Bolivians can drink… A LOT!

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South America » Bolivia » Cochabamba Department » Cochabamba
December 15th 2012
Published: January 7th 2013
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Now that I don’t have Spanish classes anymore and no one to hang out with because everyone works in the morning unlike me, I sleep quite a lot. My alarm usually goes off at 8 AM, but I don’t get out of bed before 9 o’clock. I then just relax or run some errands until lunch and afterwards go to work. So one morning I was pretty bored and did something unbelievable: I watched two “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movies in a row! If you don’t know what I’m talking about, search “chipmunks version” on and you will see… So anyways: 3 hours of those awful voices. IN SPANISH! The only positive thing was that I could practice my Spanish by watching it.

Throughout the week everyone in my host family was acting pretty crazy. My host mom’s son from Spain was coming on Saturday and they all haven’t seen him in 7 years. I cannot imagine what that must feel like, as their family is really close, they all talk to each other daily and see each other a couple of times a week. My host mom doesn’t have skype or even internet, so all she heard was his voice over phone for 7 years. But back to the family: Everyone was cleaning their houses like crazy! They were like: “Sorry, I can’t come over for lunch. I need to clean my house for Nano (short form of Fernando)” My room was cleaned especially well, since he would sleep there as I found out later. I moved into my host sister’s room which was no problem because my room is the biggest in the house and there is no other one to fit three people (Nano, his wife and daughter). When my host mom asked me if it was ok and my only answer was “when do I need to clear the room?” she was relieved as it seemed to be her biggest worry.

On Saturday the big day had finally arrived: Nano and his family came. I don’t think I have seen Alcira this happy in the time I have been here. And although her son wasn’t around for 7 years, it seemed like it had only been a week. They were all so close and didn’t matter he had missed a lot. Even Santiago, who didn’t know his uncle, acted like he knew him all his life. I decided to leave the house for the day and let the family reunite.

So I met with three German volunteers at a supermarket where we went grocery shopping for our afternoon activity: German Christmas cookie baking! Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) we didn’t find many ingredients and couldn’t make Zimtsterne, one of my favorites. We also had to improvise on some other recipes, but all in all we shopped quite a bit in 1 ½ hours. We then went over to my friend’s house. She isn’t here with the same organization and so she lives in a house where she takes care of three orphans. This way we could come over and use her kitchen, because we wouldn’t bother anyone. To get ourselves in the right mood (which is quite difficult with 25°C) we searched some German Christmas songs on the internet and started preparing the dough. We only found whole nuts and need to crush them ourselves, so I got a rock in a plastic bag and started working. My friend wanted to help me, so she went outside to find herself another rock to put in a plastic bag. We also didn’t have a mixer and had to kneadthe dough with our bare hands. It’s funny how I start to appreciate things that I always took as self-evident (the most important thing to be named here is the washing machine!). While we were working hard, my friend’s boss, who had arrived just a few days earlier from Germany, came in and his only comment to the music was: “What is this awful music?! You guys really must miss home if you listen to this shit.” Ok, I admit it was bad, but his comment was still harsh (and true). We baked cookies for 3 or 4 hours and still weren’t done, because we had just too much dough for the tiny oven.

At some point one of the girls said: “I’m done with this! Let’s go to a restaurant now and get something to eat. We really deserve it” and so we did. First we had to wait for the taxi for one hour or so and when Madeleine (the friend at whose house we were baking) called they would say “dos minutes”, “un ratito” and still wouldn’t show up. Eventually we ended up at one of our favorite restaurants which has an amazing pizza! But, just our luck, all the tables were occupied and so we went to a kebab place next to it. The kebab was delicious though, so we weren’t too sad about the pizza. After that Madeleine called her private taxi driver (he’s a young dude from the company she uses who always comes if he has time) to get us all home. He is really shy and doesn’t talk much when there is more than one person in the car, but when I offered him a cookie he didn’t refuse.

When I got home at 10 pm after my baking marathon I told my host sister about my day. Her first question was: “Did you seriously go with a bag of cookies to a kebab place on a Saturday night?” I then thought about it and realized how funny that is. Just three gringas enjoying a kebab while cookies lie next to them on a Saturday night when most young Bolivians dress up and meet their friends at some fancy place.

