Monday, May 30, 2005

Life in Bolivia: Episode 2, the Sequel in 3D Sensurround

Sorry for the lack of updates lately, but we´ve had friends visiting and I have been spending my mornings sight-seeing, rather than interneting.

Politically, there have been huge violent protests in La Paz the past few days. The roads to La Paz and Oruro are blockaded again. The Muruyina interchange in our neighborhood was even blockaded yesterday. When blockades hit Cocha, you know it is hitting the fan. Here is a story on the latest:

But, I don´t care for politics, so here is my much promised update on some of your favorite blogs from the past year:

* ¨Is there and events coordinator in the house?¨ (10/1/04): In this blog, I wrote about a hilarious night of madcap entertainment in the Pasaje de Catedral (or, ¨alley behind the church.¨) We haven´t been back to see another concert here, but do visit the pasaje often. They are really developing it nicely. In fact, our friend Yves recently helped a group of weavers from the Japo village open a store there. They sell all kinds of hand made weavings -- tapestries, scarfs, blankets, etc. Great stuff at incredible prices and Yves tells me he is having trouble keeping the store stocked. Best of all, most of the proceeds go directly to the weavers themselves.

* ¨El dia de no agua¨ (10/19/04): In this blog, I wrote about our zany adventures trying to get the water system in our house to work. Knock on wood, we have not had any water problems since. Well, occasionally the water company tries to shut off the water, claiming we haven´t paid the bill, despite the fact that we have a receipt showing that we did in fact pay it. It only takes 27 phone calls to solve the problem. None of our toilets work, either, but that is another story. We do have several dead animals in our water tank. There are at least 2 dead frogs in there, though I suspect that a rat or two may have joined them. We opted not to have the tank cleaned, because water is so nasty anyway that it probably doesn´t matter. We just keep our mouths shut when we shower, and don´t look in the tank. I don´t want to know what is in it.

¨Mail Jail¨ (11/30/04): In this blog, I wrote about the fact that we had to visit 50 government agencies and pay a million bucks in fees (or something like that) to get our freaking mail from the Bolivian postal service, almost 4 months after the mail was sent to us. We have learned that if you keep the package under 2kg, it gets to us pretty quick -- 2-3 weeks from the U.S. We also have sent a good number of packages to the U.S. and they usually get to their destinations 12-14 days after we send them. And we sent them by boat. That is one fast boat.

We also spend enough time with the folks in the package department and in customs that they are like old friends now. They know us and give us special treatment when we go in. Nice folks.

¨Rug Hunter¨(12/16/04): In this blog I told you about my hunting trip with my Pakistani buddy Osama, where we shot nothing but bought a great rug. Osama at the time was on the U.S. no-fly list because he shares a surname with a well-known terrorist. After 7 months he finally managed to get off the list, and just returned from a 2 week trip to Uruguay and Paraguay ( the ¨Guays¨ as I like to call them). We are heading to Osama´s this weekend for some fish curry. Mmmmmm.

¨First Impressions¨ (8/28/04): In this blog I wrote of some of my wide-eyed first impressions of Cochabamba. I don´t know. Cocha is not a great city by any measure. It is dirty. It has no civic pride whatsoever. No culture. No interesting architecture. No decent restaurants or cafes. It is, in the world of cities, a big zero. Oh, and the people here make New Yorkers look like Miss Congeniality winners. That, of course, is not to say all people here are bad. There are many, many wonderful people here and we count many of them amongst our friends.

On the other hand, there are surely worse places to live in Latin America than Cochabamba. The weather here is decent. It is safe.

Bolivia, however, is an absolutely wonderful country. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Its culture is still relatively undisturbed. It is not touristy. Cheap place to travel. I would tell you to come here but the roads are all blockaded so you couldn´t leave the airport anyway. In that way, Bolivia is something like the prom queen who commits suicide.

¨Confessions of a hopelessly undecided mind¨(2/18/05): Here, I wrote of our thought process in trying to determine where to live when our time here is up. We are still not much closer to a decision. In fact, we have told ourselves we will not worry about it anymore until this summer. But if I had to handicap it, I would probably give these odds: Connecticut, 3-2; North Carolina, 4-1; Portland, 10-1. Then again, we all know what happened at this year´s Kentucky Derby. Speaking of which, Kentucky is off our list because the majority of its counties are dry or partially dry. When the f%&k did prohibition end anyway?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

All quiet . . .

