Sunday, July 25, 2010

Consumer Concerns

Inspired by a couple of recent articles on La Gringa’s Blogicito, I thought I would write about what is like here in Oruro to secure those goods one needs and or wants.


Supermarkets are an unknown thing here in Oruro. There are a few in larger cities like Cochabamba and La Paz, but here in Oruro food is mostly purchased fresh in the markets or from small “tiendas” that are more or less Bolivian convenience stores (for North Americans) or newsstands (in British terms…except that you’d never expect to find reading material there.) We have two “mini-supermarkets” just off the central plaza where one can pick up a few imports or less common items like mozzarella cheese and canned beans (as a result I’ve been able to make BBQ Chicken Pizza and Baleadas for my host family and friends here.)

Here’s a good example of solving a problem by purchasing a product: I really wanted to clean my shower head when I first got here, because it was clogged with calcium deposits and rust (the water here is incredibly hard.) Of course, miracle cleaners like CLR aren’t something one can find here outside of industrial applications. After some internet research I came upon the idea of using white vinegar in a baggie tied around the shower head for 24 hours. Well, white vinegar proved impossible to find, so I finally settled on a bottle of the red vinegar that is sold as salad dressing here. Truly watertight plastic bags were also impossible to find, but I finally wrangled three bags into layers in which each bag’s leaks were least annoying and were backed up by the next bag’s areas of strength. So, 1 bottle of red vinegar, 3 baggies, 4 rubber bands, and 36 hours later, I had a well functioning shower head…and a more than slightly vinegar-scented bathroom.

Determination and creativity are ingredients that must never be underestimated.


I recently got a crafty inspiration to make jewelry out of plastic bottles, to be sold when I get back to the US as a new line of products for my online business REMNANTS (currently on vacation mode while I am in Bolivia.) It’s taken me a while to collect together all of the necessary supplies, but after spending a Friday afternoon wandering downtown and a Saturday in the “feria” with Nelly, a member of the Save the Children team of educators with whom I am working, I’ve managed to collect all the necessary pieces: translucent paint, wire, round nose pliers, and ribbon. Of course, each and every item was purchased only after scouring for a shop that carried the item in the right size and quantity for my needs and then comparing between shops for the best price.

Although I’m busy and can find it frustrating to say the least, I happy that a single shopping trip allows me to help keep so many different people in business rather than a single large company with impersonal employees. I love getting to converse with all the different people I buy from. They always have suggestions for where I might be able to find something else I’m looking for but that they don’t carry. And, it’s only in Bolivia that you can walk past shops selling magic supplies like dried llama fetuses and other offerings for the earth goddess Pachamama!


There are plenty of clothing and shoe shops here, but so far I’ve been able to fill my needs in the much cheaper “Mercado” or the twice weekly “Feria.” On Wednesdays and Saturdays the section of town just northwest of the plaza becomes a whole other world chock full of stalls along the sides of the street where clothing, electronics, beauty products, housewares, and just about anything else you might need is sold for much cheaper rates than in established stores. This is how I’ve gone about finding most of the more traditional Bolivian style cold weather clothing I’ve been wearing here (ponchos, sweaters, shawls, gloves, hats) as well as the universal cold weather gear (like long underwear and turtlenecks.)

Shoes proved a little more difficult…actually a lot more difficult. I brought my warm hiking boots and a pair of black flats that quickly proved far to open and chilly to wear in the office. However, despite the fact that all I wanted were black dress boots or flats (with more foot coverage than mine) like many women wear here, I went to just about every location that sells shoes in the city…the “feria,” the established shoe stores, the “Mercado”…and ultimately found only 1 pair that fit me! Not one pair that I liked, but one pair that was actually in my size! I do often feel like a giant here, it’s true, but that day was frustratingly so!

It does help that many shops of the same kind are grouped together. For example, in town there is a street where most of the sewing shops are, a street lined purely with lawyers, a block with all the shoe shops, etc. If you are a fan of the efficient shopping provided by the concepts of department stores and supermarkets, this system is, I suppose, the next best thing.
Staying warm and thinking development thoughts

The “feria” where I’ve picked up warm clothing is also where I picked up my beloved space heater (which I have since gifted to the office when another one became available in the house.) I’ve had to finally give in and admit that it is bothersomely cold (especially as nights here are now regularly below 0 degrees Farenheit.)

I really can’t understand how people could live here for so many thousands of years and not have developed systems for heating their buildings. The kids have been out of school for a month now because it’s simply too cold for them to learn. Although it’s been a colder than normal winter, this is hardly the first time the problem has occurred. Surely there are simple and affordable solutions. It’s a volcanic region and there are hot springs not far outside of town, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some geothermal sources under the town. By midday the sun has warmed things nicely on the outside, but buildings without much sun remain cold and even those with sun become cold again by sunset. There is quite the market here for development projects related to affordable and ecological heating methods.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It’s not exactly homesickness…

There’s something so strange about being sick when you are far from your home culture. I’ve noticed it before, but especially here in Bolivia. I’ve had an acute sinus infection over the last week, and as I emerge the other side of it (knock on wood) I feel like I’ve been somewhere else all together. Is it the altitude? I feel like I’ve started all over again in terms of adjustment. Climbing a flight of stairs winds me and sends me into a fit of hacking coughs. Is it the sinus medication? I sleep half the day to constant dreams of wild nonsense that when I’m asleep have seemingly immense Lewis Carroll-like meaning. Awake, I feel like I’ve lost my Spanish…especially verbs. I constantly conjugate verbs incorrectly and am unable to correct myself. Maybe it is the same when at I am at home and speaking English and it is only the lack of familiarity here that emphasizes this facet of illness. The world in which I felt so comfortable just a week ago now feels unfamiliar all over again. I can’t follow conversations, cross-cultural communication that I could work through rationally gets me angry and frustrated and, when combined with sinus pressure and fever, I find myself pushed to tears. The simple tasks of life, like laundry and washing the dishes, usually invigorating times where I can think, are at best exhausting enterprising and at worst insurmountable obstacles. All taste for adventure and new experience has dried up, not to be replaced by a wish for the familiar but a hope for the easy and simple. And like all illnesses and setbacks, this too shall pass, and in the mean time I just keep chugging along, taking care of myself as best I can and taking it easy whenever I can until the energy kicks back in. Life goes on and there is work to do.

