OYOP: Life in Sucre, Bolivia – Week One
We arrived in Sucre, the capital of Bolivia, after a 12 hour overnight bus ride from La Paz. Let’s just say if you must take this bus ride, you should be prepared for the only restroom break to be a 1:30am stop at a roadside public bathroom that will make you desperately wish you could wait another 6 hours to go. Once we arrived, We immediately went to the hostel we would stay at for two nights before starting our two-week homestay and collapsed.
While riding into the city, I was already glad that we chose Sucre to stay in for two weeks in order to slow down and take Spanish classes while living with a family here. We chose it because the Spanish classes in Bolivia are cheaper compared to other places, and Sucre seemed less chaotic than La Paz. We were right. The city is beautiful and clean. We passed streets and alleyways with colonial charm and a mix of modern and traditional personality along the way. It was obvious there would be much to explore here, and it felt a little bit like home.
The first weekend before we started our Spanish classes and met our Bolivian family, we spent a lot of time in the main square, the heart of Bolivia. It is exactly the atmosphere what I imagine city planners envisioned so many years ago. During the day, people are resting on one of the dozens of shady park benches people watching, drinking the fresh orange juice squeezed and sold by women with carts of oranges in the square, or getting their shoes shined by the local children. At night, it is packed with families, couples, and the university students who come from all over South America to attend the public university here. It is lively, safe, and amiable to be in the city center at anytime of the day.
And we ate so well. You might say we indulged, which made the city feel even more like being home in New Orleans, with something new to eat or drink on every corner. And so many street vendors that are worth a try. Sucre is one of the only cities we have been in so far with such a diverse range of restaurants and cafes in such a small area. It feels like a big city, but it is easy to walk around and explore. We made sure to eat the local chocolate, saltenas, and ice cream, all which the city is known for. Bolivian wine is also delicious and cheap at $4 per bottle. It is from a region in the south of Bolivia called Tarija, and the wine was good quality and deserves to be known elsewhere in the world, though I don’t think that it is.
On Monday morning, we packed up all of our belongings and made our way to the Me Gusta Spanish school where we would be taking Spanish classes Monday-Friday for two weeks for 4 hours per day. We learned that for the first day, it would only be me and James in our beginner class but that we would have another student from Taiwan join us the next day, and that our classes for the first week would be from 2:30 – 6:30pm each day.
Once we completed registration, we were picked up by Manuel, the father of the family in our homestay. We arrived at their beautiful apartment at the height of the city, with a lovely view of Sucre and the mountainous background, and we met his wife, Brenda, and their three children, Juan-David, 6, Camila, 4, and Ana-Julia, 1. The school assigned us to the homestay family, and I don’t know how we got so lucky. Theirs is a home full of constant activity and loads of love.
We ate our first lunch with the family, Bolivian tacos. Their home cooked meals of traditional Bolivian food were easily the best meals we had. Every day, we ate breakfast and lunch with the whole family, and we had dinner out on the town on our own each night. We practiced our Spanish with the family, though Brenda & Manuel both speak English so we had no trouble communicating when struggling in one language or the other.
The Spanish classes were designed as two hours of lecture then an activity for the remainder of class and real-world experience. On day one, we visited El Mercado Central, the main market in town. We tried completely new fruits we had never seen or tasted before and practiced our vocabulary and conversational skills. Fortunately, we had much previous practice in markets and with buying & selling terms in general, so we were comfortable here on our first day. We even quickly realized we could have started past the beginner class, but we just hope that we will move more quickly since we have picked up a lot in the last several weeks.
On the second day of class, we visited a free museum of masks from different areas of Bolivia and different traditional festivals and ceremonies. This was truly fascinating, especially because we could relate to these types of customs as we have them as part of Mardi Gras in Louisiana. Our professor, Cecilia, told us, all in Spanish, a little history from each of the masks and regions, and it was truly interesting to learn about the indigenous traditions and how they changed and mixed with the Spanish traditions over time. It was my favorite time in class each day when Cecilia would talk for long periods of time in Spanish about Bolivian culture, history, or politics, and we would be able to listen and learn both about the language and the country.
We spent the mornings of the week before class spending time with our host family and playing various games with the kids. It was wonderful just to connect with the family and also focus on our Spanish with them before class. I even got to help cook lunch one day with Manuel and got a personalized Spanish cooking lesson.
At night after class, we would find a new area to go have dinner each day. After dinner sometimes, we explored the nightlife of Sucre, stopping after dinner at a popular local hangout one night where there were free salsa lessons and a lively outdoor patio. Another night we stopped at a popular cafe with delicious batidos, drinks made with juice and water or milk, where we ordered chocolateras, popular chocolate shakes, and shared a seat at this packed hole-in-the-wall gem with a traveler from Costa Rica, where we shared stories and realized our increased use in Spanish was very much coming in handy in turning strangers into friends. Then after our nights on the town, we’d return to the house at the end of the night and play more with the kids until we passed out for the evening.
We finished out the week by going to a traditional folklore dance show at the cultural center on Friday night with two other students at the Spanish school, Brent from New Zealand, who we met for the first time on the boatride back from Isla del Sol, and Alberto from Switzerland. We ate dinner by candlelight in an intimate space as a dozen or so young, talented dancers twirled on stage to centuries worth of traditional Bolivian folk dances in the most colorful costumes and masks, some of which we had seen at the museum earlier in the week. It was a truly magical show, and the best part was when one the dancers pulled James on stage for the last song, where he was able to show off moves of his own.
Let me just say that Sucre is not a city to be missed in Bolivia and that Bolivia is not a country to be missed in South America. I am looking forward to one more week here in Sucre.