La Paz Bolivia
Camino de la Muerte
Santa Cruz Bolivia
Back Home in California
Greetings from Cochabamba Bolivia,
Dumping the contents of our oversize stockings "hung by the chimney with care" onto the carpet, my younger brother, sister and I stealthily rummaged through the booty Santa had brought good little California boys and girls in the early predawn hours of December 25th 1939. My earliest memories of "Brazil Nuts" were formed that morning. Our identical bulging Christmas stockings were so big my baby brother couldn't even lift his off the floor. Stuffed into the toe of each one an enormous and "expensive" Florida orange insured there would be plenty of room for the goodies piled above it. Every crevice created by the many little wrapped packages stuffed into the stockings were filled with nuts; filberts, almonds, walnuts... and Brazil Nuts.
My father surely must have been the inspiration for the Archie character in the wildly popular TV series, All in the Family. When our two sleepy eyed parents finally joined the three of us hysterically excited tots in the pine scented living-room still illuminated only by the Christmas Tree lights, they wanted to explain each and every item in our stockings while all we wanted to do was rip paper. Those are "nigger toes" my father announced as he fondled one of the polished shells of a Brazil Nut as if it were a rare gem.
With a pained grimace my mother glanced at him and chided: "Brazil Nuts," those are nuts from Brazil. For years I imagined black people as having hard brown triangular toes. As it turns out, both parents were wrong; my father for his habitually insensitive derogatory use of hurtful ethnic characterizations and my mother for her assumed origin of the unique nuts spilling from our gargantuan stockings.
While still labeled Brazil Nuts, the vast majority are grown and harvested in Bolivia. Street vendors not far from the hotel sell 100gm cellophane bags for 5 Bolivianos, or about $3/pound shelled. It came as a surprise to learn they only grow in the wilds of the western Amazon rain forest. The giant trees cannot be cultivated. The heavy softball size nut pods are collected where they fall around the widely scattered trees.
The short half hour flight from Santa Cruz arrived early afternoon in Cochabamba. An uncrowded city bus zipped to the commercial center in ten minutes. The four star $31 Ambassador Hotel is an excellent value, but hardly worth the four stars it claims. However, it had rooms (each complete with TWO tiny bathrooms) and the others I checked didn't. After three nights the truly four star $54 Diplomat Hotel finally became available and I moved over there for my last four nights in the city.
The Diplomat is a delight and the gourmet food they serve is an unbelievable bargain! It is difficult to spend more than $8 for even the most lavish steak dinner. During weekdays the dining room features a magnificent menu del dia for 21 Bolivianos. Soup, main course with vegetables, fruit juices plus a selection of rich deserts served from an elegant rolling tray, all for about $2.90!
My first lunch included one of Cochabamba's specialty dishes: Silpancho. Crisp potato-chip thin slices of fried potatoes are spread over a thin bed of rice. Then, a thin pancake made from some kind of pressed ground meat is laid over that: spicy, tough and chewy. Over this is sprinkled a colorful collection of spicy bits of various vegetables and garnished with tomato slices and one or two fried eggs: absolutely delicious... and beautiful. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a slice of flan for desert completed one mini-feast. If I were to stay here much longer I surely would gain back what weight I've managed to lose.
From my room on the 11th floor I can see the much of the central city and it is high enough to mask the traffic noise below. Days have been filled with explorations on foot. Careful not to allow new blisters to form, I walk two or three hours everyday and nap often. The hotel has a room with three fast Internet terminals which I monopolize several hours each day.
Wandering the city one gets the impression streets are only there to interconnect the plazas and parks or to provide space for the flocks of street vendors. Where ever you go, you are not far from one of the pleasant green open spaces. The main plaza, Plaza 14 de la Septembre in the center of the city serves as a free speech area and became the focal point for the water riots of 2000 (An excellent film: Even the Rain uses the water protests as a backdrop). On one of my visits I watched as a young Jesus look-alike preached to a handful of devotees. His long black hair and benevolent expression complimented the dark blue robe he wore. He reminded me of a white robed fellow we had holding services in Santa Barbara parks for a few years until authorities discovered the sacrament he distributed was marijuana.
Tasteful landscape sculpturing is popular in this Bolivian city. The median down Aveneda Ballivian that runs by the hotel is especially well manicured adding to the pleasures of strolling sidewalks strewn with lavender flowers from Jacaranda trees blanketing the city. Security fences topped with ugly barbs surround many of the private homes and some enterprising owners have trained thorny Bougainvillea vines to run along the tops of the fences, both hiding the hideous spikes and adding another couple feet to the barrier's height.
Vendors set up shop where ever they please and add a colorful, noisy ambiance to the downtown area. On a couple side streets I watched as a scissor grinders plied their trade, something no longer seen in American cities since the mid-twentieth century. Indian women with their big hips, colorful dresses and bright bundles on their backs can be seen throughout the city begging. All the city's beggars seem to be these indigenous people making me wonder if they have some sort of beggars union in Bolivia. One evening while having dinner in a sidewalk cafe I watched one of the ladies working the pedestrians. To my surprise perhaps one in every three or four attempts for a handout were successful. With odds like that it is no wonder there are so many beggars.
To the south of the central district an entire four block square area is set aside for the "market." Here one can find every imaginable commodity and I went wild snapping photos of anything that caught my fancy. Naturally, this attracted the attention of people here and there. When asked to show my tiny camera, I often managed to capture happy curious faces close up.
At one point I discovered my rudimentary command of Spanish more than adequate for an extended conversation with a mother and her two school age children, one of whom claimed to be studying English. They wanted to know where I came from and what work I did. I wanted to know about their family life. It turned out grandmother tended the adjacent stall selling jerked meats of various kinds. Mother and her kids were selling fresh produce and encouraged me to take their pictures; grandmother modestly demurred.
My next destination is the City of Four Names or Sucre, famous for its white colonial buildings and as the legislative capital of the country. As my ride to the airport leaves soon, I'll end this postcard.
Fred L Bellomy