Shrug

At last month’s Global Voices Summit in India, drugs I arrived to the Karol Bagh hotel after an exhausting 20 hours of traveling. Rarely have I gone so long with access to my trusty mobile phone or access to the internet. Embarrassingly, I get knots in my stomach during these long stretches of disconnected time. When I entered the front doors of the hotel, I was eager to meet other attendees since I had missed the first day due to weather delays. Immediately I recognized my Global Voices colleague from Chile, who asked me in a concerned tone, “What’s going on in Bolivia?” I had wondered whether something catastrophic had occurred in that day that I was flying somewhere over Russia on route to Delhi. “They are close to a civil war,” she would add. I felt myself shrug it off because I had heard this claim before. Analysts have said that Bolivia has been on the edge of a civil conflict for the past year, but it has always seemed to simmer just in time. She wondered aloud how I could be so nonchalant about such a possibility. My quick review of my sources of information would reveal that it was just the large cabildo in Santa Cruz, which drew attention from the media. I have always been reassured that Bolivia would return to normalcy soon after blockades and any confrontation. However, in the past 36 hours, it seemed as if that dreaded time had finally arrived….and I was helpless.

The repeating images on CNN en Español would only tell of the gravity of the situation. However, it was the stories and anecdotes of Bolivians that I chatted with on MSN, conversed with via Skype, the pictures from Flickr and even sites like Indymedia that brought the conflict to light. Unfortunately, the picture those stories painted was not pretty.

The cross-section of people I spoke with from my middle class cousins, including my college-aged female cousin who chose to join the city dwellers march, but became frightened at the commotion and escaped to her grandmother’s house (thankfully), my working class electrician friend who had been working on a project on Calama Street who said that it was the campesinos who were provoking in that area, my friend from the Zona Sud who was working as a security guard along El Prado, who lamented seeing so many women and children caught up in the fray, my parents who live near the Hospital and Morgue and saw ambulance upon ambulance whiz by carrying the dead or injured.

I fall asleep listening to the BBC radio every night and the sad tales of conflict from different parts of the world still seem like a horrible bedtime story gone awry, but this tale in Bolivia is much more personal. Some relatives in Bolivia, who are also U.S. passport holders have been making contingency plans. When might be the time to go? However, not everyone should be so fortunate to leave when he/she wants.

One such person is my girlfriend who still remains in Cochabamba. Before we decided to get back together after nearly five years apart, her original plan was to emigrate to Spain. That seemed to offer the best chance for a better future, as Bolivia offers an uncertain path. However, our relationship put those plans on hold, and she decided to wait to see how we might play out. The events of Thursday put quite a fright into her, as she wondered whether she might have been in a safer place if she had followed through on her original plan. Being a Cruceña in a town where rumors were flying that it were the Cruceños that were clashing with the campesinos certainly didn’t put her mind at ease. With the looming April 1 deadline in which Spain will now ask for visas from Bolivian nationals, the overhead cloud might rain on our parade.

I certainly couldn’t blame her. An uncertain future for the country is an uncertain future for her citizens. We are not yet a guarantee and every trip down to Bolivia is one step closer to knowing whether we could become closer to a guarantee. However, one must do what is best for oneself.

Yet in spite of all this commotion, I went ahead and purchased my ticket to Bolivia for February. My sister’s wedding, which hopefully will continue on as planned, was one of the reasons to travel once again to Bolivia, but my significant other was another big reason. When the Travelocity site offered the additional option to purchase travel insurance for $39.99, I debated internally whether to spend this extra amount. In case that travel needed to be suspended for any reason (civil war?), I could have recouped some of my original purchase price. I certainly could afford the amount, but I decided to decline the option. In a more symbolic move more than anything, I wanted to trust that my country would not fall of the cliff and fall into a full blown civil conflict.

As I write this article, things have quieted down (for now) and I hope cooler heads prevailed, but nothing has been solved.

