Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Here and There

Today is Good Friday, when Christians mark the death of Jesus by crucifixion. Given the quite bloody nature of the act, I have never been quite clear how the term “good” got put in there by his believers. I would have guessed that “Bad Friday” might have been a more appropriate name.

This counts as just one among the list of minor confusions that inflict a non-Christian surrounded by Catholics (including in my own family) during this, one of the most holy weekends of the year.

So in that detachment, here are some observations about the difference between Easter here in Bolivia and how I remember it (it’s been a decade) in the U.S.

Cochabamba sits at the feet of the largest statue of Jesus on Earth – just a teeny bit bigger than Rio’s and multi-colored at night. On this rainy Friday the city is closed up as tight as a drum, and not because of the rain. Schools, stores and businesses are closed across this valley, as they are across Bolivia and across Latin America. Transportation is at a minimum. Not even Christmas Day here is as shuttered.

From what I recall from Easters back in the U.S., on Good Friday the schools are still open and the buses all run on normal schedule. Though I think the banks may close at noon. I can’t recall exactly, so maybe someone can clarify that. Banks have a lot to pray about this year. To be sure there are some separation of church and state issues in this up there. As Easter always falls on Sunday, this avoids a constitutional conflict. Christmas as a holiday is just a given.

Crosses Here and There

And this comes to my first point about Easter here and Easter there. In the U.S. it is all about Easter and Sunday. Here it is all about Good Friday. Or in other words, up there it is all about “the resurrection.” Here it is all about “the death.”

Consider for a moment the crosses that adorn the altars of Christian churches here and there. In the U.S. (again, from what I recall) a lot of the crosses over the altars don’t even have Jesus on them at all. They are sort of stylized pieces of abstract art. It is as if Jesus may have left altogether, just pulled out the nails when no one was looking and sort of walked away. And if Jesus is on the cross he usually looks more like he is asleep than a torture victim. He looks, well, almost serene.

Not in Latin America. The Jesus nailed to the cross here leaves no doubt as to what the Romans had in mind that day. The savior is a bloody mess. Blood streams from his wounds, from his face. The look on that face is tortured, like a man who genuinely is in the midst of being physically tortured. This is Mel Gibson’s Jesus.

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest from Holland and the U.S., who traveled extensively in Bolivia and Peru in the early 1980s (including a long stint here in Cochabamba) and who later wrote about his reflections in a wonderful and humble journal titled, Gracias. It was from his writings that I first got the distinction between what those different images of Jesus meant. He explained, wisely I think, that the impoverished majority of Latin America identifies with the “suffering” of Jesus. People have a sense of connection between the hardships and indignities they endure daily with the suffering they see before them on the cross.

I am no theologian but there is something about that explanation that makes sense to me.

And About that Big Bunny

Okay, let’s get to the big difference, the one that for my investment in chocolate really matters. Brace yourselves children. In Bolivia there is no Easter Bunny. Really, he doesn’t come here at all. Some will say that Evo just won’t give him a visa. But he didn’t come when Goni was in charge either.

On a handful of street corners here there are women selling piles of small chocolate eggs wrapped in colored foil. There are even some foil-wrapped bunnies on the pile as well, though not many. I am leery of these, because I am betting that a lot are leftover from the unsold piles of last year, or from 2003. My coworker Leny tells me that no one here really knows what the eggs are about, pero son lindos y los niños les gusta. So it begins.

Nope, in Bolivia it just isn’t about the bunny. More so it looks like this.

Last night people filled the streets of Cochabamba to visit the twelve churches. The streets are jammed with people walking and almost as many others selling them carmel apples, api, and other treats. Not even a light rain hampered the tradition. Today many families will gather for the traditional meal of the “doce platos,” the twelve plates. Not a single one of those plates will include meat, for reasons good Catholics will understand. Yesterday’s occasional piles of tiny chocolate eggs seemed out done by much larger piles of some sort of dried shrimp that is part of the menu.

Okay, I lied before. The Easter Bunny does come to Bolivia. He or she (the gender of the Easter Bunny has never been clearly established) comes in illegally, sin visa, to keep a handful of children in foreign families happy. The Easter Bunny vs. La Migra.

