Bolivia’s Magic Word & other linguistic oddities


In Bolivia, when you are at a market – buying produce for example – there’s a magic word you must use. After asking the price of all your goods, and paying the nice lady (or man), simply ask, “con yapa?” The shopkeeper will usually nod, look around for something smallish, and hand you two small plums or some hot peppers for free! When we first used it, it definitely felt magical; we had somehow trapped this lady and she had to give us something extra! Like a monster that will only let travelers pass when the correct phrase is uttered… I mean, sort of like that.

We originally thought that yapa must be some indigenous language word that has filtered into modern Bolivian society, but not so! Similar to the idea behind BOGO (buy one get one), yapa is short for lleva 3, paga 2 (take 3, pay for 2). I don’t know if I’m disappointed that it’s origins aren’t so old or not, but I love it nonetheless. The term con yapa comes from the Quechua word yapay which means “to increase” or “to add.” It’s lovely to learn that something so quirky like this has been maintained through modern times. I’ve even learned that there is a version of this known as lagniappe which is used in New Orleans, having arrived via Spanish creoles.

Our recent foray into the heart of camba country (the Bolivian Orient) led to the discovery of many great modismos, or slang words, typical of that region. First, a quick lesson: Spanish speakers love to use diminutives, applying an -ito suffix to make the word smaller. No joke, we once heard a vendor on a bus say something like, “un agüita, bien heladito, para una monedita, señor amiguito” or roughly “a small water, very cold (but somehow small), for a small coin, Mr. Little Friend.” It doesn’t really make any sense, but it’s a way to diminish your request to something less serious.

In Santa Cruz they use the suffix -ingo instead. This adds a sort of flair to their Spanish. Combine this with not pronouncing the “s” at the ends of words, and dropping the second “d” when they end in “dado” and you’ve got a recipe for confusion. So, the next time you’re in the Bolivian Orient, and someone asks you how you’re feeling, answer them with this little number, “Pue, me siento chalingo! Y vos? Sentís bien pelao?”* Oh yeah, they use the Vos form instead of Tú, just like those crazy gauchos down south.

*chalingo is slang for really clean, like a windshield of a car; pelado literally means bare, but is used to call a person who doesn’t have facial hair, or could be going bald.


Lies, lies, lies

The disappointment was a familiar feeling. I had asked specifically if the empanada had olives in it, since I have held an intense and abiding hatred for them all my life.

“No, no tiene,” the lady had said. No, it doesn’t have any.

But as we walked out of the store and I bit into the crunchy shell, I could immediately taste them… olives. Of course.

I say of course because Craig and I have been lied to many times on this trip. A bus leaves in 20 minutes? Great! But 40 minutes later we’re still sitting in our cramped seats, awaiting departure, slowly asphyxiating on the fumes of a hundred idling buses. The waitress says they have ketchup? Good, because I wouldn’t order this particular dish otherwise. Cue me choking down some dry scrambled eggs without my favorite condiment.

So what gives? Why you gotta play me like that, South America?

I’ve worked out a possible three reasons for the lying.

  1. They have no idea what you’re actually saying or asking. What’s the default answer for anything you don’t understand? “Yes!” As in the taxi driver smiling and nodding assuredly as you explain where you want to go, and then acting really confused five minutes later when they, inevitably, ask for the address again.
  2. They’re just trying to secure your business, whatever means possible. If they just say they have ketchup, you’ll stay and order. So what if, when you blithely ask “Can I have some ketchup?” to the other waitress who brings your food, she gives you a really strange look as if to imply, I’ve never heard of this strange thing you’re asking for in my life.
  3. They really want to please you. It doesn’t matter if the empanada has olives in it… if they just believe in it hard enough, you won’t even taste them!

The lying, which was so blatant and shocking when we first started out, is now just a matter of routine. Just like so many other things, we’ve gotten used to it and have become guarded against it. It can be frustrating and it certainly adds some spice to our lives… a spice that is about as surprising and unlooked for as an olive in my empanada, but hey, it’s all part of the adventure, right?