The next day I decided to spend with the family, especially since so many more of them would be around to see “the lost son”. We went to a nice restaurant for lunch and all had to fit in one car. We were 14; the kids in the trunk and each person had one on his or her lap. When we got there we added up to 18 and it was a pretty loud round. But since his little son was sick, my host uncle whose car we came in, had to leave earlier and so we didn’t have a car to go back. Then my other host uncle had this genius idea (he is a doctor): “We came here with the ambulance. Let’s all go back in it!” Awesome! Before getting in the ambulance, however, I needed to take some pictures. I think riding in the back of an ambulance with my loud host family consisting of more or less 16 people in there was one of the funniest things I have experienced in my life. In the afternoon I had time to relax before the next big event.

Namely, my host family had invited me to go to a Bolivian wedding with them. As I said before, you never say no to such offers. At 6 pm Bolivian time (which means around 7.30 pm) we were supposed to be dressed up and ready to go. We went to the place where the celebration was and I could hear my host family discussing where they should park. They said there are a bunch of Mafiosi around and if the car is too far from the entrance someone will steal it. That was also a reason why the others had taken the ambulance again. I thought it was very convenient as the drunken people who couldn’t make it home would have transport just outside the door.

When we entered the room people of course were staring at me, but I tried to ignore them and sat down at a table with the others. Quickly it turned out we would drink a lot. In Germany, we say “Prost!” once and then just sip on our drink, but here in Bolivia they say “Salud!” before every sip and then everyone has to drink. Sometimes they like to add “Seco!” which literally means dry, so you had to finish your drink and get ready for the next drink. In between someone would pass out shots of Singani () and a no is not acceptable. After a while I told them I couldn’t drink beer anymore, unless they wanted to see me in the restroom for the rest of the night (beer runs through so quickly that I have to pee every 20 minutes), so I got an alternative; a drink called “Fly High” which consisted of Singani and Sprite. Alcira was drinking the same while the rest was sticking to beer. My drink had the huge advantage that I didn’t have to join on the “Seco!” anymore, because my drink was stronger, but I couldn’t miss a “Salud!”

After a while we had to take breaks from drinking and danced instead and I think that was a moment where I impressed my host family. I joined in on every dance I could and with everyone around me and wasn’t just shyly stepping from one foot on the other (I think that’s what they had expected) and so they became even more open towards me. When I said we took a break from drinking that wasn’t quite correct. Namely, while two would dance another person would come up with two glasses of beer and you had to finish it in one turn, crossing arms with your dancing partner. There was also no “no” to that. Even my host mom, the conservative elderly lady, was drinking everything. She reached a state where she said to me: “Joanna, let me try your drink...AH! Way too weak! I need more Singani over here!” When I tried it again after her adjustments my throat burned from all the strong alcohol in there and I had to add Sprite while she wasn’t watching.

Another way for Bolivians to get their family (and the newly joined gringa) drunk is to say “Te invite”. When you say this to someone you drink a certain quantity of your drink and the other one has to drink the same amount. Boy, did they enjoy doing this with me. When my host mom did it with me she was very precise and watched if I had drank the right amount. I also learned a fun hand twist thing to turn your glass before drinking it “seco”, maybe I can upload a video of it sometime. So, as you can imagine, I and the rest of the family were pretty drunk in the end. I discovered my drink had another big advantage: It was clear and no one noticed when I started to replace my “Fly High” with normal water. I was able to join on all the “Salud!”s again, but at the end of the evening I was still dizzy. At least I didn’t have a hangover the next day.

As many bad things as there are to say about alcohol, most of you will admit that it brings people together. After this evening of drinking and dancing together I feel closer to my family and feel like they have accepted me more and I’m more than just another volunteer staying at the house. When people are tipsy they don’t need words any more to communicate and get along and although I didn’t understand all they were talking about it didn’t matter. There was only one thing I did that night that I regret, but I think I’m the only one feeling bad about it: At some point (later in the evening when quite a few “Salud!”s made their round) my host uncle started talking about finding some nice men for my host mom and her sister since they haven’t had sex in so long. He dropped the topic and a few minutes later told me to say this one word to my host mom which I don’t even remember in Spanish any more. I do, however, know the meaning…now. I, the naïve little gringa, turned to my host mom and said it. She started laughing and when the rest heard what I said everyone was laughing. So I was like “Wait. What did I just tell her?” and his answer was “Oh, you just told her she doesn’t have much sex.” (Well, duh, she’s a widow). I don’t know if there is another word for this in English than “underf*cked”, although I’m sure the Spanish version isn’t a cussword. Anyways, I felt really uncomfortable as this really isn’t something you should say to your 66-year-old host mother, even if she can laugh at it. I will never trust my drunk host uncle again…

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