To entice her or his undocumented arrival today we will color hard-boiled eggs. Then we will hide them around the yard along with a very large quantity of tiny chocolate eggs. Then a group of very eager children of various nationalities will run as fast as they can to fund them. In keeping with tradition I will follow the littlest ones around and make tiny chocolate eggs wrapped in foil miraculously appear in front of their tiny feet.

To be sure there is some cultural confusion in this. Last year when my wife invited the parents of one of my daughter’s friends at school to join us, a Bolivian family, she explained that we were going to color hardboiled eggs. That translates “tenir juevos duros.” He thought she said, “tener juegos duros,” which translates differently to, “We are going to play hard games.” He came prepared for a battle of U.S. style football but found himself dipping eggs in a coffee cup with blue dye.

I was particularly proud of my egg entry last year, which had a crayon drawn face that looked just like Bolivia’s President. I called it, “Evo el Huevo.” No one else was particularly impressed.

And as in the U.S., on Saturday night we will leave carrots out on a plate for the Easter Bunny’s certain appetite after so far a journey. And in the morning small footprints that resemble chalk marks (but they are real, they aren’t made of chalk) will wander about the floors and walls of our house tracing where the Mr. or Ms. Bunny may have hid a basket. I have noticed that as my children have grown older the Bunny finds harder and harder places to hide these baskets. By the time you hit my age they are impossible to find altogether, but I still look.

Okay, there you have it – a cold and academic comparative analysis of Easter traditions in the U.S. and Latin America. It is important that we take these things seriously.

Hey, “Evo the Huevo.” Get it?

Happy Easter to all Our Readers!


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Prison Tourism in La Paz


A researcher in La Paz recently approached me wanting to write an article about the infamous San Pedro prison in La Paz. The jail is home to some of Bolivia's most famous inmates (including former Pando governor Leopold Fernandez) and also to a new niche in the Bolivian economy, prison tourism.

For reasons that will be apparent in the article below, the researcher asked to publish this piece without the public use of her name. Normally we wouldn't do this, but in this case, because of the circumstances, we are making an exception.

Jim Shultz

Prison Tourism in La Paz

The 'world-famous' San Pedro prison has been in the Bolivian news again in recent weeks. In the usual manner, a media outlet, this time La Rázon, printed articles referring to the widely acknowledged presence of tourism, drug fabrication and sales in the prison. Prison officials denied it through news media the following day, and the story soon died off.

Ironically, the same week heavy rains were cited as the cause of the collapse of a wall in the 114 year old prison. According to the network ATB, as many as four prisoners were injured severely as the wall fell on their cells. The prison governor claimed the only damage was material, “Gracias a Dios”, and that although around 10 cells were affected, the prisoners who live there will not be moved. “They’re just going to have to make do where they are, make themselves comfortable or rather uncomfortable a little more than they are right now.”

The official story from prison officials is that inmates at San Pedro prison are well fed and well cared-for, do not produce cocaine, and tourism is not widespread because it is not allowed. To see a recent interview with the prison governor click here .

But if one digs a little deeper one finds that the “unofficial” account of this prison appears to be the more credible one, backed up by endless first-hand accounts and photography.

In addition to the reporting done by the Bolivian newspaper La Rázon, hosts pages in a surprising number of languages concerning the “peculiar” prison, the English page directing you to articles written by international journalists working with the BBC, ABC, and others. The popular guidebook, Lonely Planet (2007 edition and others), has a special, three-quarters of a page block devoted to explaining the prison’s absurd, workings and history of tourism. Finally, for those who read English, this website functions as a trailer to the 2003 non-fiction book, Marching Powder, with pictures taken by author Rusty Young while he lived inside San Pedro for four months researching the book.

These reports present a Cárcel San Pedro that is a place with its own set of rules, hierarchy, and ethics. Hundreds of women and children live inside the prison with their incarcerated spouses and fathers. Elections are held yearly to choose prison representatives that hold great power.

Prisoners must pay for everything they require. They must buy or rent cells in one of the five sections of the prison, which have different hotel-like star ratings. Notoriously, some wealthy prisoners live in luxury hotel-like suites that include cable TV, wireless Internet, private bathrooms, fully stocked kitchens and more, while poor prisoners find themselves sharing a small, unfurnished cell with 10 other men if they are lucky. Food, clothing, bedding and basic hygiene supplies are not provided for prisoners.

