Milking and Drinking on an Andean Bolivian ranch

I spent my last six weeks in Bolivia living in Pasorapa, a small agricultural community in the far south of the country. I learned how to milk cows, and how to drink ambrosia, a mixture of grape liquor and milk straight from the udder that the farmers drink each morning at 5:30 am. They claim it’s to help sanitize the milk, but I’m pretty sure they just prefer being a bit buzzed for the morning’s work…

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Blood Sacrifice to the Potosi Mines

In late May I spent a day hanging out with the miners of the Bolivian City of Potosi, home to the largest silver mine of human history, during their annual blood sacrifice to Tito, the shadowy god/supernatural force of the underworld. We started drinking singani (grape liquor) at 9 am, beers at 10 and grain liquor at 11, and by 12 we (i.e the miners; I was not trusted with the knife) were ready to cut some llama throats. After the blood was scattered liberally around the mining site, the llamas were quartered, butchered and barbecued; we feasted on them as the sun set over the mountains.

I took this video of one of the four llamas sacrificed that morning. It’s on facebook, so only those of you with a facebook account will be able to see it…apologies.!/video/video.php?v=622300308034

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Suggested Revisions to Bolivian Travel Guides, Part 2: Bolivian Bullfighting

Key bullfighting vocabulary:

Corrida de Toros: Bullfight
Toro: Bull
Capear: To bullfight (literally: to use one’s cape)
Capeador: Bullfighter
Chicha: Homebrewed corn-mash beverage

1) When the local Pasorapa men explain over their 10th bucket of chicha the night before the festival begins that the bullfights are no big deal and are actually pretty safe, they are lying. No amount of questioning, however, will get them to admit the truth.

  • Note: The confident assurances that a few weeks of cow-milking is sufficient preparation for any and all bovine-related activities are false.

2) On the day the festival begins, do not casually inquire if it’s perhaps possible to enter the ring with an experienced capeador after the corrida ends. This will be taken as a binding contract pledging your participation in the actual fight.

3)    Prior to the bullfight, do not casually inquire if it’s perhaps possible to try some of the specially brewed bullfight chicha. This will be taken as a binding contract pledging the consumption of a dozen large gourdfuls.

  • Note: when the Pasorapa men promise that the chicha is really not very alcoholic and you shouldn’t worry about drinking, they are lying. It is very alcoholic, and you should worry about drinking.

4)    When offered a chance to take a graceful exit from said binding contract by fighting a calf, do no let said chicha goad you into demanding to be allowed to fight the full-grown bulls.

5)    Do not, under any circumstances, accept more chicha while waiting for the bulls, no matter how strongly the Pasorapenos assure you that you are not buzzed because the chicha really isn’t that strong and you must just be nervous. You are, as they suggest and with good reason, nervous. You’re also buzzed.

  • Note: The chicha drinking may or may not be a ruse to distract gringos from noticing that the bulls keep getting larger, faster and angrier over the course of the afternoon.

6)    When the final and most intimidating bull of the day enters the ring and none of your chicha drinking companions enter to fight, this not a cue that it’s your turn. It’s a cue that none of them want to fight Large Brown Bull, because he’s known around town as being muy bravo.

  • Note: The word “bravo,” when applied to a bull, does not mean brave. It means “wild” or “uncontrollable.”

7)    When Large Brown Bull enters the ring and does not appear mad, that does not indicate that he was not previously mad nor that he will not become mad. It just means he’s momentarily confused and hoping his cow-harem mates or some fresh alfalfa might suddenly appear.

  • Note: Assurances by your now quite large circle of drunk Pasorapenos that Large Brown Bull is really quite playful in his little bull heart are in no way to be trusted.

8)    Unlike in the movies, you will not be given an elegant red cape or flag with which to capear; come prepared with a broomstick and a red article of clothing.

  • Note: The red article of clothing should preferably not be a Colombian© ski-jacket that weighs ten pounds.

