Me gustan las cholitas

One of my favorite parts of Bolivian culture are the Cholitas: the indiginous women with bowler hats and fancy skirts and shawls, carrying huge parcels of goods tied to their backs in colorful blankets. They are strong, proud women with a great sense of both style and social justice.

I was already fascinated by my dealings with cholita street vendors before I talked to my temporary roommate Dan Keane (the local AP reporter) about the cholita culture. Cholas was a generic term for country women, but the cholitas were a cultural statement that was adopted by both the poor women from El Alto and outer environments (where they worked the fields and do other tough labors in the middle of nowhere in their colorful garb) and many urban women, who would bling out their ensembles with the finest shawls and jewelry. And in both cases, they’re strong women who don’t take shit from anyone and who form an important backbone to the indiginous social movements that swept Evo Morales to power.

On Wednesday night, when I took the overnight bus from Cochabamba back to La Paz, I gained a new appreciation for the cholitas. There were two of them a row back and across the aisle from my front top row seat. They had huge parcels of stuff wrapped into their blankets — most likely bound for the Thursday market in El Alto — which they used to make a nest for themselves in their cama bus seats. They lounged, talked, and chewed their coca as we waited for the trip to begin.

Across from me were a young Canadian guy doing volunteer work in Bolivia and his visiting mother. They didn’t speak much Spanish, so when a women from the bus company appealed to them, I (who understands probably less than half of what people tell me at any given time) had to translate, surmising from the words debajo and enferma that she was asking them to move to seats in the bottom of the bus because sick people needed these front seats. They grudgingly complied and two healthy-looking young men took their places. “They don’t look sick to me,” the mom said as they left, but what’s done was done.

A few minutes later, the woman came to me with the same spiel, but I resisted. I already knew from the Canadians that I’d paid more for my ticket than them, and when I bought mine in the morning, the bus company women made a point of noting that my seat — in the front with nobody next to me — was one of the best ones. So I made my points and waged my objections as the woman resorted to the pleading, almost childlike tones common in Bolivian beggars and the guy next to her (who was behind me and I couldn’t see, and whose rapid fire Spanish I couldn’t understand) tried to talked me out of my seat.

That’s when the Cholitas intervened, telling the pair that it was my seat, I bought it, and that they should leave me alone. There was something resolute and unmovable in their tone, as if they were in charge here and not the woman from the bus company. And after a few minutes, they won the argument. I don’t know for sure, but I got the sense that it was a ruling class man who wanted my seat and had coopted the company to help him get it, and that offended the cholitas’ sense of social justice. Whatever the case, after it was over, I offered the cholitas a sincere “Muchas gracias,” and they smiled at me as if we had together won a small victory and then they went back to their coca and their conversation.

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Have Bolivians lost faith in Evo?

Let me just do a quick post now that I hope to follow up later today with posts on my observations in Cochabamba and the story of my epic mountain biking trip yesterday that went wrong and left us stranded in a strange and treacherous landscape after dark (don’t worry, mom and others worried about me, I’m fine).

I just read an excellent post on Bolivia by Jim Schultz at the Democracy Center and I wanted to echo one of his key points. It’s easy and not inaccurate to view Bolivia in class terms, with the ruling class in Santa Cruz and other wealthy department fighting the movement toward socialism of President Evo Morales and his MAS party. But Morales is now facing challenges and opposition that are much more broad than that.

I’ve made a habit of asking people I meet what they think of Evo, and after collecting dozens of answers, I see the patterns that Schultz talked about. Many people who voted for Evo are disappointed in him. Billboards and television all over the country tout the message “Evo Cumple,” which means that he is delivering what he promised. But many of his former supporters don’t believe it, instead seeing a government that is inept and a president who unnecessarily picks fights and launches ideological crusades rather than working to bring the country together and improve the lives of Bolivians.

Perhaps the problem is that people’s expectations are so high and the challenges facing the country are insurmountable in the short run. But if Evo is to succeed, he is going to have to find a way to create a more effective bureaucracy (rather than one that chases away good people, some of whom I have met) and to foster a dialogue with his political opponents that offers some hope of a national reconciliation. And he needs to do that without losing the support of his base in the social movements, which is not an easy feat.

