Monday, June 21, 2010

The Dancing Bolivianos!

I’ve been able to take part in two different cultural events so far, one a dance festival put on by groups of special education students and the other a costume contest where parents were competing for prizes for their children’s classroom by trying to make the best costume for the traditional dances using only recycled materials.
The special education festival was marvelous. Save the Children hosts it every year, and because the population of special education students is fairly small, they invite some of the high schools to send students to help support the event. They were excellent supporters, dancing in the stands and cheering for the groups dancing.

I was amazed not just by the beauty of the traditional dances but also by how very well they were performed by the different groups of students. I had never realized that I held an assumption that the many problems that accompany conditions like down syndrome would severely hamper the person’s ability to dance. I learned that day how wrong this assumption is. These kids were great!

The other wonderful thing was how space was made for all ability levels. It didn’t matter if soemone couldn’t walk or if a child was too young to follow complicated choreography. There was a role for everyone who wanted to take part and someone to accompany those who needed assistance.

It was beautiful to see these kids get a chance to show off their abilities and to take pride in their own culture while exploring cultures of other countries. There were dances from all over Latin America as well as from Africa and North America (particularly great North American dances included the can-can and “Thriller!”)

The costume contest was an awesome idea to both share Bolivian culture and spread the message about ecology and recycling, all in a celebratory and creative way. Among favorites were the Incas’ costumes made completely from aluminum cans (mostly beer), the colonial/republic era dress made entirely of newspapers, the Flintone’s characters decked out very accurately using only yogurt wrappers, and the dancing ears of corn.

I was ecstatic to combine my experience with crafting from recycled materials with my understanding of how to create a scale to judge the contestants as equally as possible. And I found myself inspired by many ideas of new recycled crafty ideas. Maybe I’ll even do a workshop with some of the kids while I’m here!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

He’s got the feva’!

Well, as luck would have it, the other estadounidense (American) in the house has come down with typhoid fever. For those who aren’t familiar with food-borne pathogens of the developing world, it’s something you can get when you eat food or drink water that’s been handled by someone who has or carries the disease and forgot to wash their hands when they last used the restroom. You get a fever and a nasty case of the runs, which can put you in danger of dehydration. Untreated by antibiotics, it can lead a whole host of nasty abdominal issues. And, it is endemic here in Bolivia.

There is a vaccine, in fact two, but nothing in this world is completely fool proof. I last took it two years ago, and I took the live bacteria form (a week of pills) which I’ve always heard has better and longer results than the dead bacteria injection (which my poor housemate is pretty sure he got before leaving the states.) I’m being very careful, but I also figure I’m the one in the house least likely to get it at this point, all factors summed up together.
I have henceforth exiled the poor chap from the kitchen until he has not had a bout of the liquid poo for twenty four hours. I worry what our older dueƱos (landlords) would go through if they got the bug, especially Dora who has had a brush with cancer and has diabetes. I’m scrubbing surfaces like a fiend and cooking for the sick boy. It’s amazing how a 17 year old male can still have an appreciable appetite even amongst such nastiness!
I’ve had some nasty run-ins (pun intended) with similar diseases (particulary e.coli and salmonella) so I really feel for the guy. It’s no fun to be sick, and to be away from home in a foreign culture where you don’t speak the language fluently makes it a hundred times harder! And he’s so young to boot!
I found myself offering him some cultural advice last night (day two of the worst of his symptoms.) After all, think of how many kids get this or something like it on a fairly regular basis because they lack basic sanitation facilities. As a result they can’t grow or develop as they should. It’s not the most comfortable way to become sympathetic to the realities of poverty, and it is a little bit like the “offer it up for the soul’s in purgatory” line I heard all the time in Catholic school, but at least it gives one’s suffering some meaning the large scheme of life and personal development.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

El Oro que es Oruro (Oruro, Golden Town)

Due to requests (and the fact that the weekend finally permitted me adequate time) I can now provide you with some visuals of the city in which I am living here in Bolivia.

Oruro is in the Altiplano, which is a narrow slip of flat land high in the Andes mountains. Here are some pictures from one of the highest points in town (a lighthouse built to commemorate the spot as where the current Bolivian flag was first flown.) This will likely become one of my favorite places as it is quiet and the air is clear of the constant vehicular exhaust caught in the streets below. Oruro is nestled against the eastern mountain range, but the western range isn’t far away as you can see here.

