Sunday, February 14, 2010

Notes on a Meal

The lake glowed. From where we sat its water gleamed gem-like in the sun. Around us were dahlias as big as plates and roses whose perfume pulled at the air, while we arranged ourselves on a patch of lawn.

The Association of Vendors outside the Market of Copacabana had invited Mandy and me to join them for an afternoon in the countryside. Zaida Tudela, who I have known since 1985, had said in no uncertain terms “I want you to be here Monday at three. Don’t you dare forget.”

Sunday afternoon she called me in La Paz on the cell phone I had purchased to receive just such calls. “Where have you been the last few days? We haven’t seen you. You are going to be here tomorrow? Aren’t you?”

She worries that people will say they will be someplace and then not show. Unfortunately, she has reason to worry in a place where it is hard for people to say no to invitations and so a yes is always unsure and ambivalent.

She wanted to check to make sure, since she had already made arrangements with the members of her association to be there and bring food.

Mandy and I left Romy and Juan Carlos’ house in a rain storm, Monday morning before eight. Sunday, while everyone else in the household was at church, I had gone down to the baroque Sagarnaga Street filled with its many handicraft markets that open off its narrow and steep cobble-stoned line, to buy a bus ticket to Copacabana. I walked up three blocks of hill, ignoring the men offering me trilobites, and other people hawking weavings, as well as the downward rush of cars and vans, to Diana Tours in the Hotel Sagarnaga.

They run a bus back and forth to Copacabana mostly catering to tourists. Although it costs double to take them rather than the local buses, they will pick me up at the ceja instead of making me go down to the cemetery.

As I bought the ticket, the lady at the desk said “they will pick you up between 8 and 8:30” to which I responded “Oh come on, they are never there before 8:40 am. We will be there by 8:30.” She took down my cell number and said “ok.”

A worry splashed around in my mind, as we boarded a minibus to take us to the ceja. The traffic was heavy and the road filed with falling water. By the time we arrived at the ceja, it was ten after eight and Mandy and I still had to walk down about a quarter mile to the toll booths where we would catch the bus.

After we dodged traffic to cross this major artery, I saw our bus waiting. I pulled out my phone to check the time and noticed I had received three messages from an unknown number. Yikes. They had been waiting. But they never arrive early.

Today they did. The door opened and the assistant asked if we were David and Mandy. Ten minutes they were there before we arrived. Ouch! Luckily the bus waited for us.

When our bus pulled into Copacabana, it could not ease into its parking spot because a hundred or so people were walking down the street in formation behind a standard. We waited and waited. I could not see their banner to know who they were or where they were from, but from their dress I knew they had walked from a rural community. I wondered if they were protesting, but heard no chants. I wondered what was going on? But, I just had questions and no answers.

After the bus parked, Mandy and I got off and followed the group of people. We got ourselves settled in Copacabana and then met again by the market. Already lots of women who normally would be sitting by bundles of merchandise selling throughout they day, had gathered. Their stands were not set up and instead the had q’ipis, as they are called, either on their backs or at their feet. A q’ipi is something wrapped in a carrying cloth, with its matched bands of brightly colored stripes that shade towards a contrast, which Dernise Arnold describes as having the bilateral symmetry of the body .

As we were greeting Doña Marcia, at three pm the time we were supposed to be there. Zaida, resplendent in her red hat, came running up. “hermano, hermano where have you been. I have called you three times on your cell phone and you did not answer. I was worried you were still in La Paz.”

“You called me? But I haven’t received any calls? See there are no missed calls listed on my phone.”

“Yes, I called you because I was worried you had not come. You know people often don’t follow through when they say they will do something. I was worried. Your battery must be low. That must be why you didn’t get my calls.”

A man, the only man among the vendors, Don Mario, said “we have a little ceremony we want to do” As he spoke, Zaida came up and put rose petals on my head. They did not stay but soon slipped off my bald pate and fell to the ground, perfuming the air in their fall.

Mario made a speech and I made a speech. All the women, one by one, tried to get petals to stay on my head.

After the ceremony, Zaida looked at me and said, “shall we walk or shall we take a car?”

“That is up to you,” I replied. "It is a beautiful day and I enjoy walking but if you wish we can take a car.”

“Oh no. We will walk.” And walk we did. Across the plaza and down the slope to the flat land below Copacabana, we walked. We could see a crowd of people in the soccer field, enclosed by red brick walls, and could occasionally hear some sound.

“What do you think is going on in the ampliado,” Zaida queried the other women.

I like that word, ampliado. In English we would call it a gathering or a meeting, but in the Spanish it comes from root verb to make larger. In other words it is something made large or broad. It is a public meeting to discuss something probably important of public interest.

“Who is the ampliado for,” I asked. “It is for the campesinos. The mayor called it to discuss municipal stuff.” Ok. So that is why the people were marching in behind their standard. They were representing their community. It looked like they were probably all the adults of whatever community it was.

