Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Cool Little Moment

I was sitting in Cocha`s central plaza yesterday, doing some writing and enjoying the nice weather. The plaza is really nice, with lots of flowers and grass surrounded on all sides by cool old colonial buildings. It is always full of people talking, playing or protesting. It is the real heart of this city.

So Cocha is full of beggars, which one would expect from the poorest country in South America. The majority of these people are not from Cocha, but come in from Potosi department. You can tell they are from Potosi because of their native dress, which features black skirts with colorful designs on them and white felt hats. The average person in the campo survives on 5Bs a day, which is roughly 62 cents. So, begging is a good deal for them.

As I was sitting there, two little girls came up to me. They were about 5 or 6 and from their dress obviously from Potosi. What they do is stand right in front of you and do this cute little native dance and sing songs in their high pitched voices. They keep going for however long it takes you to give them money. They were adorable, and I just cracked up at their dance. I gave them all the change I had.

A few minutes later they came back up to me and sat down. They asked what I was doing. I could not understand a lot of what they were saying because it was in Quechua, their native language (also the language of the Incas). But we understood enough to have a little conversation. Their names were Celia and Alvertina. I had them write their names in my notebook. After a few minutes, they continued their begging. But, it was just a nice little moment I thought. Darling little girls. If I had any more money, I would have given it to them.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Back ¨Home¨ Again

We´re just back from 6 days in Sucre and Potosi. We took advantage of the two-week Easter Peace and its lack of blockades to get some travelling in, before the whole country goes to hell again. We´ve been to Sucre before (check the archives for 2 blogs and plenty of pics of Sucre), but this was our first time visiting Potosi.

The highlights:

1. Phujllay Festival in Tarabuco. Tarabuco is a little village outside of Sucre that is well-known for its textiles. Beautiful little place. Phujllay is a huge Carnival-like festival featuring like 30 nearby indiginous communities. They all come in dressed in their native costumes and perform dances around the town. Normally our luck is such that we get to town the week before or after something like this goes down. We got lucky this time.

After wandering around town for a while, buying up half the place (4 Alpaca rugs, two purses, and a belt to go with the poncho, Jalqá tapestry and shawl we picked up in Sucre proper) we asked a woman outside a cobbler´s shop what time the parade started and where the route was. She told us that it started in a few minutes, went right by the shop, and that we were welcome to sit on the seats she was setting up under an awning. We then passed a few hours with this family of cobblers, talking and drinking the beers we bought. By the time we had to leave, the place was so packed we couldn´t move. The woman took us under her wing, and lead us out of the crowd, shouting at people to get out of her friends´ way. Bolivian indians are like this. Nice people and incredibly hospitable.

2. Convento de San Felipe Neri, in Sucre. Last time we just saw the outside, but this trip we got inside. This is the most beautiful building I have ever seen. Anywhere. Words do not do it justice. It takes your breath away.

Why don´t I post a picture? Well, I can´t. A woman in the administration at Megan´s school, who also happens to be a part owner of the school, is mad at me for some bizarre reason. So, she has effectively banned me from using the school´s computer lab (only connection in town fast enough to allow photo uploading). She also banned me from using the school´s library, meaning I have no access to English language books. And that´s not even the worst of what she has done by a long shot. What a rotten bitch, pardon my French.

But I digress.

We learned that a series of tunnels connect most churches in Sucre, including San Felipe Neri. They were used back in the day so that monks who were not allowed on the streets could circulate around town and clean all of the church buildings. Turns out the tunnels were also used by priests and nuns to ¨hook up,¨ if you know what I mean. Worse, pregnant nuns would go in the tunnels to have their babies. They would then kill the babies; scores of tiny skeletons have been found down there. So you see, the hipocrisy of child molesting priests has a long history in the church!

Anyway, they hope to have the tunnels open for tours by 2010 (they partially collapsed in an earthquake in the 1940´s and need to be repaired).

