How to enjoy el Gran Poder

El Gran Poder is a street parade that winds its way through La Paz from morning to night. Copious amounts of dancers, sequins, marching bands and alcohol are involved. The route is closed off from view, so you need to line up to get inside and see anything. Food stalls fill the surrounding streets and enterprising individuals wander along the parade route selling fast food and beer out of backpacks.

One of my students described it as anarchy.

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Last year we went during the day (photos and video). If you want fewer crowds, a good seat or simply to be able to see the floor before it becomes a damp mass of accumulated rubbish, then this is the time to go.

If, however, you can cope with people cutting in line, being crushed in the crowd and drunks repeating “People indigena” and “My name is! My name is!”, then going after dark is the thing for you. This is what we did this year and it was a blast!

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Here’s why I enjoyed this year’s Gran Poder so much:

It was both entertaining and frustrating to watch police try to stop people from pushing and cutting in line. I used my elbows a lot when initially trying to get into the parade area. On the way out I didn’t even need to walk – I was just swept along by external force as the whole crowd pushed forward and I sort of floated with them.

Once inside, we walked along the street amongst all the dancers and musicians. Everyone was doing it so we just followed along. This involved getting smacked in the head by whirling rattles, spiked in the chest with feathered costumes and being shouted at by the audience in seats whose view we blocked momentarily as we walked by. It was a pretty awesome experience to be so close to the dancers, actually swept up with them at some points and swirled along with the parade.

The dances seemed more varied in the evening than in the day. I saw some styles that I’d never seen before, with some really amazing masks and accessories – not just the morenada. Plus the costumes looked even more spectacularly glittery under floodlights than during the day.

The unexpected little extras: almost witnessing a fight between a dancer and pedestrian who was trying to squeeze past where there really wasn’t any space, being sprayed with fire extinguishers, catching the eye of lots of dancers and/or drunken revelers joining in who then were really happy to see foreigners enjoying the festivities.

The freedom of being able to leave when I wanted. When I bought a seat last year, I wanted to get my money’s worth so I had to rely on mobile vendors selling me overpriced Burger King and pizza because I didn’t want to give up my seat. This time, once we’d had enough of the parade we left and went to eat from the cheap street stalls: anticuchos and sandwich de chola never tasted so good. The food was super fresh because of the high turnover (I didn’t get sick at all – always a bonus in Bolivia).

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A final word of warning: don’t wear your best shoes. In fact don’t wear your best anything. Most of the time you won’t be able to see the floor, but you’ll be able to feel it’s texture, and it isn’t pleasant. That stream of liquid is not water. Neither is it spilt beer.

A postcard from Flor de Leche

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Good cheese is hard to come by in La Paz. You can buy ‘Cheddar’ and ‘Gouda’ but you’ll be disappointed at the plastic consistency. You can fry tasty queso criollo (like halloumi), but it doesn’t melt which makes a lot of cheese recipes impossible.

But, if you’re willing to pay for it, there is Flor de Leche. Run by a Belgian, located in Achocalla (just outside of La Paz), and producing organic, European-style cheeses and dairy products, Flor de Leche is sold in all the supermarkets here. And, you can visit their factory in Achocalla. Even better, they have a restaurant there which serves fondue and raclette.

Hell, I didn’t even know what raclette was until I saw the table next to me. But that saturday lunchtime, sitting on a lawn eating a big pot of melted cheese, I could be forgiven for forgetting I was in the middle of the altiplano. Except that the fondue came with little potatoes as well as bread and salad. Unlimited potatoes, bread and salad. It was good. Really good. The perfect way to get a cheese fix in La Paz.

After stuffing ourselves on fondue (which was meant for two but easily fed the three of us), we asked our waiter if we could see where they made the cheese. Although no one was working in the factory at the weekend, he got the keys and opened up the processing areas to show us. It was pretty cool seeing lots of cheeses floating in the dark.

Flor de Leche
Contact: (591-2) 2890011 it’s necessary to make reservations
Open: Saturday and Sunday
Cost: Fondue / Raclette 150Bs, Pizza 75Bs
Directions: No.4 Calle 4 de Abril. From La Paz or Zona Sur, take a bus to Mallasilla, get off at the roundabout and change buses to Achocalla (it might be the same bus you’re on, so ask the driver). You can also get a bus direct from El Alto. Stay on the bus as it goes past the lake in Achocalla and look out for a small wooden sign on the left. Flor de Leche is a few minutes down the alley.

Volunteering with Up Close Bolivia

It’s been nearly a year since we first came to La Paz, and we haven’t yet posted about what brought us here in the first place. So, here’s a run-down of our volunteering experience with Up Close Bolivia.

What:
From a children’s centre to English classes and community tourism development, Up Close have several projects based in the communities of Jupapina and Mallasa, two villages just outside of La Paz. The organization was founded by Emma and Rolando, a British-Bolivian couple. With the help of Karen, the volunteer coordinator, they continue to be very actively involved in the activities of Up Close Bolivia.