While there is usually a trained doctor available (in the form of a prisoner doing time) and a pharmacy inside, these are all basic rights that prisoners at San Pedro must pay for or, if they cannot, simply do without. Also, prison guards do not enter the prison except for once every morning to take roll call, which means that violent fights, often with knives, are frequent and often fatal. Perhaps these latter two realities – the lack of basic amenities for poor prisoners and the absence of police security – explain the current monthly death rate for prisoners: 4 out of a population of 1500.

Some of those deaths can probably also be attributed to the widespread use of highly addictive drugs, including cocaine, cocaine base and crystal meth. It’s not hard to envision how a prisoner might get hooked on one of these addictive drugs, getting to the point where all his money goes towards getting high until he starves to death. According to some of those who have investigated conditions at San Pedro, these drugs and others are not only available inside the prison but manufactured there and thus sold at literally wholesale prices.

In Marching Powder: a True Story of Friendship, Cocaine, and South America’s Strangest Jail, former prisoner Thomas McFadden describes the extent to which corruption is embedded in the criminal justice system. Bribes are a part of everyday life for those who live or are connected to San Pedro (in the case of many judges and prosecutors as well).

In fact, there is a great deal of maneuvering on the part of police officers throughout the country working to get transferred to this specific prison in order to reap the benefits of collecting bribes big and small on a daily basis. With a big enough colaboración (Bolivian for bribe) prisoners can leave the prison with a police escort for a day, walking about town, dining in fine restaurants, even going to clubs till four in the morning.

The corruption, writes McFadden, reached the highest levels. The book portrays a bizarre night when the prison governor at the time came to McFadden’s cell with two young women, a bottle of expensive whisky and 100 pesos that McFadden was supposed to use to go buy five grams of cocaine for the party to share. When the startled prisoner tried to resist, Governor Montesinos insisted, “The coke in the prison is better than anywhere else in the whole of Bolivia. And if the governor of the prison can’t get some coke, then who can?” (Page 128).

Tours of the prison started about ten years ago with McFadden as the first tour guide. Today, the reported price for a tour is 250 Bolivian pesos, about $36. In order for tourism as a business in the prison to function smoothly, guards and higher officials need to be paid off. According to a prisoner interviewed by La Rázon, “70% of the [250 peso] fee goes to the police and the people who organize the foreigners for the tours,” the rest being split up among prisoners.

Though prison officials deny the tourism, one only needs to pass by the prison during the day to see tens of foreigners gathering in the plaza for their guided visit. Some, like the prisoner cited above, insist that tourism is good for the prisoners because it creates much-needed cash-flow as tourists buy not only drugs but handicrafts, eat in prison restaurants, and give a few coins to the most desperate, begging prisoners.

However, in my view this type of tourism contributes to a blatant abuse of prisoners’ rights and human rights in general. A handful of pesos from tourists is not a substitute for the government providing the inmates with basic food, shelter and medical care (and as many as 75% of prisoners in San Pedro are simply awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime). Thousands of pesos a day being poured into the prison via tourism serves mainly to maintain and sustain the system of corruption that governs the prison and turns its inmates into the rough equivalent of animals in a zoo.

This is something tempted tourists might keep in mind before they pay their money and pass through the door.

For information regarding prison activism see these organizations:

International Cure
ACLU Prisons Project


Monday, November 10, 2008

The High Art of Remembering Dead Loved Ones


A week ago, as lucky children in the U.S. were sorting and counting their Halloween candy (my first daughter didn't like chocolates, so I got all the Butterfingers!), Bolivians were celebrating their own end-of-October/start-of-November holiday, Todos Santos. The cemeteries of the nation, including out local one in Tiquipaya, were filled with smiling families picnicking at the gravesites of parents and others lost but not forgotten. Altars featured their favorite foods and conversations their favorite stories.

A little late, we bring you a post from the Democracy Center's intrepid Yi-Ching Hwang, who answers the age-old question – can a young woman from Taiwan and San Diego make 't’anta wawas' with arms?


Jim Shultz

Bread Babies and Visiting the Dead

Because I didn’t speak much Quechua, somehow communication during my Peace Corps service largely took on the forms of experiencing. I knew something special was happening that weekend and we would be making t’anta wawas, but I hadn’t known that Don Clelio was going to dress up as a woman.

