Lessons learned, discoveries and observations from Santa Cruz
by Alison Donald
(Santa Cruz, Bolivia)
I’ve been living here just over 3 months and I feel very at home here. Part of this must be that I have my own personal guide here in Santa Cruz (my Cruceño boyfriend) who has shown me the ropes and patiently answered my occasionally daft questions. I’ve discovered a few things myself too. Here is a list (in no particular order) of things you might like to know about Santa Cruz. If you’ve got something you’d like to pass on please add it to the bottom of this list!
1. The law of the Cruceño really is hospitality. They are not inviting you just to be polite, they actually would like you to come to their house and enjoy their food and get to know you a little.
2. Buen provecho. At one time or another you will almost certainly walk into a restaurant and it will seem like everyone has stopped eating to stare at you. Either way, the correct response is “buen provecho” (roughly, “enjoy your meal”) and will put everybody at ease. If someone says this to you, the correct response is “thank you” if they are not eating, and “buen provecho” if they are eating too.
3. Children are venerated in South America. They are taken everywhere and are welcome everywhere.
4. People (not everybody of course, but a sizeable proportion) throw litter. Out of car windows; when walking down the street; napkins thrown on the floor at outside cafes. These are nice people. People with jobs and from good families who would not dream of breaking other laws. I really try not to be shocked by it.
5. On the whole, men and women in South America make much more of an effort with their appearance than I have seen in the UK, irrespective of wealth or natural beauty. This is particularly true in the Santa Cruz region, which is generally claimed to have the most attractive women in Bolivia. Santa Cruz is also a fashion and modelling hub and it is perfectly normal to see girls in bikinis on Bolivian TV at 11 am.
6. People often don’t wear seatbelts and may look at you strangely if you do. Indeed on the rare occasions I have tried to wear a seatbelt here I have sometimes found that it doesn’t actually fasten.
7. Chile has the reputation for the most corrupted or “dirty” Spanish but I think Santa Cruz offers a serious contender to this title. The Spanish here is fast and “s” and “z” are generally not pronounced. Indeed you may see “vamos” written as “vamoj” which is then pronounced “VAM-oh” ie without the “s” sound. The same is true of pues, ellos, gusta – well, any word which should include an “s” sound.
Perhaps most crucially this applies to the greetings of “buenas tardes” (which becomes BUEN-ah TAR-deh) and “buenas noches (which becomes BUEN-ah NOCH-eh). To avoid sounding completely fresh off the boat and to minimise my chances of getting ripped off I have adopted these pronunciations.
The “vos” form of Spanish (prevalent in Argentina and Uruguay) is also used here. It is similar to “tu” except stem-changing verbs are not altered eg puedes is podes, quieres is queres etc. The main word which may flummox you is “sos”, from ser (“to be”).
It doesn’t stop there. Bolivian Spanish is famous for its diminutives (-ita/ -ito) on the end of a word to make it more endearing. Eg sopita is literally “little soup” but does not mean a particularly small amount of soup, but a tempting soup.
These diminutives are alive and well in Santa Cruz too but you may also hear (especially amongst younger people) words with an –ingo/a (small) or –ango/a ending (big) eg
Masc -Pocingo (small amount of something)
Fem -Mesinga (small table)
Masc - Flojango (really lazy male)
Fem - Casanga (large house)
8. The sanctity of the queue (particularly informal queues) is often not recognised. So you will need to become accustomed to this or become very assertive (a sharp “con permiso” may work). People with small children, pregnant ladies and the elderly are quite rightly given priority, though on the rare occasions that they someone does not usher them to the front of the queue they may take the matter into their own hands.
9. Niño Divino. This image of the infant Jesus is prominent in South America but particularly in Bolivia. On the first Sunday of every month huge amounts of people take the trip to Buen Retiro (near Buena Vista) to ask at the sanctuary for a miracle. Thus on the Saturday evening proceeding the first Sunday of the month, you will find a huge number of micro buses parked near the Palacio de Justicia on the first ring of the city. These are waiting to transport people to and from Buen Retiro on Sunday morning.
10. Sugar. Bolivians (like most South Americans) like their sweet food really sweet and may throw spoons of sugar in a delicious juice where I think one would suffice. Best to ask for “un poquito”.