Because I’ve been asked to provide more images of my accommodations, here are a couple of pictures…

My two favorite places in town so far are the lighthouse, as I said before, and one of the central plazas where there are actually three fountains that run on Sundays. (It is the only place I have found respite from my constantly dry sinuses.) The beautiful thing about both of these spots are that there are flowers, which, given the cold and the dryness, are like treasures right now.

I have really enjoyed using my first weekend here to wander about town and learn more about the culture here. As always, there are some surprisingly beautiful views amidst the constant construction of a developing country.

I’m especially intrigued by religion here, especially the combination of Christianity with Andean religions. The patron of Oruro is “La Virgen de Socavon” (The Virgin of the Mineshaft) whose church is built over an abandoned mineshaft just west of the city center. Also worshipped within the mines, however, is “El Tio” (Uncle) who looks much like the Christian concept of the Devil and who is said to own all that is below the ground but will allow it to be taken safely by those miners who offer him libations and gifts (coca, burning cigarettes, and alcohol.)

Mining is what made Oruro rich in the colonial and republican eras, until the collapse of tin prices in 1985. Miners here have also had a lot to do with the liberation movements experienced in the Altiplano. There are dramatic monuments depicting their valor.

One of the things I’m loving most here is a cultural spirit much like that in Cuba, to enjoy and celebrate life despite hardships and to combine fun into as much of life as possible. This is the only context in which I can make sense of one structure I came across…a long concrete slide that is part of the grounds of the Church of the Virgin of Socavon.

People were having a lot of fun. I did not feel up to climbing all those stairs in order to try it for myself, but I will one of these days!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The plot thickens...

I’ve been in Oruro four days now. I’m trying to wrap my head around my work and wrap my hands around the documentation I need to do it, which isn’t easy in a busy office with lots of events and meetings and when some of the documentation is only in print rather than being on the computer.
But the work I have been able to do has been energizing. I’ve been able to sit in on meetings and teacher workshops and am getting an excellent sense for the details behind the structure of the education program and how the index I am helping them work on fits into that scheme.
I came from La Paz to Oruro in a Save the Children truck that was delivering furniture to a rural project in this department. It was amazing to see the altiplano. It is incredibly flat and arid, but people are eking out a living everywhere, ranching and farming. It is the same as Peru in that there are no fences in the fields really, so as you drive down the highway you pass livestock grazing along the side of the road. We even passed wild vicunas, an endangered relative of llamas and alpacas, grazing in a field!
I am hoping that I have rounded an altitude corner after having been in Bolivia a week as of yesterday. The climate here is very dry and already pretty cold (although I am regularly warmed it will only get colder.) The regular joke is that Oruro only has two seasons, not-so-cold and winter. The mornings are the worst, especially when I am passed on the street by a vehicle belching exhaust; carbon monoxide + less oxygen than I am used to = immediate headache.
I am living with a Bolivian couple, Dona and Emilio. There is also an volunteer here from the US, whose name is Ben. Dona and Emilio have two dogs, a sweet little guy named Suki and an energetic 5 month old puppy named Peki (but who I call “trapo” because she reminds me of a mop.)
I live on the first floor where I have a room that faces the street and my own bathroom. It’s a bit rugged, but I have running hot water so it is already a lot better than some of the places I’ve stayed in Honduras! The shower caught me by surprise…it’s just hanging out on the wall of the bathroom! I haven’t taken a shower in there yet, but that’s only because I thought the hot water wasn’t working so I took a shower upstairs. Turns out the handles on the faucets (“pilas”) are all backwards in my bathroom. I keep meaning to ask what the switch on the mirror is for; I think it might actually be a heater!
I used the morning yesterday to go to the “feria” downtown to pick up a few things to make myself feel more at home in my room. The first of these was a space heater, which made sleeping last night much more comfortable! I also picked up a mirror so that I could sit at my table to get ready in the morning, a lamp to read by at night, and a power strip (2 outlets just aren’t enough for me.) All told, I spent less than $40, including my two new ponchos (one a beautiful Bolivian knit and the other an huge fleece body blanket with a scarf attached.) I forgot to pickup slippers, which are very necessary here, so I’ll have to pick those up when the “feria” happens again on Saturday.
Now, you might say, why not just call it a market? Well, the market is what sells food and is open 7 days a week (more or less…I have yet to see what Sunday really looks like in this rather sleepy little city.) The “feria” occurs only two days each week, Wednesday and Saturday, and it sells everything! I was sad I didn’t have my camera with me to take a picture of the sign outside a chicken stands that said “Hay cabezas” (There are heads.)
Everyone here is warm and welcoming, although also fairly shy (especially compared to me!) I’m not complaining, however. It’s been wonderful to walk the streets without “piropos” (cat calls) from every male I pass (which is what it’s like in Honduras.)
The food is excellent, simple and focused mostly on meat and potatoes (just like I like it!) I do eat at least one orange a day, though, after lunch as a desert. They come in from the Amazonian lowlands and the valleys in eastern Bolivia. Emilio puts them outside on the window ledge so they get nicely warmed up by the sun and they are delicious!
I’m off to sit in on the second night of a teacher workshop on “educacion descolonizador.” It’s an important theme in the newest education legislation here in Bolivia and I’m very curious to learn more about it. I had to bow out early last night due to exhaustion. It’s very strange to sit in room filled with people learning about un-colonizing education and realize that to many of them I am likely a representative of one of the biggest colonizers. Thankfully I’ve been to Cuba already, so I am mostly over that hump!
Some final observations that I have made over the past few days:
--No stoplights in town (except in the very center of downtown) so everyone slows down and beeps as they come to an intersection.
--No supermarkets! You buy food from small shops or fresh at the market! Yummy!
--I prefer Pepsi to Coca-Cola here…the Coca-Cola is actually too sweet for me!
--No one else here seems to think the idea of the children’s book “Llama llama in Red Pajamas” is funny. Oh well. I’m still a fan!
Hasta luego!


