Holidays in Bolivia

Off and on during this trip, I’d think about Christmas and get a little apprehensive. It’s not that I’ve never missed Christmas at home with the family; as a nurse, you have to get used to working on holidays and there have also been times when I just didn’t have the money for the flight home. But it’s still a time for friends and family, and we would be without both in the middle of Bolivia, so it just gave me a little trepidation. Would my homesickness flare up to new heights?

So it was with not a little relief when we made arrangements to stay with the cousin of the husband of the cousin of Craig’s dad (a very close family relation, obviously). We were introduced through email and kept them up to date on our progress towards Santa Cruz, the largest city in Bolivia and where Karen and her family lived. We finally nailed down a date for arrival–the 23rd of December, and probably leaving around the 27th (I’m a big believer in the Benjamin Franklin quote, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,” and I don’t like to overstay my welcome).

Left to right, Pily, Faby, me, Craig, Karen, and Toñi. With the exception of Karen, those were all nicknames (apodos).

Of course, these would naturally be quite busy days for Karen’s family, right smack in the middle of Christmas, but part of the reason for staying with a family, and why Karen was doubly insistent on us staying for the holiday, was to alleviate any homesickness we might feel. In any case, we were hugely grateful. Little did we know, however, how busy the Castillos would keep us to prevent said homesickness!

Karen and Pily lived in a really comfortable, modern house in a gated community, had a part time maid/cook, a backyard grill, and we had our own room (Faby, the youngest daughter, gave it up for us). In short, it was REALLY nice! Craig and I kept saying, “Wow,” as we took a tour around the cozy house. We had a couple of hours to settle in before we were whisked off to start our Castillo adventures.

Day 1: After arriving quite late in the day, a barbecue restaurant dinner with some of the family. Meat! Then off for some well-earned beauty sleep.

Day 2 (Christmas Eve, or La Buena Noche): Craig and I enjoy a walk and some fast internet in the main plaza, after taking a 15 minute can ride to get there. Santa Cruz only has a little less than 2 million inhabitants, but the city really sprawls. There’s a nice view of the city from the top of the cathedral.

View of Santa Cruz from the cathedral on the Plaza 24 de Septiembre.

That night, after Pily and Karen got off work, we headed to Karen’s mother’s house yet again. After a round of cheek kissing to greet everybody, and before Craig and I got really settled, all of a sudden it was, “Okay, goodbye!” and off we went cheek-kissing around the room again to say farewell before we went to Pily’s father’s house. There, we again made our way around the room kissing cheeks (more on the air kiss here), before sitting down to a hasty dinner of picana, a delicious stew that is a Buena Noche tradition in Pily’s family. As soon as we had cleared our plates and drank our fill of cider (commonly drunk during the holidays in both Bolivia and Argentina), it was off-we-go again with more goodbye kisses.

Picana–delicious!! I need to get this recipe.

We then raced back to the house for a intimate family dinner of picana again (Cruceños love to eat, we learned), while the clock struck midnight and all around us we could hear small fireworks being set off. It sounded like the Fourth of July. The family then opened their gifts (it’s traditional here to open them at midnight on Christmas Eve), and Craig and I even got gifts! For me, a really beautiful necklace made with a bolivianita gem, also known as ametrine, and for Craig, a nice shirt to augment his meager wardrobe. Needless to say, Karen and Pily are the epitome of perfect hosts.

Our beautifully set table for our Buena Noche picana.

Day 3 (Christmas Day): The only day that Karen and Pily didn’t have to go to work, we set out for Karen’s mother’s house again to spend the day with her large, extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, kids all running around and, of course, eating! I don’t think Craig and I ever felt pangs of hunger during our stay there. It was a really fun time, and reminded me of my own family gatherings: a lot of shouting, inappropriate jokes, and a language other than English. Several hours in, Craig and I were starting to feel pretty brain-tired from all the Spanish. Even though everybody took care to speak slowly and explained difficult-to-understand phrases, it can still be pretty overwhelming. But it’s definitely great practice, and although I still have a long ways to go, I feel pretty good about my ability to at least get my point across.

Christmas with the Feeney side of the family.

Day 4: We weren’t sure what to really do with ourselves on this day, so when Pily invited us to his work, out in the countryside, we were happy to accept. He owns a small factory for manufacturing fertilizer, and showed us around the place, as well as the surrounding areas that had cows in feedlots, a fairly new concept of agriculture in Bolivia. It was interesting to see the conditions of the campo, as well as the workers that Pily employed. They all had huge wads of coca leaves stuffed into their cheeks, and worked totally barefoot in the manure, also refusing to use the facial masks that Pily provided. They lived where they worked during the week, and then went home for weekends. Pily told us that they got paid $2,000 Bs. per month, about $300 USD (the minimum wage in Bolivia is $1,000 Bs/month).

Cows in the feedlot. This breed of cow (I think the Nelore) can support tropical temperatures and is also used widely in Brazil. Pily told us the large skin flaps under their chins (a dewlap) characterizes the genetic purity of the breed.

Craig and I always welcome insights to different ways of life during our travels, so we really enjoyed our visit to the campo, something that most travelers probably don’t get to see. I’ve heard of one backpacker describing a similar experience as “more authentic”, and perhaps it was because English was his second language, but I found it a poor choice of words. The way Karen and Pily lived compared to those in the campo is no less or more “authentic”. To say that, just because Santa Cruz is more modernized and westernized, seems strange. Everybody is still a South American, after all–why should one group claim to be more “authentic” than another?

There is, however, a very marked rivalry between the cambas, largely of white or mestizo origins who live in the wealthy Eastern lowlands of Bolivia, and the collas or quyas, largely of indigenous descent of the Western altiplano or yungas region. Bolivia has the highest percentage of pure, indigenous population in South America, about 60%, and Evo Morales, its president, is the first democratically elected president of indigenous origin in Bolivia (and one of a very few in Latin America on the whole). His presidency has been marked by large unrest in the Eastern regions, who feel that his democratic socialist policies undermine their middle-class way of life (which it probably does), and that Morales does not represent them at all in his politics (because he probably doesn’t).

So Bolivia is a strange country that is split almost in half in terms of ideology. Although Karen and Pily often joked about the collas and the way they spoke or their way of life, you could tell there was an small undercurrent of hostility. Still, Pily said that it was undeniable that Morales had made some very beneficial economic changes to Bolivia (such as nationalizing the extraction of natural resources, and kicking out international corporations who had a history of exploiting the country). It’s a small country, but there are some deep divides, and it was certainly educational to learn about it first-hand from Bolivians themselves.

That night, it was Karen and Pily’s 22nd wedding anniversary. We went out for a very nice dinner and Karen showed off her many gold bracelets, one for each year they had been together, that Pily had gifted her on each anniversary. She says that it’s not a tradition that all Cruceños practice, but Pily is especially romantic (he often serenaded her with guitar and singing in their early days). It was a nice way to spend our last night in Santa Cruz, with an intimate family dinner. By then, we were already feeling a lot like family (the gringo portion of the family)!

Karen and her wedding anniversary bracelets (not all the same).

Day 5: Our last day was marked by the usual business that seems to permeate the Castillo way of life, with two birthday parties (although one was canceled, giving Craig and I some much needed rest). Craig learnt that his car back in Seattle had been broken into (argh), so things were a little fraught before we finally made our way to the airport for our flight to Cochabamba. The farewell was bittersweet–we had really been made to feel at home in Santa Cruz, and would miss everybody quite a lot. It was the perfect way to spend Christmas abroad and Craig and I are super grateful for the hospitality and welcome that we were given. I’ll never forget it, and I hope we’ll be able to meet again someday!