One of the major themes about life in America today is choices – lots and lots of choices. You may not realize it, but America is overloaded with choices. My family is living in rural Bolivia for a year, and one thing it has really brought into perspective is the astounding number of possibilities that exist in America – and which don’t exist here. Life here is much more limited. Life in the Andes is about simple choices.
In America, you have choices about your career, choices about where to live, choices about where to shop, where to buy food, what to eat, entertainment, clothing… everywhere. We’re overloaded with choices. In fact, I’m pretty sure Freedom of Choice is one of those freedoms on the Bill of Rights. But sometimes there are so many choices in America, it can complicate your life.
In our small town in the Andes, many choices have been removed from the menu. At first, experiencing this was an exercise in sacrifice, but it turns out there are advantages too. The longer we’re here, the more I get used to the limited options. In fact, I’ll probably be a bit overwhelmed again when we return to the U.S. Here’s what I’m talking about:
The food in Bolivia can take some getting used to, to put it kindly. But the good news is that I’m used to it (yay)! Bolivia has astoundingly little variety in its food. In our region of the country, every meal starts with a soup, followed by a meat-and-potatoes dish.
Here’s a typical Bolivian soup:
This one is called “Rice Soup”, because it has rice in it. It’s a chicken broth with a potato and some carrot shavings too. You could instead have a “Pasta Soup”, and I’ll spare you the details about that one. The only difference is you swap out the rice.
Variety in your soup can mean a piece of beef or chicken in the soup. Or you could have quinoa instead of pasta or rice. Aaaand, that’s about it!
There’s no such thing as cream soups, vegetable soups, chowders, purees, bisques, or even egg-drop. Nobody’s heard of minestrone, gazpacho, hot & sour, or cold cucumber soup. There are no stews either – none at all. It’s like the world of soup has never been introduced to Bolivia.
Nearly all Bolivian soup is like this Rice Soup above, with just a few minor possible variations. It’s like this in every restaurant, every where you go, every day of the year – as long as they’re open.
The Second Course
Once you’re done with the soup, up comes the second course, and here’s what that’s like:
This is baked pork, and this particular plate was finger-licking good! No, don’t get me wrong, I really do like the food in Bolivia, because I’ve been eating it for years (wife = Bolivian).
Nearly all Bolivian second courses can be thought of as variations on this plate. You can swap out the corn for rice, quinoa, or pasta, and you can swap out the pork for chicken, or beef, and you could bread it if you want. Then, if you want to get real edgy, you can even put a sauce on the meat. There’s a spicy tomato sauce (which is awesome), and there’s a…. hold on, I can’t think of any other sauces right now. If I do, I’ll get back to you.
So, yeah, not a lot of choices in Bolivian food. I cope because we cook much more variety at home. We have Taco Tuesdays, Meatless Mondays, and StirFridays. In fact, we eat much the same as we did back in California.
But, even if you cook at home, your choices here are much more limited. There are only about 200 food ingredients in our market, compared to about 40,000 in a typical U.S. supermarket. Cooking here takes a bit more work, and you have to find creative substitutes.
Related Content: What If All Your Food Were Fresh And Local?
We have exactly two (2) brands of beer in our town. It’s actually one too many, because one of them is horrible. This is my only real choice here:
OK, next, I’m just going to leave this right here, to remind myself what the choices are like in America:
What kills me is that the guy who took this photo on Flickr was complaining in his comments about not having some brand he likes. I’ve never met him before, but man, I sure do hate him!
Really, the beer is just an easy example of what any packaged food or household goods are like: cookies, crackers, ice cream, pasta, toothpaste, sunscreen, soap, shampoo, etc, etc. We typically have no more than 1-3 choices here, vs. dozens if not hundreds of choices in most stores in America.
There are simple choices in entertainment in our village, too. Want to stay in tonight? That’s great! We have one TV channel in town. But, it’s a government station, mostly with straight-up political propaganda. It’s not my favorite….. OK, I guess…. TECHNICALLY it is my favorite.
We just never turn on the TV. That’s a simple choice.
Want to go out? Now you’re talking! We have two restaurants in town, but only one of them opens for dinner. So, that’s an easy choice, too! If you prefer upscale, downscale, family-friendly, or the single scene, it’s all the same place. That restaurant has only one thing on the menu at night: fried chicken with rice. Again, simple choices.
There’s actually a few street vendors that sell hamburgers at night too. There’s a wide selection of things you can have on your hamburger. You can have ketchup, mayonnaise, lettuce, or tomatoes! Sometimes, I like to mix it up and go with all four!
Sports & Exercise
Even sports and exercise involve very few choices in Bolivia. In our village there are exactly two (2) sports that people play and follow: soccer and basketball. There’s both small court soccer and field soccer too, so I guess you could count that as three sports in total.
There’s no hockey, swimming, gymnastics, football, baseball, volleyball, or any other sports that you could possibly think of. I go for bike rides and I jog out on the highway often too. You can do that anywhere. But people here think I’m a freak for doing it (I am).
I know families back in the California suburbs that get their kids in a new sport every year. Not here! For a kid growing up here, the choices are simple. If your kid doesn’t like soccer, you can always try basketball. And if your kid doesn’t like basketball, well then, give soccer a try again! Easy!
Want to buy something? You’re in luck, because there are at least ten shops in town that sell things! The problem is that they all sell pretty much the same things.
Here’s where we do a lot of our shopping:
There is a bit of variety around. Some places have a bigger mix of clothes vs. household goods. There is even one shop that we call “Home Depot” because it’s the only place that sells tools & hardware:
There is no internet shopping in Bolivia either. There are no wonders of Amazon. It’s incredible that in the U.S. within two days you could have ANYTHING YOU CAN IMAGINE on your doorstep. What a different world! But hey, it’s much simpler to buy anything here. You can either get it, or you cannot. I’m not spending hours trying to make the best choice.
Everywhere you look in our town, there are simple choices. If you’re used to the endless choices we have in the United States, it can be frustrating to face such limitations at first. But, as you get used to it, you see that there are certain advantages too: primarily, the simplicity. It doesn’t take an hour to go to the supermarket. I don’t have to drive across town to the big box stores. I don’t have to spend hours finding the best choice among thousands. Even buying beer in the U.S. can take time.
Here, I hardly ever have to consider price vs. value. Either I can find something, or I cannot.
I’m not looking forward to being overwhelmed by something like this when we go back to California:
While the simple choices in a place like Bolivia can be TOO limiting, the choices in America can make life more complicated too. I feel like the sweet spot is somewhere in between.