Without Fail

Our apartment is located right smack-dab in the middle of Cochabamba. From my window, find I have a fairly good view of the Cristo de la Concordia statue, ailment which overlooks much of the city. Public transportation to every imaginable corner of the city passes right by the front door. In order to arrive to one of the main avenues of the city, it is just a short two block walk away. Many of the internet cafes are located at the intersection, due to its close proximity to the city’s public university, where the popularity of online gaming has increased, much to the dismay of the students’ parents. I figured that I must have made this short walk hundreds of time.

Everytime I return to the city after a year’s absence, I always take a look around. I marvel at the number of familiar and frequented businesses that have closed during this time, which have been replaced by new ones. However, all in all the city looks very much the same.

Along the walk that I just took 15 minutes ago, I spot a cholita (campesina woman) sitting next to her makeshift candy and snack stand. Her chin is buried in her chest as if she was engrossed in a deep sleep. However, I know full well that she would become alert if a potential customer would approach. Even though her face is partially hidden, I recognize her from the countless number of times that I have passed by from years past. For the past three years, six days a week, the same woman has occupied her familiar place hoping to gather profits from her meager stock of candy, peanuts and other snacks. Without fail, she would be there from the morning hours until at least 8 or 9 at night.

However, today she was there selling on a Sunday afternoon. Days like this have traditionally been a day of rest and relaxation for all Bolivians, including those that toil much harder than me. Domestic household servants look forward to Sundays to see their family and take a break from the week full of chores and other duties. Streets are barren and restaurants are packed with Bolivians from all walks of life.

The fact that this woman was working on Sunday must signify that economic opportunities have not improved. One must wonder when it is she gets to see her family. From the state of sleep that the woman was in, business must have been light today. She is just a reminder of who this election is for, those that live much differently than most who read this blog. Reducing poverty has barely been mentioned during the campaign, which should be the end result of the profits from any hydrocarbons sale or exportation. Instead we are caught in the middle of a he-said, she-said and catchy slogans, which without fail, seems to be the norm during all election cycles.

Bringing the States Closer

Visiting Bolivia in the early 1990s was like leaving earth to arrive on a distant planet. On top of taking nearly 24 hours (accounting for driving to the nearest airport, tadalafil connecting flights and the long layover in Miami), globalization had not yet hit. In other words, the flood of media, communication, and internet was still some time away.

Usually my trips were in the middle of summer vacation, and that meant being estranged from the happenings of baseball season. The very first thing I did upon returning to Miami International Airport was buy a USA Today. I would flip to the standings and see which teams were now in first place and I would also find out which slugger magically increased his home run totals (I used to hope that the world stood still when I was away).

Any recent newspaper was like gold to me. Sometimes when newly arrived family members would arrive in Bolivia during my stay, I would request that they bring a newspaper. I would devour every square inch of the paper (including the business section). Even my desperation would lead to my uncle asking his friend, who was a pilot on LAB, to do me a big favor and spend 35 cents and bring me back a fresh newspaper.

Television was of no help to me, either. Every channel would seemingly show el Chapulin Colorado 8/7 (no local channel broadcasted around the clock). And the internet? Forget about it, computers was something of los yanquis.

Now more than a decade later, the phenomenon of globalization can make one think that he or she had never left. Now, with the internet (with “cafés as they are known as, on every city block), you can keep up with sporting events as they happen. I once listened online to my alma mater Creighton University play in the NCAA tournament thousands of miles away in Minneapolis. Reading online newspapers, blogs, and other sites is as easy as handing over 3 Bs./hour (40 cents). I even did a little work live from Bolivia on this most recent trip.

Video rental places stock the latest movies, even those “indie” movies, that I am quite fond of. And cable TV, which costs 22 dollars/month, is even better, and cheaper, than cable TV in the states. I caught most of the Boston Red Sox’s magical run through the October playoffs, live. I saw the Vice-Presidential debate, with the help of CNN International. Most channels are commercial-free, who needs Tivo?

Now, there are better reasons to like living in South America, although these things help me miss the United States just a little bit less.

Dust Everywhere

Someone should officially ban dust. I think if I wanted to sum up Cochabamba in one word, here it would be dusty. In the name of progress, store when construction begins, then also green areas and trees slowly disappear. In order to pave or build cobblestone roads, usually trees are not spared. All of this detracts from the scenery and the overall feeling of ecological friendliness.

