Today’s Flaneuring post is by Dana Holzer and she walks us through Cochabamba, Bolivia. I just like saying that name, Cochabamba. Cochabamba.

Ah Cochabamba, Bolivia…we Montanans love you. A sprawling city of one million, where many languages are spoken in the roiling hot days and cool nights. You are hemmed in by Mt. Tunari’s peak of 17,000 feet and flanked by the largest Cristo statue in the world. Visitors quickly learn that in town the altitude is high enough and the sun strong enough that you’d better lather up with sunscreen and carry extra store-bought water.

cochabambaOur little neighborhood surrounds Parque Lincoln. Most weekends, photographers, wedding parties, folkloric dancers, semi pro video crews, and families with pets descend to the park to spend time together and to share a picnic meal. The many palm trees erupt in permanent firework shaped poofs, and the shrubs surrounding the historic fountains are trimmed to look like various animals: pigs, turkeys and ducks.

Our apartment building is a lofty white and orange stucco building with two friendly doormen, Edgar and Wenceslas. Each day we spend time talking with them while waiting for a taxi, or simply to get fútbal scores. Edgar has a quick smile and speaks Quechua and Spanish, whereas Wenceslas speaks Aymara and Spanish. When my kids have special holidays at their Bolivian school and dress up in traditional costumes, Edgar requests to have his photo taken with our family. Then he sheepishly asks for a copy to show his parents, with whom he lives. The doormen have difficult jobs, assuring security for the building which means hours of boredom, working 24 shifts in a teeny tiny room with no bed for the night. We bring fruit and baked goods to help them pass the time.


Across the street there is an old formidable brick wall enclosing our neighbor Hector’s farm. He grows lemons, fruit bearing cactuses, and his roosters are my son’s alarm clock. Hector’s wife sells a local specialty, Humintas (hot corn sweet pastries), fresh peach juice and Cokes on the weekends just outside their gate. The refrescos are poured into small clear plastic bags and tied around a straw to drink.

Sounds are important in our neighborhood. The gas truck delivering propane announces its coming with a loud clanging steel rod striking a round metal disc. A high pitched whistle signifies the knife sharpener is on his way. It’s a sound like no other; it begins as a shrill high note, then melodically tumbles down the octave. These men look as though they’ve emerged from the hills 100 years ago in their woolen vests and tire soled sandals.

The school building on our street is the site for 3 separate schools, including night school for adults. Thankfully it rarely rains in Cochabamba, because the roof leaks down onto the students. To notify the neighborhood of the upcoming school year a loud speaker blasts information for three days. A PA system is used on a daily fruit truck lumbering up and down the streets. These drivers sound violent as they shout out, “Manda, manda manda mandarinaaaaaá! The last “a” sound slides up five notes higher. The sounds are curiously like a very bad recording of a Muslim call to prayer.

Other treasures in our neighborhood include bustling fruit and veggie stand at a speedy rotunda underneath a sprawling giant tree. The two main women staffing the tienda work from 7 am to 7 pm. Giant avocados, passion fruit, potatoes, tumbo fruit and slices off of a giant pumpkin (the size of a small St. Bernard) are all for sale. Fresh, cheap and open every day.

Down the hill is our church, cobbled out of a rambling housing complex. The stucco walls are mustard yellow, and a thatched roof of woven leaves sneak in dust, dirt and rain. It’s said of Cochabamba that the air is so full of flying soil, that an airplane slams the dirt before it hits the ground.

cochabamba2Many Latin American people are known for extraverted gregariousness. Bolivians are much more reserved, which is not to say they aren’t warm. Kissing on the cheek or air next to the cheek happens perhaps 50+ times a day to greet friends, my dentist, my kids’ teachers, a new acquaintance. Sometimes when we meet new people, my kids are petted or stroked just like a cat. They are praised for their command of Spanish, and I am given the encouragement (also sometimes 50+ times a day) “poco a poco”, meaning little by little, you too will learn.

Women endearingly called cholitas are often seen outside, walking to and from their daily work. In the past they were only counted as house help and were routinely discriminated against. They have thick double braids to their waists and wear gorgeous velvet, knee length skirts with perhaps one hundred folds lengthwise in the dark fabric. Their broad straw hats are a stiff, woven white with plastic flowers on the brim. A heavy brocade cropped blouse is worn under a colorful blanket of sharp turquoise and fuchsia, tied around the shoulders. They literally carry the next generation on their backs. These beautiful women are like strong, silent sentries guarding modern people from forgetting their roots.

Dana W.M. Holzer is a Montanan who loves living in Cochabamba, Bolivia with her husband and two children. Working with a missions organization, Dana also writes for Montana Parent Magazine and for their family blog, Big Sky, Big World. Follow their (mis)adventures at Big Sky Big World.