Thursday, August 5, 2010

On the Road in Bolivia

It’s always a good idea to take one’s life in one’s hands now and again, just to keep a sense of the value of life and health, right? Once in a while can be a daily occurrence here, I’ve found. And at times I can feel that my perspective of what is safe and what is really out of the question could become about as fuzzy as three day old leftovers in the fridge.

I’ve travelled in all manner of ways here (save bicycle and horse), but by far the most common mode of transport is car. This might be in a taxi or a mini-bus (full size buses are only for inter-city transport) or in a colectivo (a larger car or mini-van that travels between the urban and rural areas, and only leaves once full of passengers.)
It is always important to remember that laws (and the accompanying concepts of justice) will change from culture to culture. This includes the concept of “right of way.” Here in Bolivia it seems that it is not the pedestrian who has the right of way, and cars will regularly honk to hurry passengers across the street. I’ve more than once come near to denting the hood of a taxi or mini with my fist when they’ve decided to get too close. (That’s my fight response kicking in when flight would be impossible.)
Cars aren’t always honking to warn off pedestrians. It is also the accepted thing to do in order to cross almost all intersections. You see, traffic lights and stop signs are not terribly common, and rather than slow to a stop to ensure no other cars are coming, it really saves time to just honk and hope any other cars hear you. At least most streets are one way, so that simplifies the number of directions in which you have to focus your attentions.
At night there is less honking, and it is more common that cars will flash their headlights as they approach an intersection. In a fairly well lit town, this makes me cringe, as that flash of light is often very difficult to see. But then again so are many of the cars, because actually using your headlights is not an altogether common occurrence here, either. When I’ve asked about this strange habit (or rather lack of a habit), people have pointed out that the city is quite well lit, so you don’t really need to lose your headlights to see. When I bring up the idea that headlights are also useful as a way to be seen (rather than only to see) this seems to be a new idea for many. I’ve often dodged cars and motorcycles that I didn’t see coming down the street at night.
Headlights are not the only lights I find myself worrying about when it comes to riding in cars here in Bolivia. There are also the dashboard lights to be concerned about, or rather, to try my hardest to ignore, because they are almost always lit. My worst moment to date was when I found myself perched on the middle front seat of a minivan colectivo travelling from Oruro into the rural area of Caracollo. (“Wait,” you say, “since when to minivans have a middle front seat?” Well, a box and blanket squeezed in between the bucket seats is enough to make another fare earning seat, don’t you know!) So there I was, sans seat belt on a blanketed crate, cruising down the highway at highway speeds and trying not to look at the dashboard where the gas warning light, check engine light, the airbag light, and the anti-lock brake system light were all lit. (I comforted myself with the idea that it was nothing more an electrical short in the dash, and when I finally dismounted a half-hour later in Oruro I silently celebrated the fact that I hadn’t had to find out if my comforting imaginings were true or not.)

Anti-lock brakes? Well that was a newer Toyota minivan, but in reality most cars here are hardly so new. In fact, bolivian cars seem to have more lives than cats. One night I was riding in a taxi and trying to understand why there was a gaping hole in the dash where there should have been a glove box on the passenger side. Only slowly did it dawn on me that the gaping hole was the original location of steering column, which had been switched from the right hand side (British style) to the right hand side (as is used in most of the Americas.) So in essence, the driver was driving through the glove compartment.


The only ways to travel between cities here (unless one is lucky enough to own or know someone who owns a car) is to travel by bus or train. By far the most common and most thorough network is that of buses. This is how one travels between La Paz and Oruro and Cochabamba. The price is excellent, only three bucks! But for those three dollars, you are to some extent taking your life in your hands. Bus accidents are common, and there have been so many lately that even the Bolivians are remarking on the fact. I actually met a German man whose bus between La Paz and Oruro had been in a head-on collision two days prior. And one of the members of the parent association at a school Save the Children works with was injured in a bus accident in La Paz. Bus drivers will regularly pass slower trucks, and highways are often two lane affairs with nothing that resembles a shoulder, unless one counts either the valley below or the sharp face of the mountain on the other side. So, I always feel a little lucky to have arrived safely, even if the bus ride itself was intolerably nausea inducing.

I refer to travelling by train as the $15 luxury here in Bolivia. Safer by far and much more comfortable. The tracks extend south from Oruro only and are hardly what most people would call luxurious or smooth, but to me they make a lovely change from the rough roads and alarming driving habits. And the huge windows let you look out at the changing (or rather not changing all the much) landscape of the Altiplano (where I’ve decided that the sparse clumps of grass look like tribbles from the original Star Trek.)
All in all, travelling around Bolivia is easy and affordable, but rarely comfortable or altogether perfectly safe by North American standards. That said, it’s better to travel than to stay in one place. I can’t imagine staying in one place or not experiencing all that the world has to offer.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Blogging on Books 2 – More fiction for the traveler

My time in Bolivia has been busy and full, but in the evenings I find myself drawn to reading novels as a way to relax and to inspire interesting dreams. I’ve done my best to remain true to my usual intention, which is to read novels that serve to fuel my contemplation of what it is I am doing in my living abroad and working to enhance the potential development of the next generation.
I was “blessed” with a fairly nasty sinus infection, which laid me up for about a week, in which time I was able to complete a more than fair amount of reading (as my feverish brain was incapable of addressing the research tasks I had.) I must commend the existence of the internet and the free program “Kindle for PC,” which has allowed me to continue to access English language literature when I’d read everything I own in print here. I must also commend a lovely little bookshop I discovered in Cochabamba, not far off the Prado, called “the Spitting Llama.” Their wide selection of used books was a godsend.