9)    Unlike in the movies, you are not expected the kill the bull with a sword, but simply to incite him into charging you with your makeshift flag and, while he is charging, simply untie a colored bandana wrapped around his horns, into which has been tied the prize money.

  • Note: The bandana will be so tightly tied that, even if you actually manage to get your hand on the fabric during the charge, you will not be able to untie it without a pair of scissors and a magnifying class.
  • Note: Absolutely nothing about this process is simple.

10)    The loud shots of “gringo” from the crowd, while intended as encouragement for you, will merely enrage Large Brown Bull to a fever pitch of intensity.

  • Note: Rocks thrown by the local boys are not supposed to be encouraging. They’re just trying to further enrage the already furious bull.

11)     When Large Brown Bull lowers his head and begins pawing the ground, that is not a sign that he’s admitting defeat and wants you untie said bandana. It is a sign that he’s about to charge, horns first.

  • Note: The bull is not actually charging the Colombia jacket; the jacket has simply attracted his attention to you.

12)    Be aware of large rocks in your general vicinity: tripping while backpedaling rapidly is a very good way to get hoofed in your ribs.

13)    When, after 20-odd charges, your broomstick breaks in half, do not attempt to continue fighting: the relationship between flag length and danger is inversely exponential.

14)    Take advantage of your first goring to quit the ring, and do not be fooled by the clapping of the crowd into thinking you’re doing a good job. They’re just excited about seeing a little blood.

15)     Remember that style counts for everything: if, after your third fall and nearly fatal stamping, when the bull handlers race in with lassos to gingerly trap the steaming, fuming bull, you stand up with a smile and give a bow, you will receive a standing ovation. And then more shouts of “gringo,” and taunts about how you didn’t even get the prize and how you should get back in the ring.

  • Note: Be aware that virtually no one ever actually takes the prize off the bull’s horns, a secret that will only be shared after the fight is over.

16)     If you’ve fought bravely and/or been gored, you will receive the prize money for which you vainly strove, once it has been pried off the still-angry-but-now-safely-tied Large Brown Bull.

  • Note: Any and all prize money must be immediately spent on buying your extremely drunk chicha drinking companions another 10 buckets of chicha while they ask you to admit that the-bullfight-wasn’t-such-a-big-deal-after-all-and-why-were-you-so-nervous-you-silly-gringo.

17)     Be prepared to receive a minimum of two proposals from drinking companions for their daughters’ hands-in-marriage. It will not be clear if they were (1) impressed by your bullfighting skills, (2) impressed by your prize money, or (3) just really drunk.

  • Note: unlike discussions of bullfighting, marriage proposals made while drunk do not carry legally binding status, no matter how many enthusiastic handshakes have been forced on you.

18)    If you ever have the opportunity to capear en una Corrida de Toros, do not, under any circumstances, pass it up.


Filed under Social and Cultural Observations

In the Andes, Summiting the Politically Impossible: Power and Rhetoric at Bolivia’s World Peoples’ Conference

“Aquí estámos,” the campesina’s voice rang out, more heart than tongue, “Bolivia, la esperanza del mundo.” Here we are: Bolivia, the hope of the world.

And there we were, day two of the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, filling an overflowing classroom serving double duty as the home for the Working Group on the International Climate Tribunal. Her words pierced the dense clouds of Venezuelan flags, lefty beards, cholita skirts and raised hands that misted the air, capturing perfectly the mix of optimism, anger and political courage that defined the conference.

As the applause died down, the activist retook her seat and the discussion returned to the more mundane topic at hand: the location of the proposed Climate Tribunal. The question had been more than thoroughly reviewed over the last forty minutes, but, sensing the room was not quite ready for a decision, I turned my attention to the small mound of coca leaves piled on my desk. Where conferences in other countries might have had coffee urns, we were supplied with a sizable percentage of the country’s favorite leafy crop, encouraged to chew by the handful while working group sessions jogged through their labyrinth discussions.