3. Potosi. At over 13,500 feet, Potosi is the highest city in the world. And it is a good size city at like 120,000 people. It is like they plopped a city down on the moon -- not much grows up that high. The highlight was the Convento de Santa Teresa, a carmelite nunnery dating to 1692 (it operated until 1973). The nuns entered at age 15 and never left. Literally. The nuns were burried in crypts under the floor of a room next to the main church. Part of the crypts is now covered in glass so you can look down at the bones. The nuns not only could not leave, but they were not allowed to see anyone from the outside. Their family could visit once a month, but were hidden behind a black screen. The convent itself is an amazingly beautiful building, featuring a maze of interesting rooms. Again, wish I could show you a photo, but . . . .

In contrast, the Casa de Moneda (the old mint), which is Potosi´s most famous museum, was somewhat disappointing. It was beautiful and interesting, but lacked the ¨wow¨ factor that Santa Teresa packed.

Lowlight:

Nos. 1, 2 and 3. Freaking food poisoning. Again. When am I going to learn? Sweet Jesus I am soooooo f$%king sick of food poisoning. I spent a sleepless night with a raging fever thanks to the nasty-ass food at San Marcos Smelter. To make matters worse, that meal also gave me stomach amoebas. Again. The famous ¨Bolivian Two-fer.¨ Thankfully, we do not let the kids eat at restaurants that are not owned by foreigners (only foreign-owned restaurants here practice concepts of basic hygene). So, the kids were fine. And Meg dodged the bullet. Anyway, the stomach amoebas will help me on my quest to get my weight down to 135lbs, which looks real nice on my 6 foot frame.

Out.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Who knows what is going on

One of the funny things about Bolivia is that no one ever really knows what is going on. If you hear about a parade happening today, and ask 4 people about it, they will tell you it is taking place (1) at 9AM; (2) at 11AM; (3) tomorrow; and (4) what parade?

So, from what I have heard this morning and gleaned from the newspaper, a compromise of some sort has been reached and -- at least for now -- the blockades will be lifted. This is all subject to change at any minute and depending on who you talk to. But good news -- at least for now.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Slap and the Banana Magnate

Well, what to say. Blockades continue to intensify. Food shortages are starting to be reported in the major cities, of which Cochabamba is one. The price of my apples, I noticed today, has doubled.

President Mesa is calling for early elections in August to replace him. He said that it is the ¨only way to prevent a bloodbath.¨ Opposition leader Evo ¨King of Coca¨ Morales was at the Cochabamba airport yesterday when he was slapped in the face by Miguel Zambrana, Bolivia´s ¨King of Bananas,¨ who rightly accused Morales of ruining Bolivia. Needless to say, this pissed off Morales.

I was down at the main plaza, Plaza 25 de Mayo, yesterday and it was packed with marching and screaming indians. I took some shots and will try to upload them later today. Apparently ¨anti American sentiment¨ is developing amongst the protesters, but everyone was cool to me.

Next week is spring break here (or, really, fall break, as winter is on its way). We were going to go to Potosi here in Bolivia, but fear the blockades. We may go to the beach in Arica, Chile, if those roads are clear. Who knows.

Now, please allow me to editorialize just a bit: This place is pretty well f$%ked right now, if you ask me. When your president calls for elections as ¨the only way to prevent a BLOODBATH¨(my emphasis), that is a pretty good sign that things are not going well. When Banana Magnates start slapping around Coca Kings, that is another sign that, well, you might just be circling the drain.

Anyway, I always wanted to know what it would be like to live in a Third World country as it dissolved into chaos, so at least I can cross that off my ¨To do by 40¨ list!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Another Day in Blockade Land

So, the blockades continue.

The one place we most want to visit during our time here in Bolivia is the city of Potosi. We planned to go in two weeks. But at last check, the road to Potosi was blockaded, so we may not get to go. Pity.

Since we have no television, and I can´t read the newspaper, I get most of my news on Bolivia on the internet. The best source is www.boliviatimes.com, which collects Bolivia stories from English language news sources.

In fact, here is an interesting story about Bolivia´s poverty I picked up ther. I features some good photos, too:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4265295.stm

Also, I found out that ex-President Goni (U.S. backed, not surprisingly) has been brought up on charges of genocide stemming from his ordering the shooting of people during the last major protests here. He faces 30 years in prison if convicted.

