Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Two Quaker Meetings

Today was bookended by two very different religious celebrations. This morning we were invited to attend the 25th anniversary of a Quaker meeting in El Alto, the large indigenous community just above La Paz, on the Altiplano (high plain). It was quite cool in the church, but the crowd was energetic, and sang and prayed through a four-hour service. Laura and I represented the family, as the boys stayed in the hotel with a stomach bug. As is the usual practice, we were asked to come up to the microphone and make a presentation and this time we were asked to offer a song that was prayerful. We taught the community “Ubi Caritas”, teaching it in Latin, English and Spanish. As always happens in these Quaker meetings, I felt the strong support of the community hanging on our every word and gesture. It is so meaningful to them to have foreign visitors. Afterwards, we joined the large congregation for lunch. We enjoyed a bowl of chicken soup, sharing conversation with the women in their colorful wide skirts and bowler hats, and some teens in jeans.
Tonight I wandered into the Quaker meeting house that is near our hotel, just in time to hear a concert by a Quaker folk music group called Ministerio Canto Nuevo. The energy was electric, as was the music, indigenous pipes and guitars amplified by a very modern sound system. The church was packed with families taking pictures with their cell phones of each other dancing to the music. Teens were up front, singing and clapping along, with a few young couples finding their own private rows to listen. Older people were clapping and swaying to the music, including one elderly blind man who kept time with his cane. The music was fabulous, traditional Andean music expressing the love of God. The musicians spoke of how hard the year has been, and how important it is to raise our voices and remember our joy.

La Paz and blockades

Friday we entered La Paz with some trepidation as there is a large strike on. All the teachers, hospital employees, miners and other public employees are striking for higher wages (15% increase) as a result of the painful recent increase in the cost of food. Though strikes are frequent in La Paz, this strike is more powerful than usual due to the stridency of the demands and the fact that this is the first big strike against Evo Morales, the people’s president. Some of the roads were blocked off by strikers and we were uncertain as to whether we would be able to get to the city. We did get in, weaving through side streets to avoid enormous traffic jams.
La Paz is a very vibrant place. The streets are full of people and traffic at all hours. Sidewalk sellers display their wares across the entire sidewalk and out onto the streets. The lack of crosswalks ("Just pretend you’re a car", I said to Laura once as we wove among the buses circulating around a rotary) and the extremely steep hills make for an energetic walking city.
We went down to the area where the protesters were face to face with riot police, to have a look around. The protest was mostly non-violent downtown, with protesters closing off a number of streets, sharing pots of food and playing cards on the grass in the median strip. Now, during the evening, we hear firecrackers and occasionally and more ominously, the sounds of dynamite further downtown.
There is so much activity in the street that it is hard to tell what is due to the protesters and what is normal background noise. I woke this morning to a Palm Sunday procession, with hundreds of parishioners singing and waving palm branches to a 30-piece band. At least 2 other parades followed during the day. In El Alto, at least one street was blocked off by people sitting in the middle, apparently a parade unrelated to the blockades.
A daily check of the New York Times reveals that the blockade did not make international news. But it is big news here, with most schools in the country closed for the last week and some people dying due to lack of hospital care.

April 12, Dia del Niño in Sorata

Today is the Dia del Niño, the Day of the Child. All the elementary schools (K-8) celebrated the day with speeches, presentations, games and snacks. The principal of the government school asked the children: How much is a child worth? The children guessed – five bolivianos ($.70)? One hundred bolivianos? The price went up slowly as they made more and more extravagant guesses. He reminded them that children have no price – that they are priceless. Like the Mastercard commercial, only very sweet in the context. He reminded them that the Day of the Child was established in Bolivia in the 1950s and that all children have a right to enough food and a home where there is no violence.
In fact I read that 95% of the families here in the highlands experience nutritional challenges at various times of the year, especially in January before the harvest begins. There are no visible signs of malnutrition here in town, though fruit and milk products seem to be luxuries not affordable to many. Quinoa, an excellent high protein and low fat grain, has risen in price since the developed world has discovered it. Food prices in general have increased dramatically in the last year, since the gas subsidy was increased. Sugar is up 100%. Most children seem to attend school, though even this morning during the Day of the Child celebrations I noticed a number of school-aged children in town selling gelatin desserts to passersby, while others sold produce on the street or shined shoes.

