Out of one year and in to another.
The pig lies on the table looking pleased and cooked. Rice spills from its belly and a golden bow has been tied around its neck. The children gather around and giggle at the mirthful porcine face and settle on the name ‘George’. George the pig, though he doesn’t say so, seems contented with his new moniker and smiles peaceably. Then we eat him.
Suckling pig is Christmas dinner here and one will grace the table surrounded by salads, rice, yucca and potatoes at homes across Bolivia. We have been invited by Gary, a friend from London who has flown home with his wife Jen to celebrate Christmas with his family and we are on our best behaviour. The whole Monasterio clan turn up at 9.30pm on Christmas Eve to eat, drink and spend an hour in a frenzy of torn wrapping paper and noisy gratitude. Bolivians don’t drink anything even close to the amount of alcohol that Brits do so we are sober invaders of a family Christmas completely alien to everything we know. The weather is hot and steamy, the garden lined with palms. We eat outside under the glitter of a thousand fireworks and at midnight, just as we have sat down to dinner, everyone springs to their feet to enthusiastically embrace and wish each other a Happy Christmas.
We have flown in from Montevideo clutching a jute shopping bag crammed with chocolate, alcohol and biscuits, a Christmas offering based upon absolute ignorance of what else to get for the family. Gary has given us an address to go to but we don’t actually know whose place it is. Santa Cruz has grown enormously from a small, rural village into an enormous city of shining new condominiums, endless roads and constant building work so when we pull up to a tall, brand new apartment block, I have no idea if I am somewhere I have visited before or somewhere completely new. All the streets seem alike and even the taxi driver seems a little lost. Eventually though, we spot the place and the driver slows gingerly and peers up at the place.
He asks as though he has never seen the place in his life. We climb out, dragging our bags behind us and shamble in past the security guard and in to the lift.
Oh, this is Patricia’s building. Yes, I know where we are.
I say confidently, recalling the marbled hallways from a brief visit to Gary’s eldest sister’s apartment two years before.
The lift doors open on the fourth floor and a familiar door is revealed in front of us. Jamie rings the doorbell and we wait, slightly anxiously. A moment passes and the door is flung open and Gary is standing there with a big smile on his face. I have to blink away the sensation that he has been cut and pasted in to this Bolivian doorway. It has been many months since we have seen anyone from home and the relief is tempered by the surreal sensation that the image in front of us is a mirage. A cheer erupts from within the apartment and I catch sight of Gary’s wife, Jen sitting on the sofa.
I say stupidly.
Says Gary offering welcome hugs and ushering us in to what is clearly not Patricia’s apartment but in fact, Gary’s parent’ new pad.
Everyone is hugged and welcomed, chivvied on to a sofa and we are questioned closely about our journey and given big glasses of cool water. The conversation loops and dips, overlapping in places, switching to Spanish occasionally when a parent appears and the big grins stay plastered on our tired faces. How wonderful it feels to be somewhere we are known, invited, welcome.
We have barely started chatting when we are scooped up by Gary and posted in to a shiny white car outside and driven to our accommodation; Patricia’s place. Embarrassingly we have been given the entire apartment to ourselves since Patty spends much of her time at her partner Rob’s house. All the other houses and flats will be crammed with relatives duting the festive period whilst we are free to waft about in the air conditioning, unencumbered by social responsibility.
The apartment is an untold luxury with several sofas to lounge about on, our own, personal washing machine and two showers should we both need to simultaneously condition our hair. The weather outside is sultry with heavy tropical heat and a beating sunshine designed to exhaust in minutes but in here, we are cool, tranquil, peaceful. Here we will spend the next day nights watching enormous amounts of films on HBO and listening to the sounds of fireworks and the beating of drums from the nearby settlements that flank Santa Cruz’s concrete jungle.
