Yesterday I got to experience firsthand the Peruvian Christmas tradition La Chocolatada. All day in the office I heard plans for La Chocolatada in spurts and bursts from Maribel, the excessively busy, yet always pleasant executive director of my branch.
“Are you coming to La Chocolatada, Jenny? It starts at three.”
I nodded vigorously, but before I had a chance to ask what I was getting into, fifty borrowers crowded through the office door. It was time for a loan disbursal. Later, I hear, a couple of loan officers talking:
“They’ll pick us up in the truck in front of the hospital before the Chocolatada… We’ll eat early so we can go help out.”
Hmmm. The hospital? But the Chocolatada sounded so pleasant… it was about chocolate, wasn’t it?
And then sitting at my desk, someone finally speaks to me: “Here’s your Santa Claus hat, Jenny, to wear at La Chocolatada.”
Around noon I mustered the courage to ask where we were going.
“To the Chocolatada,” The loan officer replied simply. “The other Manuela Ramos program in town ReproSalud is having their Chocolatada today and we’re going to help out.”
“Are they going to give us chocolate?”
Chuckles… “Yes, they’ll give you chocolate. But ReproSalud is a children’s program- the other office of Manuela Ramos operates it out of another location in town.”
This is the first I’d heard of another Manuela Ramos branch in Pucallpa, even though I know they have several programs nationally. I’m surprised I only found out that there was a whole new set of Manuela Ramos folks in town; except, these people are herding hundreds of children around and wearing t-shirts with funny caricatures of condoms. At least that’s what they were doing when we arrived at the famed Chocolatada.
I know you’re curious to know what it is too, but let me back up for a moment and discuss the journey there. We were all to meet up with our ride to the event at the Amazonas Hospital in Yarinacocha, the next town down the road.
The office has been so busy recently and I’ve been so unwilling to disturb the promotoras as they scurry around that I hadn’t asked anymore about our afternoon plans and only knew the vaguest information about it. I half expected we would be entering the hospital to do some sort of volunteering once we were there.
But after dismounting our mototaxis in front of the hospital, everyone just stood around sipping sodas we bought from a stand outside the hospital and waited around for about twenty minutes.
“Here comes the truck! Wave it down so they can see us.”
Maribel, the executive director, wasn’t kidding when she said a truck was coming to get us. There were a dozen of us and I was expecting a minivan or small bus to come scoop us. But the vehicle we were to ride in was actually an extended cab, 4X4, All-(South)American pick up truck.
The cab was already full, but some promotoras started packing in anyway and before I know what’s what there’s no room left and they’re climbing into the back. I’m hesitating – the last one on the truck, in fact – and for my hesitance I’m rewarded with the “seat” on the truck bed’s backdoor. I know there’s a name for this folding down part of a truck, but I don’t know what it’s called. For now let’s just say I was seated on the “rim” of the truck bed with my arm thrown around the spare tire.
And so we bounced and jangled and giggled our way to the meeting. There were nine of us in the truck bed, most standing but some – like me – seated on the rim. Arms and heads sprouted out of vehicle from all sides. I thought half-heartedly, as I do sometimes when I’m turning a corner on a motorcycle without a helmet, “This is it, huh? This is how I end.”
But half an hour later we were pulling up to an abandoned field which was actually no longer abandoned but teaming with children. This was La Chocolatada. As soon as we arrived we saw that a huge circle of children was surrounding a clown putting on contests between the kids.
Manuela Ramos people were shooing and herding kids here and there and – what’s this! – there was a MAN with a Manuela Ramos t-shirt! I suppose it makes sense in the end, to have male counselors instructing the boys of the program on sexual health, and healthy behaviours, but I was taken aback. I’ve been working with women only for months. I can count the men I’ve seen in the office on one hand and that’s for both offices and in all cases they were either vendors or husbands or insurance agents.
We approach a tent to stand under and watch the dancing contests that are going. Here I finally ask what this whole thing is about. It turns out La Chocolatada is basically a Hot Chocolate Party for kids during Christmas time. The kids will all gather together to receive three presents: a toy, a cup of hot chocolate, and a huge piece of paneton- or Christmas bread. But in order to receive this present, the children must put on a “show.”