I have always had problems with my contact lenses because of my number one enemy: dust. It is everywhere and gets everywhere. The worst sensation is when you can actually smell the dust and dirt hovering in the air. When the wind blows, close your eyes and wait for it to pass.

When I was little, my mother and I took the train (before capitalization) from Cochabamba to Oruro to visit my aunts. I remember the fantastic scenery and playing the game “spot the llama”. It was a magnificent journey, until we hit the dust bowl. In those days, we did not ride in luxurious Amtrak-like cars. Instead the windows were cracked and had a hard time closing properly. As a result, the dust and dirt crept in making my life a living hell. I was sick for three days following that train ride because of my allergies.

So I am willing to start the petition to include banning dust in the next Constitution.

Eat. Drink. Be Merry

Arriving on a Sunday, diagnosis I knew that meant some type of get-together. I was rushed and given thirty minutes to take a shower and get ready. My uncle´s nieces were putting on a parrillada complete with six different types of meat. My cousin was also invited to another parrillada located off Avenida Blanco Galindo, medicine as his aunt was throwing an engagement party. After eating, viagra sale we headed over where we were offered even more food. “Sorry, but we just ate.” The hosts said, “Don´t be ridiculous, have a little.” So we ate yet again. As typical of these meals, the beer kept coming…then like clockwork, out came the guitar. One of the guys with the guitar invented a song on the spot, a homage to his mother who had passed on. The lyrics moved one of the other guys to tears, but was probably fueled by all the alcohol consumed.

Inevitably the conversation always turned to politics. My uncle, a self-described Gonista, was the recipient of harmless ribbing from the others. Others admitted they were intrigued by the MAS candidate for Mayor of Cochabamba, Gonzalo Lema. Even though a lot of middle-classers hold contempt for the party´s leadership, many think it is time to let MAS show the country what they are made of.

In gatherings like this, you always meet new people who have connections. My cousin´s aunt´s new fiancee is one of the leaders who is heading up former President Tuto Quiroga´s new project in Cochabamba. This project, which is trying to operate without the backing of a true political party, is forming as a agrupacion ciudadana. My cousin, who has been an AND militante for the past six years, wants to follow Tuto in this new project. So he was invited by his new uncle to attend one of these meetings. The uncle asked me if I wanted to come along, by the way, he referred to me as his nephew. It would definitely be interested to see what it´s all about.

I hit a brick wall at around 6 p.m. I was overwhelmingly exhausted from the long trip, and excused myself early. I´m sure it lasted well into the nighttime. Came home, fell asleep and woke up 15 hours later. I´m across the street from my favorite Brasilian restaurant, waiting for it to open

Corrupting the Police

The blog entry written by Miguel B. regarding corruption in the police ranks got me to thinking of my experiences working with public bureaucracy in Bolivia.

Securing my work permit in Bolivia was a mind-numbing experience. The endless list of requirements often made the whole process seem more trouble than it was worth. Not only were the requirements a time-consuming affair, look but inconvenient as well, medical because each step had to be completed at a different city department, help often located on opposite ends of the city.

The last item on the list, my police record, had to be completed at the new police precinct located near the Laguna Alalay. Basically all it entailed was taking my fingerprints and to cross-reference my data against the police records. Surely since I had no police record, that I knew of, then it would be a piece of cake.

Yet, according to the emotion-less police officer sitting at a table in this windowless backroom, it could possibly take days.

Is there any chance that it could be done by tomorrow? We are a in a bit of a hurry, we need to travel by tomorrow night,” asked my mom. (The need to travel is an effective excuse, even if no such trip exists, to get something done on time..and yes, my mother still accompanies me to these things, because she is much more assertive than I am).

Maybe,” was all the police officer would offer in reply.

Well, we’ll check back tomorrow just in case.”

On our way out, we debated whether we needed to encourage him to speed the process along. Words of encouragement wouldn’t do the trick, rather a strategically placed bribe. It was an awkward moment, as neither of us really knows the bribe protocol.

Perhaps this would be the one time in Bolivian history, where a public servant would get upset at the very notion of being able to be bribed. Maybe he would make a huge ruckus about this questioning of his integrity and have us arrested. Well, we decided to take the gamble, I liked our odds.

