Sunday, February 27, 2011

Last Post

Wow, the time just flew by here. Friday was my last day of work; I presented the chapter on indigenous self-determination I wrote for a book that will be published here in April, called Pluralismo y Deslinde Jurisdiccional (Legal Pluralism and Jurisdictional Demarcation). It was a really interesting experience, and the people at the think tank deserve an award for agreeing to publish a so-called legal analysis from a 21 year-old with no experience in law nor Bolivian issues.

Apart from finishing my internship, the most exciting thing going on here for the last two weeks have been the strikes. Bolivia has, to say the least, a culture and history of protest and mass mobilization. This, as well as the ubiquity and power of unions, has been explained to me as a result of the historic lack of the State’s presence or help in marginalized sectors of society. The most recent, and ongoing, incident of collective action has been the conflict over public transportation. The transportistas, bus drivers, decided to raise the price of passage from 1.50 to 2 bolivianos, (some context, that is a 7 cent increase in dollar terms, and the bus tariffs haven’t been raised for several years). Cue: people going crazy.

First, bus riders protested the raise by going into the streets and banging on the buses. They successfully communicated their anger, so the drivers’ union decided to respond and pulled all of the buses from the street. Well, the buses were still in the street, but as bloqueos, blockades. This is a Bolivian protest favorite, along with fireworks, and can take several forms: parking vehicles across the street and playing soccer in front of them, oil drums (you can light fire in them if you’re really feeling upset), or just sitting in the road. Because of all of this, everyone everywhere decided to stop working and we had a de facto vacation. This continued for several days during the week until last Saturday, when all of the buses started going again. “Great!”, all the naive gringos thought, we can start going to our jobs again.

Not so fast. Apparently, everyone took the weekend to break from striking, and though normality had seemingly resumed, we were back on strike on Monday. As this was my last week at work, I just started taking taxis because I needed to finish up my article. However, we had to take all sorts of creative routes to get anywhere because of the blockades, which isn’t good given my horrid sense of direction without people creating large obstacles in the streets and shooting off fireworks. A couple of days ago, there was an announcement that they had come to a compromise: tariffs would be 1.80 bolivianos. This, however, was still not satisfactory for some, and thus the strike continued. Upon hearing about the agreement, I was ready to go light an oil drum on fire so I didn’t have to deal with 20 cent coins. The buses are running now, but I’m unsure if that’s because it’s the weekend, and thus off-limits to strikes, or if they have actually figured things out.

This confusion has all been compounded by the rain. We’re in the rainy season now, so I’m not surprised by the frequent precipitation, but this place is horrible at getting wet. Though Bolivia really is pretty, the ground here does not absorb water, so it all runs off right away. Additionally, drainage systems, especially in poor neighborhoods, aren’t good or don’t exist, so the streets flood in minutes. What’s more, Cochabamba is situated in a big basin, so all the muddy water from the mountains just flows right down. It’s been a party.

Anyway, I leave on Wednesday for Santa Cruz, the city I originally flew into. I was going to take the bus but, alas, the highway fell into the river because of the rain. This, I’ve been told, happens every year, so people haven’t been acting too worried. I’ll thus be flying all the way to Brazil from here, where I’ll be for two weeks until I home come on the 16th.

Since I’ll be traveling around from now on, I think this will be my last post. I want to thank everyone who has read and given encouragement these past eight months, I’ve truly enjoyed writing for such a great audience and your support and interest is very affirming.

Hasta la próxima,


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Salty Travels

Late last night I got back from an amazing five-day trip with thirteen other volunteers from all over the world to Uyuni, home of Bolivia´s legend salt flats. Here is some commentary and pictures of the trip. All of my pictures can be found on Picasa.