On a more pleasant note, as the country falls apart, we are finally going to get to see ¨Sideways¨(¨Between Glasses¨ is what it is called here) tonight. It opened last night. They have some really, really nice U.S.-style theaters here with stadium seating and the whole bit. It costs $2.50 to get in (cheaper during matinees) and a huge tub of U.S.-style popcorn, complete with authentic fake butter, costs $1.00.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Los Ninos

Just had a few recent pictures of my cute kids, and thought I would share.

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photo: Lil' Papi looking fly.

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photo: Jane goes for a swim, well protected.

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photo: Handsome boy.

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photo: Beautiful girl.

Crisis Averted (for now)

Mesa is back in office. Everyone is happy. Coca King Evo Morales says the blockades will be dissolved. Let´s hope it lasts.

UPDATE: Apparently Morales has NOT agreed to dissolve the blockades. In fact, if anything Mesa´s gambit pissed him off even more. The opposition is now promising worse blockades. We´re stewed, basically. Read about it here:

http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/world/3077408

Our friend Jenette´s husband is still stuck in La Paz (going on 2 weeks). A lot of the products at our supermarket here come from Argentina. I´ve noticed that those parts of the shelves are pretty bare today -- the trucks can´t get through.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Bolivia Falls Apart (Update)

So I was going to go downtown this morning and try and find some good protests, but I realized our water bill was due yesterday. So, instead I went to the bank and paid it.

On the way home (¨home,¨ that is what I call the internet cafe, I guess), I stopped at Supermercado Real to get some enchilada sauce. Earlier, Lourdes had told me that in la cancha, which is the large outdoor market where 99% of the city buys its food (the other 1% being rich gringos like me who go to places like Real), there was no meat and very little in the way of veggies or fruit. This is because of all of the blockades around the country -- trucks can´t get in with the food. Anyway, Real was pretty fully stocked and had some meat too. I wonder whether that will change if the blockades continue.

As an aside, I am well tired of taking taxis here. It is just a pain in the ass and they are always tring to rip you off. And when they put the new interchange in, all of the buses stopped running by our house. So, I usually run wherever I need to go. I ran down to Real and picked up two cans of enchilada sauce, two cans of beans, some tortillas and two liters of milk. I stuffed it in my backpack and ran a few miles back to the internet cafe. Try jogging with a backpack full of canned goods some time. I think I blew out a knee.

Anyway, if you would like to read some news reports about the imminent collapse and complete destruction of Bolivia, see the links below (Ok, it is not that bad. This will be only the 194th regime change in Bolivia´s 154 years -- I kid you not. They are really, really good at regime change! And only 80 people died the last time we had a change, 15 months ago.):

http://www.indystar.com/articles/5/227616-3065-010.html

http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,12474980%255E2703,00.html

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-03/07/content_422596.htm

Monday, March 07, 2005

Jees, what a freaking mess

Well, Bolivia´s president Carlos Mesa resigned today, after 18 months in office. Mesa, formerly VP, had taken office after his predecessor Goni was kicked out. By most accounts Mesa, a historian by trade, is a decent guy but not a great leader. There was a lot of what the news wires would probably call ¨bloody unrest¨ that lead to Goni´s outster, with dozens of people being killed in violent protests. How a country with a MAJORITY indian population elected Goni in the first place, who speaks Spanish with a North American accent, is beyond me. Stuff like that happens here.1

Anyway, this country has essentially been shut down for a week. The spouses of some friends are stuck in La Paz right now and can´t get out. Soccer games have been cancelled. The reason is the bloqueos (or, ¨blockades¨) which are the form of protest most favored here.

What happens is that groups of angry people use cars or buses and sometimes tons of large rocks to completely block main arteries, including roads to airports. You cannot pass these blockades, so the effect is the country grinds to a halt. No one can go anywhere. Now, why doesn´t the government adopt a zero tolerance policy with the blockades and just come in and arrest everyone responsible and break them up? Good question.

Why are people so mad? It´s almost like Portland in that people here will protest anything. Someone is always mad about something. Around Christmas they were mad about the rising price of gas and diesel. Now they are mad again about the distribution of profits from Bolivia´s huge natural gas stores. I´ve seen a lot of protests here about indiginous peoples´rights. There is a lot to be mad about down here.

