food, vegan, vegetarian

My guide to veggie/vegan eating in Bolivia

Before going travelling, I spent three months as a vegan- having tried Veganuary, found it surprisingly easy, and decided to carry on. I’d been a veggie for 16 years- having given up meat at 9- but had only just made the connection and the next step- to cut dairy and all other animal products. Lots of people asked me ‘are you going to continue when you’re travelling?’ and I said that I would try to do so most of the time, but suspected I may need to revert to vegetarianism at some point.

I was right. I know some people manage to just about live as a vegan out here- but it requires serious dedication, pre-planning, and basically never being able to eat anywhere with friends, and sitting in the corner of a hostel eating peanut butter out of a jar instead. As much as I love the last activity, after a couple of days here it became obvious that for me, vegan would be too difficult. Vegetarianism is well understood in South America, but veganism is barely a concept- although there are some great little restaurants and cafes trying to change that. As it is I’ve managed to do vegan 70% of the time, but I have reverted to eating cheese and eggs occasionally… On the short tours I’ve taken (2/3 days exploring the islands of Lake Titicaca, and the Uyuni salt flats) the only non-meat or fish option has been omelette… omelette… more omelette. I have no idea how you’d explain veganism in Spanish, to people with very little means doing what they need to survive, but I think you might starve.

However, I want to write about those little awesome beacons of the plant-based life that are dotted all over the continent to give some guidance to other veggies and vegans travelling in the region. Though it’s usually possible to get a veggie option in restaurants, it tends again to be- omelette. Or tomato pasta. Or pizza. Without a doubt the best  (and usually vegan) food I’ve found has been in the little veggie cafes and restaurants.

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In La Paz I was lucky on the first day to stumble into Restaurante Vegetariano Armonia, a little vegetarian restaurant over a bookshop, in the bohemian district of Sopocachi- all the best things in one place! Armonia only opens for lunch, but offers an incredible buffet between 12 and 2.30pm for just 34 Bolivianos- around £3.84. I ate two huge plates of mixed salad, fried plantain, potato cakes, spinach fritters, and veggie rice, and had to stagger back to the hostel after for a nap.

The other veggie haven in La Paz has to be Namaste, a funky hippie haven easily within reach of the main market. The extensive menu of delicious and healthy options includes tofu and peanut Thai  veg stir fry, empanadas, soy fritters, lentil burgers, nachos, and burritos. I had these gigantic tacos, stuffed with veggie mince, salad, and guacamole. They set me back just 29 Bolivianos for a huge and satisfying dinner.

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I couldn’t help returning the next day for the set menu lunch, which consisted of a salad with the most delicious dressing I’ve ever had, soup, vegetarian lasagna (which I must admit was a bit cold), and fruit in some kind of rice pudding. Again, only 25 Bolivianos- and they do great coffee too!

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In terms of street food, it’s quite disappointing that the local favourite- salteñas- basically Latin American pasties- are mostly full of meat and potato. However, in Sucre there is one place- Salteñeria Flores– that offers a veggie option. Hot, stodgy, and full of beans and veg, it’s a cheap and satisfying-if not mind-blowing option.

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Another favourite street food in Sucre are papas rellanas– which are served everywhere for breakfast. In the week I spent in Sucre learning Spanish, I often went in the morning to the spectacular Parque Bolivar to buy one or two of these treats for breakfast. Con huevos, is basically a veggie scotch egg- a boiled egg wrapped in mashed potato, and deep fried. There is also a queso option which is flat and has chunks of cheese melted into the potato- and again deep fried. You can either eat them there in the park, out of a plastic bowl with a teaspoon, next to all the locals on little stools, or take them away in a plastic bag to eat at home with a good English cuppa. Good for the waist? No. But the soul, yes. And only 3 BOB each- around 32p!

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The other fantastic thing for veggies are the markets- with fruit and veg stacked high and sold so cheap. Best of all are the freshly squeezed fruit juices, which would set you back four times the cost at home and have several times the flavour here, with fruits you’ve never seen before easily there to try. Just make sure you ask for it sin leche as there is a local habit to add milk to juice for some reason (yuk!), and also sin azucar if you prefer your sugar natural rather than added.

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Sucre is a veggie paradise and the one place I think it would be doable to be vegan 24/7. Without a doubt the best place is the Condor Café, which is also home to the Condor Trekkers, an eco-friendly local touring company which is not-for-profit, and puts its proceeds into local projects such as building roofs for schools, and teaching children about health and hygiene in deprived areas. It does dirt cheap and huge cheese empanadas, delicious falafel and avocado sandwiches, and another bargain-a-licious set lunch menu.

