So Far, So Good (7)

By John Harris | January 31, 2003

One of what Viv regards as the more onerous of her responsibilities is reporting on the locations, in any country she writes about, of the international fast-food outlets and their local clones. So, at some stage in our researches of any city, she frees me from the interminable and boring frisking of hotels, museums, cathedrals, and tour agencies and I get to go to McDonald’s.

I’m not, of course, interested in the food, except in the case of Yogen Fruz. Nor are any other tourists that I know of. No one goes to Bolivia to eat, but there is fine food, even in the smaller towns. Bolivia grows all its own food, all year round, and usually the food you get is fresh. Bolivians themselves have a fondness for meat, rice, and deep fried vegetables, and when they eat out they consume these things in set meals.

Desayuno, or breakfast, is usually eaten on the run. Bolivians are crazy about salteñas (invented just across the border in Salta, Argentina), pasties stuffed with vegetables and a choice of cheese, chicken, or beef. These cost one boliviano each, ($US.13) and two will fill you up. Sometimes the locals will sit for a more formal desayuno, continental or Americano (bacon and eggs). For lunch or almuerzo, the big meal of the day, eaten before siesta, they consume set meals that are advertised on blackboards or sandwich boards outside the cafes. Usually it’s a small salad, a large soup, a plate of rice with chicken or steak piled on top with, sometimes, a fried egg on top of that, followed by jello or flan for dessert. If you want fish with your rice etc, you go to a seafood cafe.

More variety is provided by cafes that have a buffet-style almuerzo, sold by the kilo and usually providing a choice of vegetarian dishes and pastas. For the smaller dinner or cena, eaten around 7 – 8 pm, similarly advertised outside the cafes, it’s a salad and plate of rice topped with chicken or a steak. There is a trend, however, with cena, to do it European style, off the menu, and pizzas also are getting more and more popular with younger Bolivians in the evening. Set meals are also very cheap; an almuerzo goes for anywhere from ten bolivianos ($US1.50) to twenty bolivianos for buffet-style.

International cuisine is readily available, in many cases provided in fine cafes owned by European expats or the second or third-generation descendants of same, or by Argentines(who are more Europeanized than Bolivians are). You can get anything but (for some reason) Chinese and East Indian food, though there is one East Indian almuerzo/cena place in La Paz. In the cafes that specialize in German, French, Italian, Argentine, etc. food, you can, for $US 15-25, get a magnificent four-course meal, a meal that takes a full two hours to put back, served up by a tuxedoed and attentive waiter and accompanied by a bottle of good Chilean or Argentine wine.

Viv and I stuff ourselves regularly in the best cafes, telling ourselves that it’s good for the guidebook. For me, eating in fine cafes is, apart of course from being with Viv, the major attraction of travel.

Finally, it has to be said that Bolivian fast food is far superior to the North American kind. The salteñas are great, as are the empanadas, the uñapes (cheese-balls) the hand-cut fries and potato chips and other snacks served up from street and market stalls. The McDonald’s Big Mac (the "McNifico" in Bolivia) or McPalta (an avocado burger, a rare acknowledgment of local taste on McDonald’s part), or Burger King’s Whopper, simply can’t compare, and are over ten times the price of local alternatives. Subway is sometimes a nice alternative if you want lots of fresh vegetables and some processed cheese, but their bread is, as it is in North America, the shits, and the cost (again) is comparatively high.

What tourists and, increasingly, the wealthier and younger Bolivians want from American fast food outlets is not the food, but the security. They want to cosy up to the more accessible flagships of globalization — the chain hotels being intimidating, though anyone who looks like a gringo and is dressed well (a small backpack is okay so long as it is clean) can get past the doormen to use the washrooms. Plus the food at Burger King, Subway etc is reputed to be safe. If you have a taste for hamburgers, chickenburgers and pre-prepared sandwiches, and indulge that taste in the markets or on the street, you’ll save money but might have to spend part of your vacation hovering over a toilet bowl. The locals just don’t consume these things in enough bulk to guarantee their quality.

So, mainly, its the washrooms that tourists are after. Nothing can comfort you more, after a few hours in the streets and cafes of La Paz or Santa Cruz, than a row of gleaming sinks that have both hot and cold water and are accompanied by soap dispensers and hand-driers. Or a row of cubicles that, inside, have dry floors, porcelain bowls with seats, and rolls of toilet paper. In Bolivia, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway set the standard, Burger King winning the popular Lonely Planet guidebook’s award for the cleanest washrooms in La Paz. The washrooms in Bolivia’s fast-food clones, the most popular of which is a place called Dumbo’s, are a little damper, a little less likely to have soap or toilet paper, and absolutely without hot water. But compared to the local food outlets, their standards are high.