Late winter has begun to settle into Oruro. I’ve been warned that August is windy, but the winds seem to have arrived already. When I go to retrieve my clothes hung out to dry on the roof, I must unwind them from around the line and search for the buried clothespins. The air is so dry here that even my tepid wet clothes appear to steam when I hang them up in the bright morning sun. Yesterday was the first precipitation I have seen since I arrived, a lightly falling mixture of snow and icy rain that momentarily cleansed the air of its constant dust. It’s finally begun to feel truly cold, the unrelenting kind of cold that is hard to ward off even when wearing 3 layers of clothing. I’ve been told that I look like I’ve lost weight, but the extra layers of long underwear make my pants fit more or less as always.

Despite the cold, fruit continues to come in from the lower altitude valleys, and I’ve fallen in love with what they call “mandarinos,” a hybrid between a true mandarin and the more common orange. We set them out in the sun on the window sill at the beginning lunch so that they make a deliciously warm dessert. They peel easily and break into perfect segments and are so juicy that I often squirt myself in the face as I go about removing the seeds from a section before popping it into my mouth.

It is excellent to feel myself getting back onto my own two feet after a week of being out-of-it-kinds-of sick. I’ve moved to a room on the second floor of the house and the window provides me a lovely view of the street, from which I watched a small parade this morning. The participants were dancing the “Morenada,” one of the traditional dances for which Oruro is famous. Yes, I’m even beginning to tell the different traditional dances apart. Looking out the window now, however, I can’t tell if the sky is just a dusty dusk or if another storm is coming in tonight. The garbage men are coming soon. I hear their harbinger, a junior employee no doubt, banging his two pieces of metal together as he passes up the street. It’s time to bring in the wash and cuddle up to the space heater with my neglected research materials.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Partying bolivia Style!

I haven’t written in a while, not the least because I’ve been busy getting to know how to have fun here in Bolivia (and I’ve been working hard too, I swear!)
This past weekend I was in the city of Cochabamba for a teachers’ workshop on creating and interpreting evaluations. Now, the workshops weren’t terribly party-like but the after-hours festivities were a good break from the constant work. And it turns out that Cochabamba has a fairly good nightlife!
One evening I went out with the education team I’m working with. We found ourselves at a bar, enjoying the wide range of cocktails available here (just about anything can be imported for a price!) We ended up playing a dice game called “cacho,” which is best described as something between yahtzee and poker.

I picked it up by the second game and look forward to teaching it to folks when I get back to the states. A basic description is that each person keeps track of their score on something that looks like a tic-tac-toe board (see below) and each game lasts ten rounds. After you roll the dice using the leather cup (and everyone has their own unique style of doing so) you can choose to reroll some or all of the dice once to try to improve the outcome. After you are done rolling, you count the best score you can. If you can’t score in any of the spots, you have to choose to put an X in one of the boxes. Ones are referred to as “balas,” fours are referred to as “cuadras,” a straight is called an “escala,” and a full house (2 of a kind with 3 of a kind) is simply called a “full.” If you turn your cup over when you roll your dice and say “boteo,” that means you can turn one die over and use it’s opposite side if you want to. And of course, you can turn it into a gambling game!
My second night out in Cochabamba I was on my own, taking an extra night to stay in the city after the workshop was over in order to enjoy the warm valley climate for as long as I could. While partaking in a delicious Huari (by far the best of Bolivian beers) and a plate of spaghetti, I met a guy just a couple of years younger than me. He was selling handmade bracelets to pay for his room at an “alojamiento” (a very basic hotel) while figuring out his next move, having come from his native Ireland to travel through South America when he ran out of money in Cochabamba.
I could tell from his accent that his first language was English, so I figured he had to be suffering for lack of beer (especially if he was European or Australian.) We ended up hanging out until the wee hours of morning, both of us glad to have someone with whom we could speak English for a while. Turned out there was an Irish bar not far from where I was staying, so there we were in an Irish bar, drinking Bolivian beer, watching a Flamenco group, and chatting with a couple of Frenchmen who are working in Bolivia for a water sanitation program. This big ol’ world can really come together for a good time!
Previous to my adventures in Cochabamba, I found myself dancing the night away at the graduation party for one of the office interns here in Oruro. I was introduced not just to dancing in the Bolivian style (fairly simple steps thankfully!) but also to a Bolivian liquor called Singani, which tastes fairly lovely when mixed with 7Up.
An undergraduate graduation is a big deal here, as it takes a lot of years and a lot of financial sacrifice. Plus it holds the promise of a securely middle class, upwardly mobile future. Systems engineering, as the IT program is called here, is a really popular major, as it is something desperately needed for development and promises good employment. The graduate’s parents were so proud they cried, and the graduate cried too. I’ve never thought of a graduation party as a sentimental thing, but then again, getting an education was never an enormous challenge in my life, not like it is here. It reminded me that the work I do is important, helping to make sure that kids are prepared to take on the educational challenges that come up for them in their lives, despite the challenges they face.
And I thought I was just going out for the dancing and the alcohol!