Like nearly every element of the conference, the coca carried a political message of resistance and opposition to the United States; from the initial planning to the elaborate opening ceremonies, the event was a brilliant act of public theater, one designed to not only bolster Bolivia’s international role in the climate debate but to attack the capitalist, imperialist Western powers. It is well-trodden ground. For years Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, has placed the struggle against capitalism in the context of environmentalism, promoting Bolivia as an alternative model of development. His stance was put to the test during the recent Copenhagen accords, where Morales made international headlines by refusing to sign the final climate agreement.

Andean traditions dominated the conference's opening ceremonies; here, a priest blesses coca leaves.

It was within this context that the self-proclaimed spiritual leader of the Andes announced La Conferencia Mundial De Los Pueblos, declaring it an opportunity to bring together the governments of the world “who want to work with their people.” Convened on April 19-22 in Tiquipaya, a small town just outside of Cochabamba, the conference was designed as an opportunity for the gathering’s eponymous pueblos to voice ideas excluded by the elitist Copenhagen talks. Evo’s major goals were to develop a proposal for the climate tribunal, as well as to agree to a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and to organize an international referendum on climate change.

In addition to the stated goals, el cumbre climatico was also an opportunity for Evo to strengthen his political position at home. His vision of an alternative model to capitalism is built around a vague concept of living well rather than living better – in Spanish, vivir bien no vivir mejor. Living well is a catchphrase for what Evo sees as a historical, indigenous cosmology, one that emphasizes harmony with Mother Earth. In Evo’s vision, this cosmology offers a path to save civilization from its overconsuming ways. Though lacking in specifics, it is a deeply empowering narrative for a people that occupy a small, poor, landlocked country, providing the Bolivian people with their own rendezvous with destiny.

Though a large international crowd gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivian students and activists also had a strong presence.

Though the actual influence of Evo’s rhetoric is open for debate, the conference did attract a truly global crowd to little known Cochabamba. International activists, government officials and social movement leaders exchanged greetings and retorts with northern envo-NGO personnel, university students, Bolivians campesinos, and an uncomfortable number of the dredded hippies. The eclectic climate community filled the Tiquipaya township from morning to night, buying, selling, eating, lounging, sunning and generally festivaling, pulling together the best traditions of craft fairs, political rallies and farmers markets into one organic whole.

Meanwhile the formal proceedings centered around 17 working groups focused on issues ranging from carbon markets to forests to climate migration. Each working group, which met for a total of 16 hours over three days, pulled together some few hundred of the attendees with the goal of producing a series of documents that could be presented at the December UN climate talks in Mexico. While the streets were filled with merriment, the working groups were all business. Or, rather, all politics; the sessions were sites of democracy in true action, with all the good, the bad and the ugly. Sets of exchanges would linger over word choice for hours while casually sweeping away decades of legal precedent with the click of a powerpoint-projected mouse. At the same time, the debates were inspiring as only participatory politics can be; meaningful issues were raised, opinions heard, consensus found.

Yet while intellects strived, the debates were anything but academic. While developed countries still debate the validity of climate science, Bolivia is already suffering the consequences of what Evo had dubbed el crisis climatico. La Paz, the capital, draws 40% of its water from surrounding glaciers, which  are already in the process of melting. Climate change is not a question of if, or even when, but how: how bad will it get before the world acts. As one local activist described it to me, climate change is not a potential future but a set of lived experiences. He had made the long journey from La Paz to tell his own story, to tie his own history into the greater tapestry. His aspirations were widely held; there was a sense among Bolivians that the conference was a moment to share their unique perspectives, to be heard by the world at large. “I know the problem is big,” a friend told me, “but this is our chance to change things.” She paused. “We have to change things.” There was hope that, if only they were loud enough, clear enough, if only they could only make us Westerners understand the realities facing Bolivia – the realities facing their families and their communities – we would respond. We would have to respond.