So, the effect is that the country is without a leader today. Lourdes was telling me that one of the former presidents may step back in (Goni was even mentioned!!) or a military leader may take over (yeah, that is always a good idea). Huge protests are going on in La Paz.

In Cochabamba, we are today blessed by the city´s incompetence. Our friend Jenette and her kids came over for dinner the other day. Jeanette is a La Paz native who recently moved to Cocha. Very nice person. Her husband, actually, is stuck in La Paz right now and can´t get out. We were asking Jenette about blockades in Cochabamba. She said that Cochabambinos, among other things, are known for their inability to cooperate. The problem is that Cochabambinos are only out for themselves. So, people here can´t even get a decent blockade together. If you get 5 bus drivers together, they will be thinking of nothing but how the blockade can benefit them and how they can also screw over the other 4 guys. That´s how they think. The result is that we don´t get any good blockades here. A blessing and a curse, these Cochabambinos.

So, in Cocha today, there are still a lot of protests downtown and supposedly a fair amount of blockade attempts. Most schools are closed. I notice a lot less traffic out on the roads. It is very quiet. This morning my supermarket had its ¨riot guards¨ up. That is, the front of the store was blocked off with huge gates, and you could only enter and exit from a narrow opening. A guard with a shotgun stood nearby. I´ve never seen them with their riot guards totally deployed.

The bottom line is that we are very thankful we do not live in La Paz. Things here are quiet and as safe as always. On the other hand, it appears that Bolivia is probably entering another period of unrest. And it hasn´t been very stable for a long time, to begin with.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A Day in the Life (3/2/05)

This is what I did yesterday, March 2, 2005.

3:00AM Wake up from a bad dream. I dreamed that I was in a couple of fist fights and killed two guys. Where the hell did that come from? I haven´t been in a fight in 20 years. In the dream I was all worried about being locked up in the joint and not being able to see the kids for 10 years. Anyway, the neigborhood party that was going on when I went to sleep is over, and most of the dogs have gone to sleep, so it is quiet outside.

4:30 I am still awake. I can´t get back to sleep. Jane wets the bed and so she comes to our bed and cuddles up next to me. Now I smell like pee.

6:07 I am still awake. Megan gets up and goes out for a run. It is dark and drizzly outside. She is brave.

6:25 Jane makes me get out of bed and make her breakfast. I put on some Ray Wylie Hubbard on the boom box and pop 3 asprin for my sore shoulder. My shoulder has been in constant pain since 1994, though the doctor says nothing is wrong with it. Jane and I have strawberry yogurt -- hers with cereal in it. Ray Wylie sings ¨I´ve got a heart that´s torn in two, so everyone can see it.¨

6:37 Jane spits in her yogurt. A few minutes later I notice she is not eating it. ¨Why aren´t you eating your yogurt,¨ I ask her. ¨´Cause nothing,¨ she replies. ¨Is it because it has spit in it?¨ I ask. She nods her head yes. We discuss why it is not a good idea to spit in your own food. She seems to get it now. But ever since she has been going to a Bolivian school, she has picked up soooo many bad habits. Bolivian kids aren´t raised with the same standards of discipline, behavior and respect that we use. They are basically wild animals, and it is rubbing off on Jane. Great.

6:45 Megan is back from running. We talk about what to do for our 5th anniversary, which is on Friday. We think. We can never remember what day our anniversay is.

7:04 Mac wakes up. Megan gets him from his room and brings him downstairs. She hands him to me, which pisses him off. He looks at Megan and screams ¨Daddy!!¨ He still thinks Megan´s name is daddy.

7:27 Megan leaves for work. I am on my own until 5PM. Or at least until Lourdes shows up.

8:17 Lourdes shows up with her son Jheyson, who just turned 7. I have Lourdes ¨do¨ Jane´s hair, because I don´t know how to. She does this every day. Lourdes loves Jane and Mac to death. She spends a lot of time reading and talking to them. As a result, Mac understands and speaks as much Spanish as he does English. Lourdes calls Jane ¨hermanita,¨ or ¨little sister.¨

8:32 Jane and I leave for her school. I do not have any small change for a taxi, so we have to walk. No big deal. I put her on my shoulders so we can go faster.

