Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Soccer players and taxi drivers

This photo was shot from the train and is a typical country scene, with kids playing soccer and a horse grazing behind the opposite goal. Kids are always kicking a ball around on the street. On cable TV it seems as if there are at least three or four soccer games on at all hours of the day and night. The president, Evo Morales, regularly gets into pickup games. A few weeks ago, he put together a team with four ringers who once played for the national team for a match with the press corps. The president's team whomped the journalists, 11-1, which must have been sweet, since Morales has called the press his No. 1 enemy.
Venezuela seems to be the only South American country that has baseball. You have to get up to Central America, specifically Panama, before you see much.

The cab that didn't make it.

Cabs in Santa Cruz range from comfortable to rattletraps. Today was the first time that one actually conked out, although a dozen or so have seemed as though they wouldn't make it to their next stop. This driver was using a pair of pliers to adjust some of the electronic connections and stalled out twice before he admitted defeat and radioed his dispatcher for a relief driver. Clearly almost no one uses seatbelts in this city because they're always covered with dust and show other signs of neglect and disuse. Cabs are cheap. You can ride five or six miles, from one end of town to the other, for about $1.75. Most rides are less than $1. People use them to move all kinds of stuff, such as what seems to be a radio antenna in the photo below.

I spend a lot of time in cabs and get lots of language practice with the drivers, whose Spanish ranges from eloquent to impenetrable to these ears. One driver launched into an eloquent critique of TV stations that he said were guilty of "tergiversacion," a lovely word for manipulation. Given his mastery of the spoken word, he seemed a good person to ask about the local newspapers. He confessed that he doesn't read them. Turns out he's illiterate. Then there is a driver named Richard, who has picked me up twice, an unlikely occurrence given the number of cabs and the disparate locations where we hooked up. Today an older driver gave a dissertation on the meaning of the Day of the Dead, which is celebrated Nov. 2. Other drivers have provided background on news events that to a foreigner seemed strange.
You can always tell when a news reporter or sportswriter is desperate for material. The story starts with a quote from a cab driver. Guilty. More times than I would like to admit. Still, some of them are really poets at heart.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Who killed the little white llama

A low-budget road movie made here in Bolivia has been drawing crowds and a lot of critical attention. "Who Killed the Little White Llama" is the story of a scrappy couple named Jacinto and Domitila who get mixed up in a drug deal and have to haul 50 kilos of cocaine from one end of the country to the other.
(In this scene, Jacinto, with a fake mustache, seduces a French woman.)
It's very funny, probably more so if you get all the cultural jokes and accents. The tissue-thin plot is a pretext to explore all the cultural and political issues of the day and to caricature the people who represent some of Bolivia's problems -- racism, political corruption, crime, drugs and violence. The title comes from an incident in which the two main characters, high on cocaine, accidentally run over a little Indian girl's pet llama. They make their escape, but a car carrying a gringo happens upon the llama, a crowd forms and they immediately begin hurling insults and take to him with their cudgels. The gringo protests to the crowd in Spanish, "I'm a Bolivian! I'm Mister Bolivia."
And as the narrator of the movie delights in telling us in an aside, the gringo, Duston Larsen, is a University of Nebraska graduate who has Bolivian citizenship and whose father lives here. True. Mr. Bolivia 2004, Duston Larsen, plays himself in the movie.
Jacinto and Domitila make their way through 10 cities to the border with Brazil, and the resolution of the plot is worthy of Fielding's "Tom Jones" or a Dickens novel -- long-lost relatives, mistaken identities, double- and triple-crosses, etc.
Here's the link to the movie's website: http://quienmatoalallamitablanca.com/
The director, Rodrigo Bellott, who is from Santa Cruz, shot the movie in 10 cities in Bolivia for $150,000. I'm glad I didn't see it my first week here. I would have missed half of the cultural references. As it is, I saw the movie twice and still had trouble figuring out what Jacinto was saying most of the time.

Dancing in the streets

Yesterday, October 28, there was a parade of ethnic dancers here in Santa Cruz. Most of them are part of university groups and clubs. Here's a sample of the groups.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Death Train to Brazil

The head of the local journalists association invited me to come with him and four other guys on a weekend trip to far eastern Bolivia to provide training to local journalists. The only way to get there is by train. It's a 16-hour trip, about 380 miles, and the train rocks and rolls slowly along the rough roadbed, rarely going much faster than about 30 miles an hour. I had heard bad things about this train from my tour book, which calls it the death train, but apart from looking a little tired and down at the heels, the car we were in was air conditioned, the seats leaned back much farther than they usually do on a train or plane, and they had movies and music videos on overhead screens. From the guidebook I had pictured people carrying their chickens and pigs. No such thing. I actually slept well. The fare was about $13. (It did live up to its reputation on the return trip, however.)

We got to Puerto Suarez about 8:30 in the morning and headed to the hotel to shower before doing our daylong program. The hotel was about $3 per person per night, a one-story stucco affair with very simple beds, a fan and a shower. I was OK with it, but I wondered how Cindy would have felt.