This sense of hope, though, was countered by a deeper undercurrent of anger, an anger focused not on the fact of climate change but on its dynamic. A tragic irony of global warming is that the worst effects will be felt not by the wealthy, emitting nations but by the poorer countries, those least prepared to respond to them; it is in the developing states of the global south, places already prone to environmental fluctuations, with weak infrastructure and little discretionary government funding, that climate change will wreak the most havoc. To students of colonial history, the story is all too familiar, as the countries of south Asia, Africa and Latin America suffer once again for the sins of the West.

It was this anger that reverberated through microphones and strode across fliers, shaking heads and raising fists. Each working group I visited was regularly interrupted by invectives against The West, aimed largely but not exclusively at the United States.  Unfortunately, that justifiable rage took material form through politically preposterous proposals. Working groups demanded that 6% of the GDP of developed countries be put towards repaying a “climate debt” to developing nations, while insisting on a complete reform of the United Nation and the opening of international borders to climate migration. Meanwhile, carbon markets, free trade agreements, agribusiness, genetically engineered crops, privatization and intellectual property rights were among the many global trends opposed by the final Peoples’ Agreement.

These ideas ignored political practicalities, following instead the logic of Bolivia’s social movements, movements that have been empowered by their own successes in domestic politics and further bolstered by the rhetoric of their president. It is a logic that places faith in the visions of indigenous peoples and believes that capitalism, imperialism and colonialism are elements of a single, evil, unitary phenomenon: “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation and death,” the Agreement reads, “or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life… [which requires] the recovery, revalorization and strengthening of the knowledge, wisdom and ancestral practices of Indigenous Peoples.”

The conference was structured to provide space for expressing indigenous worldviews and customs.

With this logic dictating the conference proceedings, little in the way of realistic short-term strategies or actions was accomplished. But then, there was little the summit could accomplish in those terms. World powers haven’t listened seriously to the demands of developing countries in the past, and they are unlikely to do so now. Power is power, and those who have it have it. Developed countries shift policies when their people demand it, and not before.

But it is here that the conference – and the logic of Bolivia’s indigenous movements – may ultimately find its purpose. For while political action is always dependent on current political realities, those realities can change. And major change always begins with big ideas that come from the margins of society and slowly gain credibility. The arguments put forth by conference participants were of conviction and overwhelming moral force, and over time, they may move to the center of debate. Meanwhile, by providing a common, democratic space for activists from developing countries, the conference took an important step forward not only by shaping those big ideas but by providing a more unified voice for the low-income nations of the world. This is exactly how movements around big ideas form, and exactly what is needed to start pushing powerful arguments — about climate change and our relationship to the earth – into the center of global political debate.

In the short-term, the glaciers of La Paz and those who depend on them face a difficult if not impossible battle. But in the long-term, it is the emotions and ideas arising from places like Bolivia that may ultimately help us confront climate change. Because any serious attempt to deal with our mounting environmental and resource issues will require a hard look at our basic economic systems and our emphasis on growth; eventually, it may just require a revision of our fundamental understanding of and relationship to Pachamama – and a recognition that harmony is more than just a word.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics and Globalization, Politics, Resources, Uncategorized

Deviled Dancers, Drunken Pilgrimages and the Magic of Bolivia’s Carnaval

It felt more like an icy baseball than a water balloon. “Bienvenidos a Carnaval,” los jovenes shouted at me as the car skated by, leaving me nearly bruised and totally drenched. Little did I know that balloon was only the first sip of the soaking celebrations that lay ahead; hailing from non-Louisiana America, I was simply unprepared for the carnivalism that is February in Bolivia. Originally a Catholic festival giving vent to the vices of devotees before the 40-day strictures of Lent – where alcohol and rich foods are often sworn off – here in Bolivia the holiday has become more seasonal than religious, liberally mixing Christian theology, Andean tradition, alcohol and water fights in a month-long embrace of the waning days of summer. In the process, Carnaval manages to lace together many of the seemingly contradictory threads of Bolivian society, creating a thickly lustrous and many-hued – if not quite unadulterated – cultural tapestry.

