I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “The best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach.”
Now in the Bolivian antiplano, this phrase’s meaning is amplified to a new level.
Yesterday, we climbed higher into the Andes to visit a hydro-forestry project called Jallihuaya. Here, we learned all about different experiments occurring to stimulate new plant growth and combat climate change in the region. After working up an appetite learning more about project, we we settled down for lunch.
However, this was no ordinary meal.
The guides and project leaders graciously prepared an apthapi for us. An apathapi is a traditional communal meal, a custom of Aymara countryside communities. The meal is sprawled out on the ground and is eaten with your hands. Everything is shared, including beverages, and guests are encouraged to directly grab food for themselves.
Our apthapi included many different types of potatoes, llama meat, beef, fresh homemade cheese, chuño, tunta and oca.
One of our guides and his daughter had made the cheese from their own cows and had grown all the potatoes themselves, which to me, was such a kind gesture to share this all with us. Needless to say, everything was also delicious.
I joked that I needed more hands to be able to try more of the food. Our guides got a good laugh from that. It was easy to tell from the smiles on our faces and our handfuls full of food that we were all enjoying the lunch.
Through asking about the different types of foods offered, my fellow students and I got to chat more with our guides individually. Conversation flowed much more naturally than earlier when we asked questions formally in our best Spanish about their project.
The purpose of the apthapi was just that: to bring us all together, connect and share an Aymara tradition. To me, it felt like team-building.
It was also almost ritualistic, with standards of expected conduct and expected outcomes. For instance, at the end of the meal, one of our guides named Hugo, told me that we were to go around and individually thank each person for the meal. There was so much respect for not only the provider of the meal, but also for each person that took part in eating and socializing.
While I was gracious for the meal, I was more honored to be able to take part in such a respected tradition. Yes, using only my hands, eating off the ground and reaching over people for seconds goes against everything expected according to standards of Southern etiquette, but this was about exploring a new culture and their customs. I needed no reminders of this.
Ultimately, the apthapi was so much more than just eating some delicious food.