Monday, December 28, 2009
I understand that the art of photography isn't always appreciated by the subjects, a lesson that was reinforced with my spice section ostracism. I am a slow learner, however, and assumed that if I avoided catching people's faces in photos I could avoid their wrath and still document the impressive piles of their wares. I was sadly mistaken, and almost suffered a concussion while trying to snap this shot of the potato sacks. Right after I took this picture, a furious woman rose up from behind one of the bags with a massive papa in her hand, which she wound up to throw at me while screaming, "POR QUE SACAS FOTOS?!?" I understand that one would be tired of tourists snapping shots of you as an example of the "natives in their natural habitat," but what these women don't understand is Western awe at the sheer amounts of everything in the market. It's something quite stunning when one is accustomed to small portions of plastic-wrapped food that get replaced daily in the supermarkets at home. We can't help but take pictures.
Later that day, however, we discovered that the anger of mercado merchants extends to their own, as well, as two women fought loudly in the meat section until one was disgraced enough to wander away like a defeated buck who had just tangled horns with a much-stronger peer. "We just wanted to buy some butter," we marveled to ourselves, since grocery shopping at home rarely holds the possibility of deep human emotion (unless you are at the Trader Joe's on Roosevelt and run into my favorite bald gay man JoeJoe, for whom running the sample table becomes a wild, loud affair involving everyone in a 30 foot radius and stories from Gay Pride parades a decade ago, while you drink six Dixie cups of coffee in succession and stand riveted to his one man show).
Conversely, your market experience could be a delight that leaves you marveling at how wonderful the world can be. Marlo and I have been lucky to find a fruit woman who cuts us thick samples of peaches and plums and mangoes and apples while regaling us with scary stories of La Paz, and thanks us for being loyal to her by tossing extra limes into our bags. We found a potato woman who, instead of yelling at us, asks us about traditional American holiday meals and begged us to teach her how to make baked apples. We buy cunape every day at exactly 4:30, when the little balls of yucca and cheese come out of the oven like clockwork (and never a minute sooner, an unspoken rule), and the sweet couple in the bakery section always laughs when they see us coming, since our order never changes. We buy butter from a lovely woman who gives us advice on how to stay safe in Bolivia, and homemade pasta from another woman who thinks our relationship with the kids from the guarderia (two of whom often are present for mercado adventures) is "just really beautiful." The world's most wonderful people can be found at the mercado central, once you find out who to avoid. Grocery shopping is a potent mix of sights and smells and the absolute inability to guess what will happen that particular day. And I think, besides the amounts of dog urine and fly colonies one has to dodge to get to what you need, I will really miss how alive places like the market are.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
It’s impossible to walk a block in Sucre without tripping on a handful of child workers. Their lives are a paradoxical mix of hustling for a few bolivianos and acting as their own boss while trying to stay kids for as long as possible. This is where Linda de Jong, the Dutch owner of Amsterdam café, comes in. Tall, blonde, and fluent in three languages, she’s been Sucre for five years and is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to looking out for the child workers. She was travelling through and ended up staying “for the kids!” Like most travelers who pass through, she began by working for an orphanage, and phased into working for Ñanta shortly after. Amsterdam Café, a cozy spot on San Alberto and Calvo, is a welcoming watering hole which directs all profits straight into Ñanta.
Ñanta has become the city’s biggest ally for the hundreds of kids who are forced to pay their own way in life. Linda recounts the story of Ñanta’s beginnings, when they began with about 25 workers coming to the center on a daily basis. Help was basic—a little money here and there to make ends meet, and cooking when they didn’t have food. Support and funding was raised by home countries of the volunteers, who hailed from several European countries.
In 2002, they realized that building an organization outside of foreign volunteers would be crucial to continue the work of Ñanta. Extranjeros who were only in Sucre for a few weeks or couple months at most simply couldn’t fill the role of local stability. The search began for Bolivians to work with the kids on music, artesania and cooking, as well as drawing and writing for the Ñanta magazine, which is created entirely by child workers on a quarterly basis.