Gary picks us up in the car and nips us round the corner one day,
Let me show you this…
He says and drives a minute, perhaps less beyond the condominium buildings and over a flood defence in the road. Almost immediately we are bumping over a dirt road and shaded by a dense canopy of trees. It is as though Santa Cruz doesn’t exist. The smell of wood smoke drifts in the air and wooden structures, thatched in palm fronds line the rough, red soiled path ahead of us. Blackboards announce the dish of the day; armadillo and people lean back in plastic seats in the shade drinking fresh juices and laughing. I am pressed against the window, gazing in wonder at this busy little world, so far removed from the enormous city not sixty seconds beyond the car.
Can we have armadillo and chips? Let’s stop here! Can we go here?
I burble, still staring out the window at the pressing trees and listening to the shriek of cicadas.
Don’t go here. It’s dangerous.
Says Gary simply.
My heart sinks and Gary explains that we’ll no doubt have our wallet lifted if we wander about here or perhaps worse. At first, I doubt him but one after the other, each family member who joins us in the car as we are driven home nods in the direction of the dirt road and tells us not to go there. I think often of the armadillo but, for once, heed the advice I am given and taste not a morsel. Instead, I get sonsó which makes me quite ecstatic as I have had it only once before and have thought of it many times since.
Christmas Eve here is just another working day until the evening when it transforms itself in to a more familiar feast and presents. We drive out on the 24th marvelling at the bustlng streets where we expected a ghost town. We are headed to Cotoca, a small town a few kilometres outside Santa Cruz accompanied by Jen, Gary and Jen’s parents John and Patsy who have decided that now is the time to meet all the family. Jen’s family, once neighbours of Jamie’s are familiar, although I have only seen them from afar at Gary and Jen’s wedding. We get along immediately and they are splendidly English which is almost as good as fish and chips or bacon and eggs. We pull up in Cotoca and all file out to squeeze through the crowds at the wonderful covered market. The stalls bulge up and spill out on to the street, loaded with firecrackers, shoes, terracotta pots heavy with homemade dulce de leche and great packets of biscuits.
We save this for later though, I am leading the way and intent on one thing only, the food section. In a long, distracted line we head for the main entrance and enter the big, high ceilinged market and make for a long, beaten up wooden table where we sit and look around. This market has stayed at the back of my mind for the last two years and the smoke billowing out from under the blackened pots, the sunshine diffusing through the corrugated plastic roof and capped women stirring at burbling pots of stewed meat are familiar.
Six arepa, five sonso and two chicha!
Calls Gary to the woman who spirits herself to our table. She nods and calls the order to another woman who begins expertly rolling out maize dough and flattening them in to a wok shaped piece of metal balanced over a wood fire. The six arepas sizzling nicely, she lifts five heavy yucca wadded sticks from a box and puts them straight over the hot coals. These barbecued sonso are what I have come for, these weighty chunks of creamily mashed yucca spangled with oozing lumps of local cheese. The mixture is pressed around a thick, short wooden stick and barbecued until little black blisters appear on the outside. They are pure carbohydrate bliss and washed down with a cinnamon scented cup of chicha tinkling with tiny shards of ice, I can think of no better dish.
When the food arrives, we dive in enthusiastically. John and Patsy crane to take in the plates of food, squinting to try and recognise anything that is in front of them. Nothing is familiar but soon everyone has long strings of cheese dangling from their chins and sweet and salty wads of buttery arepa in their mouths. Everyone seems very contented and the chicha, a drink made by boiling maize with sugar, cinnamon and cloves, is passed around and cheersed with several times. We finish rather quickly and order up more chicha to make up for the loss but soon,with reluctance, we leave the market and head back out in to the square.
The remainder of our time is spent having ludicrous photos of ourselves taken, crammed together, in a Father Christmas’ sleigh. The photographer snaps the image of our silly, grinning faces and retreats to a bench where she opens the cover of a pram and plugs the camera in to a small printer nestled within the dark interior. Within five minutes, our smiling faces, bleached by the Bolivia sunshine are packaged up and handed to Patsy who will later deliver it to Jamie’s parents in London.