One of the crazy things about Bolivia is that no one ever has change. If something costs 10B, or about $1.25, and you pay for it with a 50B bill (about $6.25), they will have a heart attack. No one would have the $5 change. Worse, if you take a 4B cab ride and try to pay with a 5B coin, often they have no change. It is insane. One time we took a cab to dinner. It cost 7B. We paid with a 10. No change. We went into the restaurant -- one of Cochabamba´s fanciest -- and asked them to break the bill. They had no change either. The cabby then spent 20 minutes driving around trying to find change. He finally came back to the restaurant and gave us our 37 cents change.

8:58 I drop Jane off at her school. I´m wearing my running clothes, and take off on a jog towards downtown. I need to go to the post office and to immigration. A block from the school, I stop and change $100 into bolivianos. Most busy corners in Cocha have money changers on them (necessary since Bolivia operates on a dual U.S. dollars/bolivianos system). These guys give good rates and are very convenient. Hernan is our guy -- we always use him to change our money and he knows us. We trust he will not give us bad bills (counterfeiting is a big problem in Bolivia).

9:28 I arrive at the post office. It is still threatening rain and the water table must be high -- I passed 3 overflowing sewers. Funny, the sewers don´t smell much different from the water that comes out of the tap. I mail a letter to my Dad at the post office.

9:32 Check e-mail at an internet cafe next to the post office.

9:57 Buy the new International Newsweek from a stand in the central plaza.

10:00 Arrive at immigration. The last time I was here, they told me I could not pick up my photo id card because I didn´t have my passport. So, I am returning with my passport so I can show them a 6-year-old picture that proves the person in the 2-week-old photo is me. Makes sense. But now they tell me that I also need to go out and find a copy machine so I can give them copies of random pages from our passports -- copies we have already given to this immigration office 10 freaking times. Oh, and I also need to return with the kids. They didn´t tell me any of this last time I was here. Best of all: They lost the photos of the kids we gave them, so we need to pay them AGAIN to take the photos. This is what dealing with Bolivian immigration is like. Wonder why we have been at it for 7 months?

At this point, I decide that I have officially had enough. I am just done with Bolivian immigration. I am not going to complete the immigration process this year. Screw it. It just isn´t worth the aggravation. Maybe we will have better luck next year. For starters, we will not involve Megan´s school in the process. They certainly f$%ked it up enough this year.

So, I storm out muttering various and sundry obscenties and head for la chancha market.

10:18 Arrive at la cancha, still pissed at the world. La cancha is Bolivia´s largest outdoor market. You have no idea. This thing is a sprawling, endless maze of crowded little alleys and passages, stuffed with food, clothes, furniture, jewelry, music, crafts, appliances, bikes; basically, everything under the sun is for sale here. It goes on forever. No one has ever seen all of it. I´m pretty sure it is the size of the state of Connecticut. I love the place as much as Megan hates it.

10:44 Leave la cancha. Scored an Iron Maiden t-shirt for $6 and two pairs of shorts for a total of $10. I walk back to the main plaza to try and find a cab.

11:06 Arrive at the main square. Check bootleg cds for the new Judas Priest. Nothing. Maybe next week.

11:17 Still at the main plaza. There are two protests going on simultaneously. One is a huge mob of indiginous people, undoubtedly mad at the government because they get screwed over on a daily basis. It is never a good thing in a 3rd world country when an ethnic majority is governed by a corrupt ethnic minority. The second group are bus drivers mad about gas prices. All the roads around the plaza are blocked off. No cabs. I keep walking.

11:25 Get a cab to IC Norte, the big gringo supermarket. At least I think I am in a cab. The sun was in my eyes and I just stuck out my arm. A car stopped and I got in. He doesn´t have a ¨taxi¨ sign in his window, like most cabs do. But he is heading the right way.