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What we did:
Since we’re English teachers, we worked on developing free English classes for the community. They had previously run a course with a book written by a volunteer, but we knew we needed something more structured because in the future the courses would be taught by volunteers without teaching experience. Working with another volunteer, a Maths teacher from Melbourne, we sourced materials, wrote syllabi and created flashcards. Then we taught.

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We ran a short children’s course during the winter holidays as well as beginning a long-term evening course for adults. This evening course is still going, and while living in La Paz we’ve continued to help out by training new volunteers.

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Where we lived:
The volunteer accommodation is absolutely beautiful. There are several small cottages which are really well-equipped with proper hot water (uncommon in Bolivia), full kitchens, cosy duvets, TVs and a big selection of DVDs (as well as an indoor hammock and fireplace, depending on which house you’re in).

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The grounds around are perfect for lazing in the sun, barbecuing or playing football. We spent many a night cooking communal dinners with the other volunteers or hanging out with the playful pets, and attending welcoming or leaving dinners up at Emma’s house as volunteers came and went.

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Down-time:
We actually had quite a bit of free-time in which to explore the surrounding area: Valle de la Luna, Muela del Diablo and La Paz. Up Close expects hard work from volunteers, but they also know that people want to take the opportunity to explore Bolivia while they’re here and so they’re happy to let you take a long weekend to do that. Several other volunteers even went further afield to Lake Titicaca, Sorata, Coroico, Uyuni, Rurrenabaque and Machu Picchu.

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Requirements and fees:
Volunteers with all types of experience are welcomed and encouraged to make use of their particular skills. Minimum age is 21, but younger volunteers may be accepted if they can show suitable maturity. You don’t have to speak Spanish, but obviously it helps. Up Close can arrange Spanish classes at a competitive rate or help set-up a language exchange. One month minimum commitment. We paid $450 per person, which included accommodation, support from Up Close staff and some money towards developing the English classes (and other Up Close projects).

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Final thoughts:
Being given total trust and responsibility for our own project was both empowering and a little daunting. But once we actually started, I realized just how much I had to contribute and seeing how things actually got implemented quickly, it was a huge confidence boost and I realised that this was something that really had an impact on the local community. A year on, and with the help of all the amazing volunteers since that first English class, the program has now grown to include three different classes open to the public as well as special courses for local government workers. To be part of this close-knit community of volunteers and locals has been a really wonderful experience and we’re so happy we found Up Close for this opportunity.

Salteñas and Tucumanas

Salteñas and Tucumanas. Although these are demonyms for people from Salta and Tucumán, in northern Argentina, they’re also tasty street food snacks in Bolivia.

No one’s really sure how they got their names. Whilst Salta is famous for the best empanadas in Argentina (which I can personally attest to), these bear only a passing resemblance to salteñas from Bolivia. A salteña has a hard, baked pastry shell which encloses a stew-like mixture of meat, potatoes and other vegetables, with an occasional olive or piece of hard-boiled egg. Eating one takes some caution as the liquid tends to squirt out when you bite it. The trick is to bite the top off and then drink the broth before moving onto the solid parts.

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I was told a story about their origin in which two brothers from Bolivia married two sisters from Argentina. When they moved back to Bolivia, the wives started cooking these meat- and vegetable-filled pastries and their business took off. People would say “Let’s go to the salteñas” and over time the word became associated with this style of empanada.

It’s a nice, convenient story but I doubt how true it is. Plus it explains nothing about tucumanas. What I do find particularly interesting is that it attributes the invention of a national icon to non-Bolivians.

Whilst salteñas are not to everyone’s taste (they have a sweet flavour as well as savoury, which I think comes from both the type of pastry and the broth inside), tucumanas are a little more conventional. They’re big, fried empanadas full of juicy meat and vegetables (and probably a piece of egg too). Sort of like a Cornish pasty on steroids (sorry empanadas, but ham and cheese is far too light a filling for me).

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My favourite thing about tucumanas is the stuff that comes with it. Mid-mornings you’ll see people clustered around tucumana stands, spooning vegetables and drizzling sauce onto every bite they take. There’s escabeche (pickled vegetables), diced cucumber and tomato, peanut sauce, llajua (chili salsa), some kind of green and spicy sauce (which I’ve no idea what it’s made of, but is absolutely delicious!), as well as mayonnaise, ketchup and salsa golf (ketchup and mayo mix).

If you’re at all worried about hygiene, you might not want to partake of the vegetables; you serve yourself with a spoon from a big tub, and that spoon touches everyone’s tucumanas which have just touched everyone’s mouths as they chow down.

Where to eat:
The best tucumanas I’ve had are found at the corner of Calle Zoilo Flores and Calle Almirante Grau in the morning when Mercado Rodriguez is open at the weekends. They are always super fresh, fried before your eyes. They cost 5Bs, which is a little more expensive than others around town. Another good place is Calle Mexico, which is lined with portable food stands during the morning, throughout the week. Salteñas are sometimes sold from the same stands as tucumanas, other times they might be sold alone. The ones in Plaza Murillo are the freshest I’ve had. Often, if you see only a few left for sale, they may have been sitting there a while and have probably gone cold. Like tucumanas, they taste better warm.