Friday, February 4th

It was raining super hard when we all awoke, met up, and made our way to the bus station for our 9 o’clock bus. From Cochabamba, we traveled four hours to Oruro, getting there by lunch time. We ate, then boarded our train to Uyuni, a seven hour trip. The highlights of that afternoon were being forced to listen to Hotel California five times and watch several different Jackie Chan movies. Bolivian public transportation makes sure to provide you with very, very loud entertainment the entire time you travel. We got to Uyuni late at night, found out that our hostel had decided to ignore our reservation, found another, and crashed.

Saturday, February 5th

We got up early to look for tour operators. The standard procedure for exploring the salt flats and surrounding area is to book jeep tours that come with everything included for about 100 dollars per person. We ended up cramming fourteen people into two jeeps, which was super uncomfortable for the people in the back. We first went to a “train cemetery,” which is a spooky way of saying an abandoned train, a remembrance of the mining boom in that area. Our guide also let us in on his life story; how he survived a mining accident, why he has no teeth, and why his nickname is llama (because both he and male llamas have over fourteen females).

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

We then ate llama meat for lunch at a little outpost on the road.

From Bolivia Blog

We then drove some more before coming to these cool rock formations. One of the most entertaining parts of this was a huge group of gringos that had formed two circles and were chanting “pachamama,” which means Mother Earth in Andean traditions, while playing Native American drums from the States as well as a didgeridoo. Meanwhile, all of the Bolivian drivers were sitting on rocks laughing at the spectacle.

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

We spent the night at a little house in the middle of nowhere, where we were treated to traditional music by school children.

From Bolivia Blog

Sunday, February 6th

We got up and went to the Red Lagoon, so named for the color that it takes when sunny. All over the tour we saw tons of flamingos, and this lake was no exception.

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

After lunch we saw some geyser and hot pots. Our guide got really excited by the whole thing, dropped his pants and underwear, and decided to warm his butt and genitals with one of the steam vents. I didn’t get a picture of him doing this, but you can tell he really likes steam vents from the picture below. The whole thing was like Yellowstone, without any rules or boardwalks. You could see some places where people had almost fallen into one of the formations.

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

Then we went to a hot spring where we got to bathe for about a half an hour.

From Bolivia Blog

We then saw more lagoons, including Green Lagoon, before going to our new “hostel.” We spent that night at 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) above sea level.

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

Monday, February 7th

We got up super early and saw more rock formations and drove through more desert.

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

The whole time we were really rushing so that we could have time to get to the actual salt flat. This time of year the whole thing is covered in water, which our driver was not super happy about because it’s hell on the car. It was incredible, the whole thing reflected the sky perfectly and I had never seen anything like it before.

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

Our guide got excited again and took off his pants...

From Bolivia Blog

Tuesday, February 8th

We got back from the salt flat that night, and waited in the train station for a couple of hours after eating since our train was supposed to leave at 1:20 am. We all boarded what we thought was our train at one, and just passed out we were so tired. We got up at like 6 am to realize that we hadn't moved. Apparently, the rain had kept the rest of train from showing up, which the car we spent the night in was supposed to attach to. We ended up leaving at 8:20, only a seven hour delay. We got back to Oruro at around four pm, and promptly boarded another bus. Two hours into that trip, however, the bus broke down. We waited and watched Jackie Chan for two more hours, until another bus came and picked us up. While we had planned on getting back to Cochabamba at like 2 in the afternoon, I was back at my house by midnight. It was, to say the least, a long day.

Hope all is well! I only have two and half more weeks here, which is out of control. This has gone insanely fast.



Sunday, January 30, 2011

You take issue with my bare calves?

I really like wearing shorts. If it’s warm enough out, I will just about always opt not to wear pants. There are, however, definite differences in protocol when traveling: men wearing shorts for non-sport activities is just not as common here as in the US. I’ve always been just fine sticking out even more because of my shorts use, though I’m reconsidering in lieu of two instances of being verbally accosted this week for such wardrobe choices.