6 De Agosto

Having spent numerous Bolivian Independence Days in Bolivia (mainly because it falls during the North American summer vacation), advice I have many memories of August 6th. When I was a kid, my grandmother’s apartment was situated right on El Prado, Cochabamba’s main promenade. Tradition calls for all of the area school kids, police, civic organizations, teachers, etc. to process out of obligation to the sound of a brass band and booming drums.

Unfortunately, these parades begin rather early so that families have the rest of the day to enjoy the holiday. Hiding under your covers or a pillow is of no help. No matter where you go in the apartment one cannot escape the bass drum’s wrath, which seems to be amplified during those precious asleep/half-awake states. The bedroom window faced the noble statue of Simon Bolivar, located at the center of El Prado, where admirers would place commemorative wreaths at the base.

As I grew older, I would end up spending time in Villa Tunari for the Annual Feria del Pescado in the Chapare. My cousins, friends and I would catch a bus on Avenida Oquendo or hitch a ride on the back of a camioneta for the the three hour ascent and descent into the Bolivian tropical forest. It seemed as if all of Cochabamba would be present for that holiday weekend, which included a giant open air fish festival featuring 4-5 different types of fish including surubí, pacú, sabalo, and pejerrey. (Don’t ask me for the English translations, because I don’t know). My goal was always to find the perfect dish, making my rounds observing cooking techniques of the 30+ vendors and trying to hope that my selection would pay off. Others had the same idea, standing at the foot of the grill “reserving” specific pieces of fish, until it was ready. When you walk up, you have to ask whether a fish had been “claimed”.

After three consecutive years of attending this Feria, I had it down to an exact science. I would get three different fish meals per day (yes, pescado is my favorite food). Once at lunch around noon, another around 5 pm and then as the night is winding down you go back around 1 am to find vendors who want to sell their remaining fish at a reduced price.

Even though the selection is hard to beat, nothing could top what was made next door at my cousin’s cabin. The connections he has are just a phone call away. Fish plucked straight from the river that morning, we drive 1.5 hours to Puerto San Francisco, where a giant sábalo is awaiting us. The fish that weighs around 35 lbs will be that night’s dinner. Cooked over a grill between banana tree leaves, this fish is the best meal I have eaten in my entire life. Some say one shows appreciation for a meal by visibly enjoying your food. After the others have been served, we would stand around the grill finishing off the remaining grilled fish in silence, because one cannot eat while talking.

If I were in Bolivia today, undoubtedly I would have lucked out and missed the marching band, and be planning my fish feast.

The Problems With Having an Extended Family

Definitely I am not complaining about my endless supply of tias, tios and primos that I met when living abroad for close to three years. It just seems that as the circle gets wider, so does the potential to lose someone you adore.

My father’s best friend from the University had to flee Bolivia in the 1970s because of political oppression at the hands of the military dictatorships. Back then, he was a bit of an izquierdista, and rather to meet the fate of other Bolivians on a hit-list, he took a chance and landed in Mexico.

Thirty years later, he would eventually re-marry with a Mexican woman, who would somehow become my tia. I say somehow because even though I knew her a short time in 2001, it seemed as if I knew her my entire life. She was one of the most cariñosa people I have ever met. She would also affectionately call me “chico”.

Soon after they returned to Mexico after visiting Bolivia for the first time in over thirty years, I would correspond with her through the internet. Telling her about my wonderous travels throughout South America, she would always end her reply email asking me when I would visit Mexico. Soon, I would say, yet circumstances never really lent themselves for such a visit. After a planned fall trip to Bolivia, I hoped to go to Mexico in the Spring of 2005. It would so great to spend time with them in el D.F., taking me to special and obscure places in that capital.

However, that visit will never take place the way I always imagined it would.

Today, my mother told me that she had passed away. After a sudden illness, she was gone in less than 48 hours. Someone who had never been part of my life before the year 2000, it suddenly feels that my closest relative had left.

This is the third death in the past year that took place while I was thousands of miles away. The news reaches me through cell phone, email and computer screens. Yet, their deaths never seem real to me. The fact that I am so far away, makes their absence feel the same that it always has been. Now that they are gone, how do I really know that they just aren’t far away?