As part of living in a new country, it’s part of my goal to learn more about the country, the language, and the culture of the people living there. What’s the point of living in a new place if you’re going to live in a North American bubble the whole time? Two of the new Cuso volunteers that arrived about a month ago are living in a nearby town called Alcala, and regularly come to Sucre for weekends. One of the volunteers, Christina, is half Bolivian. Her family invited her to a graduation event a few weeks ago in a city about 2 hours outside of Sucre, and she invited us to tag along. We had no idea what to expect, but we jumped at the opportunity!
Waiting for Christina by the plaza (featuring lots of pigeons and a frapaccino).
Tuesday Morning – Getting to Betanzos
On Tuesday morning we got up and packed some overnight bags. Normally I’m a huge over-packer, but this time Steve and I managed to fit all our stuff in one regular-sized backpack – not bad! We went to the plaza to meet with Christina, but she was stuck at the bank so Steve went to get a frapaccino at the delicious ice cream place! Then we met with Christina around 10:15 and headed a few blocks over to grab a bus. We waited about 5 minutes and then caught the number 3 bus to the terminal. The bus was pretty full, but we were able to get seats. At the bus terminal we got off the city bus and walked a street over to where all the cars are. In this area there are cars (kind of like taxis but they look like normal cars) that are willing to take you to farther places than the city buses. They’re more expensive than a bus or micro, but they also make less stops and can drive faster over the mountains. We got in a car with another guy who was going to Potosi (same direction but a bit further), and each paid about 80 Bs. The trip was pretty uneventful. The views were the same as on our trip to Potosi, lots of windy roads through the mountains, dry rivers (that are a bit less dry now), and desert-like plains, with random barnyards animals and communities dotted along the side of the road.
Left: Cactus along the side of the road. Right: Lady selling coca leaves in Betanzos.
Eventually we made it to Betanzos, which is about 2.5 hours from Sucre. Her family was eating lunch, so we wandered around and bought some things to bring with us on the trip, like bread, water, coca leaves, etc. for the night and to give as presents to various people once we arrived. Then we went and found the driver, and he brought us to see her family. Her aunt and grandma were super friendly and interested in us. They even dealt with our horrible Spanish and acted as if they understood. Since there was 5 of us, plus the driver, Christina had to sit in the trunk. But thankfully it was a big SUV and the trunk was full of blankets so I think she was okay back there. We drove and drove – through winding mountain roads, through river valleys, and past canyons. To be honest, each time I saw a town I assumed that we were there, but I was wrong. Eventually, everyone fell asleep, and after about an hour we arrived in the small town of Huantapita!
Once we arrived, there were so many animals to see in the small town!
Tuesday Afternoon – Exploring Huantapita
We got out of the car and brought most of the stuff to a house nearby. The house belongs to Christina’s co-madre (which means the mother of the children who she is godmother to). Unlike in most Western countries, the godparents aren’t necessarily named right after the birth, and your godchildren are not necessarily even younger than you. It’s basically a way for a family to say that you’re important to them and “part of the family”, so one child may have tons of different godparents. I think that only the parents currently live in that village, while most of the children have gone off to bigger cities for education and career opportunities. The family was extremely welcoming, and even brought us lunch (even though they weren’t eating).
There were herders bringing their cows and sheep down the mountain-side and even chickens walking on nearby roofs.
After lunch, we wandered around the little town. The kids were shy and kept calling to us and then hiding. We also saw lots of animals, like sheep, cows, donkeys, chickens, dogs, and goats. After our adventure, we went back to the house where Christina’s family was getting ready. She practiced her speech, and her dad offered Steve a beer on the roof. After a bit of time had passed, we heard a bell, which meant it was time to head towards the hall for the ceremony (which was just across the street).
The boys enjoyed some cold beers on the roof before the ceremony.
