For nearly 20 years,* together with my wife Yolanda (and my three stepchildren, while they were still young), I lived on Calle Calama (Calama Street), at the time perhaps one of the liveliest streets in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. Our home was a modest adobe and brick, two-story duplex situated in a patio surrounded by six other dwellings housing as many families, who also happened to be my in-laws. Scarcely two blocks away was doña Matilde’s silpanchería, my personal favorite eating place for silpanchos.
But I’ll get to that presently.
Directly across the street from our family enclave was the Escuela de Comando y Estado Mayor del Ejército de Bolivia, one of the principal Army officer training schools in the country. It was here that I personally saw, in the flesh, 16 presidents of Bolivia (not counting 5 juntas consisting of 3 to 6 members, and 3 presidents who lasted from 1 to 15 days in office)—from the flamboyant Air Force General René Barrientos to the US-raised son of a Bolivian political exile, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Two of my wife’s cousins were famous career officers, one a decorated hero of the the Chaco War, the other the Commanding Officer of the 7th Army Division in the Department of Cochabamba. In other words, there often was much pomp and circumstance on our street whenever presidents, generals, and other dignitaries converged at the Escuela de Comando in front of our family compound.
During weekdays at 7:00 AM, Army officers attending classes at the Escuela de Comando y Estado Mayor would first assemble outside the school’s main entrance on Calama to salute the raising of the Bolivian flag, while an Army band would play the National Anthem, familiarly called “Bolivianos, el Hado Propicio” (Bolivians, a most Favorable Destiny),** and those gathered there sing its inspiring first two verses and soul-stirring chorus:
Passersby would pause on the sidewalk opposite the building to also pay homage to the patriotic proceedings, while uniformed guards temporarily halted traffic at Calle Calama’s cross streets of Tumusla and Hamiraya. This daily ritual eventually attracted the curiosity of members of the considerable stray dog population of Cochabamba as well. As officers, soldiers, and civilians stood at attention during the playing of the National Anthem, these dogs would gather on the east side of the scenario, sitting erect with respectful demeanor upon their canine brows. When it was all over, the officers retired to their classes, the soldiers and the Army band broke ranks, the dogs dispersed, Calle Calama was given back to vehicular traffic, pedestrians went about their business, and the usual crazies passing by might stop in front of the school to curse the military for a moment or two before continuing their aimless perambulations.
This went on in this same manner for a few days. Then one bright morning, one of the dogs decided that the National Anthem needed additional vocal support, and began howling. Another dog joined in. Then another and another. Soon, eyebrows arched; heads began to turn from the rising of the nation’s flag toward the source of this scandalous ruckus. The military band played stoically on. Officers and soldiers, normally standing at rigid attention, right arms bent in smart salute, continued to sing, but shifted disturbed gazes eastward. Pedestrians, amused by this unusual change in the ceremony, began to titter. However, as soon as the band finished playing, the dogs ceased howling, and everything returned to the status quo.
Next morning, a repeat performance of the previous. Only more dogs converged and joined in song. After a few bars of “Bolivianos, el Hado Propicio“, an officer ordered conscripts to chase off the animals. The next day, the same. And the next, and the next. Pretty soon, the entire neighborhood was apprised of this hilarious turn of events, and throngs of civilians amassed in the street and on the sidewalk to delight in the antics of the howling dogs and the vain efforts of the Army to run them off.
In the end, the dogs won the skirmish, but alas on winning, they also lost the war. Higher command, unable to curtail the stray animals, and feeling like they were being made a laughingstock, suspended the morning ceremony of the Army band and the singing of the National Anthem. Officers went to their assigned classes without interruption. Two soldiers raised the Bolivian flag, saluted, and that was that. Disappointed pedestrians stopped coming by at 7:00 AM. The street dogs, well, they continued to show up for a few days, but eventually realized that their days of glory had come to a close, and sought entertainment elsewhere.
