Tag Archives: La Paz

This week’s novel way to learn Spanish..

18 Aug

What better way to learn Spanish than to sing out some words to learn them?

Now maybe it’s just because I’m travelling but somehow nothing seems embarrassing here.

So when my charango teacher suggested I do a duet with him on the guitar and me on the charango I said “que bueno” which translates as roughly “what a nice idea”.  He explained to me, using his arms, what the song was about….

Before I knew it the Helios Music School(which holds a Guiness Record for the most charango players playing at once – 1,000!)  was filled with the sounds of me singing a song about…wait….two….pigeons “dos palomitas” having a conversation – hence the teacher’s arms flying in the air…arms are a useful tool when you don’t know the words for things in Spanish…

Now I’ve always thought of pigeons as the poor sisters of other birds..no one really likes them, lots of people are scared of them but they somehow don’t give up and pretty much place themselves in the most beautiful squares in the world in a large group where they randomly wait to be fed by small children whose parents buy them a bag of bird seed and then hide in a corner while the birds flock to the kids…

It’s actually a beautiful song and to help me practise my language skills more I have translated it here..

“Dos palomitas se lamentaban llorando

Una a la otra se consolaban diciendo

Quien ha cortado tus bellas alas paloma

O algun falzario ha sorprendido tu vuelo

Ay ay ay


Algun falzario ha sorprendido tu vuelo”.

Translated (roughly) this is….

Two mourning pigeons are crying

One says to the other

Who has cut your beautiful wings dove?

A liar has taken your flight

Ay ay ay (no translation necessary) dove

A liar has taken your flight…..

Singing along to mycharango is the most fun I have ever had at a music class…and here it is captured for posterity, remember I’ve only been playing the charango for a few weeks and the song is in Spanish……

and when you next see a pigeon remember that they have feelings too…


Wrestling with a Sunday in La Paz

10 Aug

Sunday in La Paz is the day of the “Cholitas Wrestling”.

It’s a La Paz institution which takes place in El Alto, the upper part of La Paz where most of the population resides.

“Cholita” originally meant a person of mixed race but today it is sometimes taken to mean a person of “inadequate behaviour”.

Now I’m not a fan of wrestling but decided this was something that had to be seen to be believed so I boarded the bus up to “La Ceja” to see what it was all about.

The arena was very basic.  It was more like an old sport’s hall than anything else.  It was packed with locals who brought along their children.  The show started at about 4.30 Bolivian time, ie 5pm.

The “compere” introduced the wrestlers with much aplomb.  And first up was a man in a bright green suit pitted against a beautiful cholita adorned in her bowler hat, beautiful shawl and wonderful flowing skirt.  The hat and her earrings came off for the fight.

The wrestling itself is largely staged as you might imagine. The emphasis throughout though is on the underdog winning and on each occasion while at first it seemed that the cholita might lose to her opponent this never happens.  Seemed to me like a bit of a victory for girl power in what appears, otherwise, to be a machismo society.  The referee also gets involved in each fight, usually against the cholita.  What’s funny is that the guy who does the refereeing then later comes back out in a wrestling suit as a wrestler…this is spit and sawdust entertainment at its best!!!

The crowd also gets well into it.  They throw tomatoes, crisps, empty water bottles and other things into the ring which are then seized upon by the wrestlers and used as “weapons” against  opponents.  The “coach” also got involved at one part. She was dressed in a a beautiful flowing skirt and a tracksuit top and was pretending to coach a child who randomly was also part of the show.  The little kid had on a weird mask and dungarees and the cholita took great joy in picking him up by the straps of his dungarees (ouch!) and smacking him!!!!

At one point one of the wrestlers picked up a huge tub of crisps and threw these onto an opponent.  At another point one of the wrestlers took a water bottle from a spectator, took some water and then sprayed it back out over the crowd!

Three hours later and it was time to leave. although the fighting was still ongoing and the locals were still loving it.  It is something worth seeing but for me the only word which sprang to my mind when I saw these little ladies in pretty clothes wrestling was “random”!!