The first happened on Wednesday while walking home with my two friends, Josh from Toronto and Lily from Austin, after going out for Greek food. As we passed a group of middle-schoolers, one particularly sweet little girl shouted “nice little lady shorts!” at which the whole group started laughing. I was wearing knee-length khakis. Whatever, it’s takes more than one spunky emasculating tween to bring me down.

The next occurred on Saturday at 2 AM, waiting in line to go to Cochabamba’s premier dance club, Pimienta. I’m tired already, I’m actually an old man trapped in a twenty-one year old body, and am complaining that I wanted to go home to Lily. I then realize that I only had 20 bolivianos on me, three dollars, which is only enough to get into the club. So, I ask Lily if she had any money for a taxi back. She responds that yes, she has change. I ask her if she’s sure, to which she answers that she thinks so. Literally, this is all that we say before being interrupted by a bouncer standing next to the line with his arms crossed.

“I bet you thought I couldn’t understand you talkin’ shit like that,” the bouncer tells us in English. He seems to speak pretty well, albeit with an accent.

Lily and I just look at the guy, confused. Clarification is needed, we ask what it is exactly that he’s talking about.

“You’re just there, talkin’ English, and you don’t think anyone can understand you talkin’ shit!” We just stare at this guy. “You know what the funniest fuckin’ part of this is?” No, the humor has at this point managed to evade us. “The funniest fuckin’ part of this whole thing is that I’m a fuckin’ US Marine.” It’s clear that his stint in the Armed Forces provided ample opportunity to practice throwing around the f-bomb.

“No,” I say, “That’s the second funniest thing. The funniest is that we’re actually talking about getting a taxi back home.”

The man's bouncer friend comes over and whispers in his ear. He nods, and looks at me. “Shorts aren’t fuckin’ allowed in here. I would have overlooked it, ‘cept you were talkin’ shit.”

Dear Pimienta Dance Club,

Can we please screen our
bouncers next time as to keep the unprovoked belligerence to a minimum in the line.

Yours Truly,
The gringo in the blue shorts being harassed outside

PS. I hadn’t planned on going dancing, and for that reason had
not put on pants

At this point, I’m feeling very emotionally conflicted. One the one hand, I really would like to go home, and Staff Sergeant Crazy has provided me with more than enough of an excuse to leave and not get called grandpa by my fellow volunteers. On the other hand, a part of me wants to spite this man, make fun of his understanding of basic English, and dance, dance just to prove to everyone in Bolivia that you can dance just as well in shorts. Thankfully, the former sentiment won out; clearly, arguing with a large guy who hears voices in his head would not lead to anywhere worth going. I go home with Lily and Josh.

That’s about all my news. Running this week involved avoiding: one pooping guy, one dead dog, and one water balloon thrown from a passing car. I managed to stay clear of all three.

Un abrazo, hasta la próxima.


Monday, January 24, 2011

One month 'till Carnival

Similar to Brazil, Bolivia is all about its Carnival celebrations. Big time. I’ve been told on many occasions that I have to stick around for the beginning of March since the festivities are simply not to be missed. Unlike Brazil, however, the way that the Bolivians go about celebrating this special time of year focuses less on Samba parades. I’m unclear on the details, though the reoccurring theme throughout these conversations I had seems to focus on one thing in particular: water balloons.

Despite hearing about this several times, Carnival was not the first explanation I thought of last week when I was standing in line at a bakery and all of the sudden something wet hit me in the face. My first thought was that someone had dumped water out of their window and it had somehow blown inside. Turns out that wasn’t the case; I was in fact sniped by someone in a passing bus. Everyone else in line came up to me, telling me not to worry and that this was just what children do this time of year. I guess they were worried that I may take it personally. Considering I’ve been here for a little over two weeks, I wasn’t too upset that one of my enemies was to blame, I just wished I wasn’t wet and was worried that some water had gotten into my mouth and I was going to get sick again.

