My Hometown: Cochabamba, Bolivia

Libby Kirkby-McLeod and her brother in Bolivia. Cochabamba lies between the first set of hills and those on the horizon, the road going through a small pass can just be seen in the middle.
From My Hometown, 8:16 am on 4 January 2024

Cochabamba, Bolivia is really only my hometown in my imagination. My claims to being a Cochabambina are flimsy.

My Kiwi parents moved there when I was three, staying for three and a half years. It is the place of my early, vivid childhood memories - suffering desperately from altitude sickness when we arrived; looking for snakes on the school field before we played games; crying because I wasn’t allowed outside in bare feet. Being delirious from malaria fever which left my face covered in fever blisters; climbing trees; resenting Spanish lessons. (I made a few other memories after I went back to live for six months as a teen but more on that later).

Cochabamba lies in a valley of the Andes mountain range and is a landlocked town in a landlocked South American nation. It is often dry and dusty – I remember running outside to dance in the rain only to come in and notice every raindrop had left a ring of dust.

A Quechuan woman in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

A Quechuan woman in central Cochabamba, Bolivia. Photo: Libby Kirkby-McLeod

The indigenous Quechuan people live mostly on the hills, having been conquered first by the Inca then by the Spanish. But it’s their colourful woven clothes, plaits, and distinctive hats you’ll see in most tourist marketing.

UNESCO said that Cochabamba is ‘renowned for its gastronomic richness’. Apparently locals go around saying ‘a Cochabambino does not eat to live but live to eat’. Really? I don’t remember that. I do remember walking to the small tienda, a hole in the wall where we would buy milk in a bag. I ate anticucho, thin cuts of cow’s heart grilled street side, and saltẽna that’s filling included a tiny whole quail egg. This photo has my father’s writing on it saying it is where we bought our breakfast cereal. Field-to-table before that was trendy.

A cereal 'stand' in Cochabamba

A cereal 'stand' in Cochabamba. Photo: Libby Kirkby-McLeod

I tried making hokey pokey for my friends once, but in Cochabamba the air is so thin it didn’t provide the surprising reaction when I added the baking soda. High altitude living was a sickness and then a pain for me. One day, some friends and I decided to climb up to Cristo de la Concordia (a Christ statue which is taller than the famous one in Rio). I had to stop every dozen steps to try and suck more air into my lungs. 

One year Pope John Paul II visited Bolivia. I switched channel after channel on the TV looking for the cartoons, but all were following the Pope. Around 80 percent of the country identify as Catholic. It is all mixed up though -  at an Alasitas market (Alasita honours Ekeko, an Aymaran god) you can buy tiny versions of household items and future dreams, in the hope that they will become reality like Jack’s magic beans. I loved this world of miniature houses, cars, money, and even tiny university degrees.

A micro bus in Cochabamba

A micro bus in Cochabamba. Photo: Libby Kirkby-McLeod

When we left to come home to Auckland (which is really my hometown) I longed to go back and did, by myself at 16 for six months. It was a terrible age to travel because I was a ridiculous teen. I turned down a chance to visit Machu Picchu because I didn’t want to miss a youth group car wash. I told you, ridiculous.

I have Kiwi family friends who lived their whole childhoods in Cochabamba, coming home only for university. We are ‘third culture kids’ – the children of missionaries. We don’t belong in the country we grew up in but at the same time we come home and don’t belong here either. Many missionary kids I know end up living overseas, perhaps most comfortable living as cultural exiles abroad than at home. I’m not like that, I hate to move, but when people ask about my hometown it is the dusty streets of Cochabamba which rise first to my mind. 


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