Bolivian hospitality is something to marvel at and there is no better example of this than on Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day – whichever name you prefer. After the very public display for Todos Santos (All Saints Day) the previous day at the cemetery, Sucre’s citizens retreat to their homes on November 2nd for the Day of the Dead and invite people to join them to commemorate their deceased relatives.
It is a lovely tradition that is part commemoration, part celebration, and while it is a fairly formal occasion it is clear from the moment you set foot into the house that it is also a party – a party where it is firmly believed the deceased is present and participating. Accompanying several Bolivian friends we visited four separate homes where we were welcomed like long lost family members – the hospitality is real and overwhelming.
First you are greeted at the door by two or three people offering you a hollowed out pineapple or a gourd full of chicha (Bolivian homebrew), and a shot of singani (a powerful Bolivian spirit made from grapes). You don’t have a choice about whether you want to drink it, you MUST drink it to honour the dead and gain entrance.
Once you’ve finished the entrance drinks it is traditional to greet the family and thank them for inviting you, then visit the shrine where prayers are offered up to the deceased. Elaborate altars are erected in people’s homes and are decorated with all the foods and drinks that the deceased most loved in life, added to this are religious objects, both traditional and Catholic, and many symbolic bread objects that are baked only for this celebration.
Once this is done you are served a delicious plate of mondongo – pork cooked in a spicy red sauce and served with rice, potatoes and choclo (a sort of creamed corn dish). While you’re eating the mondongo there is a constant stream of people bringing more chicha and sangani which, again, you’re obliged out of politeness to drink (this really is my sort of country). Eventually someone will place a bucket or washing-up bowl full of chicha by your seat so you can just help yourself.
The drinking is quite ritualised, with the server toasting your health with a drink then inviting you to drink, once you’ve drunk you invite the next person to drink, and the person serving the drinks gives them a glass of chicha or singani. At every house when you try to leave some of the older women will feign shock and insist on you having one more for the ‘camino’.
To refuse would be the height of impoliteness, and by the time you make it to the exit you may have had three or four more drinks poured down your throat. Needless to say, people get quite squiffy.
Similarly, it would be incredibly rude, and mortifying for the family, if you didn’t eat the mondongo, luckily people don’t mind if you can’t finish everything on your plate. By the time we reached the fourth house the prospect of yet another plate of mondongo was weighing heavy on my stomach, but some of the people I talked to had been to the houses of ten friends or family and were planning to visit several more before the day was done. You need stamina to be Bolivian.
After several hours, four plates of Mondongo, numerous shots of singani and enough chicha to re-float the Titanic our merry band rolled out into the street and headed for a well deserved lie down – well, the gringos headed for home, remarkably the Bolivians in our group headed off to visit another couple of relatives for more of the same.