Economic Essay by Conor

“Do not worry sir, these are [Dirhams, Quetzals, Kenya shillings], not dollars.”

We have heard this throughout our trip from desperate shopkeepers in markets. This cry seems to mean that since the price is stated in Dirhams (Morocco), Quetzals (Guatemala) or Kenya Shillings (Kenya), it is somehow worth less than if it were priced in dollars. The topic of economics in relation to travel is an interesting one. Seven or eight years ago, we would go to Canada in the winter and stay at a four star hotel, with a double floored-suite. I, being 7, wondered how we were able to do this. The answer was that the US Dollar was so much stronger than the Canadian Dollar. On the other hand, while we were in Europe this past fall, the Euro was much higher than the dollar. Because of this, we ate mostly bread and cheese whenever we could, and stayed with friends.

Here in Bolivia, things are very cheap to us. For instance, in the small town of Sorata, you can buy 5 bread rolls for fifty cents, and a popsicle for 20 cents. We have been thinking a lot about why the price is so low, or at least seems that way to us. While hiking in the beautiful mountains surrounding Sorata, we had a conversation about this, and one conclusion we came to was how lucky we are to have been born in the United States. If we had been born in Bolivia, and had done the same job, we would have made Bolivianos instead of Dollars. As a result, things would seem seven times as expensive in the U.S.

Taking an example like popsicles, it led us to ponder why the price stays so low. The store owner seems to be the only ice cream seller in town, conveniently located on the main plaza, and he could set the price as high as he wants. Given the limit to which customers would stop buying, he does not seem to be facing any other checks for his price. However, he still has to keep it low, because there’s a point at which the market won’t be able to bear the set price. Another possible reason that popsicles are relatively cheap in Sorata is that the cost of producing the popsicle is less than in the US. If the factory workers are getting paid less for making the popsicle, the end product will cost less. The transportation costs of driving the ice cream into the mountains and keeping it cold are also less. This is because the gas price per gallon here is a little less than two dollars per gallon.

Inflation is also a factor in the price differences. For instance, if a fruit seller thinks his mangoes will be more valuable tomorrow for whatever reason, he will charge more today. Other fruit sellers will then think that that is the accepted price for mangoes, and they will raise their price, so soon in fact it will be. After this spiral, someone from another country can come in, and buy some things with their currency, which would be much stronger than that of the country, creating the sense for the traveller that everything is cheaper. That is what we experienced in Sorata buying popsicles.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trek above Sorata, meat and cocaine

 Trek above Sorata

Campsite at Laguna Chilata ("chilly lake"?)

This was to be our big trekking weekend. We had purchased the food and contracted for two mules to carry “the kitchen” (as they call the stove, pans and equipment), food for six, tents, and sleep gear up into the mountains. Eusebio, our host, who also has many years of guide experience, was to be our guide. Unfortunately, our hopes were dashed by a thick fog that enveloped us as soon as we got up into the hills. A slow rain started, and did not stop for our entire visit. We measured our hike in “Mount Washingtons”, the 4000 feet from where we usually park in the White Mountains to the summit of Mount Washington at home.
The first day, Friday, we hiked up 4000 feet, one Mount Washington. We camped next to a little lake in a saddle below the snowy summit of Mount Illampu. Arriving there felt just like arriving at the Lake of the Clouds, near the summit of Mount Washington, but without the hut to look forward to. The wind and driving rain made us eager to set up our tents and get into our sleeping bags, though it was only 3 pm. Once there, however, we discovered the limitations to our rented equipment. Tents and sleeping bags with no working zippers made it hard to keep warm, never mind staying out of the way of the rivulets of water that soon invaded the sides of the tent. We put on all our clothes and whiled away the afternoon reading “The Little Prince” in Spanish.
After a short supper in the rain heroically prepared by our guide, Eusebio, and the mule driver, Pedro (their tent had an extra exterior flap for cooking), we went back to bed for a long night of practicing sleeping. Laura and I got to laughing, since the lack of oxygen made us sound like two dogs panting in the hot sun. It is hard to fall asleep when you’re breathing as if you are walking uphill. We did get a lot of practice listening to the rain on the roof of the tent and wondering if the weather would ever clear up.
Unfortunately the morning brought more of the same: pea soup fog, with a possibility of snow above us. We decided to head back down to Sorata. Unfortunately, we were never able to see across the lake from our campsite, which supposedly has an odd configuration of colored rocks that look like eyes, making eerie faces when the lake and its reflection in the water are seen sideways. We never did hike the second Mount Washington, our destination at the glacier’s base, located at 15000 feet. We may have had problems breathing up there anyway. What we did see – a beautiful, desolate subalpine wilderness – made us glad to have made the trip.