The issues surrounding Bolivia´s natural gas reserves seems to be coming to a head here. The protests this week are supposed to be among the worst we have had in the year we have been down here. President Mesa is on his last legs, and would gladly quit if congress would let him. Poor bastard.

We have some friends visiting this week, and due to blockades they had to fly rather than take bus.

Otherwise, we are relatively unaffected here in Cocha. The worst thing about Cocha is that nothing happens here. Well, during times like this it becomes one of the best things about Cocha. It is not a political town, so it is very tranquil right now.

I will get my update up in the next few days.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Coming Soon . . . .

On Tuesday, I am going to update some of your favorite stories from the past year. That should be fun. Also, I will try and finally post the story about my trip to the dentist.

Otherwise, Megan is busy finishing up the school year. I am busy planning the details of our mammoth summer vacation that will take in 6 countries and something like 16 cities over the course of two months, before returning to Cochabamba. That trip is going to be fun, interesting and exhausting.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Can I Borrow Some Money?

I was reading the headlines in the local paper Los Tiempos yesterday. One that caught my attention was that they have announced that the local government has no money to put on the Festival de la Virgen de Urkupina this year.

This is the largest festival in the Cochabamba area. It commemorates alleged visitations of the Virgin Mary to a shepard girl in the local hills and takes place in the town of Quillacollo. In addition to drinking lots of chicha and tons of folkloric dancers, the festival includes a massive faux-pilgrimage from Cocha to Quillacollo. Megan did the walk last year.

Another article in the paper tracked the continuing saga surrounding Aurora, one of our two local professional soccer teams. Seems the players were paid half of their March salaries but have not been paid since. Team head Jose Luis Montoya says the team is in an extreme financial crisis. Just to be sure, I walked by Montoya´s massive mansion this morning -- complete with mulit-car garage, full time chofer, huge swimming pool and full size tennis courts. There was no ¨for sale¨ sign up, so while none of his players can afford to eat, at least Jose Luis is not out on the street yet. Sleep easy tonight.

Another pro team, Bolivar, is suffering similar financial difficulties.

I read the headlines to Lourdes, who was ironing nearby.

Lourdes reminded me that there is also no money here for school lunches anymore, nor for trash pick-up.

¨There is no money for anything here,¨ she sighed, before going back to work.

This really bummed me out. Lourdes is such a wonderful person and friend. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in her position. She is basically trapped in a country with no future. Faced with these circumstances, many rich Bolivians bolt for the United States or Spain, where they can get a decent job, a good education, and enjoy a high standard of living. I can get on an airplane any time I want and leave. Lourdes, and the vast majority of Bolivians, do not have those opportunities. Yet, somehow she remains positive, upbeat, and keeps smiling.

Bolivia has always been poor. Bolivia has always had, at least as far back as anyone can remember, one of the most corrupt governments in the world. The people have pretty much accepted that this is their lot in life, and that things will never change. Sadly, I think they are right.

I admire those like Lourdes who persevere here in the face of such circumstances (at least until we can get her to come join us in the US).

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Keeping Safe

One of our neighbors (a Bolivian national, as are all of our neighbors) circulated a letter to the street last night. Well, his maid actually delivered them.

The letter begins to the effect that ¨In light of the rising insecurity in Cochabamba, and the various incidents we have had in the past of bad people coming into our street, we would like you to consider closing our street by installing a gate across the entrance.¨

We live on a tiny, narrow cobblestone street off a busy road. Our street is a cul-de-sac and has 11 houses on it. It is a pretty good neighborhood and a very good street -- on our street live a former ambassador to China and a retired high-ranking military officer. Lots of nice houses. We also have a gigantic abandoned mansion that, depending on who you believe, belonged to a drug lord or a corrupt government official (as if there are any other kind here) who fled to Miami last year. That cracks me up -- in North America, the bad guys flee to South America. In South America, the bad guys always flee to Miami.

Every house on the street has 8 to 10 foot walls surrounding it, most topped with broken glass or spikes. Every house in Bolivia is surrounded by 8 to 10 foot walls. Half of our houses have huge vicious dogs patrolling the yard.

We also have Edgar, our security guard. We each pay him 100Bs a month. He sits in a little booth at the entrance of our street every night from about 8pm to 6 or 7AM, keeping watch over us. He is a very good guy, but half the time I go by he is sleeping. Not sure how effective he is.

So, despite everyone having huge walls around their house, big dogs and a full time security guard every night, people still feel insecure enough to want a giant electric gate to block off our street from the riff raff.