Martial day in Bolivia

It was a martial day in La Paz on Easter Sunday, in every sense of the word, particularly outside my window in Plaza Avaroa. It was a day of strange contrasts and serendipitous conjunctions.
I had watched them bring the remains of Eduardo Avaroa the night before, placing them on the covered table in front of his statue, lifting himself off the ground, gun in hand, about to die defiantly in a hail of Chilean bullets 129 years ago. It was the last battle of the War of the Pacific, when Bolivia lost its coastal territory, a sore spot marked ever since on March 23, Dia del Mar.
My dia began before I would have like it to when loud marching bands and military troops of all stripes converged on the plaza from all directions at 8;30 am, just three hours after I went to bed. The popular Bolivian band Atajo put on a fantastic show at Equinoccio that had me dancing and drinking until they were done. But aye carumba, with just a few hours sleep I was witnessing what seemed like an invasion, or at least the Bolivian equivilent of the Russian May Day, with endless thousands of troops on display, singing, marching, and beating their drums.
The plaza filled with dignitaries including President Evo Morales, who spoke after he cannons rattled the air with a 21-gun salute or so, shortly before 11 am. Evo talked about the power of the pueblos, a word that means people but also far more since he became the first indiginous president in South American history. And he talked about the need to reclaim the coast from Chile, a task in which he announced negotiations had commenced. And he referenced comments make by Pope Benedict about the need for all countries in the world to better protect human rights and see to the needs of the poor.
It really appeared that Bolivia is on to something, but I couldn’t help but be a bit unsettled by the association of such ideals with the display of miliary might. Or perhaps it was just the lack of sleep.

P.S. I’m now in Cochabamba and will have a post on that once I return to La Paz, on Thursday or Friday.

La Paz, El Alto and the Cordillera Real — a study in contrasts

After spending most of my week exploring La Paz — visiting Plazas Murillo and San Francisco, the Witches Market, the impressive Museo Nacional de Arte, and each sector of town, and partying at night with travelers and Paceños alike — I finally ventured into the surrounding environs over the last two days and got a very different feel for the region.

On Thursday, Juliette and I grabbed a salteña (the yummy national snack of Bolivia) and then a microbus bound for El Alto, where the locals hold markets twice a week along an old rail line that was abandoned after the government privatized it. At about 2,000 feet above La Paz, the views were just stunning, but the market had a very different feel from the miles worth of vendors that line the streets of La Paz selling mostly new goods and produce. This was more like a cheap and colorful flea market, with vendors selling everything from piles of used clothes to scrap metal to every kind of appliance and piece of furniture you can think of.

El Alto is far poorer than La Paz, and the evidence of that was everywhere. It is like what one might imagine when they think of Bolivia being the poorest country in South America, but it was also a striking example of a highly functional local economy. For just a few Bolivianos (which are about 8-1 to the U.S. dollar), anyone could feed and clothe themselves. Everything is recycled into something functional for someone and almost nothing goes to waste. And, of course, things are a steal for gringos (I got a cool hat for 10 Bolivianos, leather wristband for 3, and Juliette and I had a great fish lunch for 9), so much so that I almost felt bad and never haggled over price. But you can’t feel too bad for these mostly indiginous people, who occupy a place with more beautiful vistas than even San Francisco has to offer, and who seem to have a remarkable degree of self-sufficiency and contentment.

Then yesterday, I took an amazing day-long trek on a full-suspension mountain bike from the snow covered peaks about 45 minutes outside La Paz (elevation 16,000-feet, over twice as high as Lake Tahoe and enough to make you gasp for air with even minimal exertion) down through the jungles of the Cordillera Real to an old presidential palace that is supposed haunted by the president who was forced out in the ’30s after losing the Chaco War to Paraguay and his indiginous mistress. This is a country of few retired presidents, a profession that seems to be hazardous to one’s health.

I took the trip with Gravity Assisted Biking, which also does the popular and well-known World’s Most Dangerous Road trip in the same basic region, but my Ghost Ride trip was newer and better for more experienced mountain bikers, with about the first third of the trip being along challenging single tracks. In fact, an experienced mountain biker from New Zealand who rode with us took a hard crash and broke his collar bone less than an hour into the trip. Luckily, the trip is periodically broken up by meeting the transport jeeps for water or food, and Chris was taken to the hospital.

The second half of the trip was a crazy little dirt road that we shared with bold vehicles filled with people who smiled and waved at the bicycling gringos, crossing creeks and going under a waterful, passing hidden cocaine processing plants and an abandoned silver smelter, and taking in breathtaking vistas of high, lush gorges puncutuated by rivers and waterfalls. Finally, after about 30 miles, eight hours, and a vertical drop of more than 6,000 feet, we arrived at the palace (that was built by Paraguyan prisoners of war and where the president had to flee mobs anger at leading the country into a losing war, one of three major ones that resulted in substantial territorial loss for Bolivia).