We went to the town hall, which is open-air, and waited for the dignitaries and local journalists to arrive. We got going about an hour late. It's a big deal for people from the big city to show up here, so two local political officials welcomed us. I presented first. We improvised a setup in which we played part of the ethics video, which is in Spanish, on my laptop, hooked it up to a TV and held the mike close to the speakers on my computer so the audience could hear it. The video shows a case of a Honduran TV reporter who gets involved in the police activity that leads to the arrest of a fugitive colonel charged in the murders of political opponents. The local journalists really got into it and we had a lively discussion.

The journalists who work out here are what are known as empiricos, or self-trained, for the most part. They were thrilled to have people come and offer training. At the end of the day, they made speeches about how grateful they were and used all sorts of honorifics to describe us as esteemed and brilliant and accomplished. Made us all feel pretty good. In the photo above, I'm standing with the hills of Brazil behind me.

This photo shows us at a little resort where we had lunch of deep-fried crocodile nuggets and pirranha soup. No kidding. I wanted to jump into the water and cool off, but it didn't seem like a good idea after eating the pirranha. Would they know?

Luis, the TV producer, Hernan and I decided to cross over into Brazil Saturday night. A local journalist agreed to take us if we would fill up his tank with gasoline. It's about a half-hour ride and gasoline is scarce here along the border because of all the smuggling. Gasoline on the Bolivian side is about half the price it is on the Brazilian side, so no one wants the gasoline to get to the Bolivian dealers. So we bought gasoline in plastic jugs from a couple of women by the side of the road. We paid the equivalent of about $3 a gallon, double the legal rate for Bolivia.

The roads on the Brazilian side are much better constructed and maintained. The town of Corumba lies right on the River Paraguay and has big excursion boats docked all long its waterfront. Luis wanted us to see real Brazilian samba dancing, so he asked some locals, who told us to go to a place called Babylonia. I wasn´t comfortable in the place, and I don´t drink, so Luis started kidding me that I must be a priest. So for the rest of the trip I was Padre Yeen (Jim) or Padre Yeemy (Jimmy), and they asked me to use a full repertoire of Latin and priestly gestures. They liked it almost as much as the whole Cuban routine done by Chucho and Chicle.

Chucho is Juan Carlos, a radio news guy and radio humorist. Chicle is Jose, a writer for a magazine. Both of them are constantly singinng popular songs, making jokes, imitating various accents – Cuban, Brazilian, La Paz – and generally cutting up. I don’t understand 10 percent of it. In restaurants, on the street or on the train, they will go into their Cuban accents and make like they're strangers here or pretend they're doctors. The theme of Cuban doctors is a regular source of satirical comment. Castro sent about 80 doctors here as a goodwill gesture toward his good friend and fellow socialist Evo Morales, Bolivia's president, but the doctors have been ducking out to avoid going back to Cuba. Or they've been the subject of complaints of malpractice and bad treatment by Bolivians. So just pretending you're a Cuban doctor is funny.

Also with us is Ulises, who joined us in San Jose Chiquitos and is director of a TV and radio station and an official of the journalists union. And then there is Hernan Cabrera, the big boss of the union. He is a former reporter for El Deber, and on Tuesday night, I attended a reception for him, attended by about 75 people, to launch his historical novel, Desaparecidos, the disappeareds, which takes place around 1970, during the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer, when some opponents of the government, particularly young people, were carted away never to be seen again.

We did our show in Robore on Monday and went to a little swimming resort. They dammed up a stream to create a pool, which was very cool and relaxing. Lots of trees overhead. Then we had a pleasant evening sitting around listening to Chicle play the guitar and sing, joined by Chucho. They're both really good. The return train trip was bad. The cars were very hot, the seats weren't nearly as comfortable and the train ran two hours behind schedule. By the time we got to Santa Cruz, after 13 hours on the train, I felt like I needed to be fumigated.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Teaching journalism at UEB in Santa Cruz

A couple of people have asked whether it’s
true that water forms a vortex in the opposite direction
south of the equator as compared to the north. So I
did an empirical study of the question in my shower
this morning. Conclusion: the vortex here
is definitely inconsistent. Turns out that the force of gravity is so slight anywhere in the world that it can´t affect which direction water flows in your sink.

However, a lot of things are upside down. It’s spring here.
The trees are in bloom and the city looks pretty in
places. It gets quite hot in December and January,
and it’s the rainy season then. When we get
cold-weather fronts, they come up from the south,
from Argentina.
I’ve heard people here lament that Latin Americans
are very bad at foreign languages because they can go
all over the continent and speak Spanish. Like North
Americans, they don’t feel as much pressure to learn
a foreign language as, say, Europeans do.


