Random Thoughts about Bolivia

24 Jan 5

I’m leaving Bolivia tomorrow, and I couldn’t be happier. Not because I don’t like Bolivia, but because I’ve been sick the whole time I’ve been here. I’m hoping my next stop (Sao Paulo) will be a new, less congested, chapter in my travels. But before I go, I do have some observations I want to remember.

Chicken. Everybody eats chicken. A lot of chicken. With fries. Lot’s of fries. French Fries. Everywhere you turn, Chicken and Fries. If it’s not fried, it’s still chicken and potatoes. One place I went had a very nice soup with the chicken in a large bowl with broth and potatoes, and even a carrot to spice things up. It reminded me of something my Grandmother (my mothers mother) would make. It was very good, and very cheap. But also monotonous

People talk a lot about poverty in these places, and I’ve seen a lot of it. Bolivia is supposed to be the poorest country in South America, and that’s saying a lot. But at the same time, people have enough food to eat and are generally very happy, or so it seems to me. It reminds me a lot of my grandmother (again, mothers mother – Lilly.) She was very poor by almost any measure. She was very frugal (except when it came to costume jewelry.) But she also had enough to eat, and didn’t really want for much. I guess when you don’t have a lot, you don’t desire much more. Was she richer than people living in Bolivia? I don’t know – probably, because she lived in a richer country. But was she able to purchase more, or did her money go any further? I don’t imagine so. She worked a ton for what she had. I remember going to visit her on her 70th Birthday – she worked 80 hours that week (if you ever wonder if unions are good, ask me – but that’s a different story.) She’s dead now, so we’ll never be able to know the answer to some of these questions. She was able to put all of her four children through school, and a couple through college – I don’t know if that would be possible here. Did she have better access to healthcare? Probably not. Healthcare in the US is the best in the world, if you can afford it – she couldn’t. Otherwise, it’s just public healthcare, and it’s not the best. She wasn’t one of those stories you hear about where some cleaning lady leaves a couple of million dollars to a school. At least I don’ t think so anyway – my mom and uncle could be holding out on me. I think it’s the “American Dream” that made the difference in her children’s life and ultimately mine.

The shoeshine boys (there are a lot of them) generally are very young and wear full mask – not quite a ski mask, since people don’t really ski around here, but a full knit mask just the same. It makes them look very sinister. Once I saw a girl of about six years old getting her shoes shined. It was cute.

Things in La Paz, and Bolivia in general, are very cheap. I went out to a chicken – always with the chicken – dinner the other night (Chicken breast and wing, fried, and french fries.) The total was 10 BS, or $1.25. Today, I splurged and got a soda too for $1.50. Street food is even cheaper. Even the Cafe on the first floor of the hotel I’m staying in (and very popular with tourist) is cheap, even though I suspect it’s expensive for locals. A cup of Coca Tea is 4 BS (or .50) and and expresso grande (double) is 8 BS (or $1.) The first night I went to a great restaurant, had a steak and a couple of beers, and it was less than $9/US. I went out for two slices of pizza and a soda, and the total was 20 BS. My first thought was – what a rip off – then I did the math. I was reading the Stranger (a Seattle weekly) and they did a review of a bar that I’ve been to, and mentioned the $8 martini, and I thought – “my god. Who would pay that much for a drink.” Then I remembered that I did.

I’ve heard that Argentina is even cheaper than Bolivia and the steaks better, but I can’t believe that to be true. What next – waiters strolling from table to table with different chunks of meat on skewers, cutting as much off as you want, until you cry uncle. Instead of Mickey Mouse, they would have a giant, walking, cow as a mascot, with the various cuts of meat highlighted on it’s body. To top it off, wine would be cheap too. This would be some sort of Magic Meat Land, not a country.

Why a bowler hat, and not a fedora as in Peru? Apparently the British brought the bowler when they were building the railroad in the past (mid 1850’s?) and unlike the British, it never left. As with a forehead dot in India, and a ring or weight gain and sweat pants in the US, you can tell the marital status of a woman by her hat. Worn to the side means she’s single, gent’s. Straight up on the head means “hands off – she’s married.” I wonder if I can talk my bride to be into a bowler hat instead of a diamond that cost a couple of months salary. “It’s international!” I’ll say. Think of the fun when, instead of a small box for a ring, I bring out a honking hat box. Imagine her surprise when, instead of the largest diamond the world has ever seen, it’s a bowler hat in that big box.

Apparently the protesters don’t protest on the weekends, which is good. I think everyone – protesters and police, go to the soccer matches and do the same things they do during the week, only over teams, not governments. Watching the news this Monday morning (trying to see who was going to the Super Bowl), I see they are back at it again. But on the weekend, nothing. One thing I did notice, is that unlike in the US, the police use quite a bit of restraint. One clip I watched had the protesters forcing themselves behind a fence of some sort of government building. How long do you think something like that would last in the good ole’ US of A? You’d envy Rodney King by the time the “Man” was done with you. Can you say “enemy combatant.”

