or "yapita" is expected; bargaining is not, unless a ridiculous price is asked from the obvious foreigner. "Yapa" is an Aymara verb meaning "to add;" "yapita" adds the Spanish diminutive to it. It refers to a small gratuity added to a purchase. If buying a whole watermelon don’t expect any yapa; however, if buying a slice from your "casera" ("homey," a market seller that knows you), expect an added bit.

Spicy but without Condiments

Spicing practices vary faster than latitudes; Bolivia offers an almost unique environment also here. Large amounts of sugar, salt and llajua are added to everything. A regular coffee at the market is regularly served with three large spoons of sugar added; more sugar is available nearby. Salt is used at such a rate that the Uyuni Salt Flats may run out of salt in the nearby future. Llajua – a sauce prepared mainly with spicy aji or locoto chilies, tomatoes and water - is added to most dishes. Cinnamon is occasionally used for coffee, but very seldom for tea. Yet, any other spices are almost a taboo. No saffron, no paprika. Even mentioning them may be considered as gross and semi-barbaric.

Bon Apetite!

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