Where meat comes from:
I saw an article on meat eating in the US press, and the topic seemed so far away from our experience traveling in the developing world. The article was about how to make consumption of meat seem more real, to appreciate the animals that died, whether to eat met at all, and the like. Here in Bolivia we see death every day. A regular sight in the streets is a wheelbarrow filled with meat parts, like a cow’s head with some fur still attached, the eye gazing out at us from a skinned face.
 Laura and I went for a run and there was a dead dog in the middle of the road, his muzzle frozen in death’s agony. We see exactly what happened, that the dog is not really here anymore. The dog’s expression gives some sense of how it felt. When people in the developing world get meat, they are thankful for having it. It is expensive. The prize for the youth soccer tournament was a sheep. It cost 
First prize at the soccer tournament
a great deal, they said: $35. The winning team would take it home, kill it and appreciate its meat. All the teens here know how to butcher a large animal and do it regularly.
When you can get meat, it keeps hunger away effectively. I am reminded of the Kenyan dish made with kale: “sukumawiki”. The direct translation is “stretches the week”. When you don’t have enough money for meat, sukumawiki staves off hunger for a bit and keeps you strong. Here in the Bolivian highlands, the diet is mainly composed of meat and potatoes, or rather potatoes with a bit of meat on the side. No joke.
All this is not to suggest that we all cart around wheelbarrows full of cow parts. Just to note that a concern for whether we are experiencing the “reality” of our food comes from our very privileged place. We do not have to do any of the messy work of raising, killing or preparing our food. Our wealth has allowed us to step away from this work and yet to keep all the benefits of plentiful, cheap food. Perhaps we should at least visit those places from time to time so we don’t forget where our meat comes from.

Where cocaine comes from:
It comes from the foothills of the Andes in South America, including here in Bolivia. Among the many points of conflict between the US and the Bolivian government is an argument about production of coca, the base element of cocaine. Coca leaf is legal here and is a staple in the Bolivian diet, used as a maté (tea) or chewed. It is a stimulant that reduces hunger and also prevents “soroche”, the altitude sickness that comes from the dramatic changes in altitude involved in travel in the Bolivian highlands. For example, the bus trip from here in Sorata to La Paz, which many take weekly, involves a climb from 8100 feet to 12000 feet. Even today, miners rely on coca leaf to take the elevators underground and work for long hours without enough food.
The Bolivian government has determined the amount of coca that is used for internal consumption, and is working to keep production low enough to meet those legitimate uses. However, the illegal cocaine market keeps the price very high, and coca production is a good way to use one’s land to make more money than, say, raising corn.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Latin American Spanish Language Guide – might be of interest to Spanish speakers…

