Sunday, January 21, 2007

Carnaval and other cultural notes

People start celebrating Carnaval here months before it arrives. Carnaval is technically a weekend-plus of events leading up to Ash Wednesday and the pentitential period of Lent. But Ash Wednesday is more than a month away, and the party officially kicked off yesterday in Santa Cruz with a big parade presided over by Carnaval Queen Andrea Abudinen (photo from El Deber). Actually, Andrea has been in the newspapers on practically a daily basis for months. She is photographed and written about wherever she goes. Yesterday there was a big article about the creation of the dress you see in this picture.
Carnaval is a very big deal. Maybe it's bigger in Rio de Janeiro, but the New Orleans version would probably pale in comparison to what's planned here in many cities of Bolivia.
I am told that in La Paz I will have to watch out for flying water balloons and in Santa Cruz for paint ball pellets, which evidently are outward expressions of inward joy of the season, the last blast of sensuous indulgence before the fasting and denial of 40 days of Lent. Although it doesn't appear that the indulgence here is always followed by self-denial.
The city of Oruro is known for its more folkloric type of Carnaval (photo here from Oruro festival website)

Here's a sample of some other culture.....We took a day to go to the town of Tarabuco, which is famous for its Sunday market of textiles, some of which we bought and took back with us. While there we also stopped at a local farmers' market and got a glimpse of big red plastic bags filled with coca leaves. We didn't see anyone working on the textiles while we were there, but we could see weavers working at the textile museum in Sucre.

In the mining city of Potosi we were startled to hear a stick of dynamite explode, but it was just to announce the start of a student demonstration against the leadership of the university. The students were protesting 5 percent pay raises for the faculty, and the notorious nepotism of the university president, which would mean reductions in expenditures on various services for students.
Sucre is also famous around the world with students of dinosaurs. It has huge deposits of calcium-based rocks and material that is mined for concrete, and it was there that workers found footprints. There are trails several hundred meters long made by some of these beasts perhaps 100 million years ago.
While in Sucre on Jan. 6, we saw the city celebrate the Feast of the Three Kings, which celebrates the biblical story of the wise men from the East visiting the Christ child. Families go to church to have the priest bless their Jesus in the manger, and we ran into one family that had several.

It was also in Sucre at Liberty House, their equivalent of Independence Hall, that we got to see perhaps the biggest representation anywhere of the great liberator, Simon Bolivar, a bust in wood. Bolivia won its independence from Spain in 1825, thanks to Bolivar and a general named Sucre. The wall tapestry you see is one of the few done by men, a phenomenon of recent years.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The siege of Cochabamba

The split widened between the two Bolivias this past week. Tens of thousands of coca growers, peasants and supporters of the socialist government went on the march on Monday to force the resignation of the prefect of Cochabamba. His offense against the socialists was that he was asking for a referendum vote on autonomy for the key coca-growing region of Cochabamba. The socialists oppose autonomy for the departments of the east, which produce most of the country´s cash crops, petroleum and natural gas. (All photos are from El Deber and El Nuevo Dia)

The socialist sympathizers started throwing rocks at the police protecting the prefecture offices, and the police responded with tear gas. The Interior Minister, who is a member of the socialist party, ordered the police to withdraw so they would not repress the social movements. With the police withdrawn, the mob burned the prefecture building.

The siege was in its fourth day on Thursday, and Cochabamba, which lies on the road between the country´s two biggest cities, La Paz and Santa Cruz, was shut down by 15 blockades on the roads. Hundreds of trucks and buses were stranded, and the people in Cochabamba, who were running out of food, evidently lost patience with the socialists. A club-wielding group of youths crossed the riverbed to avoid a police barrier and attacked the socialists. Two people were killed and hundreds were injured.

Fifteen journalists were among those attacked and injured. They went on a march with muzzles over their mouths to protest the continuing violence against them. President Morales´s supporters in particular have targeted journalists, who are regarded as enemies of the socialist movement. A socialist mob surrounded the Cochabamba offices of Unitel, a national TV network owned by the government´s most vocal opponent and Evo Morales´s No. 1 enemy, broke windows and threatened the staff. Eventually police set up a barrier so the employees could escape.

It was not until Friday, the fifth day of the siege, before Morales called on his supporters to pull back and stop the blockade. A reasonable person might ask why he didn´t do so five days earlier.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Cindy's whirlwind visit

Cindy blew into town Dec. 26 and not a moment too soon. We hadn´t seen each other in three months, the longest separation in our 30-plus years of marriage. This waterspout appeared over Lake Titicaca as we were heading to Copacabana. The crazy weather on this leg of our trip also included a fierce hailstorm that left the ground covered as with snow. The van we were in skidded around on the mountain roads, eliciting yelps from us at moments.

We spent a couple of days in Santa Cruz and then headed for La Paz. We spent an evening there with Luis Ramiro Beltran, who is something of a legend in Bolivian journalism. He was the Defender of the Reader (ombudsman) for eight newspapers here, and he had helped me make connections with the journalists' association in La Paz. He also did a lot of work around the world for Johns Hopkins in the area of health communications, and when he was in Baltimore from time to time, he worked in the Candler Building, the same place I worked. Of course we didn't know each other then.

On our tour of La Paz, Cindy and I took in the Valley of the Moon and went up to a scenic overlook, where we saw an Aymara shaman (he's wearing the hat) working spells for one of his clients. Every so often he and the client would say a few words and toss something into the little fire. Kind of interesting to see this kind of ritual with the metropolitan backdrop. The other scenes are also in La Paz.

Copacabana is a lovely little town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. We spent a night there and headed out to Isla del Sol (the Island of the Sun), where the Incas believed their people, and all of mankind, were born. We stayed in a modest hostel overlooking the lake. It took us a good half hour hauling a ton of luggage up the hill to get to our place. No motor vehicles are allowed on the island, which is deliberately kept primitive. The Aymara Indians run everything. Every square inch of the island was cultivated at one time, to judge by all the terraced seed beds, but many of the fields appear not to be cultivated these days. I had a lot of excellent trout in our three days there.

On our last day we hiked 10 miles round trip to the Inca ritual site. It´s incredibly beautiful and quiet there, high above the lake. The highest point on the island is just over 4,000 meters, or 13,000 feet.

We headed on to Sucre, which is famous for its colonial style architecture. We asked the guide to show us some gardens, and she took us to the cemetery, which is like a little city where the ancestors reside. It was actually very lovely.

These shots are from the church of St. Philip Neri and school.

In Potosi, we went into the legendary Cerro Rico, rich mountain, which produced most of the world´s silver for the past 450 years. They´re still mining silver, zinc, copper and tin out of this same mountain. The mining tunnel we entered runs about a mile into the mountain.

We followed the tracks about 50 meters into the mine and stood inside a little niche where the miners pay tribute to the devil, ruler of the underworld, to ask for his indulgence and protection. The miners give the devil coca leaves, alcohol and cigarettes, which is what they subsist on during their long shifts. Teams of three men push a 1,000-pound handcart into the mine to collect a 2,000-pound load of ore. The guys pushing the empty carts into the mine have to pull their cart off the tracks into a niche and allow the full loads to go by. It´s all by hand. These guys earn about $75 to $150 a month, depending on their status. Lots of miners are in their teens. Our guide, Wilfredo, worked in the mine from the age of 12 till the age of 18. We saw several other young teenagers working there -- 14 and 16.

Wilfredo´s father and grandfather, both miners, died in the same year, his father from silicosis of the lungs at age 37, a common affliction, and his grandfather in a mine collapse.

Cindy looks great, doesn´t she? Although some might think that she may be taking her diet too seriously.