Years ago, I lived in a rural, agrarian, highland village two hours outside of Cochabamba. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was assigned to work with the Women’s Club in this 200-family community called Quewiñapampa. In the end, I taught English at the local middle school, collaborated with a few farmers in cultivating high altitude apple trees, worked with the women on planting vegetable gardens, supervised the construction of a school hand washing station, secured grants for a community latrine project, paid house visits, planted potatoes with my neighbors, harvested faba beans and peas, and spent a lot of time looking inward while staring at the tapestry-like hills outside of my door view.

I am so thankful to have had that opportunity in Quewiñapampa, integrating and getting to know a community that for a typical passerby is just dotted houses on a hill. Like dripping water that slowly erodes a rock, Bolivia, through still time of hours of wait, silent frames of tapestry-like hillside, and a mixture of I-can’t-stand-it-any-longer to those of I-think-I-will-never-forget emotions, this landlocked country, gradually seeped into my heart and soul.

I guess Bolivia can have that effect on you.

Earlier this month Bolivia celebrated its Todos Santos (All Saints) holiday, where the dead are remembered. Families, especially those with recent deaths, typically set up a table called mast’aku, adorned with t’anta wawas (bread babies), snake figures, small ladders, flowers and food. Most people also make a stop at the graveyards where the dead are known to return in spirit.

It is a time for remembering the deceased, but also a time when nostalgia of the past flies in the air. Through tears, through smiles, through stories, we each find our ways to honor those we’ve loved.

My own memories drifted me back to a few years ago today when I awkwardly tried to make my first t’anta wawa and the baby turned out to be armless. However armless, making bread babies among a room full of piles of dough and other concentrated bread baby makers was one of those defining moments in my Peace Corps service.

There were many days where after a frustrating attempt at the school, all I wanted to do was go home, lock myself in, and cry. There were many moments too where I wonder if I should terminate early and just go back to the States and get a ‘normal’ job. There were also moments where surrounded by nearly the whole village, I felt lonelier than ever— no one understood me, in fact, I was connecting better with the author of the book I was at the moment reading.

Yet, when I had arrived once again at the local school and my students— who just days ago were running around during class time ignoring me—were weeding and watering our communal garden and peeking at me with smiles; when I sat watching the sunset with a local dirigente (community leader) and our conversation ventured away from the latrine project at hand and into his wife, ex-wife, kids, and his hopes for the future; when I, despite the language and cultural difference, was accepted as part of the family and piled in a room of 30 people that at one minute was busy chewing chicken and peanut-flavored freeze-dried potatoes and the next all conversing in Quechua while watching after their 10 plus kids not picking on each other, I knew why was there.

Those were the moments when I whispered to myself “I am exactly where I need to be.”

Todos Santos in Quewiñapampa was a period of days when the whole community gathered and visited different houses to pay respect for that year’s deceased. There was also a festive gathering where young girls sat on huge swings made of eucalyptus trees and plastic ropes, all while pulled by young boys showing off their strength and muscles. In the Andean culture, life and death is one, and hence Todos Santos, instead of just bawling tears and sadness on the deceased, includes the celebration of youth and love, representing the beginning of the life cycle.

With my neighbor Doña Ana and her two little girls, in the early afternoon we walked over a few eucalyptus and pine trees (there are no streets signs nor clearly marked streets) to Don Clelio’s house. Before I knew it, I saw masses of men and women all dressed in black, some eating, some staring into space, while others were playing a coin game called rayuela. Chicha, an alcoholic beverage made of corn, was being served in coconut shells.

Following Doña Ana’s lead, we first entered the house to where the mast’aku was, to both say hi to the owners of the house as well as to pay our respect to Don Clelio’s aunt, who passed away earlier that year. Through the rows and rows of burning candles and flowers and the piled t’anta wawas, I saw Don Clelio sitting in the corner dressed as a widow cholita, whimpering and making crying sounds.

“What’s happening?” I asked Doña Ana.

“It’s the soul of the aunt, manifesting through Don Clelio, she’s came back to say goodbye.”

We silently ate the sheep blood, potato and rice lunch they served us, then as the crowd gathered to start their march towards the cemetery, led by Don Clelio weeping and rambling loudly, I said goodbye to Doña Ana.