Why being blonde costs you a few extra bolivianos…

8 Aug

Over a discussion last night about pants I realised just how much fun shopping in La Paz is especially when, like me, you are blonde…

The discussion started  on buying pants at stalls in La Paz and the fact that, in La Paz, there is a fixed price for everything you buy with the only difficulty being trying to find out that price. It takes probably a few weeks to find out the optimum prices for stuff and then when you go to the stall you just give over the exact amount to save you being overcharged….otherwise being blonde you will always be charged that bit more…

take bananas…the optimum price is 1 boliviano for 3 (10p) but as a blonde if you don’t know this the assistant will try to sell you 1 or 2 bananas for the same price…..with such guises as “are you sure you want three just now?”…

tissues…the optimum price is 1 boliviano for a pack but as a blonde if you don’t know this they will try to sell you the super exclusive menthol ones for 1.5 bolivianos….

a fruit juice..the price for a juice with fresh fruit either with milk and water is 4 bolivianos (40Pence) but again being blonde if you don’t insist on a small one they will give you a huge one for 6 bolivianos and then refill it…aarghhh I love fruit but there is only so much you can take…the exact same rule applies to fruit salads..insist on a small one…

You can tell when the “blonde tax” is being considered when there is that momentary hesitation before you ask the price….now let’s be honest they sell hundreds of juices a day at the same price why should there be any hesitation when you ask the price??? It’s a basic case of deciding whether or not the blonde tax should apply…

There are those who simply charge the blondes more..I’ve had a few experiences of this so far..An avocado, cheese and tomato sandwich costs me 2.5 bolivianos but a local 2 bolivianos…a banana bread costs me 2.5 bolivianos but a local 1 boliviano…a milanesa with rice and salad costs a local 5 and me 6!

It’s a simple case of the seller working out what you can afford…And in a country where a miner earns five quid for a full day’s work should there not be a difference between what I pay and what a local pays?  It’s a novel way of doing business but is it really so wrong?  Should those from richer countries not pay more because they can or should the same prices apply to everyone?  This is not an easy question and not one to which I have an immediate answer…

Now this discussion started off with pants so let’s finish with buying pants in Bolivia.  For a blonde pants cost 5 bolivianos (50 pence).  That’s not dear and they have a great selection…but stick with your instincts when buying them…the seller will try, try, try to persuade you that you can fit into medium (which is itsy bitsy in Bolivia).  Be brave….ask for “XXL” (equivalent to a size 10 – 12).  They will hum and haw and stretch the medium ones to oblivion to try to show that you will fit into them…keep calm..eventually the “XXL” ones will come out from under the table….and being blonde you will pay the 5 bolivianos and leave happy!

An English grammar lesson in La Paz

6 Aug

I’m currently in La Paz trying hard to learn Spanish.  You might ask why I would also need to learn English grammar?

Well, I’ve realised that learning a foreign language needs much more than a basic grasp of the grammar of your own language…why is this?

Well the language teacher uses the proper terms for such things as adjectives, adverbs, pronouns. relative pronouns, pronouns with prepositions…

and all those things I have never had to think about in English…like which tense to use…well now that needs to be part of my thought process…is the action past and completed..was it a continuing action in the past….can I link it to the present or was it in the past but still in process….do I walk or am I walking…..and what are gerunds anyway?  Do we need to think about them?

Some days I feel my head is swimming with such thoughts as is this word masculine or feminine?

There is no rule but a skirt is feminine (falda) and trousers are male (pantalones).  You need to learn this for every word you need to use, and then if you want to say that the item is your’s you change the word for that depending on the gender of the noun (check me!!!), you also need to change it if you are saying there is none of the thing in the area or any in the area……

They also quite often miss out the “subject” of the sentence so you just have to look at the verb to work out who is doing the “action”.

But probably so far my two least favourite Spanish grammar things are imperatives..you use these for when you want to order someone to do something like “give me my jacket” or “don’t drink anymore”.

What I don’t like about these is there are different forms for when you want someone to do something so eat more is “comE mas” and don’t eat more is “no comAS mas”.  I really don’t get this at all…why not just bite the bullet and use the same phrase????  Wouldn’t that make it easier?

My second least favourite Spanish grammar rule…personal pronouns…where I now need to think about direct and indirect complements….what?

And once I have decided whether it’s a direct or indirect complement I then have to look at the words and if for example “le, les” is next to “lo, la. los or las” heaven forbid I have to change the indirect complement to “se”…still not sure why but for some reason this is one rule that seems to stick in my head..I just have to picture the “le and les” fighting it out with the “lo, la,los or las” and then I realise there is simply no way they can be together….even more strange is the rule whereby you add the direct and indirect complements onto the end of the verb….if you are not lost by now…I am…let’s take an example….”El profesor esta exlicando la leccion a los alumnos” which is “the teacher is explaining the lecture to the students”..now in English to replace the lecture and the students it would be pretty damn easy…”the teacher is explaining it to them”.

Now in Spanish the them would be “les” and the lecture would be “la” but remember what I said about the fighting direct and indirect complements…so it becomes “El se la esta explicando”….so far so good…a bit contrived but hey ho…but not finished yet…they then decide randomly to add the “se” and the “la” onto the end of the “gerund” so it becomes “El esta explicandosela”….oh my word is there any need for such complexity….