Prem is mostly open for lunch times, but serves awesome and huge seitan baguettes, fresh juices, and set menus in a friendly little place just off one of the main streets.

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El Germen is another great find with a huge menu of vegan options, including a ridiculously cheap 12 BOB veggie burger, quinoa soup, veggie lasagne, and veggie curry. I went with the tofu curry, having been missing protein substitutes, though I have to admit it was quite bland and not really what I’d call a curry. Still- healthy, and cheap, and I still went back the next day for a veggie burger which was much better.

In Copacabana, I was extremely surprised to see a vegan food cart at the bottom of the main high street- and sad as it is, could hardly contain my excitement to have hummus for the first time of weeks. Selling veggie burgers, falafel wraps, hummus sandwiches, vegan brownies and flapjacks and energy balls, this cart belongs to Hostal Joshua nearby, which also has a vegan restaurant- though sadly only open until 8 so I missed it the one night I was there, but on the basis of the sandwiches definitely worth checking out if you are there.

So- I’m now travelling over the water of Lake Titicaca to continue my tour of veggie eats into Peru- wish me luck!

Travel

Latin America, baby! Cholitas, Pachamama, rock bands and protests… my first impressions of urban Bolivia

Swooping into Laz Paz from the Telerifico (cable car) is the best way to experience a city for the first time. The lives that are somehow built into the jagged rocks of the dramatic mountain face that frames the city spill out beneath you… the shanty areas of El Alto, the millions of rows of little houses stacked on top of each other, the winding streets, the larger, gleaming buildings, the little green plazas that are dotted around all over the place…

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The markets are where you really find the heart of life in the city. In the main market in the centre of the city, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables in every colour under the sun are stacked high, gleaming red, green, orange, purple…. . Tables of eggs, and cheese, and spices, are everywhere… and toys, and books, and rip-off dvds, and beauty products, bras… They don’t have supermarkets as we know them, because everyone comes here to buy from their Cholita.

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Cholitas are the indigenous Aymaran and Quechan ladies that come to the market to sell their wares. Ever seen the typical postcard picture of a lady in a wide skirt, bulky knitwear, a small bowler hat perched on her head, and long thin plaits that end in pom-poms? She’s a Cholita, and yes that is how they dress day-to-day. Allegedly, the position of the hat signals their relationship status to passers by: straight on means married, no chance- on the side of the head? Single, potentially ready to mingle. Perched on the back of the head? In a relationship, but it’s complicated…

If you really want to buy everything you could ever need, you should head up the mountain to the El Alto Sunday market. It’s said that if you have your phone stolen you’re likely to be able to find it in this market. The biggest market in Bolivia, you can find everything from cheese graters to car parts.

The more touristy, and probably best known market, is the so called ‘Witches Market’. There aren’t really potions sold here anymore, though there is a powder that is supposed to cure the difficulty men sometimes have er… rising… in the high altitude, as well as a ‘love potion’. The main curiosity for most are the dehydrated llama foetuses that hang ominously from stands along the winding street. These are an offering to ‘Pachamama’, the goddess worshipped by the indigenous Andean communities, a fertility goddess or ‘mother earth’.

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At night, there is a thriving live music scene in La Paz. I was fortunate to meet with Monica, who works in the La Paz office of the charity I had been working for before my trip, who was an incredible host, showing me the coolest local places to go out, and how to party like a Bolivian. La Costilla de Adan is the height of hipster-cool, a speakeasy bar in the bohemian area of Sopocachi (where I was staying in a great hostel called The Greenhouse). There is no obvious entrance to get in, so you have to know where it is, or be lucky enough to have friends to pull you through the un-assuming door… into a bar which is an oasis of antiques and nick-nacks from all over Bolivia including dolls, books, record players, old signs… everything you could ever find in a flea market. They sell wicked-cheap cocktails, too.

From here we went to see a gig at Equinoccio by the local band ‘Atajo’, which Monica described as ‘a Bolivian fusion group against hegemony and domination, its lyrics are questioning everything all the time, with great rhythm, like cumbia/reggae/blues/rock’. Always down for resisting hegemony, I was well up for it. The energy in the place was insane, so although I wasn’t able to understand a lot of the lyrics (though Monica tried to translate in breaks) it was an incredible night out, the band supposedly in their last ever show returning for encore after encore as the audience screamed for more. We even got a sweaty hug with the lead after.