My first globo – as water balloons are known here – was nearly four weeks out from the beginning of Lent. In the days that followed, the streets became ever more aquatically treacherous. I found myself avoiding open doorways and suspiciously eyeing kids on the streets, knowing their predilection for gringo targets. Americans and women being the prime balloonees, my gringa friends had it even worse. As the days wore on, the soakings became a nearly unavoidable daily ritual, moving from charmingly refreshing to frustratingly inevitable. Luckily, I was to learn, Carnaval holds out charms to the young and old, and the only thing that flows more freely than water is beer.

Though the season’s liberal spirits are in the air – and in the cups – for many weeks, the partying starts in earnest on the first Thursday in February, designated as “Compadres” – technically “godfather” but here closer to “drinking buddies.” Bands of guy friends gather up for a boy’s night out, hitting barbecue restaurants and bottles with equal intensity before regrouping for the bars and discos. Only after midnight can women join the party, though due to the dubious mix of roasted meat and alcohol few seemed so inclined. Femalelessly uninhibited, the toasts continued toasting till the sun rose.

A week later the roles were reversed as the city’s female population sallied forth for Comadres. Comadres most closely resembles a massive bachelorette party, with each group decked out in their unique – to choose a generous word – costumes; bright green headbands, 80’s-style leggings and unsubtle sexual innuendo held the dance floors against all comers.

On Friday morning, after a few hours sleep, a good portion of Cochabamba’s under-30 crowd heads a hundred and fifty mile south to the city of Oruro, home to Bolivia’s most famous Carnaval celebration. Pulling up to the bus terminal after the blessedly brief five-hour ride, however, I feared a mistake had been made. Oruro is a cold and rather somber location, with fading paint, decayed buildings and a noticed lack of street repair. It reminded me of nothing so much as a rough neighborhood in my hometown of Baltimore, a city all-too conscious of its long-past industrial glory. But as we cleared our way from the transit hub, the city’s festival unfolded before us as a quintessentially Bolivian cultural collage: streets filled with roasting chickens and waving flags, youngsters carrying water guns and sweets, masks, streamers and ponchos for sale on every corner. A visit to Oruro at any other time of the year might be hard to justify, but the week of Carnaval is a glorious, noteworthious exception.

The weekend’s events center around la entrada, a dance parade that snakes five kilometers through the city’s central avenues. From early Saturday morning straight through till dawn on Monday, these dances slither and shake uninterrupted through the streets. The route is lined on both sides with large bleachers to accommodate the 300,000-odd festival-goers. The thronging spectators, filling the barely-standing stands, cheer loudly for 48 uninterrupted hours, drinking thousands of beers and exchanging – in true Carnaval spirit – tens of thousands of globos over the heads of the dance groups.

These are no ordinary dance groups, however. From the jungles to the north, lowlands to the east and mountains to the west come more than 30,000 Bolivians, each part of one of more than 100 dance fraternities. These fraternities are both social clubs and dance organizers; over the course of a year, each group might perform five or six times in various festivals while holding dozens of other parties and get-togethers. But these are mere limbering exercises for the Oruro weekend, the apogee of the fraternity calendar. Groups begin weekly practices three months ahead of time, while each member is fitted annually with a hand-stitched original costume. Costumes, though unique to each group, identify the fraternity with one of a dozen dance traditions, each with its own rich history and set of associations. Corporales, for example, growing out of southern, horse-country Tarija, incorporates large metal spurs on each caballero’s ankle. Tinku, meanwhile, is a stylized Andean fight-dance, developed from annual rural boxing matches among young men, historically savage enough to result in death. More than merely a performance style, dances serve as cultural markers, uniting fraternity groups and individuals around the country.