Before bundling back in to the car we make a quick stop at the church to photograph the enormous nativity scene complete with flashing neon lights, out of proportion sheep and an absolutely stacked shepherd whose rippling six pack stands out incongruously against the familiar scene. Jamie and I struggle not to laugh in the elegant, quiet building and eventually have to take ourselves outside when I spot a disembodied arm mysteriously reaching out of the wall. Gary produces a pack of candles which we light and stick in to puddles of hot wax amongst others lit by fellow visitors but which are mostly leaning at crazy angles in the intense heat. Whilst we are intently taking photos of the candles and peering in to the blackened wax bins, Gary summons a man to fill a bottle of holy water for him from the well in the courtyard. He comes back clutching his prize and beckons us all to the car. Later, in the car, Jen absentmindedly drinks the holy water when she gets thirsty but since it’s Christmas, we all agree it will probably be forgiven.
We purchase a large quantity of fireworks and crackers in Cotoca for use later that evening and to everyone’s delight, manage to get hold of some little, innocuous looking plastic balls which explode with extraordinary amounts of noise in the street outside the house. Flavia, one of Gary’s nieces runs shrieking in to the house, pigtails bouncing when they are set off. I hold on to Nael, a serious and self contained 1 year old who straightens in alarm in my arms, his head swiveling to see where the noise was from. I expect tears but inside a big smile creeps on to his face and he stares with fascination as the other crackers explode in streaks of gold and red and the bangs reverberate around the houses.
It goes without saying that we will require many more for New Year so we drive to Santa Cruz central market and Jamie and Gary quickly crowd in to a table loaded with firecrackers and fireworks in brightly coloured, cheap Chinese packaging in a myriad of guises. There are balls of gunpowder skirted by cardboard wings printed to resemble bees, little green tanks with plastic wheels upon which the tank will feebly travel ten centimetres when lit. There are little bombs, giant rockets, rolls of paper full of multicoloured charges that will ploomph quietly from the end one after another as Gary holds the stick aloft. There are green balls encircled like tiny Saturns by paper rings which will spin feverishly on the pavement before launching themselves in a crescendo of pink and green sparks high in to the air and land on someone’s roof prompting gurgles of laughter from the children.
Jen and I watch as Gary closely questions the stall holder about the different pyrotechnical outcomes of each item. I slurp on a large cup of ice cold coconut milk and peer at Jamie who is quietly handing piles of bees and bombs to Gary before being loaded in to a bag.
Get a motorbike!
I squeak, spotting a red and blue sports bike, propped up against a pick and mix of rockets.
We have to have a bike!
I add and the bike is unhesitatingly added to the bag. Finally, Gary selects a large, barrel shaped round of fireworks and the boys pay. The enormous, weighty bag comes to only £7 and we leave with both boys sparking in anticipation of the mania of explosions ahead of them.
New Year’s Eve is several days ahead so we have some time to play with before any pyromania ensues. We load up two cars worth of friends and family and head out to the ever expanding suburbs of Santa Cruz and park up outside Parque Güembe. Flavia leads the way and soon we find ourselves wristbanded up and released in to a huge animal sanctuary and swimming complex. As a group we wander the paths, ducking under large flowers and teetering around the edges of pools. Flavia, who is eight, is hell bent on jumping straight in and going for a swim and must be coaxed in to seeing the animals. An anxious expression crosses her face when she spots an enormous ostrich like bird stalking about crossly by a hedge.
She says, backing away as we crowd in to take photos and agitate the poor animal.
I want to swim!!
She howls quietly, staring uncertainly at the ostrich. Instead we drag her on to peer fretfully at the beehives before strolling round with promises of distant, potentially invented monkeys, to the aviary. The bird house is huge and baubled with peacocks and shifty looking parrots who edge along the railings saying ‘hola’. Flavia is momentarily mesmerised but soon draws back looking dismayed when an edgy parrot snips at me tetchily and beaks down the railings to hang upside down under the walkway.