Carnival is late this year, which means even more water balloon time, and I’ve been told by fellow volunteers that you become more of a target if you look foreign. Without getting too problematic, I’ll just say that it is safe to say that I don’t look very Bolivian, so I’ve been a little more on edge since then. While walking on the sidewalk later on in the week, I passed a little boy filling up a plastic bag with questionably clean water. Not wanting a repeat of the bakery incident, I pointed at him, and sternly told him “don’t even think about it.” He looked up at me confused and a little freaked out before shuffling over to his mother’s pushcart which he started to clean with the water he collected. So, maybe I have some work to do in terms of discerning which children are the ones I need to look out for.

For, “interesting things I’ve seen while running this week,” the dead guy last Wednesday probably takes the cake. Don’t worry, he wasn’t murdered, he was just old and probably sick. That makes it better, right? He apparently hunkered down in the reeds right by the Laguna in town and that was that. I passed him getting taken out by an ambulance with a big crowd around the whole spectacle. So, that was a little sad...

This weekend was super fun though! I went with a group of volunteers to the El Chapare region of the country, which is where the president is from. The highlights were staying in a hotel owned by a guy literally named Ray Charles Gomez and the monkeys. We went on a hike where all these spider monkeys come and want to hold your hand and drink your water. I’m suspicious, however, that they just put up with the hand-holding so they can play with your water bottle. The baby spider monkeys were hilarious. Also super habituated to humans, they looked like little black aliens. Their heads, feet and hands were way, way too large for their bodies, and they would stumble around and grab stuff with their tail to keep from falling over. I don’t have any pictures yet, but hopefully some of the other people from the trip will put some up that I can post.

Hope all is well!


Saturday, January 15, 2011

One week down

Just finished my first full week here in Bolivia!

Things with my host family are going well. I've successfully broken the ice with my host mom by means of several instances of miscommunication that she thought were hilarious. The first was when I finally asked, after five days of scalding showers, if there was a way to turn down the hot water heater in the third floor bathroom. Apparently there is a special pump for cold water that you have to turn on two floors below. The second occurred when I forgot my key when leaving to go to my organization's main building for dinner. After the meal, I called home to make sure that people were up so that I didn't get stranded in the street when I made it back. My mom picked up, asked who was calling, to which I responded "Cameron." This, however, was interpreted as me asking to speak with Cameron, resulting in a minute of me listening through the phone as my mom looked for me throughout house while calling out my name. It wasn't until she decided I wasn't anywhere to be found and got back on the phone to let me know that I wasn't in her house that we were able to sort the confusion out. She found both situations very entertaining, and has since been very interested every time I go to the other house and asks who I'm going to see since, as she says, "her son cannot be messing around with any ugly girls." I've taken it as sign she's taken ownership of me.

The best part of my new room is that it is covered in trophies. My host brother, who has since moved out and has started a family, is very good at something, though I'm not exactly sure what it is yet. Some of the trophies are from playing pool, but the rest are a little more vague as to what skill they're commending. I know they have something to do with cars, since some of them have little golden wheels on the top, and some say "audio-tuning." So, maybe he's gotten prizes for installing stereos really well, which apparently is something you can compete in. A lot of them also say he's part of "auto-tuning" in the "Hotwheel Club," which to me just means those little toy cars. I probably should just ask if I really want to know, but at this point I like the idea that his special skill to be installing stereos in toy race cars and so may just end up going with that.

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

My internship has been going well; I've just been researching what I'm supposed to be writing about and will start talking with the staff regarding how my article will be structured this coming week. Meanwhile, since I'm only working mornings, I have these wonderful lazy afternoons to kill. Thus far, I've been reading for pleasure, for what feels like the first time college started, and running on this bike track that goes around the outside of the city. It's really nice to avoid traffic, except I get chased by little dogs with some frequency. They will, however, usually leave you alone easily enough if you pretend you're throwing rocks at them, which I'm sure is an entertaining spectacle for passersby. There is also the unfortunate occurrence of people pooping on the bike track, which isn't very pleasant just because it's sad and super awkward to run by (which has already happened twice). We'll see if I end up preferring to run on the street if the dogs and the pooping become a little too much.