We were greeted with beers (despite the fact that alcohol sales are banned for Easter weekend in La Paz and other parts of the country), smiles, fresh towels and showers supplies, and a fabulous almuerzo (the lunches that are the largest meal of the day in most of Latin America). It was a great day, and one that I’m still carrying into my final weekend in La Paz. I plan to head over to Cochabamba Monday morning — loading my pack and leaving my comfortable digs to being a traveler once more — but will do one final night in La Paz later in the week before heading back toward Peru for the second half of trip.

Lessons for the U.S. in Bolivia

LA PAZ, BOLIVIA — I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months pondering people power, both for my article on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War and in preparing for my trip to Bolivia, where since 2000 popular movements and direct action have ousted two presidents, thwarted water and natural gas privatization efforts, and brought former coca grower Evo Morales and his MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) Party to power.

Here in Bolivia, where everyone down to the poor street vendors are organized into unions and federations, the people can shut down entire cities or critical infrastructure for weeks on end. Solving the myriad problems facing this poor country may still be difficult, particularly with Morales facing a U.S.-backed upper class in revolt over the new proposed constitution, but there is a sense of real empowerment here, of true democracy in action.

In the U.S., we seem to have forgotten that definition of democracy, instead content to define it as what we do in voting booths, choosing between the two parties every couple years, or bitching about the government in conversations or blog posts. Five years ago today, we saw an exception to that approach on the streets of San Francisco.

But what if we didn’t go home? What if it was like Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, or El Alto and other departments spilling into La Paz in 2003, and the people stayed in the streets, absorbed the police and military crackdown, and developed into a broad uprising that drew in the middle class and made governing the country — let alone launching an ill-advised war — an untenable position?

It’s tough to imagine that scenario in the U.S., isn’t it? But whereas President Bush has arrogantly condemned Bolivia for what he sees as “a breakdown in democracy,” I think there are important lessons that we gringos can learn from our Bolivian brothers and sisters. Here, with no power beyond direct action, they have fundamentally altered the course of their country. But we in the States, with all our wealth and power, have allowed our government to illegally run amuck in the world, causing irreparable harm. And I think that’s something we should all ponder today and in the months ahead.

Loving La Paz

After last night’s Peña, I feel fully engulfed in Bolivian culture…and very hungover. We danced and drank until dawn and made friends with a big group of friendly Bolivians, including a 26-year-old cop I talked to in Spanish for hours. He wants me to go on a doube-date with him and a couple women he knows on Tuesday night, which should be fun.

Dan Keane, the Associated Press reporter that I’m living with for the week (in a swank apartment overlooking Plaza Avaroa in the Sopacachi district of La Paz), led a group of seven of us (mostly American travelers) to Peña Ojo de Aqua, where we drank cervezas and pitchers of fruity, yummy Jungeños (named for a mandarin orange grown in the nearby Jungos) and learned various Bolivian cultural dances. It was like a rave with local folk music from different regions, complete with late night noching and Dan and I talking journalism and politics as the sky got light over the snow-covered Illimani, a 21,000-foot peak near 12,000-foot La Paz. Que fantastico, pero estoy cansado ahora.

La Paz is a city ringed by steep ridges, including seedy yet politically energized El Alto, where the airport is. When I arrived late Friday night, the cab driverr navigated steep switchback roads past mangy looking dogs and obviously very poor indigious Bolivians, talking to me in Spanish about the need to get past the recent political turmoil — with regular road blockades and strikes — and build a stronger economy. But the situation here is infinitely complicated. President Evo Morales remains popular, but he struggles with holding the country together as the wealthy districts like Santa Cruz threaten to essentially secede over the Morales government’s land reforms and new constitution, which the people will vote on in the coming months. I’ll have more to write later about the political situation here — for now, I’m just taking in the culture, including the important cultural icon that is Evo.