We continued walking along the now dirt road with its ruts and puddles of mud. “Do you see that two story house with arched windows,” Doña Zaida pointed. “That is my friend’s house. We are going to their garden. You can see it just beyond where all the roses are.”

Though still rural, this area was beginning to sprout houses to compete with the fields of purple flowered potatoes, dark blue flowered lupines with edible seeds (called tarwi), with lots of yellow flowered wild mustard splotching here and there. Soon it will be another neighborhood of the town as it grows. Already it has a name “Villa Bella Cruz”, the “town of the beautiful cross.” I think they would have called it bella vista, or beautiful view, since the view over the fields to the lake was stunning, but that name is already taken for a neighborhood higher up on the hill that looks west to the lake, instead of north.

The garden had roses, mounded with blooms. Dahlias bigger than hands stood here and there. Snap dragons, called in local Spanish toad’s mouth, shook like the belled legs of dancers. But there weren’t just flowers; among them opened furrows of potatoes, tarwi, fava beans and peas.

On a modest patch of well cut grass someone had opened two big, multicolored umbrellas to protect from the intense, highland sun, as well as a table and a wicker love seat. Two of the lawn’s edges held rock and concrete walls that could serve as benches.

As we entered this carefully cared for space of beauty, I was ushered to the bench and table while all the women dressed in the broad skirts of a pollera, which were most of them, sat on the ground. Don Mario continued standing for a bit, while the women in skirts that could be found in other countries sat on the low walls. Though also ushered to the wicker bench, Mandy went and sat with her friends, smiling and laughing with them.

While Zaida laid over the table a commercial table cloth made in the design of a carrying cloth, on top of which she placed a brightly colored carrying cloth with coca and said “let’s chew coca”, Mario came and sat by me. I picked up some coca leaves and began chewing them, while thinking about blowing across them a prayer to the mountains as in done in Peru but not here. Mario interrupted my thought and asked “What exactly has the motive of your work been here in Copacabana.”

I almost giggled, because a couple of weeks ago Edelberto put his arm on my shoulder, in his shadowed store, and said “David, people are saying you work for the CIA. I keep setting them straight but that is what they are saying. Even my nephew has doubts about you. He too wonders if you are working for the US spy agency.”

“Ah Elber [the shorter form of his name]. People always think that. They wonder how a gringo can come and spend so much time here while not doing the things most people think of as work. But, if I were a spy I would probably make more money and, anyway, the CIA is more likely to hire and send Bolivians than me, because they would fit in.”

“No, David. I know you are not a spy but I wanted you to know that people were wondering.”

I wanted to laugh, because this issue comes up constantly. But I did not laugh, because of how serious it is. It reflects a real concern to local people to try to fit me into their patterns of normal behavior and life. It also is made more demanding by the current tension between the US government and Bolivia. Both are shaking their fist at each other. Just recently Bolivia erupted in outrage at the US sending troupes to Haiti, since it looked for all the world here like an occupation force. And, people had such great hopes when Obama replaced Bush.

A week ago Celestino, a man from a nearby community, was laughing and playing with me until he asked “where are you from.” When I said “The United States” he turned away and got very serious while muttering “Obama is evil.”

I kept on talking with him, even getting him to explain how he was angry at the “occupation of Haiti”. But he and I parted friends. He even said hello to me two days later in the street with a big smile on his face.

So I figured I better answer Mario carefully and in detail. I told him I was an anthropologist and that I had first spent time in a community on the other side of the mountain, before coming to live and talk to people in Copacabana. I then went over a list of the topics I had written about.

“I am writing too,” he replied. “Since I I have lived here my whole life I am writing about my vivencias, [experiences of life, adventures]. You don’t have vivencias here because you have only visited. I am writing from the depth of my living.”

“You know in Copacabana there are four historic neighborhoods, although we now officially have ten. Each one has its history and customs. I am from Cundisa. We are part of the lower moiety which includes the community of Marka Cusco where Tito Yupanqui was born. You know who he is? He sculpted the Virgin.

“They used to call us toad-herders because of all the little toads that are born here on these flat lands every year. There used to be a lot more than there are now.”

“Yeah,” I thought “and Cundisa is right next to Qolquepata, the place of silver, which opens on to the twin hills on whose back side is the toad’s mouth, an entrance into the underground by the lake from which all wealth flows. And, despite your reference to a descendent of the Inca, the lower moiety is supposed to be the moiety of the natives who were in opposition to the Incas.” But I said nothing more than “uh huh”.

“We maintain an ancient dance for Carnaval called phuna. We don’t use modern bands or costumes from La Paz for it. It is ours and our heritage. We keep it alive. Just like our neighborhoods, each of the hills has a tradition. This is what I am writing.”

I encouraged him and said I would like to read his writings. He said that he was hoping the municipal government would open a library where writings of lived experiences like his could be stored for younger people to read since things are changing so fast. Traditions are being lost.