I want to go swimming…..where are the monkeys?
Says Flavia quietly and runs away from a newly landed parrot.
I continue to the very top of the enormous cage, up a slightly dodgy looking spiral staircase, through sprung doors and past a variety of primary coloured parrots who quack quiet salutations at me as I rise. I am frighteningly high in the air. A constant wind now buffets Santa Cruz since a corridor of rainforest has been cut down over the last decade. The empty, tree bald corridor stretches all the way to the Brazilian coast. It is this wind that now whistles through the treads in the dodgy staircase and creaks the structure alarmingly. I finally reach the top by clutching the hand rail with both hands and issuing small whimpering noises. When the final sprung door snaps shut behind me, I sigh in relief and drape myself over the railings to stare out at the vast stretch of jungle unwinding in every direction. In the far distance, the skyscrapers of Santa Cruz rise from the haze, silent and impassive.
Soon Jamie and Gary make it to the top with manly swaggers, the spiral staircase of doom barely registering. Gary points to Patricia’s condo block emerging from the trees a few miles away before a shout floats up from the ground. Jen and Flavia are somewhere far below on the ground waiting for us so we clatter back down past the parrots, pausing to admire the soft purple and green feathers of some shy parakeets before we rejoin Jen and Gary’s parents.
Are we going to the monkeys?
What about the poooool?
She says, hopping from leg to leg in anticipation.
Time for the butterfly house!
I reply, hoping this might please her. She looks at me with disbelieving eyes and pouts miserably, dragging her legs in a perfect display of the futility of trusting an adult. I walk with her up the path, distracting her with the map.
Where are we now?
She asks, pulling the glossy map down to see. I point.
Right here, by the birds.
She runs on a metre or two.
And where are we now?
I move my finger on a millimetre.
And she runs on again, repeating the question until we reach the butterfly house.
The butterflies are a little worse for wear, ragged wings and colours dulled. It’s not clear what has happened to them but Flavia is not impressed. John and Patsy make the most of it, wandering about pointing out the elegant, wrecked insects clinging to the underside of the large leaves. Flavia gives a small shriek when a large one flutters across her path. Enough is enough though and finally she decides she’s leaving us for the swimming pool, forcing open the dual sprung doors of the butterfly house and dramatically striding away. She’s only eight though and loses confidence halfway, turning to wait for us with a thunderous face.
Finally, we are all creatured out and head for the swimming pool where Flavia makes a joyful leap, struggling out of Gary’s mum’s grasp, swimming costume barely in place. We follow closely after relieved to be in the lovely, cool water and floating gently towards the cocktail kiosk. Jen reclines peacefully on a sun lounger and falls asleep. We are all extremely contented but all too soon we return to find everyone packing up and ready to leave. In my limited experience, Bolivian day trips are a swift affair, no faffing. You can spend an hour or two driving somewhere, everyone merrily bouncing about on the rough roads. You arrive, have a look around and then everyone is piling back in the car and heading home. To an English person where distances beyond fifty miles seem like a polar expedition and one must get ones moneys worth by looking around a small National Trust castle for three hours, these brief outings can be a total bafflement.
The same thing happens on all outings we make. Gary commandeers a friend Alberto to drive his pickup and his wife to follow along with a four by four so we can all head out to the sand dunes. This enormous area of mysterious sand dunes, skirted on all sides by the jungle is just at the edge of the city but the roads are lumpy, unpaved and, unsurprisingly, full of sand. Gary, Jen, Patsy, Gary’s friend and his family, Gary’s parents and me and Jamie pile in to the two cars along with Flavia, Javi, Gary’s brother and his son Noah. In short, a lot of us are going.