Tomorrow, Dan and I and maybe others from last night are going to the stadium for a big soccer game between Evo’s team (in the room where I write now, there’s a great photo of Morales in his soccer shorts, cleats, and trademark Alpaca sweater, soccer ball between his feet, taken by AP photographer Dada Galdia) and the team of legendary Argentinian soccer star Maradona. And next weekend, I’ll see Evo speak in Plaza Avaroa during a festival honoring Eduardo Avaroa’s doomed military stand against the Chileans, where Bolivia lost its access to the ocean during the War of the Pacific around 1880. Dan says it’s a great festival that includes a military procession bringing Avaroa’s remains from a nearby church to a place of honor in the plaza.

All the Bolivians I’ve met have been friendly, curious, and welcoming, with the exception of a young woman we passed on the street last night who told us, “Go home.” Dan says that’s very rare, and while Bolivians can be wary of outsiders (after all, most locals will never leave this isolated and poor country), they are warm and kind and truly good people. Most of the commerce here takes place in the cobbled steep streets, which are filled for miles with vendors selling everything from clothing and appliances to every imaginable kind of food and coca leaves (which I’ve been chewing regularly and rather enjoying). I strolled the streets and Plaza San Francisco (the main gathering spot for political demonstrations) for several hours yesterday with my gracious and knowledgable hosts Juliette Beck (a longtime Global Exchange activist from San Francisco) and her partner Nick Buxton (whose great blog Open Veins has a link from mine — check in out).

Today is a much needed day of down time after going strong since even before I left San Francisco on Tuesday and packing lots of fun and adventure into my Lima stay (including beach treks and an amazing tour of some Inca ruins in the center of Miraflores). But later this week I plan to visit the bullet-ridden Presidential Palace and Legislature in Plaza Pedro Murillo and some museums and to take one of the epid local mountain bike rides, probably he 4,000-foot drop from Chacaltaya to La Paz. And then next week I’ll take the bus to Cochabamba and spend up to a week there before continuing on to Lake Titicaca and back into Peru for a stay in Cuzco and trek up to Machu Pichu. Check back in a few days from another post.

From a Miraflores balcony

I write from my favorite place in South America so far: the balcony of the Flying Dog Hostel, overlooking Parque Central in the heart of Miraflores. In front of me is a circle filled with vendors, to my left is a playground filled with children, both of which bustle with activity until late at night. Below is El Parquetito and other parkside outdoor restaurants and to my right is Tasca Bar, which is affiliated with Flying Dog and from where I brought back tres mujeres my first night to shoot pool at the table behind me, even though I´m not allowed to bring back guests (whoops, I should have read the rules). Both sides got a “lo siento” from me when they got kicked out.

It was an antithetical moment for this low key hostel, where travelers from around the world meet and mix easily. Last night, a group of us was supposed to go dancing at a club called Aura, but we ended up partying in the hostel all night after getting field reports of super long lines. Oh well.

I am back to the beach today to lounge and perhaps surf, walking past Parque del Amor, with its massive statue of lovers embracing. This is bustling city, punctuated by car horns that drivers toot almost constantly, as if using sound to navigate, like bats. It is great to be on vacation around people at leisure. There is an ease to our interactions and I appreciate being able to speak English and communicate more fully than I can in Spanish (although I am getting by just fine). It is a problem that might become more pronounced starting tonight in Bolivia, where I need to have more significant conversations but fewer people speak English (yo creo). Perhaps I should be studying Spanish now rather than writing, but I am smoking a Cuban cigar, drinking a Franca cerveza, and waiting for a birthday party to begin here, so writing in the window seems better.

Traveling alone is an interesting experience. I´ve done it before in Mexico for a few days at a time and I have been enjoying the independence and introspective nature of it so far. But I imagine that there will be moments of real loneliness over the next five weeks, particularly with how engulfed in my own head that I can get. I am older than most of the hostel guests, although the guy on the bunk below me is far older than me. I want to get his story, and those of many others here, yet I feel a need to remain a bit self centered for another day or two. It is my transition period, the beginning of my journey, and I think it is enough to just be for now.

That´s not to say I have been a loner. I have met dozens of people and made a few friends, including Katherine, who left today on a Bolivia bound bus and who I plan to see in La Paz. And there are several Californians I have been paling around with, including Uriah, a 30 year old open spirit. I could see settling into this, as he says he has, just not wanting to go back. There are lots of people here like that.

Yet I realize that I am just trying on the travelers life for now. Five weeks seems like a long time to me, but it is a shorter trip than just about everyone I have met is on. My life is in San Francisco. But if my dress rehearsal goes well — and I already sense it will — I still have a long life in front of me, one that could include fewer responsibilities than I have had for most of my adult life. And there is a big world out here.