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Politics, and resistance to it, is a strong theme in the city of La Paz. The clock on the government building has time seemingly going anti-clockwise… and why? As a mark of resistance against the historical dominant influence of the northern hemisphere over their country…  because the clock has evolved from the sundial, and while sundials in the northern hemisphere show shadows going one way… in the south, they go the other. It is a mark of resistance, and independence, and about returning to its Southern roots. And I can’t help but respect that.

Another form of subverting global dominant powers is that Bolivia refuses to have any McDonald’s restaurants…. one of the few places in the world! It seems, locals would rather buy their fried snack-goods, like their groceries, from local traders. And for that they have a huge piece of my heart.

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Though there have been protests in the last few years, President Morales seems on the whole to be respected in Bolivia. He has made huge progress in increasing education and prosperity in the country, and it seems that people love him for that. However, he is not free from controversy. Apart from staying in office a term longer than is customary… with no sign of moving anywhere in the future, he has had some wacky ideas. He apparently warned against eating chicken, because the hormones might make you gay… and Coca Cola, because it makes you bald… and was spotted in the same week eating chicken with Coca Cola. Go figure.

More seriously, though, in an effort to increase the low population of Bolivia, he suggested introducing a tax on condoms, to make them unaffordable to the average person. Needless to say the health minister stepped in highlighting why this would be a potentially catastrophic idea… thankfully it is still possible to buy condoms in Bolivia (though the brand name Masculan makes me chuckle).  I also heard tell on the street that Morales put forward a proposal to tax childless women, who weren’t pregnant, in order to try to solve the same problem. Women, naturally wanting to be treated as people, rather than reproductive machines, took to the streets to protest until he was forced to retreat on the issue.  However, Monica disputes these allegations, and says that the system now is rather to give tax breaks and benefits to women with children, in order to encourage motherhood.

One protest that can’t be disputed, however, was a huge uprising in support of our favourite yellow family, The Simspons. When The Simpsons was taken off the air in Bolivia and replaced with a reality TV show, thousands marched in the streets, some even dressed as the Simpsons themselves,  and as bottles of  Duff beer, to demand they returned to the television! And you know what- they were successful. Now The Simpsons shows in Bolivia three times a day. So who says political protest doesn’t work?

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It was an incredible, vibrant and varied first week in a new continent. In my next blog I will share my experience of the other side of Bolivia-  the wilds!

Love and peace,

Helen

Travel

Crazy for Kerala: a friend’s wedding, and a love letter to India

India blew my world apart in 2015. It was the first place I ever travelled to outside of Europe, and that trip, taken at a time when for various reasons I was feeling depressed, anxious, and insecure, was the best decision I ever made. It was the happiest I had ever been; seeing new crazy things every day, being constantly challenged, and surprised, and amused, and awed in turn- by the people, the culture, the landscape, the food. It made my world bigger, as well as my understanding of what is possible from life.  It is thanks to that trip that I decided I had to change the rest of my life in a way which would incorporate seeing as much of the world as I possible. I had found a reason to live fully and finally understand what that means; and that it doesn’t come from textbooks, grades, job security, or sometimes even relationships.

For this reason it is a country that holds a very special place in my heart; I love the generous natured people, I  love their literature (which was the basis of my Masters dissertation), and of course I love their  food. I always hoped to go back for a longer term trip next time, but when I was lucky enough to be invited for my friend Deepak’s wedding in Kerala shortly before my trip to Latin America I was desperate to go. Last time I had spent three weeks travelling in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and here was the chance to see the other end of the country. And my god, I knew India is diverse, but it’s a different planet.

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Driving through Kerala is a lush panorama of green on all sides; palm trees, coconut trees, banana trees, jackfruit trees…. And endless expanses of water- the sea, lagoons, and rivers.  It couldn’t be more different to the harsh desert landscape in Rajasthan, where water scarcity is a serious issue for the people and is often rationed.

After being welcomed by Deepak’s family, we spent the first three days having some much needed rest and relaxation on Cherai beach, which, even when overcast, was a hot and beautiful expanse of sand and palm trees. We stayed in a beach hut on stilts a few steps from the sand. It seemed there were no foreigners around. (This proved to not be true- if you follow the only sign for ‘cold beer’ in the town- there you will find them- all huddled in one bar with an amazing sea view). We had fresh, hot, deep fried chillies, served everywhere on the beach- especially delicious if you get them straight out of the fryer. It was hard to tear ourselves away to go back to the hot city of Cochi, but the promise of an epic Indian wedding was a pretty good incentive.