Along with the washrooms, air-conditioning attracts tourists. McDonald’s and Burger King in sweltering Santa Cruz are the same temperature as outlets in Whitehorse. Actually, they are a shock to enter. Usually, for the first half hour, I wish I had my toque with me. Also, the ambient music is always low in the franchises. Bolivians love noise of all kinds. They carry firecrackers around with them, and set them off when things are too quiet. They let the mufflers rot off their cars and motorcycles and do not replace them. Their car-horns get overworked, and they love to use and improve them. They especially like their radios, tv’s, and ghetto blasters at full volume. Tourists learn, when they walk into a cafe or select a seat in a bus, to avoid speakers. In Burger King, you don’t have to worry about the volume. The quality of the music, as Lonely Planet points out, is another matter.

Bolivians also like to watch television all day, if they can. Few read. The desk clerk at a hotel will always be found parked in front of the lounge’s television set. Cafes will almost always have one placed in a position where most of the customers can see it, and another above the bar so drinkers, the bar tender, and any waiter with nothing immediate to do can watch. Even portable sidewalk tiendas will have an extension cord running across the pavement from the nearest power source so that the lady inside can watch a small television set. Always, the volume is loud. In the international fast food outlets, this is not allowed, except in Yogen Fruz (and there is a letter of complaint in the mail to headquarters even now). Dumbos and the other clones will always have a tv, though there is also always an area where it can’t be seen (though it can always be heard).

Finally, it is freedom from the shoe-shine boys, beggars, dogs, and street salespersons that tourists gravitate to the international fast-food outlets for. Bolivians are tolerant about such intrusions, and sometimes even the better cafes are tolerant, especially if the dog in question belongs to the owner, but tourists expect to be unmolested when they are eating. Often, the doors at Burger King etc. are guarded, and the street tables roped off and patrolled. Always the staff are quick to remove non-customers. The clones provide the same service, except in connection with street tables.

Bolivia is relatively free of the big international fast-food outlets. Only the two big cities, La Paz and Santa Cruz, both with populations of just over a million, have them. The clones are everywhere, and the international invasion may be faltering. McDonald’s left the country as of the last day of last year — I got into a La Paz outlet to enjoy a quiet and comfortable shit just before the end. McDonald’s lasted five years in Bolivia, and was hugely popular for the first two years. Word on the street is that it was the salteña ladies that whipped Ronald’s ass, but I suspect it was McDonald’s financial situation world-wide and the competition of the clones. Dumbo’s and the others provide a wide range of ice-cream products and fancy coffees, along with the usual burgers and fries, and also serve up set almuerzos. And the prices are lower.

Ronald’s retreat, (three outlets closed in La Paz and two in Santa Cruz) leaves Burger King in charge of international standards. Burger King has two outlets in La Paz and one in Santa Cruz. All the outlets are sparkling clean and provide the usual drive-through service and game rooms for kids. Burger King also has cut its prices a little, a plain burger going for $US.40, with cheese, $.70. The Whopper Combo comes to about 2/3 of the US price.

Yogen Fruz and Subway came to Bolivia last year, setting up small outlets in Santa Cruz, at present Bolivia’s boom town due to oil (calona, sunflower, and the really valuable stuff that comes out of the ground). Yogen Fruz is popular, probably because Santa Cruz is hot. Bolivians in general love ice cream, though, and I noticed that the ones flooding into Yogen Fruz were buying it not by the cone, but by the paper coffee cup or plastic bucket. I expect Yogen Fruz to open in La Paz soon. Subway may be faltering, though one night from an adjoining pizza parlour I noticed a full crowd in the street tables and some inside. Both chains serve up the same products that they do in North America, at about half the price. Perhaps they learned a lesson from McDonald’s demise.

Tourists are often surprised to find that Starbucks and the other big coffee franchises don’t exist in Bolivia. Bolivians have little interest in coffee, though they grow their own fine product, and what demand there is is presently being satisfied by Alexander Coffee (in La Paz and Santa Cruz) and Mr. Cafe, in a number of cities. Both chains provide a good expresso or cappucino, and high-quality muffins, cheesecakes etc. Alexander’s carrot cake is to die for, as are Mr. Cafe’s special coffees. Unfortunately, these chains do not serve filtered coffee. They make you an espresso, and blow some hot water into it, sometimes too much but usually not enough. I noticed a filter machine at the Alexander outlet in the business district of La Paz and asked the waiter about it. At first he told me it was broken, and then, when I questioned him, admitted that he didn’t know what it was. I was two months into Bolivia before I got filtered coffee, at a German cafe, the Landhaus, in the small tourist town of Samaipata. Also, Alexander and Mr. Cafe don’t serve bagels or, indeed, any bread of quality.

The two big, local coffee franchises are hugely popular with the professional and younger set. The Alexander’s in the embassy district of La Paz, directly across the square from the Canadian Consulate, is packed all day and flows out along a half a city block between about 5 and 8 in the evening. I’ve noticed too in my many daytime visits there that a lot of the customers are reading and writing.

I imagine that a lot of these people are like me. I imagine too that, as people of taste, they’d prefer a filtered coffee to a watered espresso, a toasted bagel to a muffin. So, Tim, there’s a place for you in Bolivia. Just one thing. You’ll have to come on as a soccer, not a hockey hero. Bolivians don’t have a clue what hockey is.

2049 w. January 30, 2003


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