It’s also true that indigenous peoples are a much
bigger force here than in North America. The
Mexican writer Octavio Paz says this is because the northern
indigenous tribes were mainly nomadic. The English
and later immigrant groups just pushed them to the
West, and then moved them into isolation on
reservations. The Protestant religion didn’t fit
well with native beliefs.
In South America, Paz says, the indigenous people
were more settled in farming communities. They couldn’t
and wouldn’t be pushed aside. The Spanish used them
to work their mines and plantations and mixed in with
them. The Spanish brought with them a Catholic
religion whose many saints and images fit well with
the polytheism of the indigenous people. The
Catholic rituals and beliefs and stories surrounding the
Blessed Virgin Mary were a particularly powerful

The local daily El Nuevo Dia on Friday published a
centerfold pullout section that showed a map of
about 40 native groups extant in Bolivia, along with their
religious beliefs and languages. A website called
ethnologue.com lists 36 native languages spoken in
Bolivia, with most of them representing very small
populations and some nearly extinct. It also lists
seven extinct languages.
Depending on where you get your information
percentages may vary, but it is said that about 30
percent of the population are Quechua, 25 percent
Aymara (including the president), 30 percent mestizo
(mixed) and 15 percent white. But I find this kind
of categorization confusing and inconsistent. It
doesn’t seem to allow any space in its tally for all of the
other ethnic and language groups.


People are used to not having their voices heard
here, so the most popular way of getting the government
and public officials to pay attention is not to call
your congressman but to set up a roadblock on a main
artery, called a bloqueo. You throw tires and wood
into the road and set them on fire and then you
attack anyone who tries to go around it. In a country with
a shortage of good roads, this can bring everything to
a halt. In the past week, in the city of Santa Cruz,
residents of some neighborhoods whose streets
haven’t been paved blocked all traffic on one of the major
ring roads. Generally, police and the military
don’t try to break these things up. It can lead to
violent confrontations. In the prefecture of Santa Cruz,
which includes a huge area of the country, rural teachers
staged a work stoppage yesterday because they’re
upset with the prefect’s refusal to appoint a new head of
the education ministry who was named by, I think,
the national government. Police in riot gear surrounded
the education adminstration building as the teachers
(!) threw rocks and bottles and broke windows.
Also this week, miners in the mountain region, coca
growers in the fertile valleys and cab drivers in La
Paz all set up bloqueos of main roads to show they
were unhappy with some government policy or other.
Evo Morales’s party regularly calls on the “social
movements” of farm workers, laborers and indigenous
people to “mobilize” and march or form bloqueos,
but the irony is that these demonstrations are making
his government look bad.
It’s an effective way of showing power but not a
very effective way of getting anything done. Many of the
institutions that are supposed to serve the people
are so ineffective and unreliable that there are
elaborate work-around systems.
For example, at the ministry of Migration, where I
have to go to get my visa extended, there are people
camped outside in long lines trying to get passports
to leave for Spain and other countries in search of
work. Some 3,000 people. I told a local official
about it. And he said, let me take care of
it. You pay a fixer (the name for it is tramitedor,
from the word for paperwork), and voila, all is
taken care of. So in a 24-hour period my visa was renewed
for 90 days after I handed off my passport along
with a stack of bolivianos. The fixer costs $40.

There are no mailboxes in this city of 1.3 million
people. If you want to mail a letter, you take it
to the main post office in the center of the city or to
the other post office station near my house which is
often unattended (“she’s in the bathroom” the folks
nearby say) or closed (on Saturdays). It’s my own
fault for not trying to figure out whether I can
just leave letters with Sergio, the building
superintendent, but there is probably an extra fee
involved. I’ve never seen a letter carrier or postal
truck anywhere.

A friend of mine from Baltimore who is an economist
with a sense of humor, Anirban Basu, likes to say
that when the going gets tough for Americans, they go
shopping. And I have to say I lived up to that
on Saturday.
I had heard from a cab driver that you can get good
cheap clothing at a place called Barrio Lindo
neighborhood), so I went there today. There must be
half-dozen airplane-hangar-sized buildings packed to
the gills with little tiendas selling all kinds of
clothing, shoes, cosmetics, hardware. The place is
unbelievable, in terms of its offerings, which are
pretty good, and its size (enormous) and the number
people it attracts. I spent a couple of hours
around and took a couple photos.
Most of the clothes I had brought with me are too
heavy and hot. So I bought four short-sleeve cotton
shirts ($5 apiece), four pairs of lightweight cotton
slacks ($6.50 each), a sturdy pair of Brazilian made
dress shoes ($35), and a belt ($3).
I felt the thrill of shopping that I have heard
talk about but have never felt personally. I’m
to have to take Cindy to this place.

Next weekend I’m going on a three=day excursion with
members of the Santa Cruz journalists union to just
this side of the Brazilian border, Puerto Suarez,
where we’re going to give workshops to the local
journalists. My piece will be on journalism ethics.
It’s regularly over 100 degrees and very humid
It’s in the Amazon basin. Lots of mosquitoes. I’m
taking my malaria medicine every week. We’re also
doing events in two other cities. I really don’t
what to expect, but I’m packing all my mosquito