Sunday, April 15, 2007

Good Friday, Butch Cassidy and dangerous work

On Good Friday, I went to the main square in front of the cathedral to see the procession of the casket of Jesus. A military honor guard accompanies the casket through the streets. The cardinal gave a sermon in the main square. He has a voice like a TV announcer, and indeed, his sermon was being carried live by several of the TV networks. Cameras were everywhere.

Holy Week is a very big event in Bolivia. Good Friday is feriado, a day off, and there are colorful pullout sections of the paper showing the Stations of the Cross, maps of Jerusalem, important moments in the Passion of Christ. Catholicism mixed well with the indigenous religions, so the country is extremely Catholic. Evangelical churches, however, are gaining ground rapidly. There are several Christian (as opposed to Catholic) radio stations and lots of missionaries from the U.S. I get a closeup look at this from my outpost at the Evangelical University.

A couple of weeks before we started reading about Holy Week, the coverage of the Miss Santa Cruz competition began in earnest. Try to imagine four or five weeks of pre Super Bowl coverage with intimate biographies and photo shoots of each of the players, and you get some idea of the intensity of press coverage devoted to this beauty contest involving 15 women.

Seeing extensive Holy Week coverage mixed with the beauty pageant coverage provided a startling and instructive cultural contrast.

Saturday night I went to the cathedral to hear the McDaniel College gospel choir (from Westminster, Maryland, near Baltimore). The place was packed. Even though they only had 10 of their 80 singers on tour, it was a rousing, hand-clapping performance. The audience loved it. I got chills hearing the gospel music. I have always enjoyed it. You can hear the roots of jazz and blues and pop music in the spirituals. The president of McDaniel, Joan Coley, is a friend of mine, so I sent her some pictures. The chorus's director, Eric Byrd, is a fantastic piano player and has a jazz trio.

Every few days you read about another tradesman or construction worker getting killed on the job. There have been two recent cases in which welders were sealing the tanks for gasoline trucks when the tanks exploded and killed them. After the first such incident, you would have thought the second one would not have taken place. Wouldn't they make sure there were no residual fumes in the tank first before starting to weld?

Workers regularly get killed in falls from high places. These guys were working on a building near the city center. One of the local papers ran a picture of a sign painter who fell from a billboard and was impaled on an iron fence. The photo showed the points sticking through his torso, which hung from the fence. Worker safety is not a big concern here. Skilled construction workers get paid $10 a day, unskilled $5.

Construction workers (albañiles, from an Arabic word) get killed so often in Latin America, that there is a whole class of jokes and stories about bodies and body parts of albañiles. García Márquez tells one such story, which he presents as true, in his autobiography. Seems the physician instructor for an anatomy class sent a cow´s heart to the high school cafeteria´s refrigerator for storage. Someone stole the heart, which is a delicacy. The doctor then sent as a replacement the heart of a construction worker killed in a four-story fall. The kitchen staff was confused and thought the heart was for the teachers´ lunch and prepared it with sauces and spices. Márquez doesn´t say whether the tasty delicacy was served. Apparently it was not.

If there is one fact that people know about Bolivia, it's that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end here. The owner of a restaurant near my apartment has on display this Winchester .44, 1892 Model, which supposedly was in the possession of Butch and Sundance when they were killed. The story is plausible, given that the restaurant owner supposedly bought it from one of Bolivia's former presidents. It's plausible that a president would be trafficking in goods owned by the state and of uncertain provenance.

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