The show part involves a clown and the skinniest Santa Claus I’ve ever seen leading the children through games and contests where the winners are chosen by audience applause. The kids in attendance ranged from infants only a few days old, resting on their mothers shoulders to gangly teenagers who probably are in need of some good reproductive health advice. What was particularly strange about the dance contest that I was watching was that the “dance” that apparently everyone knew but me, rewards the girl with the best booty-shaking moves.
I never thought of myself as a Norteamerica Puritan, but watching those little nine year old girls gyrate and shake their skinny little butts while everyone is just standing there smiling, admiring… I found myself blinking excessively and looking around nervously… Wasn’t this a reproductive health program? Why are these little kids performing in a booty-bouncing contest?… But whatever, everyone was enjoying themselves and no one was confused but me.
Midway through the show, the credit program Manuela Ramos folks and I went to the gift-giving station set up in front of a neighbor’s house. I should mention here that we were definitely in an asentamiento humano – or literally “human settlement”. The homes dot the dusty landscape every half acre or so: they have thatched roofs and either wooden or metal siding. This land has only been settled for about five years or so. The children are mostly from this and surrounding settlement and while some of them have nice new sneakers and dresses, many of the children’s clothing is ragged and more than a few are barefoot.
The neighbor that is volunteering her home for our event also lives in a thatch and corrugated metal house. She has set up a cooking station in her front yard to prepare the hot chocolate. Above a smoldering charcoal fire, she has set two gigantic pots side by side on a short metal grill. She stirs the steaming milk mixture with a three foot long wooden paddle.
All of a sudden we hear screams and cheers and five hundred children are stampeding toward us. The ReproSalud counselors form a protective barrier and start barking, “Stand back!”, “Slow down!”, and eventually “Smallest people to the front”. They even bring out a bucket of water to dampen the earth and settle the dust the kids are raising.
The loan officers station themselves at the hot chocolate pots, at the toy table and at the paneton table. Paneton by the way is the Peruvian version of bread pudding – more bread than pudding, a loaf is ten inches tall, circular and filled with raisins and those unrealistic candied “fruits”. During La Chocolatada, paneton slices the size of bricks are lathered with butter and handed out.
And so the procession begins. The kids come up with their cups in hand, receive their chocolate, pass to the paneton table and finally to the toy table. Mothers are carrying their infants through the lines first, then big sisters carrying toddler siblings, and then finally four and five year olds who can only sort of make their way through a line alone.
There is a ton of directing, shouting, wandering and retracing, pushing, pulling, you name it. The Westerner in me is thinking of ten different ways I might have organized this line better: spacing apart the stations… partnering big kids with little kids… providing plates so a four year old isn’t trying to hold a toy car, a cup full of liquid and a piece of buttered bread the size of a toaster in his tiny paws all at the same time… But fortunately/unfortunately, I was given the task of sitting on a stool and holding everyone’s purses and that’s exactly what I did.
The chocolate was served for hours and I felt bad for the loan officers that were breaking their backs with the bending and scooping, bending and scooping. The line seemed endless and after an hour I realized why. Children from the neighborhood who had nothing to do with the program had snuck into line, hoping to mix in with the ReproSalud kids. Ahaaa, so this is why each camper had a ticket that they had to turn in to receive their bread and toy.
But even with the ticket system, we ran out of toys before everyone got one and the paneton gave out soon too. Those big pots of hot chocolate were still going though and no one needed a ticket to get in on it. I was seated directly behind the chocolate station and recognized kids coming back from thirds and fourths and I know the servers did too. But it didn’t matter, there’s enough chocolate for everyone at La Chocolatada.
Finally, at dusk, the two vats were scraped clean and I wish I’d taken out my camera in time to get a shot of the little toddlers crowding around the pots’ rims to peek down at the, yes, empty, bottom.
It was time to head home. My butt was asleep and I was ready to go. Don’t get me wrong, I cherished having somewhere to sit when everyone else had to stand, but I’m not used to stools and chairs that rest just six inches off the ground. Maybe it’s something common to Peru, or maybe South America, or maybe many parts of the world, but those tiny stools cramp me up good! Why not build it with taller legs, eh?
The sun is setting and we’re leaving for home. There was no truck this time, just plain old mototaxis – “Phew!”, I thought.
It struck me that a few weeks ago I was just as wary of those motorized rickshaws as I was of this afternoon’s truck bed. And in a fit of masochistic nostalgia I wonder – if I was staying – what would I think of truck beds in another month? Maybe I will get a chance some day to come back and find out.