I suppose the real difficulty is learning English as a child you never really think about the tenses you are using….and you never really have to think about whether an action is continuing or not…and whether the complement is direct or indirect….at least I am gaining a useful grammar lesson in English though it might be some time before “estoy escribiendo mi blog en espanol” which translates as “I am writing my blog in Spanish”!

The magic of La Paz…

3 Aug

The Witches’ Market in La Paz is quite simply magic.  This is a place where the ancient traditions of respect and making offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) still survive in abundance.

It is a busy time in the Witches’ Market just now.

I noticed this when wandering through it the other day, captivated by the many little sculptures, the plates with an arrangement of offerings on them and of course the llama foetuses hanging from every stall.

I was intrigued as to why there were so many people buying offerings and then I discovered that the month of August is the time when the cycle of fertility of Mother Earth begins.  It is a time when offerings are made by believers for the things they have received during the year and also for the things that were missing.

The plates prepared by “yatiris” contain little tablets representing many different things.  I saw tablets with “health”, “good fortune”, “an office”, “a car” and also “a bank” and “$1,000”.  The “yatiris” give those wishing to buy an offering a list of all the things that it needs to contain. The price of each of the “ingredients” for the offering varies between half a boliviano and 20 bolivianos depending on what it is! Seems intriguing.  I would assume that “$1,000” would be at the upper end of this scale but I am not sure!!!!

As to the llama foetuses…well I remain divided about this.  There is something of the macabre about them…something not quite right..you are supposed to have one in your house to ward off bad spirits…though I am very unsure that customs would allow this back to Scotland! Although once at Edinburgh Airport at customs I saw a guy who was asked by customs what was in his rucksack as something weird had turned up on the x-ray.  He replied, nonchalantly “sheeps’ heads” and the lady at customs replied “oh is that what it is, no worries”.

I decided to buy a little tribute at the market so I got the guy to explain them all to me.  Eventually I left with the one for good luck on my travels though not before he tried to persuade me to take the ones for my house, my health, my family, and my intelligence…I started to wonder if he just wanted to make money out of me….

All I want for Christmas….is a Bolivian stomach

31 Jul

All I want for Christmas is a Bolivian stomach.  After being in Bolivia for a few weeks I have realised that Bolivians have the best stomachs in the world…why do I say this?  Well they can eat ANYTHING and I mean ANYTHING, at any time of day, anywhere and refrigeration…man that’s for wimps anyway isn’t it!

So what does the Bolivian consist of? Well for breakfast in many places they have a huge bowl of soup with meat in it.  They often sell this on the streets in places like Cochabamba,Potosi and La Paz or within one of the many wonderful markets around Bolivia. Needless to say when sold in the streets there is no refrigeration at all and very little else by way of the usual standards we have for food…Other breakfast options include coffee (with evaporated milk and the “usual dose of sugar” ie 2 heaped desert spoons) with a sandwich with fried meat and onions or bread with a hulk of cheese (in Bolivia the closest the cheese gets to the sandwich is in the name..not sure why but it’s always served separately as a wedge on the side).

Another breakfast option is quinoa con leche or con manzana (apple)…now this is unusual stuff…basically the quinoa seems to be cooked in the milk (I think!) and then it is served either in a glass on the street or in a plastic bag with a straw tied at the top.  Refrigeration again…who needs it?

Now while I am on plastic bags I have never known a country to serve so many funny things in plastic bags – you can get any drink you want in a plastic bag including coffee, fresh orange and grapefruit and of course quinoa con leche.  You can also get a whole meal in plastic bags including soup, meat, rice and veg and desert. How they tie the bags is amazing.. I mean the contents never leak out..awesome..

Now onto lunch…the typical lunch is called an almuerzo and consists of 4 courses….starter is a salad commonly with mortadella or cheese..then the biggest plate of soup I have ever seen and then meat with a huge portion of rice, served with bread and then jelly for desert. All for about 60 pence.

At 4 o’clock it is time for a snack..after all who wouldn’t be hungry after that feast…a snack is coffee (with evaporated milk and the usual does of sugar) and bread with cheese or bread with avocado….

Then dinner or cena….cena is usually pretty small by Bolivian standards…it is usually only a huge plate of soup (with pasta “fideo” of course) bread and then meat, a huge portion of rice and veg…all for about 40p this time…..

