Monday, December 28, 2009

there are worse crimes than kidnapping.

I promise this won't turn into a blog that only talks about how cute kids are, because that's kind of creepy, but I have to show you these little ones from the orphanage. This place is run by German nuns and usually when we show up there are babies strewn all over the floor. I can't really handle it and
would rather be at the guarderia, but look at these little faces! We may or may not show up at SeaTac with one of these guys in our backpack.
Here are Marta, who cries next to her twin brother Marcos at every naptime, Ilse, whose two-month old smile would just kill you, and "Shark Fin," who is NOT letting FAS get him down or stop him from having a cool fauxhawk. Nosir.

a belated feliz navidad

Christmas in Sucre was full of picana (the national holiday dish that contains whole ears of corn and up to three kinds of meat), a huge pot of mulled wine that we used to drown out how much we missed our friends and family, and watching Carla open her Christmas presents and try to be feminine with her new doll. We're lucky to have Jorge and Lumen, our surrogate parents here, but it just wasn't the same having Christmas entirely in Spanish and not having my momma there to hug.

But as our Christmas present, you wonderful people gave us over $1500 for the kids at Ciruelitos, and we couldn't be happier. THANK YOU so much for the help; they are already planning to get the roof and windows fixed (these summer storms are not gentle, and building repairs are much needed) in addition to feeding the kids for the next month.
AND PLEASE CHECK THIS KID OUT! The day after we started raising money, he showed up with this Seahawks hat on! He had no idea what it was, but we took it as a sign that we were meant to be at Ciruelitos. On a side note, if anyone is interested in a solar panel project, the girls are working on getting the government papers filed to start a greenhouse with a solar panel to start growing their own vegetables onsite. We can't stay to help, but if anyone has an interest in sustainable development projects on a micro scale, this place is a dream. Your help was just so humbling and generous, and the only glitch we have found is the fact that Bolivian banks are extremely difficult to work with. Other than that, Ciruelitos sends love and they are grateful for everything you've done!
Go Hawks.

mercado central, or; will i be murdered while buying cinnamon?

Here is the Mercado Central, the heartbeat of Sucre and a stark contrast to the prepackaged predictability of Safeway. No two visits are ever the same, and I can never decide whether to be thrilled or terrified when I walk in.
One afternoon we went to explore the spices, wide-eyed at the stacks of bright saffron and curry in sacks the size of 8 year olds. Entranced by the range of colors, I grabbed my camera to document the pointed towers of flavor and was rewarded promptly with a furious 70 year old woman, who shooed us away with a bitterness I assumed was reserved for the gringos alone. It wasn't the first time I'd heard about the strange fury that fruit vendors can possess. Vlad, a Romanian transplant from California, told us that as he examined avocadoes once in the vegetable aisle (paltas, which we were disappointed to discover taste like anise) he was furiously maligned by the old woman at the stand for stealing her products. She embarked on an extensive, detailed rant until the woman one stand over kindly guided him to her selection of paltas and allowed him to inspect them without suspicion. Lifting your own fruit becomes a crap shoot-- you run the risk of being given older, bruised produce if you don't choose your own, but could also become the victim of a screaming Quechua matron if you do.

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).
Getting back to the mercado and some things I would like to change about it: the dog issue. The health department would have an absolute coronary at the goings-on of Bolivian perros. They wander freely, peeing liberally underneath the meat stalls, mere inches from the whole pig heads, chicken feet, and heavy racks of cow backs dangling from wires. Our legs turned to jello when we were on the scene of a roaring dog fight, because apparently it's normal in Bolivia to allow your Rottweilers and other attack dogs to wander amongst humans. More than once we have mentally drafted a leash law amendment to add to Evo's new constitution.

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


If you’re a child worker in Sucre, you spend a lot of time wandering narrow sidewalks, dodging screeching horns and roaming dogs while you beg tourists and locals alike to let you shine their shoes, sell them a pack of gum, wash their windshield. If you wander the side streets just off the main plaza of Sucre for long enough, you may come across an unassuming black garage door with handpainted lettering that announces your arrival to Ñanta. On one side of the door is your real life: spending long days trying to earn enough to go to school or support your family. On the other, a leafy overhang peacefully welcomes you to the one spot in the city that provides escape from the intensity of premature responsibility.

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.

Linda’s voice gets louder as the conversation turns to specifics of the children’s lives. Their jobs are as varied as their histories: shoeshiners, gum sellers, windshield washers, market vendors, brickmakers, singers on busses, house cleaners, nannies, cooks, and newspaper sellers are frequently children barely into adolescence. Although many of them attend school, “survival comes first, and school comes second” in their lives. She estimates that about 99% of child workers arrive from surrounding countryside when their parents relocate to create a better life for their families. The reality upon arrival, however, is that speaking only Quechua prevents them from finding work and the entire family has to take part in bringing in income. Since children usually pick up Spanish more quickly than their parents, they find work faster and have to act as the major breadwinner as well as translator for their families. In addition to the difficulty of attending school and earning enough to make ends meet, there are more subtle impacts of working so young that ripple under the surface. When a boy of 12 or 13 is providing most of the family income, the role of the father gets lost and confused and family structures deteriorate faster. The independence of working on their own also makes it difficult later for the kids to work in more traditional jobs, since they are totally unaccustomed to having a boss and a schedule.

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.

For more information on Ñanta and upcoming projects, check the website or email Linda at


Whenever my travel partner opens her mouth, I have no idea what's about to happen. As I was trying to tell her about the new Robin Thicke/Cudder jam, she proudly declared:

"Any son of Alan Thicke is a son of mine."