Saturday, June 5, 2010

El Mercado Negro

Okay, it wasn’t really the black market, but that is the nickname for one traditional outdoor market area where you can bargain and compare prices much more easily than in the formal stores found in middle class neighborhoods like Sopocachi (where I am staying). Nora, the housekeeper from the apartment where I am staying took me and another new Save the Children employee’s wife, Amanda, to the market today to buy groceries for the house and some things Amanda needed for herself, her husband Doug, and their (adorable!) 17 month old daughter Sally.

So for once, this is more of a photo essay, rather than the long-winded prose to which I am usually so prone.

We started by buying fish. White fish and trout from Lake Titicaca.

Nora and I switched between Spanish and English, as we both need practice. She helped me learn a lot of new vocabulary for local fruits and vegetables that I’ve never seen before.

The fishmongerista (that’s my spanglish, not the actual word) cleaned the fish very deftly right there in front of us. Which I found surprisingly fascinating, but maybe I’m just drawn to gore.

We also bought shrimp. These come in from the Peruvian coast.

Foods that were new to me included a sweet fruit called chilimoya…

…and eggs from a small bird called cocornes.

Men kept stopping us to ask if we needed someone to help carry our things. We didn’t need the help, but here is one more nicely dressed gentleman taking advantage of the service.

Everything was there in bulk. From produce like potatoes to snacks to meat to soap!

We took a minibus up to another part of the market where we could find the things Amanda needed. These included cell phones for herself and her husband, as well as a high chair and portable crib for her daughter. The minibus will likely become a favorite transport of mine if they have them in Oruro (and they go where I need to go.) Each one has a conductor who yells out the route and crazily cheap price (one boliviano…1/7 of a dollar).

The altitude is still catching me short of breath or with a racing heart rate now and again, but it really isn’t too bad just now. I’m surprised to find I have an appetite and was able to make an lengthy physical excursion today. And of course, I’m staying hydrated, sometimes with the cheap bags of water you can buy and drink by tearing off a corner…ah, it’s good to be back in Latin America.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Estoy en Bolivia!

I have arrived safely in La Paz, Bolivia. I flew in on an overnight flight from Miami, arriving this morning and then more or less going straight to bed until mid-afternoon. I can definitely say I've flown into the highest airport in the world (the little sparklies around my eyes whenever I walked too quickly were definite confirmation of that one.) Now I've eaten a bit, had a cup of coca tea, and am headed back to bed.

Democracy in a Microcosm: Now I understand how it can go so wrong…

The microcosm in this story was an intercity bus between Washington, DC and New York City. I’ll kindly let the company remain anonymous, but suffice it to say, I’ve travelled with them before and one of the things I enjoy most about them is their remarkable choice to ask the passengers to vote on whether to stop or drive straight through and which movie to watch (or to not watch a movie at all.) In this case we voted to watch It’s Complicated with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin. And critical to this particular story, the clear majority voted to drive straight through with no pit stops (unless the driver needed one.)