One block to the south of us were the local men’s and women’s jails, facing the Plaza San Sebastián, and which looked like mini derelict projects on the inside. I had a friend locked up in the men’s jail because of a bad debt, but since he was the sole breadwinner of his family, his pregnant wife traded places with him and spent his jail time incarcerated in the women’s facility while he was allowed out to earn money to pay off the debt. Escapes from the men’s jail were frequent, and the leather retail business I operated on the corner of Calama and Hamiraya was at one time or another a getaway spot for artisan convicts—escorted by bored and unwary guards who may or may not have had bullets in their rifles—who were allowed out to shop around for cowhides and associated wares, which they then turned into shoes and other leather goods to sell to customers at the prison’s entrance.
Around the corner from my store on Calle Hamiraya, but heading north, there was a combo chichería and sausage sandwich dive that reeked of corn liquor chicha and drunks, but the sausage sandwiches were to die for, almost literally. I was willing to spend the following day moaning and writhing in agony somewhere between my bed and the bathroom from their deadly effects on my gastrointestinal system, they were that delicious.
Further up the street there was a kiosk run by a short, squat, somewhat disfigured woman who had spent her youth and adulthood “waiting for her quirquincho“, a Quechua word meaning armadillo (specifically an Andean armadillo), the shell out of which charango musicians often make the sound box of their lute-like instruments. This may all sound a bit confusing and bizarre, but bear with me a moment. The word quirquincho has, because of the animal’s habitat in the Bolivian Andes, also taken on an association with the people living in the high altitude city of Oruro, called Orureños. So, when you call somebody a “quirquincho”, you simply mean somebody from Oruro, same as the inhabitants of North Carolina are nicknamed Tar Heels, Nova Scotians Bluenosers, East Londoners Cockneys, New Zealanders Kiwis, the people from Buenos Aires Porteños, and so on, only more metaphorical. And because Orureño men are known for their splendid dispositions, if an unmarried woman says, “I’m waiting for my quirquincho,” she means she’s seeking a husband from Oruro with a fine character, and won’t settle for less. Alas, our friend waited in vain for her ideal man, never married, and died before he ever showed up in her life.
Just a little further up the same street was a cobbler who frequented my leather shop named don Lalo, who was the uncanny spitting image of genius comedian Jonathan Winters. I swear, every time don Lalo showed up at my shop to buy a hide or buckles or eyelets or shoestrings, I did a double take, thinking for a brief second that Jonathan Winters himself had traveled all the way to Cochabamba, Bolivia, just to buy a cowhide from my store! I fully expected him to start talking like Maudie Frickert, Elwood P. Suggins, or Lance Lovegard.
One day, somebody stole an expensive patent leather hide from my store while I was attending other customers—one of these of all people, don Lalo. Some time after my customers had departed, I discovered that the hide was missing, and moaned and wailed and gnashed my teeth and tore my hair. Just about then in came my older stepson Augusto. He asked me what the matter was. I explained, mentioning that while I was selling some leather to don Lalo I noticed that there was a teenager wandering suspiciously around the store about the same time, who later disappeared.
Augusto said, “Why don’t we go see don Lalo? Maybe he knows the kid.” I thought it a waste of time, but agreed. So we walked up the street to where don Lalo had his workshop, which was basically a cavern hewn out of adobe. As I started in the open door, lo and behold there was the kid leaning over the counter conversing with don Lalo. I quickly backed out. “He’s in there,” I muttered astonished to my stepson.
Augusto thought a moment, then pulled out some very dark shades and put them on. At the time, he was about 20 years old and a little over six feet tall, and with those shades on he looked pretty forminable. He was also dressed that day in a black leather jacket, which somehow augmented his forminability. He said, “Okay, let’s do this. Follow my lead.”
So in we went. Don Lalo looked up, smiled in surprise that I was visiting him. On the counter was my missing patent leather hide, which don Lalo had already cut into several pieces to make some shoes for the youth. The kid turned around then and saw me, and his eyes got wide; then he saw Augusto right behind me, and his eyes got wider. Augusto gave a terse nod to don Lalo, “This hide?” Don Lalo replied, a bit puzzled, “It’s this young man’s. He bought it at don Esteban’s store (I was “don Esteban” in some circles in Bolivia) about an hour ago. I just made the cuts for some boots.”