Ñanta now supports roughly one hundred child workers on an average day, with up to twice that for special events and on weekends, when many kids come into the city to work. Word of mouth amongst the workers spreads quickly in the plaza, particularly since the center provides three meals a day for the kids. Workers pay 50 centavos (roughly 7 US cents) for a meal as a symbolic way to take an active role in the center and pride in their participation. The center also offers support for schoolwork, continuing education, and recently added information studies to their curriculum. There are also several sports for the kids to participate in, including football and swimming. Ñanta Magazine, Jallpa, is produced every few months and created entirely by the teenagers and children working in Sucre. A local press prints the magazine and the majority of customers are the tourists passing through the city.
The challenges these kids face are immense, but made more manageable by a place that provides some food and encouragement before they head back out to the streets. If you’re travelling through Sucre and want to help, your options are myriad. “Come and drink!” Linda laughs, and perhaps the easiest way to help the cause is by showing up at Amsterdam, having a beer and spending some time with Linda herself. Although most travelers’ budgets are stricter than hefty donations will allow, if you have a few bolivianos you can stop by the café and will be warmly welcomed. For those with more time, volunteering at Ñanta (minimum of six weeks) will plunge visitors directly into the kids’ lives and is time well-spent—this rowdy bunch of hard-working, grimy kids needs every bit of affection and attention they can get.
"Any son of Alan Thicke is a son of mine."
It just doesn't stop with this chick.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Sometimes, I could REALLY do without the brutal honesty that the underage set insists on providing. Marlo and I were at a party for Ñanta (more on my new favorite non-profit later) today and a group of six 13 year old dudes asked us, "So, why do you two girls have flat chests? What's the deal there?" OKAY, thanks for the commentary, punks! "Porque eso es como me hizo Dios," was the only thing I could think of to tell them as I dissolved into laughter and repressed memories of middle school.
Later, before I headed into my last English class here to help Victor and Mauricio learn the difference between "kitchen" and "chicken," I had some free time to spend with my favorite 6-10 year olds. As I was providing overly elaborate Spanish explanations of how awesome Seattle is, 6 year old Nicolas looked at me thoughtfully and cried out, "You have really green eyes!" Then Brian, a chubby, sweet 8 year old who takes great pride in knowing he shares his name with my best friend, interjected, "AND a beautiful face!" and ran over to give me an enthusiastic hug with his head on my shoulder. Okay, okay, what I said earlier about kids shutting their traps might not always hold true.
We are still putting every dollar to good use here, and it's not too late to throw in a little bit! Happy one week countdown to Christmas from sunny Sucre!
Today, the average miner doesn’t live past 40. As we drove by one of the city’s biggest mines, I couldn’t decide whether to smirk or cry at the name: “Mina Cristo Redentor.” Christ the Redeemer Mine. Thanks, Spaniards! Drop off your strict Catholicism, get rich off the slave labor of your converts, and peace out once everyone who can afford it has bought titles of nobility. Awesome foreign policy; love what you’ve done with the place.
If you want to spend a few dollars, you can see the mines yourself. For a few bolivianos and gifts of coca for the miners, you too can crawl into someone’s hellish workplace to see what it’s like. There is a thriving tourist business (granted, “thriving” is relative. It’s not a beach or a resort town by any stretch of the imagination) in Potosi that allows you to don a hard hat and climb a rickety ladder into the earth.
Personally, the whole concept of mine tourism makes me feel queasy. I don’t think observing a place that is both employment and a death trap is something to be added to the list of “Must-Do in Bolivia,” and I was more than happy to skip straight through the town. Being fully aware that tourism provides jobs and also that exploitation happens in far more industries than just mining, I still feel totally uncomfortable with the idea that people come to Potosi and are “excited” to “do” the mines. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. I’m all for travel that is outside the norm, challenging, and that expands our awareness of the wide stratum of life stories being played out in the world, but this just seems like an eerie, voyeuristic extension of the original Spanish attitude.
Based on conversations with fellow travelers, my opinion is the minority. What do you think? Am I totally off-base with this one?
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
The upside of donating to Ciruelitos is that literally 100% of your hard-earned dough goes straight to the little ones. Seriously. Marlo and I go to the market with the girls who run the place, they haggle for every last boliviano, and literally work miracles in feeding so many kids with so little money. You have my personal guarantee that your cash will be spent on weird food that Bolivians like.