The dedication and seriousness of purpose shows through in each and every troupe. The proud performers spring from foot to foot for more than five hours as they process through the streets, their bright costumes shimmering with each acrobatic move. By day, eagles fly and bears waggle before the crowds, men somersaulting and jeweled, bedecked women of all ages eliciting loud shots of “beso” – kiss – from the eager crowd. By night, the streets alight with live flames licking from ornate headdresses and firecrackers shooting from otherwise-traditional spears. It is a flowing sea of coordinated movement, with waves of hundred-person marching bands cresting among the agile human waters.

Most famous of all the dances is la diablada, a performance narrative that pits El Diablo against the Archangel Michael in a battle of temptation and purity for the soul of Carnaval. Fierce devil masks and blazing swords parry back and forth as the eternal adversaries joust in perfect sync over the asphalt and through the plazas. The contest is more than metaphor amidst a weekend that so strangely yet smoothly unites the base and the spiritual. Carnaval would not be Carnaval without heavy drinking and everything that accompanies it – merrymaking, boisterousness, sex and the occasional outbreak of violence. Yet it maintains a deeply and authentically religious air. Saturday morning begins with a procession of priests blessing the parade and offering thanksgivings. Early Sunday morning, fraternity member still on their feet unite at the city’s cathedral to receive a blessing from the city’s Virgin del Socavón, the patron saint of miners, to whom the festival is dedicated. This is far from formulaic – praying for the year ahead, many tears are shed by the exhausted but pious devotee dancers.

The weekend is not only religious but civic. Each fraternity shoulders the cost of their performance; the hand-made customs, instrument rentals and transportation to and from Oruro can cost more than $20,000, a small fortune here in Bolivia. The dances are a gift both to the Virgin and to the citizens of Oruro, given as a sign of religious devotion and community spirit.

This gift, in turn, is recognized and respected by the crowds. While la gente party beyond their heart’s content in the stands, they maintain a deep appreciation for the dancers; globos, for example, can be hurled with alarming force at friends and foes alike, but let an errant balloon hit a costume-clad bailerine and the crowd will turn with immediate anger. There are two simultaneous fiestas – the tawdry party of the stands and the holy celebration of the streets. And though the physical lines between participants and spectators blur as the weekend intoxicates itself, an ethical boundary remains.

The alcohol-infused pilgrimage is not the only strange weave of the weekend. While the horned dancers who make up la diablada – the devil’s dance – purportedly represent the Christian Satan, the tradition dates directly back to the worship of Huari, a pre-Columbian god of the underworld who jealously protected his mineral wealth and demanded elaborate ceremonies. His symbols, especially the snake and the grasshopper, are in proud display in many of the weekend costumes. The history of the weekend is one of this kind of continuous adaptation to new practices and new cultures, passing not only the two religions but myth and folklore through one vibrant loom.

After a long weekend of partying – many Bolivians come without lodgings and stay on the streets for the full two days – attendees return home by the bus and truckload late Sunday and early Monday. But while Carnaval Orureno slowly unwinds, the same colorful weave of practices is unrolling across the country. Monday and Tuesday are feriadas, national holidays, with every school and virtually every company and store in the country closed. The commercial pause lets families gather in their homes. Many use the time to attend church and prepare for Lent. Many more – including some of those same Catholics – hold challahs, a traditional Andean ceremony to bless homes and businesses. Koas – collections of herbs, coca leaves, and other small offerings to pachamama – are burned over coal fires, drifting earthy smoke through avenues and alleys. While these parallel religious devotions are being offered, families of every cloth are buying bonbons and confetti in ample measure, filling children’s mouths with sweets and streets with brightly strewn fliers. Brightly strewn wet fliers, that is; las feriadas are the height of the water wars, as trucks filled with young people careen through town with tanks of water, bucketing unlucky pedestrians and generally wrecking mayhem.