11. Salt. If you have invited Bolivians over to eat at your house, don’t be offended if they ask for the salt and apply it liberally to their plateful when they think you are not looking.
12. Mennonites. If you find yourself in the northeast corner of the city centre you are almost certain to see fair-haired, very tall men dressed in dungarees (overalls) wearing a cap or Stetson hat or women dressed very conservatively in long dresses covering both knees and upper arms. The women may also be covering their hair. There are a huge number of Mennonites in the Santa Cruz area and they generally come into the city centre to sell their produce or to buy supplies for their farms.
13. You may get your change in sweets. Sometimes supermarkets lack the smallest coins and may hand you a couple of mints as part of your change.
14. Don’t touch the shower head of an electrical shower (ie adjust the temperature) whilst you are using it.
15. A sign for “Sauna” actually means you will find a “sauna” eg a wood-lined room heated to a high temperature. People from the UK may find this particularly surprising.
16. The best places to find imported food goods:
Hipermaxi Norte on the intersection of Cristo Redentor (Banzer) and the third ring. Particularly good for American imports eg jars of peanut butter the size of your head.
IC Norte on the intersection of Avenida Busch and the third ring. The place to come for Brits who want home classics such as Uncle Ben’s Sweet n Sour stir-fry sauce, Fray Bento’s pies (no, really) and Marmite at US$10 per 250g jar. There is also a good selection of actually most things in this absolutely massive shop.
Naturalia (city centre store at #474 on Calle Independencia / between Mercado and Manuel Ignacio). There are loads of great finds here including bottled sauces and condiments from around the world and a great range of spices and dried herbs. It is a bit more expensive than the supermarkets but this is the price you pay for a nice shopping experience. I love to browse here but always end up buying something! They also have a smaller store on the third ring (internal), quite close to UTEPSA.
17. IC Norte also carries imported premium clothing brands at knockdown prices. When I was there recently they had genuine Seven For All Mankind jeans for 260Bs (depending on your circumstances that may or may not be a lot of money to you here).
18. Trufis are shared taxis. These operate on a wide range of pre-determined routes to locations outside of Santa Cruz. They are also on the “rings” of the city. They are generally faster and more comfortable than the micros that do the same routes. There are no official stops – you can get in and out wherever suits you. The official fare on the “rings” of the city may or may not be 1.80Bs but 95% of the drivers will charge passengers 2Bs, payable when you get in.
19. Mobile phone recharge cards. If you are a heavy user of phone credit (either for your cell phone or for mobile internet) you can secure a discount by purchasing in bulk at an outlet. Look for a “Tarjetas Por Mayor” sign. There are several of these at Mercado Mutualista. As an example, if you buy 5 VIVA cards of 90Bs each you should be able to secure a discount of 7Bs on each card. Depending on your circumstances this may or may not be a worthwhile saving for you.
20. I’ve got into the habit of keep a couple of pesos in a pocket away from the rest of my money so that I may distribute them to beggars, though I only give to people who are too disabled or old to work.
21. Lateness. People are late. Don’t cook anything that will spoil if it needs to wait for guests and just smile sweetly when they arrive (they might not think they are late).
22. After 11 years in London (where you need to make group social arrangements at least a month in advance), it is refreshing that people here are a lot more spontaneous and invitations are given only a few days in advance.
23. In my experience, the best and freshest fruits, vegetables (and flowers) are found in the markets rather than the supermarket. It is a sad fact that you may get ripped off in the markets where more tourists are to be found (eg in the city centre). Know roughly what you should be paying for items and go with a list so you look like a serious shopper.
24. It is regarded as perfectly acceptable to play music from your mobile phone in public.
25. Annual inflation in Bolivia is in double-digit figures. This means that the price marked on an item or on the shelf may not be the one you are charged when you come to pay. So don’t assume they are trying to rip you off.
26. Mocochinchi. This is a delicious cinnamon-flavoured drink sold throughout Bolivia. It is roughly the colour of diluted cola and may have a small dried peach-like fruit at the bottom. I am ashamed to admit that for quite a while I thought it was a glass of gravy with a chunk of meat in it. But now I know better and am trying to spread the word.
27. People don’t mince their words. If they think you have put on weight, that you smell of garlic or that your house smells of onions, they will tell you straight out rather than skirting round the subject and dropping subtle hints. Don’t be offended.