“I’m going to make t’anta wawa at Doña Feliza’s house, I’ll see you later.”

Accompanying the funeral march for a few more yards, I turned toward a dirt path and walked down the hill to visit another family with their mast’aku. But more than anything else, they had invited me to make bread babies and I wanted to make sure that this time, they would have arms.

Written by Yi-Ching Hwang


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dancing in Urkupiña 2008


It may come as a surprise to some who don't live here that not every event in Bolivia has to do with politics, and not every breath includes mention of Evo Morales. With Sunday's elections still just a few days old, attention here in the Cochabamba Valley has turned to something else entirely – Urkupiña, the festival of the Virgin (
that Virgin) in nearby Quillacollo. Today the streets of that nearby small town are filled with thousands of dancers – a flowing river of detailed costumes and well-practiced movements that takes nearly 12 hours to pass from beginning to end.

And this year The Democracy Center is well-represented. Aldo Orellana and Leny Olivera danced both yesterday in La Entrada Auctoctono (the more traditional dances from the countryside) and today as well in the main event. And along with them today is Yi-Ching Hwang, born in Taiwan, migrated to the U.S. and now bringing her best moves to the streets of Quillacollo. We asked her to share her experiences in preparation for today's event here on the Blog, and here it is.

For those interested in more photos and explanations of what this festival is about,
here is a link to our slide show and report a few years back.

Now, some might ask, "Jim, why aren't you on the streets of Quillacollo today, wearing a devil's head or perhaps a Caporales mini-skirt?" To that I reply – Wielding size 13 sneakers and a definitely 'gringo' appearance, I don't need to do anything to make
even more a spectacle of myself in public here. Besides, someone had to work today. But stay tuned for Carnival. That nun costume might just be back.

Feliz Urkupiña a tod@s!

Jim Shultz

Dancing in Urkupiña 2008
by Yi-Ching Hwang

We all had to wear black underwear, not thongs, not tights, but black underwear. And one by one they checked us.

“Lift up your skirt and show it to me,” ordered our Sol Chaqueño San Simón fraternity sister, Natalí. I swear, she is not always this mean, it must have been the pressure of convite.

Around two weeks before the official Urkupiña Fiesta here in Quillacollo, a convite is held where all participating groups are invited to demonstrate their excellence. During convite we rehearsed the Urkupiña route, familiarizing ourselves with the bumpy pavement and sometimes windy, snake-like, narrow, cobblestone streets. It is a time especially for less experienced dancers to get their feet wet with street, parade dancing. Though not the official procession, lots of Quillacollo residents set out their chairs, lean over their balcony, and cheer the dancers on.

A couple of years ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer living two hours outside of Cochabamba, I participated in many city parades as a spectator. The last time I was in Urkupiña, I got lost in the wild, drunken crowd, hit on the head by a flying empty water bottle, and vowed never to come back to this crazy festival.

But here I am, chatting with the shoe repairman about the most strategic way to put rubber padding on the bottom of my black high heals to prevent the least damage to my delicate behind-the-computer-all-day feet. Urkupiña is only a day away, I have spent weeks and hours perfecting all those turns, choreography, and the best way to sway and swerve the long skirt to tactically show and hide my black underwear. Despite the lingering doubt about whether I can make it through 6 hours of dancing combating the different terrain and street size (not to mention potentially fending off drunkards), I can’t wait!

Chacarera is a dance from the Chaco region that is composed of bits of Paraguay, northern Argentina, and South Eastern Bolivia. The name is said to originate from the word chacarero, which means he who works in the chacra or farm. In Bolivia, the dance is characterized by mischievousness, vivacity and an air of ‘flirtiness.’ Danced in partners, the chacarera music is a mixture of bass drums, violin, and guitar.

Today in Cochabamba there are two main groups from whom one can learn this lovely dance. I joined the fraternity Sol Chaqueño San Simón out of almost sheer fate. Since May, on my way home from work, I would pass by groups practicing at a nearby plaza. Crisp night air, music and lively moves cutting through the otherwise stillness of the neighborhood, the plaza turned into an open stage sheltered by giant Jacarandá trees. It was too much to resist. Memories of high school and college dancing came floating up, playing with my imagination. Yi-Ching flaring about in the plaza with new Bolivian friends, learning new and cool moves?! The rest is history.