The following weekend, floods subsided, towns and cities large and small hold their own entradas. Though not on the scale of Oruro, these are still massive celebrations that shut down city centers and draw tens of thousands of spectators; Cochabamba’s proceso de procesos, their version of the parade, is the city’s largest party of the year.

Exhausted from the previous week, I had only joined Cocha’s festivities at 8 pm, 12 hours behind my already drunken compatriots. And I must admit that, despite my late start, by the proceso’s last procession late Saturday night I was over-ready for rest, relaxation and a bit of mental and physical cleansing. Rising early Sunday morning for an ambitious jog, I realized I was not the only one ready to forget the exuberances of the last few weeks – there was a an army of city employees filling the streets, dismantling the bleachers and cleaning up the debris of Cochabamba’s great hoorah. Within hours, the city was back to its quasi-orderly self, and bleary-eyed families were heading through the now-clean streets to Mass.

The rapid shift from cheap beer to holy sacrament was strangely in harmony with the rest of the season. It is these contradictory elements – the raucous boozing and the pious praying, the Christian and the pagan, the tranquil family gatherings and the riotous streets – that ultimately define Carnaval. It is a plurination-wide moment of release, a month of relaxed hierarchy, occasional lawlessness and the flaunting of social mores. And yet it is also a festival deeply rooted in community, a space in time where people come together to celebrate in a form that binds together Bolivia’s complicated cultural fibers. More than even the water balloons, I was most struck by the deeply communal sense of joy that bounded through each and every household throughout those early weeks of February, a social fabric woven more tightly than any I’ve seen in America.


Filed under Social and Cultural Observations, Uncategorized

On Adam Smith and Coca Tea

There aren’t many places in the world where one can buy Nintendo Wiis, dried llama fetuses and bananas by the ton, but La Cancha is one of them. A series of interconnecting outdoor markets, stands, tiendas and shopping malls that stretches over nearly a hundred square blocks in the heart of Cochabamba, La Cancha is both the city’s bustling commercial center and a physical manifestation of Bolivia’s economy, encapsulating both its strengths and weaknesses.

My first visit to La Cancha was an overwhelmingly mix of sights, smells, sounds and jabbed elbows. Crossing Calle Aroma, the traditional northern border of the market, there is a veritable assault of vendors vending from above and below, from left and right, from the streets, sidewalks and storefronts. The sheer variety of products makes Wal-Mart look like a provincial corner store: flat-screen televisions and empanadas, coca leaves and Nike cleats, Levi jeans, hand-made jewelry and imported French colognes. The market is chaotically well-organized; there’s no map or guide to the endless labyrinth, but Cochabambinos can steer helpless gringos to rows of belts, wholesale fruits, electronics, kitchenware, and artisan goods (a mortal tourist trap).

The market’s physical form reflects a hierarchy of income: at the higher financial end, individuals sell their wares from rented or owned shops; outside these stores, salesmen and women rent street and market stalls, while circling around them others set up shop on corners and on the edges of sidewalk; finally, thousands more ambulate, selling from wheelbarrows and baskets. These layers also represent a chronological progression – the market has slowly grown over the preceding decades, expanding both in territory and in density as the region’s population has swelled and as more and more of the economy has moved to the streets.

from store to street

Not all of Cochabamba exhibits the same frenzied economic activity; in fact, in the city as a whole, there is a far more relaxed attitude towards commerce than one would find in any Western country. On any given street, three or four out of every ten stores may be closed – because the owners are on vacation, because business is slow, because no one has yet arrived to open it. As in many other Spanish-speaking countries, lunch is the primary meal of the day, and many businesses close from 12:00 to 3 to allow their employees to return home to eat. This holds not only for small family corner stores but for large banks, cell phone distributors and government offices. Hours are not only endlessly variable but invariably unposted. In the same vein, customer service could not be described as highly prized – there is an underlying assumption that the stores are providing a service by being open for business in the first place. Because chain stores are rare and most operations are family-owned and independent, there is an unpredictability and informality to business that – for better or worse – is rare in the ever-orderly commerce of the United States.

