Friday, December 08, 2006

Get used to the differences

I am getting used to the fact that answering your cellphone is the No. 1 priority in life here. You answer and make calls even when you're marching for solidarity, as this woman was.

People conducting meetings will stop to take calls, leaving the others around the table to listen to them describe where they are and what they´re doing. A journalist who was addressing a group of 20 colleagues, exhorting them to the highest ethical standards, stopped his speech to answer his cellphone and conduct a 60-second conversation in which he said yes a lot and then promised to call back. People regularly take calls during business lunches and dinners, not always bothering to leave the table. Cell phones ring a lot in movie theaters, and people of course answer them and carry on loud conversations because the movie makes it so hard for them to hear the caller.

Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees

There is a huge market here for second-hand clothing from the U.S., to the point that the government wants to stop it from coming in. It hurts local clothing manufacturers. You see people walking down the street with shirts that say stuff like, Washington County Girls Softball Dad. Mostly you see New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox ball caps.
In La Paz I saw a guy with a Cleveland Indians hooded sweatshirt. He had no idea that the Indians were a sports team or what Cleveland might be. It was just a cheap sweatshirt in good condition. A guy in an internet cafe I was patronizing there was wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap, and after the second day that I mentioned Baltimore was my hometown, he changed to a Yankees cap. I decided not to say anything. In this photo taken in La Paz, you can see caps for the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs and U. of Miami Hurricanes, among others.
Very little from the West Coast. It must all go to Mexico.

What stuff costs

Labor and food are very cheap here, so it´s easy to have a three- or four-course dinner in a nice restaurant for $5 to $7. A cup of coffee in the university cafeteria is 13 cents, a lunch with breaded beef or chicken, rice, potatoes and salad is 60 cents. To go to a first-run movie in a U.S. style stadium-seating multiplex costs $3.25. Popcorn will cost you about 60 cents.

A DVD of a recent movie, pirated of course, is $1.25, and cheaper if you buy five. There are little stands on every street corner. Piracy is completely accepted and institutionalized. University professors shamelessly copy parts of books to create compilations of readings for their students, who couldn´t possibly afford to buy books at the cover price from the publisher.

A three- or four-bedroom house that would cost $400,00 or $500,000 in Baltimore costs about $70,000 to $100,000 here. A construction worker makes less than $1 an hour, maybe about $150 a month, so you can see why a $6-an-hour job in the U.S. looks pretty attractive.

To bribe a local official for quick issue of a passport costs $200 to $500. Otherwise you have to get in line with the other poor slobs and wait three days for service, which will get you a slip of paper telling you to come back on a specific date in six weeks. Lots of people prefer to pay the bribe. Or you can pay someone for a preferred spot in line. Today´s paper says that a place among the first 50 in line can be yours for about $25.
Monster SUVs cost about what they would in the U.S.

What time does it start

Movies start pretty much on time. Plane schedules are just as reliable and predictable as they are in the U.S. However, if you´re booked on an international flight with a Bolivian carrier it might be canceled for lack of jet fuel. It has to do with the government being involved in decisions about such things as what gets produced, diesel or jet fuel.

And as for when events start, I foolishly arrive when things are advertised and find that no one is around, not even the people who are supposed to take your money or let you in. Faculty members who invite me to stuff and specify a time don´t show themselves until 30 to 45 minutes after the advertised start. Evening classes nominally start at 7 p.m. and go till 9:30, but the buses that bring in a lot of the students often don´t arrive until after 7, and you have to get a snack, chat with your friends and catch up.

When I´m giving a workshop for professionals, a typical courtesy to attendees is not to start until 30 minutes after the advertised time.

At several public events I´ve attended, a roomful of people will delay the program 30, 40, 60 minutes to wait for some honored guest to show up and welcome the audience. There is always a cellphone exchange that goes on, and we´re assured that the important person is on his way or just five minutes away.

Showing up

When you show up unannounced in someone´s office, the top executive is very likely to see you and treat you as if he or she has all the time in the world. People are very gracious. Cold calling in this way has a very high success rate. By contrast, it´s sometimes hard to set up appointments over the telephone far in advance. Leaving messages and sending e-mails is not nearly as effective as just showing up. Or if you have someone who knows the person call, you´re in. It´s an important courtesy to see people introduced by friends.

People are much more polite and gracious here and really take the time to get to know you. That´s a subject in itself.

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