How much is too much? How much is too little? Do we hand him the money in front of others? Do we place it in an envelope? What do we say when we are handing it to him? Will it be understood?

Oh, the hardship life of a briber.

My mom took the 20 Bs. (about $2.50) and walked back into his office, placed the money on his desk and said “para tu refresco,” and booked her way out of there. So under the guise of a gift for his snack at break time, it had nothing to do with the document.

Right.

The next day, curious to see whether this little gift had worked, the document was ready. Whether or not that it would have been ready regardless, will never be known. I would like to think that the police officer is a proud public servant honored to be serving the general public. But I’m not that naïve, I just wonder whether he bought Coca-Cola or Sprite.

Dirty Tricks People Play

The overnight bus usually arrives to La Paz in the wee early morning hours. It was still quite chilly as I made my way down from the terminal to catch public transportation to meet my uncle. The road from the bus terminal is a steep downhill descent that eventually intersects with the main road that eventually becomes El Prado.

There was quite a bit of foot traffic on this well-traveled sidewalk, when I was approached from behind. Some anonymous fellow informed me that the hotel up the street had just been robbed. Wearing the Bolivian-equivalent of a "Members Only" jacket and sporting a fresh shiner, he reached into his coatpocket to show me the poor-looking fake badge card that read POLICIA. As I quickly inspected the Xeroxed card, another unsuspecting pedestrian would pass by. The "cop" would stop him too and feed him the same story asking both of us to show him our wallets. The other person had no problem pulling out his wallet. Reeking of a scam, I politely said "No thanks" and went on my way. After a few paces farther down, I turned around and neither was nowhere to be found. Then it occurred to me, they were obviously in cahoots and their intended target was me.

Stories like this are not uncommon in Bolivia. A friend from college, who was doing volunteer work in Montero, came to visit me in Cochabamba. Also arriving in the early morning, she and her friend were stopped by a generic taxi blanco (white cab), where the passenger posed as a policeman. Asking to see their backpacks because they were supposedly looking for counterfeit bills, they reluctantly handed over their bags. Without taking their eyes of the bags for a second, the fake cop somehow managed to lift several hundred dollars.

Tourists and foreigners are not the only ones who fall victims to these types of crimes. Poor campesino men and women are often seen as easy targets because they are perceived as naive. I have heard several variations on the same story involving an unclaimed lottery ticket or an uncashed check. The attraction is that this stranger happens to find a winning lottery ticket, but is in a hurry and cannot go to claim the prize. Offering the ticket to his new "friend", all it would take is a cash advance for his half of the prize, then his mark could go cash the entire winnings. Obviously the ticket is a fake, and the poor man or woman is out an entire life’s savings. Falling victim to this crime actually led to the unfortunate suicide of a man who could not bare to live with that shame.

Sometimes the police are often involved in these scams. A common ploy involves a conveniently dropped purse, wallet, or envelope. Not suprisingly a police officer is nearby and finds you in posession of the item, which may contain a lot of money or another personal object. Suddenly the owner would materialize claiming that you had stole the envelope or wallet, and it would appear as if the person is caught red-handed.

Spending more time in Bolivia, I soon heard about all of these little ploys and learned when to cast a suspicious eye on something that seems too good to be true or when something seems too outrageous to be legit.

Six months after my first encounter with the "undercover police", I returned to La Paz to visit my grandfather. As usual, I made my way down the downhill pavement, when I ran across an apparently lost man who had purposely slowed down so I would pass him. With an outstretched map, he stopped me to ask whether I knew where so-and-so place was. Admitting that I was from Cochabamba, I told him I was not very familiar with the capital. Just then, another man ( a little better dressed this time, minus the black eye) came by and flashed an even worse looking police I.D. Claiming that there had been a string of robberies in the area, he assured us that he needed to see our wallet and our i.d’s. Right on cue, the "tourist" cooperated and took out his wallet. When it was my turn, I laughed to myself. I caught a policeman out of the corner of my eye, who was directing traffic on the main road.

"No problem," I would say. "Let’s also go inform your colleague about these robberies, I’m sure he would like to know," I stated while continuing to make my way down to the main thoroughfare. Right then, they both mumbled something, turned around, and started back uphill.