Sol Chaqueño San Simón is an open fraternity, all welcoming and encompassing. Our dancers include 7, 8 year old kids up until forty, fifty year olds. Physical stamina is the only limit. Anyone with a smile, strong dedication, and commitment can join. In July on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a few weeks after I started practicing, I was officially baptized into the fraternity. As a Taiwanese coming from a non-baptizing religious background (nor ever having joined a sorority/fraternity in college), for the first time in my life, I picked a godmother (my dance instructor), was drizzled with the plaza fountain water, and welcomed into the arms of the fraternity.

What followed was not just an afternoon of photos, reggeton music, and lollypops to suck on, but a beginning of a bondage that goes beyond learning the steps of this 8-part dance. Chacarera practice opened a door where we snuck in bits and pieces of cultural exchange, and sometimes even brief conversations of the most recent political topics.

“bichi, piching, iching...what is your name again?”

I must have been called a dozen names. But mixed in with the Y que venga la segunda Chacarera music, they all sounded sweet to me.

What are you doing here? From so far away? How did you decide to dance Chacarera? Can you sing that Taiwanese song again so I record it on my cell phone? It’s so preeetty!

Having spent half of my youth in Taiwan and half in the States, and then two years in rural Bolivia trying to do some development work but mostly perfecting my potato peeling skills and frustrated with my poor Quechua speaking ability, there have been days when I cringed and cried feeling like a black sheep not fitting in anywhere.

But these days, despite the supposedly division in Bolivia and what the news may broadcast as social and racial tension, what I’ve lived is a corner of Bolivia where there is curiosity of differences and going beyond that, a genuine acceptance. My Sol Chaqueño brothers and sisters come from Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, wealthy Cala Cala households, almost rural Vinto and Punata (towns 40 minutes to an hour outside of Cochabamba). For two hours everyday, what we do is work on our dancing but also on building harmonious relationships and keeping an eye out for each other.

When one lives intimately in a place, and daily is engrossed in the everyday lives of Bolivians, one sees beyond the news headlines of violence and racial conflicts. Sometimes amid political upheaval, we forget that Bolivia is more than just the recent referendum recall or the divisions over autonomy. As important as those topics may be, dancing in Sol Chaqueño San Simón provided a balance for me. Not only am I here in Bolivia learning about citizen power and taking democracy to the streets, I am also here building friendships with Bolivians and enriching myself with a dance that’s more than 150 years old.

Photo credit: Lynn Nesselbush


Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Bolivian Commute

My trip from home to work this morning began as it usually does, leaving the front door of my house hand-in-hand with my 5-year-old daughter for the walk through the countryside to her school. If I walked it alone I could do it in just over 5 minutes. With my daughter it takes almost 20. There is a lot to see.

"The cows aren't there today," she says to me as soon as we reach the dirt road in front of our house. The cows who eat in the open field next door to us have been a subject of speculation between us of late. For a week they have been there every morning, two of them, chomping on wild plants and grass. We wondered if they actually slept there, or just got dropped off really early. Last night, at least, they slept somewhere else.

Along the way we watch a small bird bathing itself with tiny splashes in a small puddle that remains from the rains. I tell my daughter that I bet the bird's Mom made her take a bath. She agrees that is probably the case. Then she suggests that we try to walk by only stepping on the big rocks. Then we pass the purple morning glories growing along the side of a field where one of our neighbors – a woman in a wide dark skirt and white straw hat – is harvesting the spinach and alfalfa. The flower my daughter picks for me gets planted into my shirt pocket, just peeking out.

Then we spend 5 minutes assessing a very big dump truck full of dirt that is parked by the side of the road. Then we debate if the ancient and beat-up Chevy pick-up parked across the road ever actually goes anywhere.

"At night I think it moves," she tells me, "and then they put it back early in the morning in the same place."

"Maybe so."

By the time we turn the next corner to her school, I can tell by the absence of kids at the entrance that we are very late. I don't mind all that much. Punctuality, I think, is overrated as an organizing principle for the universe, especially if it comes at the expense of observing cows and picking morning glories. I think this belief may make me Bolivian.

When we arrive the gate is locked.

"I know, how about I throw you over and then you flap your arms really, really fast like a bird and just float down on the other side?"


"Okay, maybe we can just open the gate and let you in."

