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.


A diary entry from 2006 about this trip

Samuel was my guide for trip to Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan site west of La Paz, and Copacabana, jumping off point for Lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol.  I found him in a little travel agency behind the church of San Francisco in the tourist area of La Paz.  We talked for an hour about where he would take me, various options. 

In the end, we agreed to a day and a half trip to the ruins of Tiwanaku, a night in Huatapata on the shore of Lake Titicaca, on to Copacabana and the Isla del Sol, an island with Inca ruins.
Meals, hotel, admission to museums, driver, boat trips, ferry, etc., $158.
OK.  I had a driver and private guide. I forgot to ask about the vehicle.

Samuel is 35, speaks Aymara, the language of President Evo Morales, as well as Spanish, and has different ideas about auto safety. The vehicle he picked me up in was a 1984 Jeep Wagoneer, a big thing with terrible shocks and springs, a front end out of alignment, and altogether shaky safety features.  The good thing about it was that it is a 4x4 with monster traction, which proved really important on some of the lousy dirt roads we took to some great sites.  To be honest, my nightmare scenario was seeing the Wagoneer conk out in the middle of nowhere, but it made it.

We went first to Tiwanaku, a huge site with a pyramid, several temples and lots of sculptures from a culture that preceded the Incas.  The Tiwanaku culture, which I had never heard of, sprang up about 1500 BC and at its peak in the early Christian era, it had an empire that reached into what is now Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina. Their buildings had many of the astronomical features of the Mayas, that is they were built in a fashion that tracked the important stages of the sun and moon.  Some amazing sculptures on the site. 

The civilization died out in around 1200 AD, probably because of a Niño effect that resulted in a severe drought that lasted for several decades. Samuel hired a special guide, Macario, to take me around the site.  He was also an Aymara speaker.  His Spanish was very fast but very clipped and precise.  Some of the things he told me about the monuments were preposterous, but one of the marvels he showed me was the real thing.  The Tiwanaku had carved a swirled hole through a stone in the temple wall. The swirls were cut to mimic the shape of the inner ear. A priest would put a kind of megaphone into one end of the hole and it created a tremendous amplification effect.  Macario demonstrated to the sceptical journalist, who became a believer in this story.  The idea was that a priest could speak to 10,000 people in the courtyard of the temple and be heard. I believe it, although I don´t believe that sculptures in one of the temples represent races of China and Africa, as Macario said.  They represent different ethnic groups ruled over by the Tiwanaku, scholars believe.

Samuel asked me if I was OK with travelling on a dirt road rather than the highway to our hotel in Huatapata to cut the distance in half.  I said sure.  It´s all subsistence farms in every direction once you´re outside the city.  There are no vehicles and no machinery.  I saw people plowing with animals, either bovines or mules, and working with hoes and shovels.  They raise sheep, cattle, llamas and pigs, and they grow potatoes and cereal grains. The road was really bad in places, and it wasn´t always clear that we would make it through the mud.  At one point we came upon some Aymaras filling up the potholes with rocks.  One of the guys was wearing a Chicago White Sox cap.  I told him they were the world champions of baseball.  He was very amused.  Ball caps from US colleges and professional sports teams are everywhere – used clothing pours into this country from the U.S.

Since no one out here owns a vehicle, people walk, ride a bicycle, hitchhike or catch one of the minibuses.  It was getting dark, the road was really bad and all I could think of was that if the jeep got stuck in one of the mudholes, we were going to be sleeping in an adobe hut with a straw roof that night.

We made it into Huatapata and had a great dinner of Lake Titicaca trout.  The hotel, Hotel Titikaka, is right on the shore.  It was very cold in my hotel room, but it was a good place, $30 a night.

The next morning we rose early because we needed to get to Copacabana before the professional bicycle race (a sort of Tour of Bolivia, which lasts a week) closed down the road. As we came around a curve, we saw a minibus lying on its side in the road.  The driver evidently went into the curve too fast, went off the road, climbed up the hill on the opposite side and rolled over.  As is typical with public transport out in these areas, the bus (really a minivan) was overloaded with about 20 people. One teenage girl had a bloody nose, but otherwise no one was hurt.  I helped about a dozen guys turn the thing upright (of course, the counterfeit batteries I had unwittingly bought for my camera failed and I didn´t get a picture). We took two adults and six kids in the backseat to the straits of Tiquina, where we met another fine example of public transport, the motor launches that carry poor folks (all folks) across for 20 cents. The boats are small and they put two dozen people in.  The boat I was in listed to starboard about 5 degrees, the water was choppy, a crosswind rocked the boat and a 12-year-old was at the tiller.  I was ready to jump.  No life preservers aboard, no safety.  That´s why you read about these horrible accidents involving ferry boats and buses in poor countries.  The people can´t pay much and there is no maintenance or safety.

Copacabana is a corruption of two Aymara words that mean View of the Lake and refers to the high hills on either side of the city.  We had missed the morning ferry to Isla del Sol, so we decided to take the dirt track that follows the edge of the hills to Yampupata, which is much closer to the island.  Along the way we stopped at the stone city of Samaya, which has homes built around 800 years ago, before the Incas, and which the locals are trying to develop as a tourist attraction.   The biggest deterrent is the fact that the road there is pretty scary.  The road hugs the side of a hill for almost all of the 8 or 9 km. from Copacabana, and there is a dropoff of a couple hundred feet if the driver makes a mistake or hits a pothole and loses control.  Samaya reminds me of the abandoned stone village on Achill Island in Ireland and dates to about the same period. 

On the beach at Yampupata, we saw a dozen totora reed boats that the locals rent to tourists for little excursions.  The trip across the strait to the Isla del Sol takes about 15 minutes from here as opposed to the 90 minutes from Copacabana.  The lake has an average depth of 750 feet and looks turquoise and inviting, but it´s very cold. Titicaca is from the Aymara words for puma and stone.  El Alto, which is a city of about 800,000 poor folks lying above La Paz, contributes mightily to pollution of the lake, as does the Peruvian city of Puno, which has 2.5 million people and can be seen from the top of the Isla del Sol.  I had never heard of Puno.

We climbed the Inca steps from the dock up to a village and then on to the highest points on the island which are about 500 feet above lake level and are  above 13,000 feet.  At this altitude, I´m completely out of breath on a climb that would´nt normally have me huffing and puffing. The hills around the island and really all around the lake look to be completely cultivated in terraces (pampas) for cultivation of potatoes or the local grains.

The island has lots of ruins on the north end, but we really didn´t have time to visit them and still make it back to La Paz before dark.

Freedom of expression

In the towns on the Brazilian border, I heard that some journalists accept money for writing stories.  I also heard that they are subjected to pressure from local officials when they report something unfavourable.

The publisher of La Razon in La Paz told me that the newspapers might be engaging in some self-censorship because of threats from the government of controls or of pulling their advertising, which might represent 15 to 20 percent of a newspaper´s revenues.


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.