11:31 Arrive at IC Norte. I may have just paid some random dude 50 cents for a ride. In the market, I pick up a big bag of crusty, still-warm bread rolls. Rolls are a staple of the Bolivian diet. I get 12 for 25 cents. I also get a bag of pasta for dinner, and a couple cans of Taquina beer. Taquina is really bad beer, like all the beer here. The brewery is owned by Argentinians. The Bolivian National Brewery (BNB) is also owned by the same Argentinians. We were at the Taquina brewery two weeks ago and we asked what was the difference between Taquina, and the two BNB brands, Huari and Pacena. The brewery rep told us it was all the same exact beer, just packaged in different cans. Having tasted them, I believe that.

I have a few minutes to kill, so after checking out I sit in a park and read for a few minutes.

12:03PM Pick up Jane from school. We walk down the hill and look for a cab.

12:15 We arrive home. Lourdes and Jheyson leave. I make a lunch of quesadillas for Mac, and make him eat some funky fruit Megan bought (she later tells me it is papaya). Jane and I have cheese sandwhiches on the rolls I just bought. We also split a banana.

12:45 The kids and I kill some time reading books, playing on the swingset, etc. I also read my Newsweek and drink a beer in the backyard.

1:53 I put Mac down for his afternoon nap (Jane doesn´t nap anymore).

1:54 I do a little Spanish homework, then go in the backyard to read some more and drink another beer. Reckless Kelly are on the boombox now, singing about how ¨my first love was a wicked twisted road.¨

2:40 The trash man comes. We just got trash pick-up here 2 months ago. Before then, I had to haul all of our trash 4 blocks down the street to a big dumpster. A lot of people just threw their trash in the street. Many still do. The trash guys drive this rickety little 3-wheel pick-up truck. One guy drives and the other stands in the back clanging a piece of steel with a hammer to signal their arrival. When I hear them, I walk out and hand our trash to the guy standing in the back. What a crap job -- standing in the back of a Bolivian trash truck all day. Can you imagine how bad his shoes smell?

2:47 I am feeling ¨snacky.¨ I ask Jane if she wants some popcorn. Only I ask her in Spanish: ¨Quieres un poco de pipoca?¨ She says ¨si,¨ and we kill a few minutes saying ¨poco de pipoca.¨ Try it, it´s fun!!

But we do not have a microwave or hot air popper, so we have to do it old school, cooking the corn in oil. If you haven´t had popcorn this way in a while, you have to try it. It is soooooo much better this way.

4:20 Jane and I clean the mess in the living room that she and Mac made earlier. Meg normally gets home at 3:30 but has Spanish class today and won´t be home until 5. She likes a clean house when she gets home or she gets really pissed at me.

4:30 Wake Mac up from his nap. Mac, Jane and I spend some time cuddling in a chair. Mac has some raisins.

5:04 Start making pasta for dinner.

5:21 Doorbell rings. I get all excited shouting ¨Mommy´s home!¨ It´s not mommy -- it is one of our neighbors with a plate full of peaches from the tree in her yard. That was very nice of her.

5:30 I stop cooking. Where the hell is Megan?

6:00 Ok guys, if you are going to be late coming home, you need to call your spouse and tell them. They can´t be sitting around with dinner half made wondering where you are. We don´t have a phone in the house, so Meg can´t call me, but I am a bit worried and mad that my dinner is stalled.

6:03 Meg gets home. She stopped after class to call our friend Cath back in the states. Meg tells me that two uniformed policemen heckled her coming down our street, saying ¨Hey baby¨ or something like that. This is amazing only becuase you normally have to bribe a Bolivian cop to get him to do anything.

6:10 Dinner is ready.

6:43 After cleaning up our dinner, we put on the new Waylon Payne disc. When you do not have television, you have to make things up to keep yourself entertained. We do something called ¨kitchen dancing,¨ which involves everyone dancing around the kitchen waving a dish towel. Jane is late to the party, and when she comes into the kitchen, Mac immediately goes to the drawer and gets a towel and hands it to her.

7:31 Bath time for the kids.

7:50 Bedtime. I get Mac because if Megan puts him to bed, he freaks out when she leaves the room. He doesn´t like me as much, so it does not bother him when I leave. We read a bunch of books and sing his favorite songs, ¨Row your boat¨ and ¨Twinkle little star.¨

8:00 Kids are to bed. Meg and I get in bed and do some reading before falling asleep.

THE END!