The following are some observations of language particularities in various parts of the Spanish speaking world, as we observed this year in moving from country to country. Moving from Spain to Central America, the language is quite different.
  • Of course you have to stop using the Castillian “th” sound for “z”.
  • When speaking about a car, you have to remember to say “carro” which is a simple wagon in Spain, instead of “coche”. In Latin America, “coche” means pig and “carro” is the word to use.
  • When you take a bus, it is usually called a “camioneta”, or little truck.
  • Likewise, you must not use the word “coger” in Latin America for catching a bus, a ball or anything else, as is done in Spain. It has a vulgar meaning. Instead you must use “tomar” which Spaniards use for having a cup of coffee.
Guatemalan Spanish is very clear and easily understandable to the student of Spanish. This is one reason that Guatemala is so popular a location for Spanish schools. Even up in the hills, and among those who speak Mayan languages, spoken Spanish is quite clear to the foreign ear. Nevertheless, Guatemalans are proud of their special speech patterns that they share as “Chapinos”, the familiar term for Guatemalans. Here are some of them.
Most common in Guatemala is to hear “Fíjate!”, which generally means “Just imagine!”. In Guatemala, this phrase loses its sense of surprise but instead is used at the beginning of any explanation, no matter how prosaic. For example, when I came home and found my landlady absent, she said later, “Fíjate – I had to go shopping”. The formal form, “Fíjese!” is also used very frequently.
Here are some words and expressions of Chapino Spanish:
Atól – hot corn drink
A puro tubo – out of necessity
Agarrar la onda – to catch on, as in “Agarre la onda” – “I caught on”.
Aguas! – Watch out!
Buena onda – great! or “Mala onda” for bad news or bad vibes, likewise “Que onda?” – “What’s up?”
The answer to this would be “Pues ahí voy”, or “I’m getting by.”
Boquitas – snacks
Dar la regalada gana – to want to very much
Dos que tres – more or less
Dos por tres – in a jiffy (“en un dos por tres”)
Embolarse, bolo – Get drunk, a drunk
Estar chino de – to be tired of
Estar hecho lata – to be in bad shape
Estar para chuparse los dedos – it’s finger-licking good
Estar colgado con alguien – to be in love with someone
Mira pues – used very frequently to mean “see here”, or preceding an explanation
Muchá! -  hey you guys! Used frequently.
Pura lata – cruel. For example: “No seas pura lata!”
Pucchicá! – Wow!
Tener un gran clavo – to have a problem

“Hay tres tipos de carne en Guatemala: cerdo, chancho y coche (all pork).”
Bolivian Spanish threw me for a loop. It may be the back-country speech and the fact that for most people here in Sorata, Spanish is their second language and is not without errors. Some frequent speech patterns stand out, however.
The “r” sound is replaced by something that is closer to “z”. For example, when complimenting food, I hear “Muy zico!” That took some time. When I got to church and they were telling us to “ozar”, I caught on. Another speech pattern is to lengthen the past participle, to the point of accenting it. So “He has left” becomes “Se ha idó”. This tense, the past present, is used frequently. Then there is the replacement of “des” by a “ts” sound: “Tu aprents?” instead of “Tu aprendes?”. This “ts” sound appears in many word endings – I haven’t figured them all out yet. In addition, a common phrase is “No ve?” or simply “Ve?” to mean “You see?”
In addition, on the Altiplano in Bolivia it is typical to put the verb last. A common word is “harto”, which loses the pejorative sense it has in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world  and instead means simply much or many. So for example: “Harta gente hay”  means  “There are lots of people”. I suspect that this language pattern comes from the Aymara, where “Hi waki es?” means “Cool, huh?”
Many common food items call for different words in South America. A number of words are of Aymara or Quechua origin.
Api – hot drink made with lemon, corn flour, and sugar
Arvejas – peas
Camote – sweet potato
Chichi – fermented corn beer
Chopp – draft beer
Choclo – corn  (no one says “maiz”) (The corn is usually gray with large kernels, typically served on the cob)
Cuñape – yucca/cheese pastry
Humientas – corn, cheese and raisin porridge wrapped in corn husk
Locoto – chili pepper
Salteña – meat and vegetable filled pastry
Tucumana – fried meat and vegetable filled pastry
Palta – avocado (no one understands “aguacate”)
Zapallo – pumpkin

Other strictly Bolivian words:
Collya – indigenous person
Challa – ritual blessing
Chino – a familiar word Bolivians use to refer to each other, whether or not of Asian origin
Huaca – sacred place
Flota – bus
Sorache – altitude sickness
Refrigerio – snack time
Wiphala – indigenous Angean flag

It makes me feel slightly better to hear that Bolivians have trouble being understood by other Spanish speakers when they travel!