It just doesn't stop with this chick.

Friday, December 18, 2009

preteen commentary

Children: should be seen, not heard. Can I get an amen?

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.

soo yummy.

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU for the donations to Ciruelitos! What generous friends and family we have, we are so grateful! Here's a little one chowing down on the chicken, rice, and potatoes you bought for him this week. I love how he goes from loving it to exhausted to loving it again! Sometimes you just gotta take a breather!

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!

that's mine, that's yours

At 13,420 feet, Potosi is the highest city in the world and, although we didn’t spend more than an hour there, it’s one of the most fascinating places we’ve been to so far. If you get a chance to read a little on about it, it’s worth your time. With a bloody, unjust history and boasting what used to be the biggest (and arguably most important) city in the New World with 200,000 inhabitants, Potosi was run ragged by the Spanish colonizers, who capitalized on the health, labor and natural wealth of the city to take back boatloads of silver and leave behind a trail of black lungs and poor campesinos.

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

waiting at the sucre post office.

What it looks like to entrust your Christmas correspondence to the Bolivian postal service.

bolivian babies: now on your christmas shopping list

Check these adorable kiddos out! No, you can't buy the babies as gifts, but you can help them have enough to eat between now and February. They get food, you don't have to adopt them, everyone wins.

Here’s the deal: Ciruelitos Guarderia is a little nursery/daycare in the valley outside of central Sucre that is funded by the Bolivian government 10 months out of the year. Unfortunately, the government cuts off funding for December and January, but the kids have nowhere to go because their parents are mostly poor workers who get ZERO days off. The women who run this place are absolutely the most lovely people you will ever meet, and decided to keep working without salary in order to keep the kids in a safe place during the days. Fox Institute, the language school Marlo and I are working for, has raised enough to pay the women almost as much as they normally make, but there’s no money to feed the kiddos. Marlo and I are working on getting them set up for the next two months with at least enough food for the roughly 30 kids that spend their days there, but we can’t do it by ourselves.
Dear friends: what better time than the holidays to help people out who don’t have very much?
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.
Examples of how far US dollars go:
--$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

bonus round

Two weeks ago, we arrived at our new house in Sucre and were absolutely delighted to find the following items:

<-- 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

time, time, time.

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.” --Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

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.

drive slow, homey.

"No changing of pace at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being."

-John Ruskin

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

raton de dientes.

Transcript of a real Spanish conversation I had with my tutor JuanJose today:

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

just deserts.

4 days in a Jeep in southwest Bolivian desert.
3 bloody noses from dust inhalation.
5 lagunas.
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.

Oh, hello, Wonder of Creation. Fancy meeting you here.

Long story short: I'm the luckiest girl in the world in the most beautiful country in South America. Mike Moe, you made me promise to come here, and I owe you big time.

evo it is.

Evo won by a landslide, and I have decided to continue believing in his democratic legitimacy, because sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette. Or something.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

election weekend!

It's election weekend in Bolivia and tomorrow's vote will decide whether or not Evo gets to stay in office. We went to a rally for the opposition party in Sucre's town square the other night, and it's like Obama came to town: Manfred is the next big thing!
Fun fact: Bolivians aren't allowed to buy/have alcohol for the 40 hours leading up to voting! NO DRUNKIES IN THE VOTING BOOTHS, POR FAVOR.
As we spent long days in the desert last week, our driver Sergio and I passed the time in the freezing Altiplano talking about the government (strange thing about a second language: I can carry on a detailed Spanish conversation about politics but sometimes forget how to tell a simple joke. Oy vey). Our first night, as we huddled next to an open stove in an adobe hut, Sergio told me in his slow, round Bolivian drawl about how so many campesinos, including his mother, didn't have a national identity card until Evo mandated that they be free of charge. With that, she joined the masses of poor workers, previously disenfranchised, who put him into office four years ago.
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.
My Spanish tutor JuanJose just rolls his eyes when Evo's name comes up, and he is fairly indicative of the even divide between "city Bolivians" and "country Bolivians." Yes, as Sergio told me before, Evo did provide free carnet cards to the campesinos who didn't have them before, but he also did it illegally, since many of them were given double cards. He also traded the identity cards directly for votes. In the villages, elections were not a private affair, as campesinos had to hold up their vote for public review after casting it in the booth. If they didn't vote for Evo, they were punished; for example, public beatings with a belt. And with such measures, he naturally had a landslide victory with the previously disenfranchised villagers. "He has also succeeded in dividing those in the city and those in the campo," JuanJose said with disappointment. "He wants to change the constitution, and when city-dwellers protest (as they did in Sucre recently) they are beat down. Three people died here and many more were injured, but Evo never once acknowledged it or apologized for what happened. People in the city don't like him at all, for good reason."
Later, I chatted with Marisol about the same thing and she shook her head sadly at the unjust government that is just "otra cara de la misma moneda"-- another side of the same coin. She also mourned the lack of education outside of the cities that prevents the majority of Quechua and Aymara villagers from seeing beyond charisma, as well as the placation measures that give them the false sense of progress (for example, a new 50 boliviano monthly stipend for pregnant mothers. 50 bolivianos is about $6: "that's not help! That's an insult!" Marisol cries. But because it's 50 bolivianos more than they got before, they are deceived into thinking the government is progressing).
Voting is on Sunday, and emotions are running high in Sucre.