Jamie and I sit in the back of the pickup, the wind refashioning our hair and Jen grinning at us from the passenger seat of the four by four behind us. After several miles of concrete tangle and rushing traffic we turn off on to a dirt road and nose our way through the undergrowth, past smallholdings and young kids watching us pass with frowns on their faces. The dirt is slowly replaced with sand and eventually the sand dunes soar up ahead of us, gorgeous curves bleached against the bright, Bolivian sky. The wind is up and sand rattles around us as we all jump out the car and head for the sand. Soon children are wailing as sand gets in their eyes and everyone grabs a child and hikes them up the hill. I end up with Alberto’s youngest son who looks at me in dismay, as though I am personally to blame for this gritty discomfort. I pop a pair of sunglasses on him and we all trudge to the top.
The normally sharp edge of the dune is blurred by the rushing wind whipping the surface sand up and over the edge. It is as though the world is dissolving and soon we will watch our own bodies diffuse and vanish in to the grainy, stinging air. I squint my eyes and huff my way up the last bit of the incline, hand Fabian back to his dad and survey the scene. The great dunes rise from the earth below us, curving around a large flat area full of reeds and scrub. Gary’s mum, Dolly appears next to me pushing her hair from her eyes.
There used to be a lake there.
She says, nodding at the reedy space below us.
We used to come here on Sundays, everyone did. But now the lake is gone, no one comes.
I stare at the gap.
The hand of man.
She replies, dramatically. She means climate change. The lake to which Santa Cruzeños used to flock to picnic beside on Sundays has dried because of man made changes in the weather. The man made wind sweeping in from Brazil sandpapers the back of my legs and we stand quietly surveying the result of our disastrous species at work. Later, we will read that Bolivia’s second largest lake has dried up in the space of three years due to a combination of climate change and Government mismanagment. I look down the steep bank of sand at my feet and step forward to runtumble all the way down. The sand is red hot and sizzles my feet but the big, soft, slow motion leaps are too satisfying to stop and besides, stopping would burn more. I take the last jump and land splat in a patch of green, smelly mud; the last remnants of the lake.
A few minutes later, Jamie appears at the top of the dune and dives down after me. We stand at the bottom in a tranquil silence, sheltered from the howling wind at the top. A huge, flattened flat screen tv box lies in the sand, a discarded sandboard. I grab it and we struggle back up the bank, gasping for breath, my feet burning bright red in the scorched sand. Eventually after much scrambling we are back at the top waving the box and preparing ourselves to ride down the dunes with everyone else. However, no one is around, the whole group has disappeared. We peer down to the cars in the distance to see everyone filing back in again. After fifteen minutes we are back on the road again. Such is a Bolivian outing.
On the plus side, mission accomplished. Jamie has seen one of the places I wanted to take him, we got to drive in the back of the truck with the sun on our faces and afterwards, we all head to lunch to celebrate Patsy’s birthday which she insists on paying for herself. Icey jugs of chicha and mokachinchin, a deep cola coloured drink made with whole peaches and cane sugar arrive on the table followed by enormous plates piled with boiled potatoes, giant maize and great lumps of deep fried pork. While we eat a whisper goes around the table to get happy birthday sung to Patsy by the cheerful and obliging staff at the restaurant. They file in several minutes later behind the owner who is bearing a small flan with a candle stuck in it in front of her. The waiters and the table erupt in song, surprising Patsy in to a startled smile.
Today we want you to be happy and your heart to jump
Until you hear the river Pirai, the echo of our song
We do not bring anything to give, only our hearts
Which we will deliver to you in this humble song
Happiness , happiness,
happiness in your heart!
And everyone cheers and claps and clinks their glasses together. Patsy spoons in a mouthful of the flan and looks undecided then hands it round for everyone to try. A man with a long metal pole appears and hooks some orange fruit which tumble in to his hand, shiny and warm. He hands them round and to our delight we find they are giant achachairu, a delicious, sweet fruit that grows only in this area. You crack the brittle skin open with a pop, occasionally spraying yourself with juice, then reveal the musky, perfumed white flesh inside. The taste is slightly appley but with a deep, sultry rose flavour underneath that reminds me of an imaginary Middle East. The seeds are enormous and I watch as the small boy I carried up the dune, clutches one in concentration and sucks at the juice and fruit with long slurping noises to reveal the stone beneath.