Espero que todos se encuentren bien,


Saturday, January 8, 2011

In Bolivia!

Greetings from Cochabamba, Bolivia! Hope everyone´s holidays were relaxing and spent with good company...

I´m just now wrapping up my first week in Bolivia, and things have been going really well. As of my last post, I was just finishing up my time in Brazil. Saying goodbye to everyone wasn´t very fun, but I thankfully had lots of distractions to keep me busy in the following weeks.

Visiting my host family in Panama was great, it was surreal going back to a place that I had spent such an emotional ten months four years ago. Thankfully, everyone there is doing well and it soon felt as if I had never left to begin with. My American family showed up five days after I did, and we spent a great two weeks traveling around Panama and Costa Rica. They had visited me when I was 17 as well, so it was cool returning to some of the same places we had already been to as well as exploring some new ones. It unfortunately never stopped raining while we were there, which got a little tiresome after 10 days of not ever feeling dry and having all of your clothes smell horrible. Saying goodbye to my two families was also sad, but again, I was soon preoccupied with getting myself to another country.

I spent New Year´s on my flight to Bolivia, getting in at four in the morning in Santa Cruz, in the eastern chunk of the country. I spent a couple of days hanging out there before getting on a bus to Cochabamba. I had heard that the trip was going to take twelve hours, so I bought a ticket for 7 pm. The ride was very hot, they didn´t turn on the AC, and ended up taking only nine hours. I ended up checking myself into a hotel at four in the morning for a couple of hours before meeting up with an employee of Sustainable Bolivia, the organization I´m volunteering at. This NGO matches up volunteers with Bolivian partner organizations in the city depending on experience and Spanish level; it´s been fun meeting the other interns, who are an interesting and very international group of people. There will be around 27 of us by the end of the month, either living in volunteer-only housing or with host families.

My situation is really cool here; I´m living with a host family that is within walking distance of the volunteer housing. My family is super nice. I have a mom and a dad, tree adult siblings, a brother in law and a two-month old nephew. There are many individuals in my house. My mom has already said she´ll help me find a Bolivian wife, which was a very sweet offer. I spend my mornings at a think tank that researches Bolivian and Latin American issues, and I´m working on a project that looks at the country´s legal system. As of 2009, Bolivia ratified a constitution that implemented two different, though supposedly equal, structures. One of these is the historically dominate, western model, while the other is the "community justice" model that comes from indigenous tradition. I´m researching the implications, practical and theoretical, on indigenous self-determination. It´s been a little overwhelming.

I went out for first time last night, which started out wonderfully. With a group of volunteers and Sustainable Bolivia staff, I traveled to a venue that holds a ceremony the first Friday of every month thanking Mother Earth for being awesome. There was some deal with throwing offerings into a fire, a little chanting, and lots of those Peter Pan flutes they use in the Andes. Also present was the traditional drink "chicha," made from fermented corn, which tastes like sour apple cider with an aftertaste reminiscent of vomit. They served this to us in big clay jars, with a single half-gourd used for drinking. A person, before drinking, makes eye contact with another in the group, who will then be served next by the current holder of the gourd. I have decided that it´s a community-building tradition despite it´s resemblance to a drinking game. The cultural novelty of it all, however, soon wore off. They warn travelers about the water here, it´s can be a little tough on gentle American tummies, and most of SB´s volunteers end up getting sick at some point during their stay. Until six pm today, my whole day has consisted in trying to sleep and worshipping the toilet instead of Mother Earth. I haven´t had a headache and am running a fever, so I´m not hung over, I just got a bad stomach bug that thankfully seems to be going away. Hopefully this is the only time that needs to happen.

Here are pictures from the balcony of my new house.

From Bolivia Blog

From Bolivia Blog

Hope all is well.