Sunday, November 19, 2006

Politics means high drama in Bolivia

President Evo Morales, the socialist who took office this year, enjoys a good game of soccer and invited members of the press corps to a pickup game in October. Morales had four former members of the national team on his side, which crushed the journalists, 11-1. (This photo from La Prensa was from a different pickup game.) It had to be sweet for Morales, who has called the press his No. 1 enemy, and maybe not without justification. Some of his opponents like to make fun of his humble roots as a shepherd and his lack of a university degree.
Political discourse here is very strident and more provocative than we´re used to in the States.
The day I arrived in Bolivia, Sept. 20, Vice President Álvaro García Linera told an audience of indigenous supporters they should be ready to grab their Mauser rifles to defend the socialist policies of President Evo Morales. (Photo of García Linera with Morales is from The remarks of the vice president had everyone talking about the possibility of civil war for a time, but that has died down.
A couple of weeks later, Morales´s chancellor, David Choquehuanca, was condemning the racism of the well-to-do folks who live in the south part of La Paz. However Choquehuanca, who is Aymara, added that, "We (the Aymara) don´t hate them, because if we did, we´d poison their food.¨ He was referring to the fact that the household servants for the city´s elite are generally Aymara. (Photo from
There are regular rumors of a possible U.S. invasion of Bolivia to protect the gas and oil fields, although the U.S. is not a major customer (Brazil and Argentina are), and Spain has far more of an investment interest in Bolivia´s fossil fuels than the U.S. Still, there are a couple of hundred U.S. military personnel over in Paraguay, and that helps fuel the rumors.
Venezuela´s president, Hugo Chavez, who likes to refer to President George W. Bush as a drunkard and ¨Mr. Danger,¨ has promised to defend Bolivia´s socialist democracy with military force, if necessary. Who would be the aggressor? He regularly points the finger at the U.S. as a potential invader of his own country.
Bolivia and Venezuela recently discussed the possibility of a Venezuelan military presence in Bolivia, but that is on hold until after Venezuela´s election. Venezuela´s ambassador to Bolivia, Julio Montes, got into the act a while ago, saying that Venezuela was ready to give blood and lives to protect Bolivia from a counterrevolution. Morales´s government has nationalized the oil and gas fields and is in the process of redistributing land to peasant farmers, both of which have provoked strong opposition from big landholders and business interests.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol

Much of the Isla del Sol in Lake Titicaca is terraced into plots for potatoes, cereal grains and other crops suited to the altitude of 13,000 feet above sea level. The hills that rise up all around the lake show a similar terracing. This area was part of the Tiwanaku empire 2,000 years ago, an empire I had never heard of. At its peak, it reached into Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela and Argentina. The island was a cultural and religious center for the Tiwanaku and the Incas who followed them.
Local Aymara Indians still make boats (which they call balsas) from the totora reed, and these on the beach at Yampupata are specifically for use by tourists, two to a boat with paddles. I didn´t have time to indulge.
The terrain is very dry all around Lake Titicaca, whose name comes from two Aymara words meaning puma and stone. My guide, Samuel, speaks Aymara as do most people in the La Paz and El Alto area. Here we´re descending from the peaks on the Isla del Sol. I was short of breath after the climb.

Unfortunately, this double-hulled reed boat pulled out before I could close enough for a good shot. The boat is probably 25 feet long and made completely of totora reeds that grow beside the lake. The prows display stylized puma heads.

Subsistence farming mixes in with tourism on the Isla del Sol, and not always comfortably. Still, a good hotel costs only about $30 night. Food and labor are inexpensive. A great meal of trout, salad and a couple of sides costs about $3.

These stone steps up from the beach on the Isla del Sol are supposed to date from Inca times (the 1400s) or earlier.


The town square in Copacabana has a lovely garden that reflects the resources brought by heavy tourism. This is the principal ferry connection to the popular Isla del Sol 90 minutes away, and there are lots of hotels, restaurants and local artesan work in textiles, clay and wood.

To get to Copacabana, you have to cross the straits of Tiquina, which are about a half-mile wide. For 20 cents, you and two dozen other brave souls get to share a small boat that lists about 5 degrees to starboard and might be piloted by the 12-year-old who conducted us across. No life preservers in sight. I perched on the side, ready to jump clear if it capsized.
The cathedral in Copacabana is built in a moorish style and is quite lovely. The altarpiece is breathtaking for its enormity and the amount of gold on display.
The name Copacabana is a corruption of Aymara words that mean view of the lake. It refers to high hills on either side of the town that offer quite a panorama. This is the market area in front of the church. Local motorists come twice a day to have their vehicles blessed by the priest.

Bolivian countryside

Subsistence farms are all along the high plain between La Paz and Copacabana. The wall is of cow dung, the home of adobe with a straw roof. In more than 100 kilometers, I never saw a truck, a tractor, a tiller or other farm machinery. Mom, pop and the kids work the fields with hoes and shovels or plow behind a pair of bovines.

