Thursday, June 19, 2008

Eating in Bolivia

All this traveling sure can work up an appetite! It's time to figure out where to get some good eats... or at least edible eats.

All but the biggest cities offer you a more or less limited array of options. However, the small, family-owned, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that dominate Bolivian cuisine make for a suprisingly good meal. They generally only serve set lunches (almuerzos), typically a soup to start, a main course consisting of meat, rice, and starch (potatoes or yuca), and maybe a cup of pudding or something for desert. It IS possible to manage as a vegetarian, but you'd better quickly develop a taste for white rice and black freeze dried Andean potatoes (solar) otherwise you're up Shit's Creek, as they say. Also, expect a look or two of bewilderment from the staff following your alien food request.
If you're unlucky enough (or lucky depending on your sense of adventure) to be stuck eating lunch on the road, most buses will make a pit stop or two at what are vitually shantytowns set up along the highway whose sole economic viability is based on selling food to travelers. You don't even have to get off the bus if you don't want to! Merchants, typically women and children, will come onto the bus to serve you or even sell you food from the street as you lean out the window and toss down your money. Candy and chocolates are the most common item, but full meals are also served. Thankfully, over-packaged consumer products have not yet established a beachhead outside of major urban areas. As a consequence, expect any food you purchase to be served to you in a plastic bag. Drinks, soups, and hot oatmeals will come tied tight with a straw stuck inside. Chicken, fried potates and platanos will all come mixed together and typically drenched in mustard and ketchup. "Carne" is also available, for the more daring soul. (I'm still not sure exactly WHAT it was I ate on the road from La Paz to Arica... the lady insisted it was beef, but by the looks of it, if it was even beef at all it was a 10-year-old dairy cow with "one hoof in the grave," as it were. My guess was llama... There sure are plenty of those suckers to choose from in the Andean Altiplano.)

Big cities give you a little more wiggle room, but where's the fun in that, eh!? La Paz , for all it's immensity, actually doesn't stray much from the "comida tipica" mentioned above, considering it's working-class majority indigenous population. Although the touristy downtown section does offer some vegetarian and Continental options.
In contrast, considering its relatively small size, Cochabamba is King of Kuisine! Cochabambinos love to eat, I've heard, and the myriad food choices available in this fine burg relfect the entire spectrum of Bolivian cuisine. European/ Colonial Spanish cuisine from Sucre, lowland Camba style dishes from Santa Cruz, and of course highland "comida tipica" can all be found here. Not to mention a few decent Italian joints. (It's no Staten Island, but...)
Moving further down in altitude, Santa Cruz makes up for what it lacks in sight-seeing and political correctness with THE MOST gastronomical diversity in the whole country. Classic Camba food is meat, meat, meat!!! Bolivian or Argentinian cuts are both available. (Casa Tipica de Camba is the campiest eating experience you can find. Sort of a Cruzeño Chucky Cheeses'. The waiters are decked out in overdone traditional Camba wear and singers croon to uneccessarily loud synthesized Casio beats.) Brazilian food is also huge here, considering the large expatriot population. (This joint called Rincon Brasileiro literally serves grub by the KILO.) There's even a Japanese restaurant! Werd.

So that's pretty much that when it comes to food. If you're trying to stay veg, stick to the cities. If not, it's llama time! But then again, virtually none of the livestock down here are raised in factory farms, so that should take away at least some of the guilt you might otherwise feel as you tear into sweet, juicy, tender Argentinian cow flesh. Now, whether your intestinal tract can handle the sudden meat-bomb gut shock is an entirely different matter...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Traveling in Bolivia

OK, so here you are. You've made it! You've gotten your vaccines for yellow fever, Hep A, and God knows whatever else was in those 3 inch-long needles the doctor stuck into your ass at that cheap Brooklyn clinic you always go to because your shitty health insurance only covers half of some of the stuff and none of most of the stuff you need for your Quarter-Life-Crisis trip to South America. Furthermore, your lucky that immigration even let a Yankee imperialist swine such as yourself into the country at all! (Although that $100 turist visa was probably a decent incentive...)
But here you are! You're in Bolivia!!! Now what? Well, unless you wanna spend the rest of your vacation in the airport lobby, its time to get moving. "You've gotta keep going" my friend Junior always used to tell me. ("Junior" is a late 60s/ early 70s former avante-garde intellectual turned 'smart-went-crazy' homeless man and a permenant fixture at the East Village Starbucks where I used to work.) "It's harder for them to hit a moving target!" Truer words were never spoken...
Fortunately, there are a myriad assortment of transportation methods available to any wayward traveler in this fine Andean nation:

Within large cities, such as the capital La Paz, public buses are the way to go. They're not exactly "public," per se, as the different bus lines have long been collectivized and are now each run by a different cooperative union, or sindicato. There are no bus stops or maps that I know of. The routes are simply negotiated between the different sindicatos. As the bus zips by, a helper hangs out the window and shouts (or sometimes simply mumbles) the route. It's an odd sort of omnipresent monodrone that can be heard throughout much of the city as you walk its crowded cobblestone streets. To get on, simply flag the bus down and get your jumping shoes ready, cuz they rarely if ever come to a complete stop. A $1 to $2 fare can get you pretty much anywhere in La Paz you'd actually wanna go.
Then you have your classic taxi cabs. The custom here is much like in the States, except haggling over the price is a norm. Also, no matter how much you argue with the cabbie over the fare before getting in, once you enter the cab, you are expected to say "buenos dias" or "buenas noches" or whatever, as if you hadn't yet uttered a single word to each other. (On a side note, tipping is not expected whatsoever. I think I almost gave this poor kid in Caranavi a heart attack when I gave him $6 or $7 tip on his 18th birthday... And all this after he had chauffeured us around the Yungas jungle for the better part of a day!)
In medium-sized cities, such as the lovely Cochabamba, "taxi-trufis" are also available. These are cabs with a set route, like a city bus. All the convenience of a cab ride without the exorbitant $1.50 fee! Just don't sit in the front seat unless you want a stranger on your lap for the rest of the ride...

Travelling between cities can get a little more dicey. Buses are by far the most common method. Overnight sleeper buses (cama buses) can be quite comfy, although quality varies wildly. (It's never fun to be trapped on one of those suckers in the middle of the Andean Altiplano to suddenly be told by an attendant that "el baño no esta funcionando" in the midst of a wicked bout of travelers diarrhea... but more on that later.)
Road safety in the mountains is really the issue at hand here. Take, for example, the most extreme busride of my young life: The trip from La Paz to Caranavi. The old road from La Paz to Coroico has been deemed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to be "The Most Dangerous Road in the World. " Fortunately for my wimply American ass, a $120 million new road has been constructed in its place. This "New Road," however, does not extend all the way down the Andes past Coroico, at which point you must revert back to the "Old Road" if you want to go any further. Wow! Fuck me!! Some of these mountain passes are barely wide enough for a four door sedan, let alone a 50 passenger bus! When two vehicles approach eachother at these bottlenecks, one must drive in reverse until reaching a section that is wide enough for both to get by. How the right of way is determined in this situation is a mystery to me. The only "rule of the road" that I was able to decipher is that downhill traffic on the old roads always passes on the outside, regardless of whether this is the right or the left. This ensures that the risk of plunging over the un-guardrailed edge and into the foggy abyss is taken by the driver with the best possible view of the outside tires.
Besides all this, there are sections of the road where whole chunks of asphalt are crumbling down the side of the mountain! You can literally feel the rear wheels of the bus dip and bump as they skate along the slowly deteriorating edge!
The whole experience starts off really scary, but after what seems like dozens of scenarios of impending doom, you begin to experience a sort of mental clarity. Your faith in the bus driver's sublime navigational skills becomes unwavering and the mundane trivialties of life give way to more noble contemplations: The frailty of life. Our own impending mortality. (All philosophical bullshit aside, halfway through the trip I decided that this was the most metal bus ride I would ever take my entire life and proceeded to rock out to some Type O Negative, In Flames, and Killswitch Engage on my I-pod. My fellow Aymara bus passengers were sufficiently perplexed.)
All in all, I would say that it was a lovely experience and would recommend it to anyone who doesn't suffer from heart palpitations or predisposition to stroke.

So there you have it! With a couple of bucks, a sense of adventure, and a little intestinal fortitude, you can get pretty much anywhere you need to go in Bolivia... That is, unless there are any number of peasant road blocks (bloqueros) between where you are and where you need to go. Smaller, short bloqueros occur daily while larger ones can shut down major highways and can last for days or weeks, occurring on average 50 to 100 times per year. Issues range from sweeping anti-government general strikes to demanding better municipal garbage collection services... but such is Bolivia!