“Well, he got it from señor Pulley here, alright, but he didn’t buy it; he stole it.” The kid started to look scared at this point, and protested. Augusto proceeded. “Yeah? Well, I’m from the police department, and I intend to take this low-life thief downtown for questioning. We don’t take lightly to punks like him.”
Don Lalo gave the kid a withering Jonathan Winters scowl of disgust. The kid began to stutter, scared out of his wits now at the prospect of being dragged off to the police department, which had a reputation, real or imagined, of working over suspects unmercifully. He begged me to take back the hide. I sneered. “Why would I want it? Don Lalo has already cut it up. It’s worth nothing to me now.”
Augusto made a few more suggestive remarks about what would happen to him “downtown”. The kid, now practically in tears, promised he would pay me back, that he would ask his uncle for the money, but please, please don’t arrest him. Long story short, I got my money back, thanks to my stepson’s masterfully menacing performance. Truth be known, he even scared me.
That same afternoon the kid’s uncle personally came to my shop to return what was owed me, and with tears in his eyes thanked me profusely for not having his nephew arrested. He swore that the kid had never been in trouble with the law before, but the brat wanted to impress some asshole friends with fancy patent leather boots he couldn’t afford, the stupidity of which drove him to this heinous act of theft. The uncle, with a pained frown, then confessed that since I had not pressed charges, he’d meted out special punishment of his own. That made me a little uneasy, because I didn’t want the crap beaten out of the kid, or something along that line. I asked the man what kind of punishment. He looked grim. “I took the little bastard down to the miltary post and had him conscripted. Two years in the Bolivian Army ought to teach him a lesson about stealing he’ll never forget.” I shuddered.
If you haven’t already given up by now, you’re probably wondering if I’m ever to get beyond my digressions and on to the reason I started this piece. Patience. I’m almost there. I’m merely providing you with a little local color. Further up the street, on the corner of Hamiraya and Jordán, there was a “peña folklórica“, which every Friday evening opened from about nine to two in the morning, where customers could listen to some great Bolivian musical groups, have a decent meal, and get themselves roaring drunk. Unfortunately, the proprietors thought the entire neighborhood should also bask in the music, both live and recorded, and so they included a high-amp sound system to pump up the volume. No one within a city block could sleep Friday nights. Neighbors complained, made dire threats, filed charges with the authorities, prayed for divine intervention, plotted ways to cut off the electricity (I inadvertently discovered one way of my own, totally unrelated to the peña, mind you, but it nearly killed me–however, that’s another digression I’ll save for some other occasion), and so on, but to no avail. The peña’s popularity among its many patrons (and probably the greasing of the right palms) trumped neighborhood outrage.
And so, at last, we come to Calle Jordán. A half block away going east from the peña folklórica was the eating establishment of doña Matilde. Her specialty? Silpanchos. My wife Yolanda and I would sometimes visit doña Matilde’s silpanchería after an evening movie at one of the local cinemas. And you didn’t have to dress up to eat there. Doña Matilde opened for business precisely at nine p.m., and you knew that only because she hung a naked 40-watt light bulb on a hook just outside the massive door of her bistro, virtually the sole illumination of an otherwise darkened street. There was no other indication that this was a restaurant—no sign, no brightly lit window (no window at all), no musical background, no dancing girls—just that lonely light bulb shedding its meager glow onto the door, across the narrow sidewalk, and barely as far as the curb, but no further. It was located in a two-story, high-ceiling house of over one hundred years old, whose adobe walls were a foot and a half thick. Sheets of linen, once white and stiffened by plaster, but now sagging and ripped, peppered with decades of fly specks and cobwebs, hung low from the ceiling. A 25-year old calendar was tacked against a dirty, yellow wall, and featured the illustration of a fetching, come-hither, yet now icteric-colored girl selling Coca-Cola. Doña Matilde’s silpanchería consisted of a single cavernous room, divided lengthwise by a faded blue gingham plastic curtain hung from a wire stretched between opposite walls. On the left, entering the front door, was the dining side, with three tables. Rarely were all three occupied simultaneously, but on occasion there might be someone already seated, and we would then make our customary greetings of “buenas noches“, or “provecho” (bon appetit), if they had already begun to eat. One table seated two people; another up to four; and the third up to six. The tablecloths upon each looked suspiciously like the same plastic gingham cloth serving as the curtain dividing the room. The floor was uneven of ancient foot-square blue tiles, and so none of the legs, neither those of the tables nor their chairs, stood a chance of sitting flush, no matter how hard you tried to keep them from rocking. At the back of the dining room was a glass-doored cabinet on whose dusty shelves stood bottles of local beers and soft drinks, though none refrigerated.