This Aymara man helped get the road ready for us on our passage over dirt roads from Laja to Batallas.
This shepherd girl helped us find the right dirt road to our destination.
You can´t wait for the government to come out and repair the road if a downpour washes it away. These Aymara men hauled rocks in to keep the road open.
The Cordillera Real, with peaks of 20,000 feet, is visible to the east.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Pirates of the Altiplano

On every street corner you can buy first-rate music CDs for 63 cents and DVDs of first-run American and European movies for $1.75. I am told that the Colombians are the world champions of music, film and book piracy. The bookstores in the center of La Paz and Santa Cruz have very convincing photocopied editions of bestsellers in Spanish for $3 or $4. A book at full price would represent a week´s salary for a domestic worker or a couple of days´pay for a construction worker.
The covers of pirated books are meticulously color copied and laminated. Then the pages are photocopied in the original size and cut so that at first glance the books appear to be the real thing. A closer look reveals the truth.
There is honor among thieves, however. The Colombian pirates have a gentleman´s agreement not to sell any pirated Bolivian movies, books or music in Bolivia.
Presumably the agreement stops at the border.
No one cares a whit that some American or European artist, publisher or movie distributor might be losing some money. They´re on the other side of the world. If you look through the other end of the telescope, we buy our clothing and shoes and electronics cheaply because they´re made offshore somewhere. We don´t really ask ourselves why the prices are so low. Both here in Bolivia and back in the U.S. the only thing the consumer really cares about is everday low prices. If someone is victimized in the process, we don´t see it.

Boys at work

On my first walk on the streets of La Paz a young guy stuck his head out of a microbus and started shouting at me. Then another microbus came by, and another young guy stuck his head out and yelled at me. At first I thought they were insults, and then I gathered that they were calling out the stops of these micros. This job is called the voceador (caller, voicer, whatever). I´m told it pays about $3 or $4 a day, which works out to about $80 a month which is not too bad. A full-time live-in housekeeper in Santa Cruz makes about $100 a month, a tin miner, who has a horrible, dangerous job, about $500 a month.

The limpiabotas (literally clean boots), or shoeshine guys in La Paz have the unique custom of wearing ski masks. One of the kids doing my shoes told me that the masks are to prevent discrimination from schoolmates. This kid, who is 15 and interested in mathematics, shines shoes in the morning and attends school in the afternoon. He doesn´t want to be teased by his friends. The going rate for a shoeshine is 12 to 37 cents. Women also get their shoes shined by the limpiabotas.

I was troubled by one thing I saw. A limpiabotas of about 13 in raggedy, dirty clothes was shining the shoes of a perfectly turned out girl of about 7 in her Don Bosco school uniform with white blouse and plaid skirt. The contrast between the two futures was unsettling.
I caught some images of the Don Bosco kids arriving for school in their uniforms, all blue and gold. The the boys wear white shirts and ties. Very familiar to a graduate of Catholic schools.
Along the alleyways that lead into the school are a bunch of stands selling candy, school supplies, toys and other stuff. The stands are run by cholos, who are Indians living in the city but keeping their traditional dress. One chola arrived with a Don Bosco student holding onto her manta. I assumed it was his nanny, but a local journalism prof who saw the photo said the quality of her clothing indicates she is not a servant, and that the women who work as nannies are much younger than the woman in the picture. So again I misread the cultural cues, or missed the important details.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Frontier justice

In the past few weeks there have been two big stories in the papers about vigilante groups killing supposed malefactors. A few days ago, villagers in an indigenous community, Puesto Nuevo, got together at a meeting and passed a death sentence on a 38-year-old father of six who they believed was a witch. There had been a series of three unexplained deaths in the town and they decided it was this guy´s fault. It was never clear in the articles why they suspected him. The townspeople grabbed the guy, locked him in a trunk and threw it into a bonfire. Two schoolteachers were among those leading the mob. They freely admitted what they had done and said it was just community justice. The authorities are investigating.
A few weeks before that, the mototaxi drivers of a the community of San Julián responded when one of their colleagues was beaten within an inch of his life by robbers. The injured driver named one of his attackers, and the mototaxistas went looking for him. First they found the suspect's brother, 16. They threatened to burn him to death unless he told them where to find the suspect. Then they found the older brother, 17, who was evidently the leader of a group that had been attacking and robbing mototaxi drivers in the area. At least one other mototaxi driver had beeen killed. The mob found a stolen mototaxi at the suspect's house.

The mob led the brothers into the public square where, by now, some 12 hours into the drama, the news media and police had also gathered. But no one dared stop the mob, who put the younger brother on a pedestal for public judgment and beat the other one to death with sticks, stones and fists. All of this was recorded on film.

The photos show the body of the older brother, and the younger brother during his public display, after the beating and in a jail cell, where the public is making fun of him. Photos are from El Deber and El Nuevo Dia.
We of course have our own history of frontier justice for rustlers, robbers and suspected killers Out West, and of racially motivated lynchings well into the 20th century.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The day of the dead, Nov. 2

Today was a national holiday, the Day of the Dead, when the living go to the city where the dead people reside. The General Cemetery of Santa Cruz looks like a little city. Its streets are lined with trees and little tombs designed to look like homes. The less wealthy end up in the equivalent of apartment houses, with the crypts stacked on top of each other in neat rows.
The city of the dead was packed with family members, who brought along their folding chairs and refreshments to sit by the crypts of their departed loved ones and have a little chat. It's a matter of family pride to have fresh flowers on your departed's headstone. Everyone will notice if a grave is neglected. Size of the bouquet seems to matter. The bigger tombs had arrangements of like proportions.

The city's main flower market lies outside the cemetery and the merchants were doing a brisk business. To prevent price gouging, the city established fixed rates just for today. So much for a dozen roses, so much for carnations. On the opposite side of the street, vendors took advantage of the street's closing for the holiday and offered all kinds of food and other goods.
I've never seen anything like this before.