--$10 will buy enough red meat to feed the kids for a week
--$7 will buy enough chicken for a week of soup
--$20 will buy enough vegetables and pasta for the week
In conclusion, don’t forget that God’s wrath knows no bounds and He is reading your mind right this second. That’s right, we would be so grateful if you'd just click “donate” to the right there and give us a day’s worth of latte money so everyone can have a Feliz Navidad.
Sincerely, your local nunnery
Sunday, December 13, 2009
<-- this three year old named Carla who dresses like she's 80 years old and refers to us as "Mano" and "Lele"
a big deck outside our room with pure sunshine all day, and this view of Sucre at night!
Ok, much like nature, I'm trying to like dogs. This dog, who shares the top floor with us, is named Messy and lives a pathetic existence getting constantly harassed by Carla. I thought Messy was cute until he WOULD NOT STOP BARKING, and my anti-canine sentiments came roaring back to life. I feel like a horrible human being because poor Messy has to poop on a piece of roofing in the corner of the deck, but I daydream about throwing him off the side of the house when he commences communication with every other dog in Sucre at 5 am.
This, plus a big kitchen and a wonderful family, sums up our living situation.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Julien showed up at Florin on Sunday night unannounced and asked to share our booth. He had a book in one hand, cigarettes that smelled like open fields, wire-rim glasses and a traveller's beard. He spoke no English, and I was intrigued by his confident silence as he stared at Mike; the foolish, talkative New Yorker in front of him. Mike was waxing philosophical about Nietzche and feeling very drunk and very smart. I enjoyed my place in the corner, smirking at the fact that Julien had told Mike repeatedly that he only speaks Spanish and French (after growing up in Belgium and working for over two years in Peru, English hadn't yet become a necessity) but Mike insisted on continuing in his native tongue, dabbling in Spanglish when he could.
“Who’s winning?” I interrupted. I love a good argument when one person has no idea what he is talking about, and the other is letting him slowly dissolve in his own misguided chatter. Julien looked at me studiedly.
“He is, of course,” he said in Spanish, gesturing towards Mike without a smile. We made plans within an hour to meet up the next day.
Beginning with breakfast Monday morning at 8, Julien and I used los leones of the 25 de Mayo Plaza as our meeting place, often several times a day, as I dodged between the orphanage and teaching and studying. If I had a few minutes between classes, we would dash to a photography exhibit or reexamine the antique mirrors of Bolivian silver that I craved or have espresso dobles in every corner of the city. I quickly grew accustomed to seeing his long legs stretched in front of him as he waited peacefully for me to find him again. Often, he was chatting with a shoeshine boy. Child workers swarm Sucre, and Julien had a gentle way of dealing with them. After a particularly long conversation with a fourteen year old whose hands were black from polish and whose face showed a lot of wisdom, we agreed that letting children shine your shoes (or wipe your windshield, or in general prostrate themselves in front of you for a few bolivianos) was demeaning, no matter how much they needed the work, and while we may share some food or change with them, allowing them to work for you felt quite wrong.
“I don’t like the idea of someone getting on their knees,” Julien shivered. “It’s a position of superiority that I don’t want to take part in.” But besides the personal discomfort we felt at grownups propping a foot up so a child could clean it, we couldn’t decide how to mentally approach a place like Sucre, with the highest child-worker population on the continent. Not permitting a pre-teen to polish your boots might feel superior, but it does nothing to change the reality of his situation. It doesn’t change the system that requires extra income from young children for survival, nor does it alter the course of the kids who are coming after him within that system. Like most things that feel morally correct, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done.
At the massive cemetery, we wandered amidst rows of coffins and wondered what etiquette is on photographing other people’s grief. Someday I will have to become less shy when I see a photo I want, but for now I usually prefer to observe a moment and let the actors live it themselves, rather than forcing myself to be a part of it through the camera. We heard noise as we neared the entrance. He thought it was a traffic jam. I thought it was yet another pack of dogs. It turned out to be a thick clump of mourners trailing behind a hearse as it rolled into the cemetery and released a coffin. We sat on a bench watchfully; observing men in dark grey suits linger at the fringes while women in campesino garb did the hard work of vocal mourning. Julien’s dad died in a car accident when he was a year old, and he told me about when his mom had taken him once to visit his father’s grave. He didn’t feel a thing, and didn’t know what to do with himself. “After we stood at his grave for a while, we went and got cake and coffee. That was the only good part. There is a phrase in French that says, ‘A grave is to hold the body of the dead and the heart of the living,’ but I don’t see the point. It’s strange to me.”
