Notes from Bolivia.

AuthorWilkins, Andrew

Drew Wilkins is a former Worldwatch staffer who recently spent three months working with nurses at a rural university, la Unidad Academica Campesina, in an area known as Carmen Pampa, northeast of La Paz. These commentaries are adapted from a blog he wrote while in Bolivia.

PART 2: May and June

May 3

The Inca Empire is the birthplace of the grain quinoa (pronounced keen-wa), so coming here for me is like a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Wailing Wall, and the Vatican all rolled into one. Bolivians eat very little of this highly nutritious food, using it only occasionally in soups and sometimes drinks. This is a shame, due to the prevalence of malnutrition. One can only hope that this "grain that fed the Incan armies" will make a comeback in its native land. I've decided to do my part by eating enough for five or six Bolivians.

I also love platanos, or plantains. The best plantains are the ones that look like they've been run over by a truck--all black and gross, preferably covered in fruit flies. That's how you know they're ready for frying. Mm-mmm. At first, I thought the ladies in the market were trying to unload the bad ones on me. Then I realized they were giving me good plantains but just charging me too much. Then I realized they were giving me good plantains and charging me the right amount, but that I was just giving them too much money because I can't add and speak Spanish at the same time.

May 6

I just paid 10 pesos to cut a lock of this two-year-old boy's hair while every member of his family sat in my living room and watched.

This event is called a retucha--an Aymara custom in which a young child receives his or her first haircut in an inefficient yet lucrative manner. In anthropologic terms, villagers use madrinas and padrinos [the presiding godmothers or -fathers] to create a network of "fictive kin" who provide emotional and financial security when times are tough. Family and friends gather and a blanket is placed on the floor and the child and mother sit on the blanket with a dish of dry rice in front of them. Then, one by one, the attendees approach the child. Holding a sum of money in one hand, they grasp a lock of hair with that same hand and use the other hand to cut. They then place the hair and the money in the dish of rice in one fluid motion. Everyone claps.


Once everyone has gone, the madrina or padrino finishes the haircut, putting more money in the dish with each snip. When she's done, the madrina counts the money and then adds more to bring it to an even multiple of 100. (What a racket!)...

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