Published: November 7th 2010November 7th 2010
So it’s been somewhat of a rocky start to my trip. I’ll spare you the details but what is important is that I still have my health and my laptop, so that’s good. It took around twenty four hours for me to get from SFO to La Paz counting all the layovers and transfers. When I landed I thought I had escaped the dreaded altitude sickness that I had been warned of, La Paz is something like 8,000 feet above sea level, but later that night I felt the effects; nothing too bad, similar to a pretty bad hang over.
La Paz’s landscape is beautiful, massive snow capped mountains hover in the background. Homes whose color all match the dusty mountain on which they climb extend up and over the apex into the altiplano suburb of El Alto. There is a huge informal economy in La Paz with people selling cheap imported electronics, all remnants of neoliberal reforms forced upon the Bolivian people by international financial institutions. For the most part I just took it easy in La Paz while I let my body adjust. However, on my way to the national museum, I did stumble upon a military parade make its way past the bullet ridden Congressional building. After proceeding around the city square it came to an abrupt stop in front of the Presidential palace where I noticed a red carpet was laid out. I took a seat on some stairs, next to some local Pacenos, and waited for about an hour for what I expected to be a presidential appearance. However, it turned out to be some kind of state funeral for what I believe was a Bolivian General, so I paid my respects and made my way on to the museum. I stayed in central La Paz for the of couple of days it took for me to adjust to the altitude and then I made my way to Cochabamba by bus.
The bus to Cochabamba itself was actually quite comfortable, even equipped with a few tv’s which blasted some terrible Sylvester Stalone 1980’s B movie. But I didn’t have much trouble tuning it out thanks to, Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, a marvelous book about Bolivia’s grassroots movements that have managed to ouster two president’s and force a real democratic election based on actual issues that matter in peoples lives, something seemingly unimaginable in the USA with our campaigns centering around empty slogans like “hope” and “change.” And as the sun started to set, with a dubbed over version of Rambo in the background, I discovered that the overhead light seemed to be just for show. However I came prepared, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my trusty little REI book clamp light, and with that I made my first friend in Bolivia.
As we pulled up to our dinner location half way to Cochabamba the little four year old girl sleeping across the aisle from me awoke and entered into an immediate state of amazement at the little flashlight I had fasted to the brim of my hat. She said something to me in Spanish that I didn’t understand and then ran to the bathroom. As we boarded the bus after our brief stop she came up to me and I showed her how the light worked. I told her that I only spoke a little spanish and that was why I was going to Cochabamba. Yet, the fact that I only understood about 10 % of what she said didn’t seem deter her. Eventually she asked where I was from and I responded “Estados Unidos,” and without a flinch her eyes got big, muscles tense, and she slowly repeated “Eeesstaadoos Uniiidooos,” in a way similar to what she may have done if it was the boogie man. She slowly made her way back across the aisle and whispered something to her brother. I thought that that would be the last I heard from her but after less than a minute she was back across the aisle, hanging on my arm like I was her schoolyard jungle gym. I showed her the book I was reading and she noticed my underlining. I tried to explain that I marked the sections of the book that I thought were important but I’m not sure she understood. Either way she proceeded to take my pen, and in a type of hide and go seek with literature, underlined every appearance of “Cochabamba” until she got tired of that word and then moved on to “Coordinadora”. I tried to replace Dignity and Defiance with my Lonely Planet travel guide but she wasn’t having it. I didn’t mind too much though, either way it was nice to have some company.
We arrived to dodgy part of Cochabamba at around midnight, I said bye to my new friend and got a taxi to my hostel, well, what I thought was going to be my hostel until I discovered they had no vacancy. Eventually I found a place with a room and was able to pull in for the night. Cochabamba is a beautiful city. Some old spanish colonial architecture intermixed with more contemporary buildings. Plaza’s with highly manicured gardens are everywhere. Tropical birds dance above your head as you get fresh squeezed orange juice from a street vendor; so much so that I have been shat on three times in the past week, haha. But the most appealing thing for me about the city has been another event that I just happened to stumble upon. As I was making my way through one of the city’s many plazas I came across a crowd of people gathered in a semi circle. As I approached I saw that they were gathered around a man in front of a board with newspaper clippings pasted all across it. I had come across a grassroots community education project aimed at building political consciousness. As that was coming to an end I noticed at the other end of the plaza was another, much larger, group gathered in a circle.
I made my way around the center fountain to where the other group was gathered and found that two men were at the center engaged in a heated political debate. The debate would go around and around with new people joining in, some falling out, and others branching off. The discussions bounced from racism, to poverty, to education, to US imperialism, to Evo and the his opponents in Santa Cruz. Young and old, rich and poor, indigenous and white, left and right, men and women - all were engaged in an incredibly passionate yet respectful dialogue on the important issues of the day. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. It conjured images in my head of Noam Chomsky’s description of his childhood, how working class people gathered around his uncle’s newsstand in New York City to engage in some of the most stimulating intellectual discussions he had ever been a part of. Chills radiated throughout my body, the hair on my neck perked up, goosebumbs sprouted on my arms and at that moment I knew I had landed in the right place.
Since then I have mostly been just getting acquainted with what is going to be my new home for at least the next month, longer if visa restrictions permit. I finished my application for an internship with the Democracy Center and made arrangements with Volunteer Bolivia for my spanish classes and a home-stay. Tomorrow I start the program with Volunteer Bolivia.