A bit of history/context: Christina’s grandmother was a rural, school teacher, and actually founded the school in Huantapita with only about 5 students. Before that, all young people had to walk to another town nearby to go to school. Although the school has grown since then (to include more students and a high-school), her family is still really involved in the community. In Bolivia, a graduation is not just a big event for the students, it’s celebrated by the whole community. When we arrived in Huantapita, many of the residents were still hungover from the graduation they attended the night before in another nearby town! Christina’s dad was born in the area, and a few years ago they decided to elect him as mayor for the region. Christina was born in Canada, but her mom is actually a former volunteer who met her dad while she was working with Cuso in Bolivia!
Left: The women chatted while eating lunch. Right: The stage before the ceremony began.
During the graduation ceremony, there are basically three places you can be. On the stage (repurposed tables) if you’re graduating, at the long wooden table if you’re speaking or a member of the faculty, or in the bleachers with everyone else. Because we were foreign guests of Christina, we were placed at the long-wooden table, which was an interesting experience when we were mentioned in various speeches! It took awhile to get started, but it seems like the whole town showed up (including toddlers wandering around the ceremony, and dogs walking in and out of the doors). It started with each of the 6 graduates walking in with their parents (while some were sprinkled with confetti). Once they were all on stage, there was a number of speeches, including Christina’s dad. The ceremony was actually dedicated to Christina – so she made a great speech as well! 🙂
Left: The whole town gathered to watch the ceremony. Right: Graduates were walked out to the stage by their parents, and confetti was thrown on their heads for good luck.
At the end, the speakers handed the diplomas to each student. The interesting part is that after each certificate, the family and friends come up and give presents. Most of the presents are big artificial flower bundles, and blankets, plus each student got a huge sash! When the relatives say congratulations, they dump a handful of confetti on the head of the student and the student does the same to the gift-giver. Some families were so big that the ceremony had to continue while a line formed in front of that graduate. Thankfully there were only 6 students or the ceremony would have lasted forever!
There were 6 graduates from the high school class this year, and all of their parents, siblings, and friends came to watch.
Tuesday Night – Party time!
After the graduation, some people brought in tables and chairs. Each group of tables was dedicated to one of the graduates. They pile all the presents on top and all of the family joins the graduates. As “honoured guests”, it was our duty to go around to each table and accept the drinks offered by the family. The drinks ranged from cans of beer, bottles of cider (basically like a sweet champagne), and buckets up chicha (local fermented drink made at home from corn or sometimes peanuts). I definitely did my best to get the sweet cider as much as possible! Apparently there’s normally food, but none was prepared, so we wandered off to find a secondary party. It was the party of one of the girls who was graduating, and there was tons of bread, rice, and hunks of meet to go around. There was also more chicha from men wandering around with buckets. The annoying part is that they only have 3 or 4 cups which everyone shares. Not only are there hygiene issues (just try not to think about it), but you have to drink quickly to give the cup to someone else! You also must spill a bit of the drink on the floor as thanks to Pachamama (mother earth), so if you really hate it then it’s possible to dump out a considerable amount. I decided my favourite chicha is the one made from peanuts, especially if it’s smooth (because chunks in your drink is not always ideal). Another graduation tradition is to pin money on the outfit of the graduating student in long strings (but don’t have any pictures of it because it was pretty dark by that time….)
During the ceremony, there were many speeches, including one by Christina (who the event was named after) and her dad, the mayor.
Once we finished eating, it was raining a bit, so we headed back to the hall. We were offered more drinks. Since I don’t love meat and am not a huge fan of the hard bread in Bolivia, I ordered some food from the fast-food lady who had set up her station in the hall. I got an order of salchipapas (French fries with slices of hot dogs on top, normally served with ketchup and mayonnaise). It was delicious, it’s my favourite fast-food dish in Bolivia! We also had some time for dancing. There was about 8 huge speakers, all piled up on one side of the hall, which I thought would be way too loud, but was actually okay. The band was surprisingly good, and even did a shout out to all the “Americans” and then was corrected from the crowd that we were Canadians, lol. Most of the dancing is done in 2 lines, with the men facing the women. However, for most songs everyone just dances alone and sort of shakes their hips a bit. Eventually, a pair-dancing song came on, so Steve danced with Christina while I danced with her dad. It was lots of good fun, even though I don’t have much rhythm or moves. He was very sweet – I’ve never danced with a mayor before!