She disappears into a tiny sea of small children, who are kind enough to greet me by name as I wave goodbye. I spent yesterday morning, Father's Day in Bolivia, in their class reading them (in poor translation) The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, teaching them to make paper airplanes, and engaging in finger puppet warfare in which Superman is challenged by a pig – "Chancho-man!" With small children, I find it best to make things up as you go along.

Now I am alone, walking up a narrow dirt road that eventually takes me to the Tiquipaya-Apote Super Highway. Okay, it isn’t a super highway, but it is paved. It is also where I catch the Taxi Trufi #106 that takes me into the city.

A minute or so goes by and along comes a white 1980s vintage Toyota Corolla station wagon, that shows its age along with a plastic sign "106" fastened to its roof. It pulls over to pick me up and I squeeze my body carefully into the front seat next to the driver and an enormous Bolivian man sitting in between us.

"Que bien que es flaco!" booms a voice from the back seat. "That's great, he's thin!"

I look back and three more enormous Bolivian men, looking like large sardines, are squeezed into the Toyota's back seat. Soon the largest of them, the man in the middle, is engaged in a full-on conversation with the driver.

"It's the Japanese, they are all skinny. So there cars are made for skinny people."

"Of course they are skinny, they eat nothing but fish and rice, fish and rice."

Images of Sumo wrestlers come to mind, but I decide I am better off just listening.

"So that's what you need to do, starting tomorrow, fish and rice, fish and rice," says the driver. The large man in the back seat laughs.

By this time we are making our way south down what is called Avenida Ecologica. My friend Ismael pointed out to me the absurdity of the name a few months ago. "Look what there is all along 'Avenida Ecologica' – field after field of cut logs. 'Avenida Ecologica is a cemetery for trees!"

During the taxi-trufi ride into town my seatmates in front change three times. The round man next to me leaves and is replaced by a well-dressed young woman in remarkably pointy shoes. A few blocks later she leaves and a father and young son pile in next to me, each wearing baseball caps. The boy's is on backwards. They are headed to the bus terminal to travel for Easter.

On the radio two voices discuss the steep recent rise in inflation, a topic on everyone's lips here. They announce the good news that Piromani brand milk remains priced at three liters for 11 Bolivianos.

Entering the center of the city we pass the statue erected in the middle of a large fountain at the edge of El Prado. It is an abstract pair of faces looking upward, but I agree with the local reviewer who said it looks more like a big concrete salteña. I think a statue of an actual salteña would have been even cooler. But what do I know about art?

I get off along El Prado to walk the last few blocks to my office. In Plaza Colon Doña Elsa sits, like clockwork, with her trademark wide-brimmed bright red hat, changing dollars into Bolivianos and visa-versa. Through rain, civil uprising and falling currency rates, Doña Elsa is always there.

On Calle 25 de Mayo I pass the young mothers from Potosi, who sit with their children asking for change, and give some coins to the one I know by name.

I stop at a newspaper stand where all the local papers are pinned up, unfolded, letting anyone who wants, to read the front-page stories. Both Los Tiempos and Opinion lead with the story of the Morales government sending out letters to 1,000 media outlets in Bolivia threatening them with closure if they publish materials aimed at inciting insecurity and fear – about inflation in particular. This is just the latest in a string of recent examples of how the Morales government is becoming more and more paranoid and authoritarian in its manner, a subject of genuine concern here by both right and left. It is also a really stupid move politically. Is there really a sane politician anywhere in the world who believes that his or her political standing will improve by completely pissing off every media outlet in the nation? Another article reports on a government decree banning the export of cooking oil, again ostensibly an anti-inflation measure, but again, a really stupid one.

Setting politics aside I wander into a store where I go to buy my morning bananas. I walk past some new graffiti (translated): Neither God, nor love, nor country – Liberty!

On the corner I stop at the nut cart operated by a short man named Gusto and buy some almonds. From there I walk up the stairs to my office, where one of our youthful staff is practicing her Quechua homework on a blackboard. I fight open a balcony door that has been swelled shut by the recent rains. In the distance I hear the sound of exploding fireworks, the telltale signal that a protest is underway somewhere in Cochabamba's center.

I push the "on" switch on my computer and sit down.

"You know," I think to myself, "All of that wouldn’t make a bad Blog." And I start to type.

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