Time As I Know It

Time had generally been a straightforward concept to me. Growing up in the United States, everyone seems to preoccupied with meeting deadlines and focusing on time management. It wasn’t until I spent my first full summer in Bolivia with my family, that mastering the subtle art of time became an abstract affair.

Anxious for my first day of basketball practice in Cochabamba, I was eager to make a positive first impression on my new coach. In the United States as high schoolers, we would often race to be the first to arrive to practice and be the last to leave. Those types of traits are normaly looked upon very favorably.

For my first basketball practice in Bolivia, I was informed that it would start at 5 p.m., so I arrived at 4:15 p.m. just to be sure accounting for the possibility of heavy traffic or some other unforseen circumstance. Not a soul was to be found at that hour. One by one my new teammates would wander in, with my coach nonchalantly entering the coliseum at 5:40 p.m. I didn’t dare volunteer the information that I had arrived an hour and half too early. After awhile I would push my luck arriving later and later, just enough not be the last one to arrive.

Once I thought I had timed it just right and arrived at 5:10 p.m., but I found my entire team in the midst of a defensive drill. Practice time had not been moved, yet it seemed as if the entire team instinctively decided to show up on time this particular day. After that I could never figure out a pattern for when to show up on time and when to arrive behind schedule.

Going out with cousins or accepting dinner invitations from uncles would also prove to be a bit unnerving. An agreed upon pick-up time, would inevitably lead to two hours waiting impatiently by the window. I soon learned to tack on at least an extra hour to any set time that someone said that they would come by.

Common knowledge dictated that invitations set for for a certain time actually meant an hour to an hour and half later. The challenge was to magically know when was too late and when was too early. I never wanted to inconvenience anyone so that they would have to wait for just me to show up.

Even overnight long-distance buses would never depart on time. I would take my sweet time and arrive a few minutes after the stated time of departure. My mom would always strongly recommend I get to the bus terminal a little early just in case the bus would leave on time.

Now that I’m back in the United States after spending close to three years in Bolivia, I still cannot shake the habit of leaving too late leaving little time to arrive on time to catch a movie with my cousin. Fortunately for me, many of my Bolivian cousins here in the U.S. also haven’t left that habit behind either.

La Paz – Circa 1942

My earliest memories of La Paz as a kid were falling victim to bloody noses due to the high altitude. Trying to cross the multi-lane avenue of "El Prado" amidst the whizzing traffice reminded me much too much of the Frogger video game, except that I only had one life to spare. Needless to say, I never cared much for Bolivia’s capital city.

Fast forward to the year 2000, where my appreciation for all of Bolivia grew, and I soon began looking forward to taking the overnight bus-cama Bolivar bus from Cochabamba to La Paz (ticket 3 US dollars). Whether it was to visit my aging grandfather, catch a connecting bus towards Cuzco, go bookshopping, or watch Bolivia thrash Colombia in a World Cup qualifier, better memories replaced those of traffic paranoia and having to tilt my head back.

I’ve always equated La Paz with a bustling metropolis, where there are far too many buses, taxis and trufis that I have to hope that it will take me to my wanted destination. The steep winding roads augmented by shortness of breath and often slippery slidewalks makes getting around rather burdensome.

However, I knew it was not always like how it is now. A promotional film called ‘"Tour of Old and New in Bolivian Capital" was produced by the U.S. Office of Inter-American Affairs showing what this unique city was like nearly sixty years ago.

Those familar with the various landmarks and distinct buildings along El Prado will find this film interesting as one can see how things have changed over the course of six decades. For example, the stadium that is now Hernando Siles Stadium in the Miraflores neighborhood is shown during a league futbol match. However, back then, the stadium only had one level, where today the largest stadium in the country now has a second deck.

In the 1940s, La Paz was generally free of noisy automobiles, which generate unnecessary pollutants, most of the street traffic were well-dressed men and women and colorfully dressed indigenous women taking their wares to the marketplace. Nowadays, as more rural citizens make their ways to the urban centers to try and set up in the informal economy, the space on sidewalks becomes prime real estate.

La Paz is getting more and more crowded, evidenced by the rapid construction that climbed the mountainsides. This film, for those with broadband access and familar with La Paz, is worth a look to get a good feel of the before and after look at this very unique city.