We spot achachairu later on an inflight magazine at £4 for eight with a Marks and Spencer label smacked on the front. An Australian somehow managed to dance the right dance with the strict Australian government and obtain the right to import the seeds in to the country in order to grow the trees and export the resulting fruits. I am sure a packet picked up at enormous cost in M&S is a real treat but here beneath the swaying branches, watching the ruddy, egg shaped fruits drop straight in to the hands of the waiting children free of charge, I am close to certain we are getting the better deal.
We take handfuls back to the city with us, compulsively popping them open and gnawing on the delicious fruits and buy more later which last right up until New Year, almost a week later when we are summoned back round to Patricia and Rob’s house. Rob is a businessman at the helm of several successful companies and his house is a reflection of this success. The place is popped away in a gated community and ringing with glass and marble. A succession of people walk straight in to the glass doors that separate the living room from the decked garden where we eat. First goes Noah who smacks nose first in to the invisible divider, dissolving in to hot tears, soothed only by his mother. My turn comes next followed by Rob’s mother who chuckles at herself and catches my eye with a smile. Finally, Patsy clunks in to the door with a full plate of food, a dull sound rings out and her eyebrows shoot up in surprise as her plate refuses to precede her as expected.
I spend much of the evening carefully ensuring beautiful champagne flutes are firmly stood atop the glass table and that various small children are diverted from sharp, crystalline edges. Another George lies smugly on the breakfast bar festooned in a new bow and surrounded by lasagnes and salads. Our plates are loaded and we settle down with Jen to eat on the far end of the table. I have managed a couple of bites when suddenly everyone leaps back up, gathers in a tight knot in the garden and begin a joyful countdown from ten.
Diez! Nueve! Ocho! Siete!
The fireworks are already bursting in to the sky above us. Paper tiaras fringed with white feathers are passed around along with plastic top hats with ‘Happy New Year!’ written across the front.
Seis! Cinco! Cuatro!
Gary readies himself with a confetti cannon.
Tres! Dos! Uno!
The cannon goes off with a loud pop and hundreds of tiny dollar bills burst in to the air and flutter down all around us.
Happy New Year!!!
Everyone shouts and begin to turn to one another. Everyone kisses cheeks or shakes hands, leaning in to wish each other the best for 2016. Jen floats in to view with a big smile on her face.
I’ve learnt the phrase now
She says as we share a celebratory hug.
It’s ‘Happy New Year! I hope that the year brings you much love and success. May you obtain all the happiness you desire!
And that seems a pretty wonderful way to step forward in to 2016 to me.
1 kg of yucca (also known as cassava) – you can get this in any South American or African shop or market. It looks like a tree branch. Or to make it easy, buy it precut and frozen
2 generous tablespoons of butter
250g Bolivian menonite cheese….Menonites live all over Bolivia so easy peasy but since they don’t live in the UK, try a half and half mix of good feta and mozzarella or the quesillo you can buy at www.mexgrocer.uk
Extra cheese if baking.
Boil the yucca in generously salted water until it is soft and cuttable. Drain and remove the woody stems from the middle of the chunks. Mash thoroughly until smooth and creamy and lump free with the butter and a little milk if necessary. Crumble the cheese or cut into small chunks and stir through the mix then add salt to taste.
To cook, either spoon in to a ceramic baking dish and top with the extra cheese and bake until golden and bubbling or allow to cool then form generous handfuls around short sticks, thin kindling wood will do then rest the tops and bottoms of the sticks over hot charcoals so that the sonso are elevated and not touching the coals. Allow black blisters to form and turn until all sides are perfect.