We had a pre-wedding dinner with Deepak’s lovely family, then the next day had an 8 hour bus ride to the bride (Nida)’s home town. Hari, Deepak’s Dad, told us the pre-wedding dinner was just a ‘small family gathering’ and ‘no need to dress up’. Thank god we decided to anyway.

As the bus drove on to the island (!) on which Nida’s family live, we heard drumming and saw out of the window a huge marquee, and a procession to announce that the groom had arrived. We walked down a path behind it and the drummers moved into the marquee (really not adequate to describe the size of it) lit up in purple like a disco. There were speeches, a cake cutting… Nida looked stunning. An incredible array of food; veggie down one side, meat and fish another, a separate dosa counter… and dance and song tributes to the couple all night. I guess there were a couple of thousand people at this ‘small family gathering’…

The next morning the women of our group got roped (quite literally) into our sarees until we could barely breathe or walk- seriously! Thank god they looked good because they are not comfortable or practical to wear.

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The stage had been reset overnight in gold for the wedding, with a pillared gold canopy in the centre framed by two smaller ones, and real roses woven into the framework. Somehow, us  bunch of ten foreigners that made up Deepak’s friends, were allowed seats in the front row to witness the ceremony.

The bridesmaids (I assume?) began the procession, in a colourful array of sarees, carrying fans with incense billowing from the centre. There was a parade down to collect the groom. Deepak sat on the stage, looking nervous but excited.  Then they collected Nida, who , if possible, seemed to be wearing more gold than the stage, her hair and makeup immaculate.

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The ceremony was very much  about the coming together of two families, and both appeared with the bride and groom on the stage. I didn’t quite  understand all the ins and outs but will try to describe them. The Hindu priest, a tiny, hairy man wearing a dhoti blessed the families, Nida and her father binding hands.  Deepak led Nida around a circle in the centre of the stage three times, and then they exchanged garlands (the equivalent of rings). The groom’s sister, the lovely Divya, was to fasten the necklace around Nida’s neck that made her officially a part of their family. They were married. Then just a casual three hours of photos, while the rest of us went for lunch.

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Lunch was a huge array of vegetarian curry, pickles, rice, popodoms, and three puddings, on a banana leaf. How do you cook for 5000 people? See below!

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After the craziness of the wedding we had a day out to explore the famously beautiful Keralan backwaters.  We spent a blissful morning on a larger ‘houseboat’, watching life on the river drift by. After stopping for lunch, the afternoon was then spent in smaller ‘dugout’ canoes, which took us through narrower rivulets, past children playing in the cool water, people washing clothes, beautiful birds, and even a river snake.DSCN1587.JPG

The following day was the after party- in which Deepak and Nida were fashionably late, their presence announced  by a stream of fireworks down the central aisle as they were lead by a troupe of dancers to the stage. Again, the whole of both families were welcomed to the stage, with what I can only assume was some banterous rhetoric about each person- though a friend tried to translate from the Malayalam, we got odd words displayed on a screen for us foreigners- like ‘cauliflower’ and ‘selfie’. I tried to keep up.

After we had said goodbye to the bride and groom, a small group of us went on to Munnar, the most beautiful place  on earth. All you can see for miles around are glimmering emerald mountains, covered in tea plants. Shrouded in clouds (literally, try taking a tuk-tuk back at night and you’ll be swamped in them), it’s like walking into a mystical fairy tale.

We took a jeep at the crack of dawn to try to see the sunrise over Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest tea plantation. Unfortunately due to Indian sense of timing, and our friend Will holding us up  for 15 minutes having a dump, we actually missed it. The jeep ride was insane- ‘off road’ doesn’t really cover it, and we all came out quite bruised.  However, the photos prove it was worth the views.

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If you come to Kerala you must not miss the Kathakali shows. This is a form of traditional dance enacting parts of the Ramayana-  an ancient Hindu epic poem. The pictures show the incredible costumes- I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot but it seemed to involve jealousy, violence, divine intervention, and eating intestines and rubbing them in people’s hair… yup.

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This was followed by a traditional martial arts demonstration which was out of this world! Seeming superheroes performed battles so fast and insane our eyes couldn’t keep up… leaped through fire, and jumped over about eight audience members.

I will never forget the incredible two weeks I spent in Kerala and all the things we saw, but most of all I am grateful to have come to know Deepak’s family, who made the whole experience so much richer. I have never met more genuine and giving people- so thank you to Bindu and Hari, Divya and Ajith, Joby and Neeraj, and the many more who made us feel a part of your family. We friends from England will always make sure that Deepak has a family in our home, too, and that your new daughter and sister Nida will be welcomed in the same way.

Love and Peace,

Helen