Well, there’s an awful lot I could write about our big adventure in Bolivia and Peru. In fact, there’s at least one book and *checks notebook* four short stories and a novella in it, which should see me nicely through autumn and NaNoWriMo. But I promised a lot of folk on Twitter and Facebook that I’d tell the tale of the peña in La Paz. And so, dear readers, sit doon and I’ll tell you a story.
While we were in Bolivia, we had the services of a Chilean-born guide called Jorge. Now, Jorge was a dude. As well as giving us lots of fascinating cultural tidbits, he was excellent off-the-record too- doing everything from taking us to local empanada stalls for lunch, finding me a new inhaler when I lost mine at the airport, and giving us his own views on local politics. Which, as eagle-eyed readers will note, was interesting given he’s from Chile and recent research (okay, watching Copa America matches in June) shows that while Peru and Bolivia hate each other, they both hate Chile for being land-stealing bastards so that’s all okay then.
Anyway, Jorge asked us if we had plans for our last night in La Paz. We didn’t, so he recommended dinner at a peña and booked a table. A peña is basically a place for folk to meet, eat cheap food and listen to folk music, usually ‘Nueva Cancion’ or folksy protest music. These days, a few of them are slightly more on the touristy, cheesy side, and none more so than Pena Huari, slap-bang in the trinket-filled Witches’ Market. Seriously, take a look at that 70s flashing dancefloor and all the frilly dancers. Looking at the TripAdvisor reviews, I glanced at Pete and said ‘What the hell are we letting ourselves in for?’ ‘It’ll be a unique experience,’ my dear husband counselled.
After some searching, we finally found a glowing neon sign leading to some stairs packed with wall paintings of indigenous people, demons and some of the creepiest mannequins you’ve ever seen.
The restaurant was meant to seat around 80 people. When we arrive, it’s completely empty, save for a corner table with an old man and his friends hunched over drinks. He eventually spots us, but his English isn’t very good; fortunately I’d been pre-warned that basic Spanish was a must as only a few touristy places would be fluent in English. ‘Hemos reservados una mesa para dos,’ I say, noticing that none of the mesas look like they’re pre-booked by anyone. ‘Ah, Jorge?’ the man asked. We nod sheepishly and he leads us to the ‘best seat in the house’ right by the dancefloor. It’s sadly not lit up, and we get the feeling there may not be the promised audience participation tonight. A bored-looking man turns on the UV lights and fires up the traditional music CD. We look around for more customers. It’s not peak season but La Paz was still hoaching with tourists, so maybe some more punters will appear. 8pm approaches, the time of the big show. The owner appears again. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he begins. ‘We have a shorter show tonight. You’re the only customers.’ He asks if we’d like any drinks. With hindsight, I should have started on the hard liquor, altitude sickness be damned.
Our food arrived, a very tasty llama steak and some spicy Bolivian chicken, sajta de pollo. The lights dimmed, and the show began. A young man explained in Spanish what instruments he was playing- two different types of panpipes and a quena, the Andean flute that sounds like a haunted recorder. His set is very good, and we clap as loud as we can. Meanwhile, his charming coworkers are busy heckling from the sidelines, whistling out of tune, calling him a maricón and finally, when he’d finished, declaring ‘HA MUERTO‘. Still keeping a brave face on, he came to sell us his CD, and I bought one partly to annoy his mates, but also because it would be slightly awkward if we didn’t. Here’s the instruments in action playing perennial Peruvian zarzuela, El Condor Pasa, as ruined by Simon and Garfunkel. I should just cave in and make this my ringtone, given how constant a soundtrack this was.
After he packed up and left, we were left with only tumbleweeds on the dancefloor, the weird atmosphere and the background grumbling of the staff. It was starting to feel like an elaborate Jeremy Beadle prank. Maybe more customers would leap out from behind a curtain. Instead, the owner pulled up a seat at our table, a serious look on his face. Oh god, what had we done?
‘Excuse my English. I learned in Philly. Have you been to Philly? The English there is easy-going.’ I explain his English is better than our Spanish. He doesn’t seem to pay attention, instead shouting at the musician to come over again in Spanish best reserved for coming out of a foul-mouthed fictional teenager. The musician stands there, looking confused. Perhaps the owner felt he didn’t spend enough time there. I offer some musical compliments in Spanish, while the owner glares at him. Well, this got awkward fast. The owner finally lets him go and turns back to us. ‘I am sorry for tonight. We couldn’t give you a proper show.’ His old face crumples in anger. ‘Tomorrow it will be busier, it will be full. Tonight… pay what you want.’
At this point, he genuinely looked like he was about to cry. He tells us maybe he’s getting too old for this whole thing, that he should move to Philly or Germany where he studied- which prompts a bout of enthusiastic German neither of us understand. I’m not sure what to do at this point, so I nudge Pete who says again we really enjoyed the show and the food. He gives him a curious look. ‘Why do you speak like that? You sound like the King.’ He kept saying this to Pete (and me) for the rest of the night when we said anything. Naturally, I reacted afterwards in a reasonable manner. ALL HAIL KING PETE.
‘Now you have to have the snake shots,’ he announces, yelling in more rude Spanish at the staff. I’d been hoping for dessert at one point, but the exit’s looking more tempting. I smile, and his face falls. ‘Are you laughing at me?‘ At this point the staff are just staring from their table of increasing alcoholic drinks. Erm, no, I say, at which point a cloth-covered jar is plopped on the table by a surly man. ‘This is good for you!’ the owner crows. ‘Especially for men.’ He whispers something in Pete’s ear. I’ll hazard a guess that the drink’s an ‘aphrodisiac’. The cover is whipped off.
Well, item was as described. When in Rome, though, and it seems leaving without drinking a glass of Slithernoff is frowned on. If I’m honest, it mostly tasted of vodka and despair. ‘I have to tell you something,’ slurred the owner, patting our arms. ‘Enjoy life. Be with your people. Because tomorrow-‘ here he drew a finger across his neck- ‘you die.’ Which was, of course, meant as a philosophical statement, but came out more like a drunken threat. At this point, Pete settled the bill, leaving a tip which prompted a great outcry. Maybe they hadn’t expected it. By the time we left, the owner had already gone back to his table and hunched over his drink. Maybe tomorrow he’d have a busy night. Maybe tomorrow, we’d die. (We didn’t, but Bolivian traffic came close to doing the job.)
And that, dear friends, is the story of the Accidental Partridge dining experience. Sleep well, because tomorrow, you die.