You might of course need a street snack to keep you going…again all I want is a Bolivian stomach…street snacks vary from tripe and potatoes…unrefrigerated of course…pasta and milanese (a thin piece of meat breaded) unrefrigerated of course….and how about llama meat shredded and salted served with an egg, cheese and dehydrated potatoes..again all unrefrigerated…

Sweet street snacks include pasteles..basically deep fried pastry with sugar…or jelly with whipped cream on top…prepared in the street in a bucket and again without refrigeration…

Ironically my upset stomach came from me eating a dose of fruit with unrefrigerated yoghurt….and ironically came a day after me saying that I had a cast iron stomach….oh well maybe Santa will bring me a Bolivian stomach this year…and that kind of stomach does not trouble itself with such things as “fruit and yoghurt”!!!

Charango’ing around La Paz…

29 Jul

Now there are three steps to learning a musical instrument in a foreign country or for me charango’ing around La Paz…

Here they are….

1: The “getting to know bit” aka picking an unusual instrument

2: The “fun bit” aka buying the instrument

3. The “hard bit” -aka playing the bloody thing…..

In a bit more detail….

1: The “getting to know bit”

This bit is actually almost as much fun as buying the instrument. So where did the inspiration come from for me to learn the charango of all things?

Well I was sitting in a vegetarian restaurant in Cochabamba and a man was playing the charango.

That was it…

Love at first sight…I had to play this beautiful (and portable!) instrument. (Had a bit of a notion at home to learn the acordian but never seemed to have time to do it).

I struck up some chat with the musician and found out that a charango would cost around fifty quid and (he lied) it was quite easy to play..he offered to take me to a market in Cochabamba to buy one but I thought I better sleep on this…is it a silly idea..so I mulled it over..

Then I arrived in La Paz..the first museum I visisted was the Museum of Musical Instruments and this place was packed full of charangos…moreover the guy who started the museum started it as a charango museum. They even do charango lessons in the museum itself…so that was it…this was THE place to learn charango….

Now,of course, I did not consider how many chords the charango has nor the complexity of moving my stubby little fingers overs its delicate strings.. That´s the boring bit of a new instrument and I only like the fun bits!

Next stop was firing in to buy my very own charango…

2: The “fun bit” aka buying the instrument

I love this part of any hobby.

It’s the part before you start the new hobby and are full of youthful optimism as to how this hobby will change your life. I’ve done it with most hobbies, be it cycling, beading or even badminton.  You get all the kit…it is shiny, new and beautiful.

Man this hobby is going to be THE ONE.

All those other silly hobbies, well, they were simply a precursor to this one, THE BIG ONE, the lifechanging one..THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR…

Buying the charango filled me with this same youthful optimism as all the other hobbies I’ve taken up in the past years…the anticipation, the excitement..wow I would soon have the hobby to beat all hobbies…

Asked around at a few places (including the museum) and got a recommendation of a charango shop. They all said the same place so there was no problem there.

Armed with a bundle of bolivianos I went to the shop and bought my very first portable music instrument.

Shop where I bought my charango

Shop where I bought my charango

Again it was love at first sight..

The guy in the shop even told me it had a professional string…just what I needed. Running through my head “camp fires will never be the same for me again!”

So now I had both the inspiration and the kit…time to learn how to play the thing….

3. The “hard bit” aka playing the bloody thing…..

Now this bit does not involve the words “love at first sight” although the first steps to learning a musical instrument in La Paz are surprisingly easy.  You just walk into music schools (I chose Helios in Calle America) and ask if you can take lessons.  They give you a price list..25 quid for an intensive course and then you decide when you want your lessons.  Piece of cake…

Or so it seemed….

But learning a music instrument here is pretty different.

The school has about 30 rooms and one teacher does the rounds of the rooms and then leaves you with some stuff to practise.  This means you get a very short amount of time with the teacher…not the best when learning an instrument from stratch.

Also things would be that little bit easier if you spoke the language. I don’t..and that said lesson one was a bit of a right off because I didn’t know how to ask the teacher how to read the notes…still I was holding the love of the life in my hands and what could be bad about that?

Things got a bit better after lesson four when in stepped a new teacher whose girlfriend spoke English and who was happy to translate the instructions for me..I mean which beginner Spanish speaker would know the words for “pluck with the index and the middle” and “strum with your hand relaxed”. This is specialist spanish!

Despite what the musician said in Cochabamba the charango is NOT that easy to learn though after about 8 lessons (one a day true intensive style) I can now play half a song slowly without the strumming bits which are too hard for now…

..and of course just having the charango has advantages…for example when playing it in a park (or even just holding it) people want to talk to you to ask you about your charango and your playing…If stuck you can strum it a few times and that’s it, you are a “charangista” which to be honest is one of the nicest things anyone has ever called me!!!

I will keep plucking away…and provide ear plugs to those sharing a dorm with me….

Me with the love of my life

Me with the love of my life

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