If you really want to understand Cochabamba, take a walk down Calle Lanza. Go to the northern end and you’ll be greeted by German institutions in spacious, whitewashed houses and upmarket night clubs populated by young Bolivians fresh out of European master’s degrees.
Follow the street to its southern extreme and a different scene awaits. Spanish yields to the staccato flow of Quechua. In this packed market, you can buy anything from cloth to cow’s tongue (sold with parts of the jaw still attached). Everything here is raw and practical, brought directly from the field or the cloth mill with minimal processing to serve immediate, practical needs.
At weekends, I come here to buy vegetables with my partner Andy and Tania, the indomitable mother of the Bolivian family we live with.
Ladies in traditional pollera skirts and plaits tied off with beaded tassels sell garlic and spices from cloths spread out on the floor: two Bolivianitos (about 28 US cents) a bulb, mamita. Men in work-faded overalls sleep in wheelbarrows. Women stride past with babies strapped to their backs in brightly striped woven cloths, while children old enough to talk to grown-ups help their parents to vend rice by the cuartilla (a unit of weight equivalent to 2.9 kilograms) from giant sacks.
Today, Tania guides us into parts of the market we’ve never been to before. One lady who cannot be shy of 70 is selling onions cheap. Onions are all she has to sell on her stand, a patch of pavement shielded from the sun by a green awning. The onions have sprouty green stalks coming from them, but when Tania asks her to cut them, the woman continues as if deaf. Tania asks again. The neighbouring stand owner leans over to intervene. ‘She only speaks Quechua,’ she explains. The penny drops and Tania switches into her second language. The onions are de-sprouted and we move on.
This willing aid from the onion seller’s neighbour encapsulates what I have come to love about Bolivia: people’s readiness to pitch in and help companions or even strangers, be it by helping an old lady onto a bus or walking me all the way through the market when I ask for directions.
The market, known as La Cancha, is in Cochabamba’s zona sur (southern zone). Seen by the upper classes as the poorer, more dangerous part of the city, this is where small, square brick houses rise up the hillsides like stacked shipping containers. But here is where I feel the strongest manifestation of Bolivia’s extraordinary propensity for solidarity.
Working-class Bolivians work incredibly long hours. Fourteen-hour days are common, driving the retrofitted people carriers known as trufis that pass for public buses here, tending market stalls, or selling chewing gum and tissues from a basket in the streets.
Often, we see women asleep at their market stalls. Once, a woman told us the price of our purchases and had fallen asleep before we got our money out. But when that happens, there’s support from next door. In the absence of the shopkeeper, her neighbour knows exactly what this stall has and where to find what we’re after if we can’t get it there.
We first came to La Cancha four days after we arrived. It is a labyrinthine place where it’s easy to lose your bearings. A man approached us, an earnest look on his face. ‘There are people trying to rob you,’ he said. ‘There are people following you.’ Freaked out by this strange approach, wary of scams that start with a friendly local, we pretended not to understand. Minutes later, we were surrounded by a crowd of people which melted away as quickly as it had appeared, taking Andy’s phone with it. We have since learned to appreciate the honest intentions of strangers.
Back home, we discuss the onion seller. In the market, most of her customers probably speak some Quechua. Less so the 20- and 30-somethings in the city’s wealthier quarters. Many of them grew up speaking only or predominantly Spanish. Educated before Evo Morales’s indigenous socialist government moved to restore status to indigenous languages, they did not develop real fluency in Quechua at school. At the other end of Calle Lanza, she might have struggled.
She was clearly in good spirits when we saw her, though. ‘You know what she was saying to me?’ Tania asks, giggling gleefully. ‘She was checking out Andy.’