I think that tells you something about the climate here.

We have had many Bolivians tell us that they feel a revolution or massive political upheaval is coming in the next 12 to 18 months. The likely result would be turning control of the country over to Evo Morales, who leads the indiginous majority here.

That must scare the piss out of the rich folk.

Whether we are in for revolution I do not know. That is not the point. The point is that a lot of people here believe that it will happen, which gives you some insight into what people are feeling.

Personally, we continue to feel very safe here. Say what you want about Cochabamba, but it is not a dangerous place to live by any means. So, we do not see the need to wall our street off, but the deicision is really up to our landlord because we are not going to foot the bill (our share would be $100US).

Keep ya posted . . . .

Monday, May 09, 2005

Water Wars

Anyone who reads here regularly has heard me talk about the ¨water wars¨ that took place in 1999-2000 right here in Cochabamba. If you´d like to read more about them, here is a link to the Democracy Center´s coverage. Bookmark it and read it when you have a chance:

Having said that, I will note that the Democracy Center is predisposed to blame big foreign corporations and the IMF/World Bank for all of Bolivia´s problems. I think that over-simplifies complex issues and does a great disservice to Bolivia. Keep that in mind as you read. I, on the other hand, am predisposed to hold Bolivia itself responsible for its problems. Bolivia is hardly an innocent victim, in my view. Always keep that in mind, too. I suspect the truth, as it always does, lies somewhere in the gray.

On a somewhat related note, when does too much democracy become arnarchy? Tarija was blockaded last week in an effort to right some wrong. It may still be shut off -- I haven´t seen today´s paper.

And last week, local trufi drivers (a trufi is a bus-taxi hybrid -- it is a car that drives a set route like a bus, picking passengers up along the way) blockaded the center of Cochabamba, effectively shutting down the City core for two days. The trufi drivers were mad because the city wanted to change one trufi route.

It has gotten to the point where the government here really cannot function any more. As long as you have enough people in opposition who are willing to blockade a road, this small minority will be able to stop the government. I feel sorry for President Carlos Mesa, who wants to quit but can´t.

Fast as a Shark

Sunday was ¨Field Day¨ at Jane´s school. We all loaded in a bus and drove way out in the campo to a nice hacienda, where we spent the day lounging around and doing things like treasure hunts.

It was fun to see Jane play with her buddies Rebecca and Emily, and to meet the girls´ families (Rebecca´s dad, Rodrigo, is a chicken farmer!). We also got to see where Jane has picked up a lot of the Spanish mannerisms she uses in her speech. All three girls talk the same!

One of the highlights for me was the foot races.

The kids started out, with Jane turning in a solid performance. She loves to run because her mommy is a runner, so she really enjoyed it.

Next up were the dads. I got my ass kicked. I even got whipped by some 60 year old dude in dress shoes (we were running on grass). I did beat one guy, but that was because he slipped and fell. I chalk my performance (or lack thereof) up to my being more of a distance guy. I was also giving a foot in height to all these speedy little fast-twitch latin guys.

The main event was the moms. Megan was in the middle of the pack at the turn, but then put in this Carl Lewis-like finishing stride to put the race away. I was seriously awe-struck. Megan has this 6th gear none of the other moms have. It was like she turned on the afterburners and she was just gone! I was so proud!

After the race, I congratulated Meg and told her how well she did. She just looked at me and said plainly, ¨Did you actually think I wouldn´t win?¨ She has that confidence I lack.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Deadly Consequences

Last night, after the kids went to bed, I went down to Cafe Republika (run by Volunteer Bolivia -- I was there to see Jim Schultz of the Democracy Center talk about his new book ¨Deadly Consequences: The International Monetary Fund and Bolivia´s Black February¨.

Schultz, an ex pat from San Francisco, is an excellent speaker and about as knowledgable about contemporary Bolivian affairs and history as anyone in the world.

¨Deadly Consequences¨ is the first in a series of short books that Schultz is doing to document the number of recent crisis in Bolivia, including not only Black February, but the water wars and the current gas crisis as well. This is much needed, as the international media has all but completely ignored these fascinating stories.

Black February occured in February, 2003. Then-president Goni was working towards meeting goals set for Bolivia by the IMF and World Bank, including a reduction in the defecit and in inflation. The original plan to raise the money needed to reduce the defecit was to increase taxes on the richest 4%. Well, Goni was one of the richest 4% so he didn´t want to go that route. Instead, he decided to increase taxes on the working poor, which includes police officers and teachers. Prior to announcing this decision, Goni was warned that focus groups showed the results would be catastrophic.

