I was in shock for a time before I got round to quickly arranging to spend Christmas with friends. It’s strange how at times we are can be so afraid of being alone with ourselves. I rushed to drown out grief with the bustle of friends.
I flew to Cochabamba and was soon encloaked with people. Greeting endless Bolivian aunts and uncles who could soon be in-laws of one of my friends, admiring new-born babies, celebrating not just Christmas but Hannukkah, idling away coffee-filled mornings with my friend Graciela and an all-enveloping Bolivian mum whose family can never have too many members.
It has been hard to imagine we were approaching Christmas in the last few weeks. Firstly elections were much more of an enticing and exciting prospect, but also Bolivia lacks Woolworths and all those other department stores that from November start playing soupy carol music and screaming at you to shop, shop, shop.
Bolivia seemed to forget it was nearly Christmas until a week ago when suddenly trees were covered in lights, little street stalls sprouted tinsel and twee cards, and my office handed over a big washing up bowl of food and drink (caneston) to celebrate the holidays. Much of it waits for my return including several packets of chuño (strange-tasting potatoes that have been alternately sun-burnt and frozen out in the mountains of Bolivia) soup stock.
The snowmen and Father Christmases that appeared in a few shop windows looked decidedly out of place in Bolivian mid-summer – rather like the dinosaur, giraffe and squid adoring the crib in a nativity scene in one of my friend’s living rooms.
Like a British Christmas though, a Bolivian one does involve a great deal of eating and drinking. I must have eaten at least a few chickens and turkeys over a couple of days, interspersed with soups, cherry pie and chocolate cake.
When I went to see a friend, Julian’s doctor on Christmas Day with bad stomach ache and fearing another onset of typhoid, he reassuringly told me I was just eating too much fatty food. He then kindly took me into his kitchen and offered me several slabs of turkey festooned with rich gravy.
But Bolivians are much more into toasting than the British. On Christmas Eve, I ate with a group of 12 in a grand aged dining room adorned with vast gilded mirrors, a half-working chandelier and an old oak table covered with cracked colonial ceramic dishes piled high with food. As the night went on, the toasts became more grandiose, one full of nonsensical philosophical musings which didn’t end until Jose Miguel started bizarrely playing Chacaron (one of those annoying songs you can’t get rid of your head like "hey macarena").
The dining room was just one of the many rooms in the house where I have stayed over Christmas. It’s an amazing high-ceilinged gently-crumbling building crammed with eccentric objects (a 1950s telephone exchange, busts of Bach and Bolivar, an out-of-tune grand piano, walls covered with commemorative plaques and photos of waxed-moustachioed men in top hats). Locked doors mysteriously lead off various rooms, and I was told that it had once housed a former Bolivian President in the 60s.
My friend Graciela lives there with two other gringos, a Bolivian mum and her boisterous son Jose Miguel. It appears to be almost a hostal for gringos passing through Bolivia, a strangely transient house with such history embedded into its walls and floors.
It has all proved a great distraction from heartbreak- reminding me as ever of how important friends are and how privileged I have been to meet some great people in Bolivia. But in the mornings when I have woken up and gazed into the ornate gilded mirrors, I can see sadness in the corners of the eyes. A year which has encompassed revolutions, love and friendships has also involved fear, loneliness and sadness.
Just one year in this amazing Andean nation of Bolivia. What’s in store for 2006?