I always thought that going to Florida was like going back to the 80’s as far as music went. This is like going back to the 70’s, with occasional 80’s easy listening. Right now they are playing “Love is in the Air.” Alan Parsons (Project?) is coming to La Paz in a couple of weeks, and it’s all over the TV and radio. I hope he appreciates how popular he is. I think it’s reciprocal – he doesn’t get a lot of love other places, and Bolivia doesn’t get a lot of musicians coming through. It’s only 8 million people, or about the size of the greater LA area (I think.)

When I left my hotel room this morning, there were a TON of people setting up table on the street outside, as in you walked shoulder to shoulder at a very slow pace. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what the occasion is, but I have figured out what those huge stacks of money were for. Apparently people sell these stacks on the street, and then you go to other people (but sometimes the same people do it), who bless the stack of money by running it through smoke from a brazier. The smoke is created by dumping what appears to be some sort of herb onto the charcoals in the brazier. And, according to my fake money seller, the stack of money is for ALL luck. I wanted one for amore, but they only had the general purpose luck. It was a pretty good deal for 1 Bs. At one booth, a man (who looked vaguely like a porcupine – his hair had a bit of white, and it was sticking straight up, kind of like an early Johnny Cash) was holding up a young porcupine to bless a stack of money. I didn’t know that porcupines were capable of bestowing good luck, and I’d never seen one before, so that was cool. He was gone when it was my turn for some luck.

In La Paz, they’ve got these crazy mini-busses running all around the city. It’s pretty crazy, but somehow no one gets hurt. The basic idea is a bus runs from point A to point B all day in the city. In front they have a sign saying the route they are going, and there is someone, usually a young guy, yelling out the window what the various stops are. He’s also responsible for taking the money, which has always been 1 Bs, or $.125, as far as I’ve seen, but I’ve always been in the city. These guys will pull across three lanes of traffic to pick you up, if you make any motion towards them. I’ve seen them accelerate around a stopped vehicle, only to pull right in front of the same vehicle to pick someone up. Everybody honks (but not like in Peru), yet no one seems to get angry. Any bad driving maneuver you can think of I’ve seen here, but I have yet to see an accident. I think most of Latin America has been like that – controlled chaos. I think it’s just that everybody is trying to make a living, so no one takes it personal. Here is the key – people pay attention. One of my last days in Seattle a young woman pulled right into my lane. I was watching her (riding a motorcycle makes you a better driver) and saw she didn’t even look – she just pulled over. She’s last about 10 minutes in Latin America (and rightfully so.)

As far as trying to make a living, these guys (well, gals mostly) work very hard at it. People sell any and everything. There are people who set up booths in the street to sell only pens and pencils. Granted it was a wide variety of Pens and Pencils, but still it was just those two things. I’ve seen people selling just grapes, or just the fruit from a Prickly Pear Cactus, or, in one case, one particular bag of potato chips. Someone was swelling sheets of paper from a ream (among other stuff.) I don’t know how people make a living. Take my internet cafe, for example. It’s only 2 Bs an hour, or $.25. They’ve got 8 computers. If someone is on those computers every minute they are open, they are only making $24 a day. Usually they aren’t even a quarter full – so what does that mean – they make $6 a day. It’s the same for people selling chicken for $1.25.

When I woke up today, I felt great. I didn’t sleep much, but that’s OK – it’ll make it easier to sleep tonight. I hope, hope, hope I’m finally over my cold. I feel great, and only have a little bit of congestion. Nothing a couple of days at the beach can’t cure. I wish I could say I like Bolivia more, now that I’m not sick, or as sick, but frankly, it’s kind of boring. I’m happier being here, but that would be true where ever I am, even in Magic Meat Land.

One of the things I wanted to see was a place, near my hotel, called the Witches Market. It was pretty interesting. One of the things they sell are dried llama/alpaca fetuses. It’s creepy seeing 20 or 30 of those things in a basket, just staring at you. I briefly thought about getting one for my sister as a souvenir, but it’s odd, and I don’t know what the import laws are on dried llama fetuses, and frankly, that’s not something most people need. And eventually her cat would try to eat it.

One last question I have that I’m hoping someone can answer – why does almost everyone on the planet have black hair. If you look at the native people in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia, all of them have (beautiful) jet black hair. Is it a dominant gene? The only place I can think of that doesn’t have exclusively black hair is Europe, who’s spread to other parts of the world through conquest, etc. But how did non-black hair get created? My though is that people moved north out of Africa, and as they moved north, eventually lost the need for pigment in their skin, which affected skin and hair. But that theory only works with the Scandinavian people. Parts of Japan, Russia, Canada and the US all have people who lived very far north for a long time. Was it that they just weren’t there long enough to lose pigmentation? The most current and popular theory has the Americas populated for only 20,000 years. I imagine that moving out of Africa to the Nordic countries happened a long time before that, so maybe that explains it. I really want to know. I’ve always thought that the jet black hair people have is just the most beautiful thing in the world, and I wish I had it. Then again, any color other than gray would be OK by me.

Men from Denmark make me feel short. Bastards.