THE ALCHEMIST by Paolo Coehlo

This is the beautiful story of a young Spanish shepherd who sets out to follow his heart and a magical dream of treasure. Along the way he meets with adventure and the true education that one gains through life experience (if one is open to learning from it.) Although at first I felt alienated by the fairy-tale style of Coehlo’s writing, I found myself sucked into the beauty of the story and truly moved by a number of the quotes, which I think will stay with me for the rest of my life.
“The secret of life is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
“People need not fear the unknown if they are capable of achieving what they need and want.”
“You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say.”
Coehlo’s Spanish shepherd often pops into my head when I am out in the rural areas. Part of his travels take him through the Sahara desert in North Africa, from which he is able to learn a great deal simply by remaining quiet and observing. I find that this is an important part of field work, and an important part of travelling, to remember to shut up and just watch and listen, to learn from all the information that is out there, the great majority of which is written in the non-verbal communication between people and the way the people interact with their envirotnment.

ACTS OF FAITH by Philip Caputo

This long volume went surprisingly fast, and as I read it quickly became obvious why it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is the story of aid workers in Sudan and Kenya, many of them operating under self-induced delusions of what their work really is. It follows both men and women as central characters, which makes it an inviting read for anyone.
This novel is especially apt reading for a “Westerner” just beginning a career in the development industry. You cannot come away from the book without knowing that it is important to question yourself constantly if you are to keep yourself honest and that you mustn’t automatically put too much faith in the goodness of your intentions and actions; we can all have unintended consequences for others and for ourselves.

Another reminder I took away from reading this novel was that one mustn’t leave home in order to run away from what one is. To do truly good work and to be a truly whole person, you want to do your best to leave a home and a past that is sound (or with which you have made your peace) so that you can share that strength with the world.


This novel was a surprise find in “The Spitting Llama” bookstore in Cochabamba. And inside its pages (and its story of a mixed-race woman trying to find her identity as a native of a South American nation closely based on Suriname) was an absolute treasure: a beautiful and haunting description of what might be the internal limits so often perceived by outsiders as an “intransigence to progress” in post-colonial developing countries. I recommend it for anyone travelling in the developing world, particularly the Caribbean. Several quotes moved me greatly.
“Cheated out of a self, the mob would not be cheated out of its anguish.” This quote made me wonder about the application of the grief process to national development in post-colonial and post-conflict regions. I’m sure it has already been done, applying those five steps that begin with denial and anger and finally end with acceptance and the ability to move on. And, following this idea through, this means that development is ultimately a culture’s recreation of its sense of self and purpose, perhaps an identity that has been stolen or that has withered internally due to lack of care. It is a constant cycle of ebbs and flows that takes place in all cultures, but these currents cannot be instigated from outside the source; they must be internally propelled. Colonialism and conflict are both realities under which these internal currents become stymied, creating eddies and whirlpools but lacking direction and flow.
At one point the main character, a woman who has realized that she is unhappy after passively floating along with the currents flowing through her life, expresses “a retrospective disgust for her innocence, her acquiescence.” It reminded me of the unhealthy intra-cultural disgust I’ve seen in Honduras, with people disparaging their own compatriots to their faces. In their desperate efforts to realize their potential, they have ultimately chosen to turn their backs on themselves and to alienate themselves from their own community.
A quote by another character in this novel also started me thinking. The main character’s father explains his seeming acquiescence to the apartheid of the past: “I wasn’t going to run after anybody begging to be admitted to the human race.” It is crucial to remember that those who aren’t openly fighting aren’t necessarily being weak; maybe they are being strong in a different way. We must value and allow space for all kinds of internal strengths, rather than make them out to be weaknesses. If we do that, we are only robbing others and ourselves.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The beautiful novel was an excellent read for a Latin American journey, and I would especially recommend it for anyone visiting the Caribbean. This story of two lovers who are separated for most of a life time is infused with a sense for the romantic atmosphere that permeates many parts of Latin American culture, as well explaining through story some of the strong influences of tradition and economic classism found throughout the region.

This is the simple, straight-forwardly written story about 1950s Peru and two police detectives’ search for justice in the murder of a poor young man. The story unfolds along with itself a sense of the divide that existed and continues to exist between indigenous and mestizo populations. The unexpected love triangle evokes a sense of the importance appearance has in many cultures here (I experienced it quite a bit in Honduras and to a lesser extent here in Bolivia) and the stress this fakeness causes when the sake of appearance runs against the honest desires of the heart. This same romantic plot theme also brought forth a sense of the cultural stress resulting from the gender divide, while the overall story helped remind me (as I often suffer from an overabundance of enthusiasm and fortitude) how impossible it can feel to fight the good fight amidst a culture of corruption and personal interests. I came away from this volume remembering that it is in empathizing with this sentiment that I am most likely to be able to help others overcome it.
MOTORCYCLE DIARIES by Ernesto Che Guevara

I know, regular readers will wonder if my visit to Cuba converted me (and in some ways it must have) but in truth my choice to read this book was far more based on location than anything else. Guevara travelled through South America in the early 1950s, first by motorcycle and then by hitchhiking, as well as on a raft he and his travelling companion built to travel on the Amazon. What I find most interesting is his description of life in places I have visited previously, especially Chile and Peru, and how accurate some of his descriptions continue to be. I look forward to reading his Bolivian diaries, written years later when he was trying to foment a Communist revolution here. Different perspectives, whether or not you might agree with them, will always help to open your own eyes to aspects of life you may not have noticed before.
Safe travels to you all, whether in real life or via the written word!