Wanna buy a llama?

My lovely apartment is located in downtown Sucre. It’s a fourth-floor walk-up with a large balcony and a panoramic view of the city. Probably the best perk of my residence is that it’s just around the corner from the Mercado Central, a sprawling indoor labyrinth where one can find just about any foodstuff imaginable. For breakfast I often hop over to the market for a fresh fruit salad with yogurt and whipped cream or a fruit smoothie, made right in front of me by one of ten smiling Bolivian ladies. I love this place. I can spend hours meandering, bargaining over a few pennies and learning recipes from the amiable vendors.

Of course navigating this culinary paradise was not always so easy. When I first arrived my limited Spanish made for some interesting exchanges:

“How do you call this? It’s like a banana except you fry it. In English we call it a plantain. Oh in Spanish it’s called a Banana that you fry? How convenient!”

My most memorable linguistic mishap in the market was during my first week in Sucre. I had just arrived from La Paz where the evening prior I had tried llama for the first time. I loved it and decided I wanted to cook it for myself. I assumed since it had been so readily available at the restaurant in La Paz that it would definitely be easy to purchase in the Mercado Central. With steely determination I set out on my llama mission, driven by a hankering that only the meat-loving readers of this post will understand.

I arrived at the market, fearing not for my broken Spanish. These people are meat-lovers like me. Surely our mutual love of juicy llama will be far greater than any idiomatic foibles? I approached the first vendor.

“Excuse me, sir. I would like to buy llama. How much does it cost?”

“Llama? I don’t have any.” (Followed by about 30 seconds of rapid-fire Spanish of which I understood nothing.)

Undaunted I moved to the next vendor.

“Excuse me, sir. I would like to buy llama. How much does it cost?”

“I don’t have any llama but I can get some for you”.

Excellent! My kind of person!

“Good. How much will it cost?”

“400 Bolivianos”

HUH!?

At this point I was still getting accustomed to the exchange rate. I knew that 400 Bolivianos is only about $75 but even so, it seemed pricey for meat. My “gringo radar” immediately started alarming. Was I being taken advantage of? This does not happen to me much in Bolivia as with my colouring I am often mistaken for Hispanic but maybe in this instance my poor Spanish had given me away as a foreigner and this gentleman was, as my British mother would put it, “taking the piss”.

“Señor, I do not think that is a fair price.”

“How do you say that is not a fair price? I have to go to farm and bring llama for you. 400 Bolivianos. Fair price.”

Disheartened, I left the market. How would I ever be able to fit in if I was constantly being forced to pay outrageous prices? I felt very foreign all of a sudden. I had expected to pay slightly more than the going price for food but this inflation was ridiculous. I felt cheated. My faith in the kindly faces of the Bolivian vendors was shaken. Had they all been lying to me? I looked down at my bag of tomatoes with disdain. Maybe they too were outrageously over-priced?

A few days later I was relating the incident to a colleague when suddenly he burst out laughing. Thinking he was laughing at my poor bargaining skills I became haughtily offended. As it turns out, my bargaining ability was not the issue.

“Jasmine, you attempted to buy an entire llama.”

That’s right folks. Had I accepted the price of 400 Bolivianos that vendor would have procured for me an entire llama from the countryside, brought it (alive) to the market for my inspection and then butchered it there, providing me with enough llama meat to feed a village.

With a mixture of relief and embarrassment I thanked my colleague for the explanation. On my next trip to the market I returned to the same vendor and purchased a kilo of beef. My llama craving seems to have dissipated.

Jasmine Sealy
International Development Studies 

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