After we left the cemetery, exiting under the big Latin sign that says “Today me, tomorrow you,” we found graffiti on the wall that proclaimed, “The walls will stop talking once the newspapers tell the truth.” We got lost. We bought ice cream and sat on a stoop laughing at how ridiculous travel is, how strange life can be when lived in five minute increments, and stopped by a bookstand to see the treasures. “We didn’t read enough together this week,” I told him regretfully. “We only had four days!” he reminded me with a laugh. With so much to do, reading, although a mutual passion, was the last thing to spend time on. We drank copious amounts of mate in Simon Bolivar park, and as I studied Spanish grammar he read novels to me in French. We talked about our wildly divergent views on religion, the fate of the world, on family and how to carry on relationships. We spent most of our moments together, and at 3 am on Sunday night he walked me home, kissed me goodbye, and walked away without turning around. I preferred it that way.
Today, for the first time this week, I walked through the plaza and there was no Julien waiting for me. Although I knew he was gone, I still scanned the benches for his dark beard, for his gangly legs, for his knowing grin. All gone; and I felt a sweet loneliness. It’s a quiet surprise when a few valuable days sneak up on you, change you, and whisk themselves away before you even know what they are or how to hold them in your hand. Travel is such a microcosm of life in that way: we cannot hold onto people, or make them into something they are not, but enjoy brevity and joy where we find it.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
JJ: "So then the raton de dientes comes and leaves money under your pillow."
Me: "Excuse me?"
JJ: "You know, when you lose a tooth, and a little mouse comes and takes it from you while you sleep."
Me: "Right. So in the States, we have a Tooth Fairy. A pretty, clean fairy."
JJ: "Oh. Well we're a lot poorer than you guys. We have the Tooth Mouse."
I almost fell out of my chair from laughing so hard.
Sunday, December 06, 2009
3 bloody noses from dust inhalation.
100s of flamingos.
12,000 square km of salt flats.
2 cases of severe altitude sickness.
1 llama that enjoyed eye contact.
This is how we spent our Thanksgiving: getting as far from the city lights as possible.
Salt mound ballet
Say hello to my leetle friend.
4:30 am wakeup call for a hike through thousand year old cactus? FINE, I'll get up.
Nope, it's not water. Just salt until the ends of the earth.
Sunrise! So that's what you look like! Our little group of two chatty American girls (whose politics were deemed liberal European), one good-natured Montevidean (our wee Urux), and the coolest Belgian couple outside of waffles and chocolate had a hard time splitting up.
Call me creepy, but ancient Aymara mummies with skin still on is called a jackpot of archaeology (they only found them nine years ago! Talk about great timing!). They all had EXPRESSIONS on their skulls, I'm not kidding! Ahhh, I love mummies, could someone send me that National Geographic with the Kennewick Man?
Dear flamingos: you are so rare and so magenta, I can't help but love you. Also, your legs bend backwards, and I have a lot of respect for that.
Standing on the tracks and waving at Chile on one side and Argentina on the other, but keeping it strictly Bolivia, thank you.
Arbol de Piedra, thanks for allowing me to realize my dream of walking around in a Dali painting.
Something about lava, geysers, and semi-active volcanoes makes me feel like I'm living in the Triassic Period. Don't tell my 8th grade science teacher I don't really know if that's the right period or not.
This was the highest we got, and could feel the air blowing in off the Pacific. When you haven't seen your favorite ocean in 6 weeks, that air feels GOOD.
Llamas are now good for the following things: cholesterol-free steak, prolonged eye contact, earring ideas, really soft sweaters, and sassy substitute best friends.
If you guys need me I'll be down here exploring this kick-ass canyon.
That little hut was home sweet home, where Marlo battled altitude sickness on a cement bed and an old Quechua lady made us the provincial version of elephant ears over an open fire.
Saturday, December 05, 2009
Great deal, right? I always thought the story of Evo's election in 2006 sounded like what politics should be: a poor Aymara campesino makes good, and uses his trailblazing presidency to unite a country in a more equitable system and remind Bolivians that the Quechua and Aymara have significance as well. Oh wow. I'm so idealistic sometimes. As usual, politics are WAY more corrupt and human nature WAY shadier than I want to admit.