They were right. Goni plowed ahead anyway with the tax increase. Now, you have to understand that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and one of the poorest in the entire world. I see little kids using broken glass as a toy all the time. Many people survive on less than one dollar a day. To increase the taxes on these people was not a good or ethical decision.

After Goni announced the tax increase, a group of police officers showed up in the La Paz square that is anchored by the Presidential Palace and Congress. During the course of the morning, a group of students joined the protest. At some point, the army began assaulting the students. The students sought protection from the police. The police fired tear gas back at the army. Tear gas turned into rubber bullets, which turned into live rounds. Yes, the army and the national police were fighting each other in front of the Presidential Palace and Congress.

After several days of protests, the end result was 34 civilians dead and hundereds more wounded.

Schultz lays the majority of the blame on the IMF. For years, the IMF has used Bolivia as its lab rat to test out policy developed by the IMF in its ivory tower. Every single time the results have been catastrophic, with dozens dead and injured. IMF policy lead to the water wars and it lead to the gas crisis. Essentially, the IMF is a dangerous beast that does not learn from its mistakes, nor is it ever held accountable.

Personally, I agree with Schultz that the IMF is clueless and dangerous. But I place 100 percent of the blame for Black February on Bolivia. Bolivia elected Goni. Bolivians pulled the triggers on those guns. While the IMF may have contributed, all of the decisions that lead to violence were made by Bolivians of their own free will. The IMF has also had nothing to do with Bolivia`s history of political unrest and corruption. So, I do not think it is fair to once again try to blame Bolvia`s problems on others.

The greater problem, in my opinion, is Bolivia`s chronic dependence on foreign aid. Basically, Bolivia is a money whore. Bolivia is one of the 5 largest recipients of foreign aid in the world. In my view, almost all of this money is a total waste. It`s like the old saying ¨Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.¨ Well, no one has figured out how to teach Bolvia how to fish yet. It continues to survive merely as a beggar-state.

Plus, there are cultural reasons why Bolivia is and will always be a Third World country. Bolivia is not a Third World country because it doesn`t get enough aid or because it has had bad luck. Bolivia is not going to become Spain because a bunch of gringos come down here and volunteer or because the IMF loans it a ton of money. This is kind of depressing. I think that most aid workers here are wasting their time. It`s like trying to cure a brain tumor by giving the patient ketchup. Ketchup is not a cure for cancer. Give the patient a ton of it and it won`t help. Similarly, foreign aid and volunteer work is not a cure to cultural things such as religion, morality, etc., which many scholars have pinpointed as the route of Latin America`s problems.

Anyway, I encourage you to check out what the Democracy Center is doing and to get a copy of ¨Deadly Consequences¨ if you can. They also have a number of other interesting publications. See the link below.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

If Larry King Wrote My Blog . . .

Call me crazy, but 6 beers and a bag of potato chips is a good dinner . . . Mark it down: Next diet craze -- stomach amoebas! . . . I don´t know, but a taxi system with no actual set fares makes riding across town kind of like playing Yatzee -- 6B´s, 10B´s, YATZEE . . . Cochabamba´s trash filled streets put me in the mind of Paris (during a sanitation workers strike) . . . If I were a Spaniard in 1538 -- I´m being honest here -- I would have conquered Bolivia too. Or at least its women. Ouch! . . . Do the DEA guys keep all the good weed for themselves? . . . You heard it here: Goni for President in 2007 . . . Call me nuts, but packs of rabid dogs put a spring in my step . . . Refrigeration smigeration. I like my meat kept at room temperature and covered with flies for a week before I eat it . . . This altitude makes me dizzy . . . Who knew the U.S. could give Bolivia $52 billion in aid and have it make no impact whatsoever. Well, unless you count the gaudy mansions all the government officials live in . . . What do an honest Cochabambino and a unicorn have in common? Neither exists! . . . It doesn´t take a scientist to tell you LAB is a crappy airline . . . When people burn their trash it reminds me of summers camping in the Catskills. Who´s got the smores! . . . Bolivia in the EU by 2010, says I . . . Am I the only one who would like to see all major league ballparks replace hotdogs with saltenas? . . . Chicha and papas fritas go together like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston (before the divorce) . . . Am I crazy or would ¨The Macarena¨ make a great national anthem for Bolivia?? . . . And finally, if George W. legalizes the coca leaf, I say FOUR MORE YEARS!