A Meaty Lunch with Evo, the People’s President

A Meaty Lunch with Evo, the People’s President

Bolivian President Evo Morales, very present at the conference

On Earth Day, the New York delegation at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights was invited to have lunch with President Evo Morales (the first indigenous president of Bolivia), President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and several other dignitaries, such as the Vice Presidents of Bolivia and Cuba. What an incredible opportunity! After I showed my official invitation, embossed with the seal of Bolivia, and went through security (which was nothing compared to what one would encounter at a presidential lunch in the United States), I looked up to see President Morales arriving, walking amongst the people, shaking hands and posing for photos. President Chavez followed him, surrounded by the press—he was shorter than I had expected! I managed to snap a photo of him, but only the top of his head is visible within a tight circle of reporters waving cameras and microphones.

The lunch wasn’t a small affair; there were about 100 guests in attendance, including representatives from the United States and elsewhere. There was also a small army of waiters; I’ve never seen food served and dishes cleared so quickly. As guests filed into the white tents and sat at round tables with fancy place-settings—at least three forks, and gorgeous centerpieces—cactuses made of cucumbers! Throughout the meal, we were serenaded by traditional Bolivian musical groups and indigenous dancers. The waiters poured water and wine, which continued to flow throughout the meal.

Each place-setting included a menu describing the four course meal, but it was in Spanish, of course. When the first course arrived, I asked the waiter if it was vegetarian; “Vegetariano, por favor? Sin carne?” He nodded yes and placed the dish in front of me—a “trilogia de papas Andinas” (three small potatoes, each a different colors) and “rollitos de pejerey,” which I investigated carefully before a nearby diner warned me that these were rolled up strips of fried fish. Not quite vegetarian, but at least I enjoyed the potatoes.

I was really looking forward to the second course;sopa de choclo, corn soup. When I attended the pre-conference orientation in New York, the Bolivian ambassador told us about the delicious corn we would eat in Cochabamba and I had yet to taste any. However, when the steaming bowls of yellowish soup arrived, I noticed the chunks of meat floating with the white kernels of corn. Strike two. I was a little worried—and very hungry—by this point, especially since the third course was: “Arrollado mixto acompanado de rellenos de Charque, Fritanga Cochabambina, y putti de Chuno.” One of my table-mates told me that these were local names for animals—uh oh. Multiple animals? Yes, multiple animals; at least three. This dish sounded like my worst nightmare. When it arrived, I once again told the waiter that I was a vegetarian. He disappeared and a few minutes later, another waiter appeared and tried to serve me a plate covered in at least three types of meat. “NO! Vegetariano, por favor!” I must have sounded desperate, because someone wearing a suit and carrying a clipboard approached and asked in English if I was vegetarian. Yes! Finally, I was served the alternative meal; I’m still not sure what it was, but it was pretty good and it didn’t have any “cochabambina” (the local name for pigs) in it. I’m not sure how many other vegetarians were present at the lunch, but I was definitely in the minority. And even though “vegetariano” is a Spanish word, it doesn’t seem to be commonly understood. (I ordered in a restaurant the other day and specified vegetariano—several times—but somehow I still ended up with a steak in front of me.)

At least dessert was delicious and vegetarian: “Espuma de Café de los Yungas,” which tasted a bit like tiramisu. As we finished our meals and began to digest, the last group of performers took the stage. This dance troupe of young Afro-indigenous men and women stirred several of the now-satiated diners to leap to their feet and join the performers in the center tent. Slowly, more and more guests began to dance. Then, all of a sudden, Evo was on his feet! My jaw dropped as I watched him grab my roommate Cerita around the waist and swing her in a circle, a huge smile on his face. I have never seen a head of state do anything like this! (Can you imagine U.S. President Obama dancing with foreign civilians at a party? The Secret Service would all have heart attacks.) He danced and danced, while the crowd surrounded him and shouted “Evo! Evo! Evo!”

After a few minutes, he waved goodbye and made his exit to a nearby tent. Everyone continued to dance and the waiters joined us. The energy was unbelievable and the passion was undeniable. A few minutes later, Evo emerged from the tent, wearing tennis shoes. President Chavez followed him and they jumped into a waiting SUV, Evo in the driver’s seat and Chavez next to him. Can you imagine, a president driving his own car, like a real person! He may not be a vegetarian, but I’m having a hard time holding that against him.

Photo courtesy of Alain Bechellier