Zaida called out “Ok everyone let’s put out the food you brought.” Mario got up and went to sit on a chair off to the side, while Mandy came to sit by me.

As the women laid down two very colorful carrying cloths on the ground on which they placed two white, flour-sack cloths, the woman who owned the garden brought two plates of fried trout which she sat before Mandy and me. She also brought out two platters of french fries as well as a big platter of salad--tomatoes, onions, cucumber, and shredded lettuce--and another one of fried fish cut in half widthwise, that were set on the table along with a condiment tray of oil, vinegar, and salt.

On the ground, women untied their q’epis. As if from a womb they pulled out boiled potatoes, white and sparkling, along with off-white tuntas and dark-gray ch’unos (both of which are freeze dried, reconstituted potatoes), and chalky gray uma khaya (a freeze dried tuber called oca that you now can get and grow in the US). One woman opened a bundle of sweet potatoes with dark skin and orange streaked flesh. All this food was scattered in a row along the cloth so that everyone could have equal access to it. Another woman had a bundle of fritters (called tortillas) made with egg, flour and green onion, I think, while another had a bundle of different fritters made with a filling of tomatoes and onions, I think. People tossed these along the row to distribute them evenly as well. One woman had a round of fresh cheese she sliced and kept close, while other women had different kinds of hot sauce, from a llajua (made with tomatoes, hot peppers, and an herb), to picante (made with dried yellow peppers, ground and mixed with boiled egg). The pieces of fried fish were added to the long pile.

“David and Amanda. This is what we call an apthapi, where everyone brings something and we share. Down here on the ground are what we call fiambres or phutis. This is the everyday food in rural communities.”

Everyone started to eat. Zaida gave Mandy and me the two plates, each of which had a butterflied fried trout on it along with three off white tuntas with a slice of cheese cooked inside them. And, we asked for other items from the row of food below us: fritters, potatoes, camotes ( the local name for sweet potatoes), and hot sauces. In turn we passed to them more of the fried fish from the platter, the fired potatoes, and the salad. Food was moving back and forth in an exchange that defined at least two worlds, one of locals and one of foreigners, as well as the solidary world among the locals of cholitas and ladies of dress. There was also the world of men and that of women.

We ate. The food was delicious. Though I'm not much of a fan of trout because of the fishy taste it often has, this trout was mild and delicious reminding me more of salmon than the rainbow trout at home. But neither trout nor I are native to this town, so we were at the table. But pieces of trout went to the women along with all the other non-native things. Potatoes are native, but french fries are not. Native was not only defined by origin but mode of dress and preparation.

As we ate, people were laughing and talking in three languages. Among the women there was a lot of playing around in Aymara. I joined this conversation, even though my command of the language is weak. They had fun testing me, teasing me and laughing. Somehow I did not hear the word jayu, or salt, when someone asked for it to season the salad I had passed. Everyone except Mandy spoke and understood at least some Aymara. Those not from Copacabana had the least command. The women giggled and told me the word over and over. We also spoke Spanish--all of us to one degree or another, And Mandy and I rarely spoke English to one another.

When the meal was over, having woven together different kinds of difference and restated different similarities, we were served a glass of wine and/or a glass of papaya soda. Many of us poured drops to the earth to share our feast with her and we continued our multilingual conversing.

“Hermanas (sisters), what are we going to do about the seven or eight people who did not show up? Everyone was supposed to come and they did not.” To this complaint/question from one of the woman, others responded “we should fine them”. People muttered about that, and then someone said “what about if we ban them from selling one day, a busy day.” Zaida jumped at that. She is the president of their association and so had to speak the decision. “Yes. That is good we will not let them sell one day. Who all isn’t here.”

Still there was food on the cloths. “Come on, we have to finish all the food.” Instead the left overs where put into plastic bags and redistributed among the women, each with an assortment of what was brought so they could take it home.

A list was put together of the missing women and not too much later we began leaving the garden. We took the wicker love seat back to the house along with the big umbrellas. People shook hands to say goodbye, and some people air kissed.

A few of us, Zaida, Amanda, and I among them began the walk back to town. Although it looked like the meeting was over in the soccer field, still clumps of people could be seen. “I wonder why the women did not come today,” I asked. Zaida said, “They had to go to the ampliado. That is why they did not come."

The hill back to the town rose steeply before us. We slowly lifted our selves up it as the Basilica was increasingly made a shadow from the bright light of afternoon behind it. I kept thinking about how this rise was not a natural hill, but came from making a temple platform in the ancient past and then thousands of years of settlement on top of it. My thoughts were interrupted.

“Have you ever heard the toads croak here at night? They can be really loud.”


  1. that feast looks amazing! And I have to settle for Beto's tonight... yuck.

  2. Wish you had been here to share it, Erik. It was good and the people are wonderful.