While the diplomas were being handed out, the parents and other family members took turn giving the graduates TONS of gifts – especially lots of artificial flowers, clocks, and blankets.
Eventually the band took a break and I just couldn’t drink more so I decided to go to bed. Steve was planning to come with me but I told him to go have fun. I had already put my bags in the classroom, so I went there to change into my pyjamas. I was a bit worried that kids would look into the windows so I changed quickly under the covers, read my book for a bit, and fell asleep. I woke back up when Steve and Christina came into the classroom. Unfortunately, there was no bathroom in the class so I had to find my shoes and my phone (for a light) and wander down the street to the house to use the bathroom. It was kind of weird because there was a dog sleeping in the bathroom! But I made it work, and headed back to bed (even though I could hear the loud music from the party still going on). After that I went back to bed and slept all night. It was actually pretty decent sleep for a mattress on the floor!
The children had lots of fun playing with the balloons and confetti after the event.
Wednesday Morning – Heading Home to Sucre
The next morning we woke up in the school, at around 8am. Originally, we had planned to drive back around noon but we decided to leave as soon as possible instead, which was perfect for me. We got changed, packed up all the blankets and mattresses into a pile, and headed back to the house where Christina’s family was staying. They served us a hearty breakfast soup (with quinoa, potatoes, vegetables, etc.). We washed up a bit, finished eating, and said good-bye before hitting the road back to the main town – Betanzos. Her dad drives a lot faster than the other driver, so we got back in about 40 minutes. It’s a lot of winding, gravel, mountain roads that go through various mountains, valleys and small towns to get back – but the views are stunning. Once in Betanzos, we dropped off her aunt and grandma, and chilled in her dad’s house for a bit. Originally, he was supposed to have a meeting, so we were going to find a shared-taxi, but his meeting got cancelled so he agreed to drive us back to Sucre. Super nice of him!
The party consisted of a big gymnasium, full of the family of the graduates offering drinks to everyone they could. They party went late into the night, and the room was a mess the next morning!
We waited in his house for about an hour while Christina looked through her old things to bring to her new house. Her grandma and aunt joined us, and it was really fun to look at old pictures of them all from 20 years ago. When her dad returned we said our thanks and goodbyes, and hopped in the car. Thankfully, this time nobody had to sit in the trunk! I wouldn’t have wanted to drive in Bolivia because it’s very hilly, so all the roads are super winding. But we made it back to Sucre in about 2.5 hours. We grabbed some snacks along the way at various toll booths (there is always ladies hawking bags of bread, juice, fruit, and other local snacks). We were planning to stop in Yotala for lunch, but after all the winding turns I was feeling a little gross. Thankfully, her dad dropped us off right at our house so we didn’t have to carry our bags very far. Arriving early gave us a few hours to chill before we had to hop-on our plane to La Paz!
Left: Getting the mattresses ready to sleep in an empty classroom. Right: Views on the drive back to Betanzos.
It was a really great trip. I always enjoying leaving the city to spend some time in a quiet little town and just hang out with barnyard animals. I was especially cool to experience a big celebration in the town and meet so many new people. I feel like there’s no point in living in a new country if you never take the time to explore the culture and your surroundings. Special thanks to Christina Tellez for the invite 🙂
The village is a quiet little place – very easy to relax and enjoy the countryside.
To read more about my crazy (busy) week in December, check out my next two blogs:
- Christmas with Cuso: Holiday Gift-Exchange in La Paz (Part 1) – coming soon
- Being a Tourist in Bolivia – Tijuanaku and La Paz (Part 2) – coming soon