The story really begins when the bus driver made a pit stop in New Jersey. No one complained; we all understood, I think, that the driver can’t get up to use the restroom and simultaneously perform his professional duties. So, at two minutes past the hour we pulled in to the rest stop and the driver stated that we would be taking off at 10 minutes past the hour.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that 7 or 8 minutes is nearly nothing. I was starving, so I scrambled in to the restaurant section, made a hasty choice of a Burger King chicken sandwich, and rushed backed out. And then, as promised, at exactly 10 minutes after the hour, the driver started to pull away.

People began to speak up that not everyone was back, but the driver continued the slow process of pulling out. One guy even got off the bus to go get his girlfriend, after which the driver continued pulling away! The man in front of me started to speak up that the person next to him hadn’t returned either, but his English was limited. And, as he continued to pull away, the driver said that he was doing this because of our earlier vote! He was just doing what we said we wanted!

There were groans and the fits and starts of protests, but no coherent statements. I couldn’t believe that I was watching democracy be turned into a reason to be cruel to a small minority of our microcosm. Small, local community is where democracy is supposed to work best, right?

I finally loudly said, “Previous vote or no, I think the majority of us at this moment would prefer to risk getting into New York late rather than knowingly leave our fellow passengers behind.” The small, but committed, vocalizations of support (and the lack of any dissenting voices) was enough to get the driver to back up and wait for what turned out to be 4 people in all.

So, LESSON #1 here was: IN THE FACE OF APATHY, MISUNDERSTANDING AND/OR THE NEED FOR SOCIAL CHANGE, RESOLUTE AND CLEAR VOICES FROM WITHIN THE POWER STRUCTURE MUST SPEAK OUT ON BEHALF OF THAT CHANGE. This cannot always come from those being directly affected by the policy in debate, nor can it necessarily come from those working tirelessly to help those being directly affected. Those of us who have the time and come from the unaffected groups, who can see the injustice and utilize vocabularies and abilities to address our own constituent group, need to do just that.

Once the situation was resolved, two other things caught me off guard as well. As I said before, I found it shocking that the driver would use our vote as an excuse to act so unjustly. Then, as we pulled away with all passengers in tow and only 5 minutes after our scheduled departure, the driver changed tactics and used democracy to CYA (cover your “anatomy”). He announced that this had all been taped as per company procedure and would be referred to should anyone try to lodge a complaint about arriving late.

This leads us to LESSON #2: IN THE ABSENSE OF A COLLECTIVE SENSE OF JUSTICE AND A VOTING PUBLIC ACTIVELY ENGAGED IN OVERSIGHT, DEMOCRACY CAN BE DISTORTED IN THE MOST UNDEMOCRATIC WAYS. That is to say, it can be used to exclude those who cannot or do not understand how to exercise their voice, as well as to excuse and protect those whose actions are questionable. And this can all turn on a dime given the right circumstances, so a fluid and flexible mind is vital to dealing with it.

I’m sure that not everyone walked away from the experience feeling as I did. After all, I am my own particular internal milieu of influences and social forces, a large number of which have recently been geared in this direction.

I doubt if, for example, the woman who castigated the latecomers felt the same way I did about the experience over all. This woman scolded the four tardy passengers as they boarded and took their seats, saying that they should be grateful that “we” had spoken up for them, that they should apologize for “making” us wait, and that they were “rude, just rude” (complete with disapproving tongue-clicking for emphasis.) No one gave the apology she asked for or even acknowledged her statements.

So thus we arrive at LESSON #3: IF YOU WANT TO BRING IN UNNERVED, FRIGHTENED, AND PREVIOUSLY EXCLUDED SOCIAL GROUPS, ONE OF THE LEAST EFFECTIVE AND LEAST DEMOCRATIC WAYS OF DOING SO IS TO BE PUNATIVE, TO POINT OUT THEIR DIFFERENCES OR “FAILINGS” OR TO BRING UP HW MUCH THEY OWE THE MAJORITY FOR ALLOWING THEM IN. I would bet money on the idea that if they had been greeted instead by voices happy to see them, there would have been much gratitude expressed, and warmer, more open microcosm community would have resulted.
Now, my quantitative side is scolding me for extrapolating from such a small sample size (1 experience) but my qualitative side is winning out with the argument that this is how one learns, how one arrive at and assimilates new knowledge. It is the basis for democratic schooling and other movements that strive to remind us that terms like justice, democracy, voice, and choice do not occur only on the grand scale but also on the local level. And it brings me around to embrace once again the idea that “the personal is political.”