On the right side of the gingham divide was doña Matilde’s kitchen. We on the dining side could easily hear her hard at work, smell oil, meat, rice, potatoes, onions, and eggs crackling away happily in their respective pots and frying pans, and feel the heat generated from all this activity.
Doña Matilde, a heavyset, middle-aged woman, materialized from behind her side of the Blue Gingham Curtain, shiny-faced, perspiring, dressed in her cholita working attire, wisps of graying hair leaking from the edges of a light blue bandana. She greeted us with a smile of recognition and a “buenas noches“. She was a quiet, unassuming, pleasant-looking woman, the kind you knew you’d like for a grandmother if you were young and had no hope of meaningful affinity with either your parents or your siblings. The specialty of the house was silpancho. Indeed, it was the only dish of the house, and therefore few words were required for orders beyond “dos platos, por favor” on our part, and a response of “sí” or “gracias, no” to her “¿una bebida?”. After nods, doña Matilde disappeared behind the curtain, and we were left alone to murmur to one another in hushed tones about the movie we’d seen until she re-emerged a few minutes later with our much anticipated meals.
Silpancho comes from the Quechua word, ‘sillp’anchu‘, the double ll and the explosive p’ non-existent sounds in the English language. The word basically means thin and wide. The dish is very typical of Cochabamba and, if properly prepared, surprisingly tasty. On a heated plate first comes a layer of rice, followed by a layer of boiled, sliced potatoes which actually taste like potatoes should taste. Don’t forget that potatoes originally came from Peru and Bolivia, not Ireland or Idaho, and that while you may think there are only four or five types of potatoes, in reality there are thousands. I expect that during my twenty years in Bolivia I must have tasted at least 15 different kinds, all with flavors that outshine any of those we consume in this country. After the potatoes comes the fried beef, which has been brutally pounded to submission by either a mallet or a stone to a very thin, wide (ergo the name ‘silpancho’) layer of near two-dimensionality, breaded in the milanese style. Then comes a mixture of chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, and locoto (a chili pepper that has about the same spice level as jalapeño, though with a different flavor). And finally, at the top, the silpancho is crowned with one or two fried eggs. ¡Ay, qué delicia!
Every once in a while, Yolanda and I would arrive at doña Matilde’s late in the evening to find one of our nephews, Jaime, seated at the small table, enjoying a double portion of silpancho. Jaime was the only member of his family who really enjoyed food. His father consumed very little, while his two younger brothers were picky eaters of the worst order, reducing the variety of foods they would eat to almost a monastic minimum. As a result, they had willfully deprived themselves of the most amazing panoply of outstanding Bolivian cuisine.
“Jaimito,” Yolanda would say, “what are you doing here at this hour? Didn’t you have supper at home?”
“Oh, hi, Auntie Yola,” he’d reply, shoveling a portion of his silpancho into his mouth with gusto. “Hi, Uncle Steve. How’s it going? Were you at the movies? Yes, of course I ate at home. My mother would kill me if I didn’t. But you know how it is. Thanks to my idiot brothers, just not enough of the good stuff. And señora Matilde has the best silpanchos around.” We nodded in agreement.
I have to say that I miss that colorful old neighborhood, though I’m told it has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. But even more, I miss doña Matilde’s fantastic silpanchos.