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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?”

“NOOO!”

“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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