But things are different on the south side of Calle Aroma. There, stalls open bright and early Monday through Saturday, and lunch is taken on the job. Each and every vendor is eager for your business – because if they don’t get you, the competitors on either side, in front and behind surely will. The intensity of competition gives new meaning to the term marketplace – in the central clothing region, there are at least two hundred stalls selling virtually identical selections of jeans; the laws of supply and demand unfold in real time. Capitalism sparks in the air from the sheer energy exerted to make sales and turn a profit.

Making the sale

The products on display, meanwhile, speak to Bolivia’s integration into an ever-more global economy. Tens of thousands of pirated DVDs go for a few bolivianos a piece. [Even more appealing than the prices are the astonishing provenances of the movies – a recently purchased copy of Inglourious Basterds was dubbed from French to Spanish, filmed inside a movie theater using Russian subtitles and delivered in an English DVD case.]

Next to the DVDs are ripped software packages – a program as expensive as Microsoft Suite goes for less than $2. Shampoos, cell phones, vacuums, cameras, mugs, backpacks, pencils and polo shirts all bear the stamp of intercontinental commerce. Meanwhile, imported used t-shirts, button-downs and trucker-hats from the US fill street after street, dressing lower-income Bolivians in bizarrely retro outfits (“Give Hugs not Drugs,” reads my local fruit-seller’s baseball cap). Nowhere is the turbo global-consumption more evident than in the sneaker neighborhood, where Puma and Nike battle it out with Adidas and Reebok, all competing against identical Chinese knock-offs in every imaginable shape, size, color and quality. Never could I have imagined that were so many varieties of shoe-wear in all the world.

But a small sampling of the vast shoe menu

Yet despite the tremendous range of goods — and the cornucopia of sneakers — La Cancha bears little relation to modern malls. It is a unique hybrid of traditional Bolivian commerce and modern capitalism, of dead baby farm animals and Nintendo gaming systems; it is a collision of worlds. Unlike other more traditional businesses in Cochabamba, La Cancha is always open and the customer is almost always right. But as in traditional Bolivian towns, Wednesdays and Saturdays remain Market Days, when the already crowded streets are flooded with more goods, products and peoples. When it storms, the streets are literally flooded, washing the debris of twenty thousand people along the ankles of buyers and sellers alike. Imported home theaters go for $5,000 while home-grown bananas sell seis por un peso (42 bananas for $1 US). Cactus fruit fight for space with the latest Abercrombie & Fitch designs. The rich come for computers and the poor for rice.

It is this collision that makes La Cancha such an accurate microcosm of the Bolivian economy. Like any market, it is a site of commerce and competition. Money is exchanged, profits earned, goods distributed. Bolivia’s economy functions like any other Western economy in this regard, providing for consumer freedom and protecting private property. But capitalism requires much more than free exchange – it requires the aggregation and investment of capital. It is here that Bolivia lags behind. Virtually all electronics, heavy machinery, luxury goods and processed foods sold in La Cancha are produced in foreign countries, and the real profits from their sales return home. There is no industrial base in Bolivia, nor any domestic demand – given the globally enforced trade liberalization policies – to stimulate one. Without that industry, without organic economic growth, there is a sharp disparity between the goods for sale and the conditions in which they’re sold, between the dollar-priced electronics and Boliviano-priced vegetables, between the luxuries of the upper-class and the necessities of the lower. While La Cancha has received the goods and absorbed the forms that constitute Western commerce, Bolivia still lacks the economic content that would truly drive growth.

Leave a comment

Filed under Economics and Globalization, Social and Cultural Observations

Into thin Air: Trekking La Paz

Summiting the quarter-mile stretch of stairs, I turned to admire the valley below. But a lean, red-caped scarecrow hanging from a lamppost obscured my view. “Linchamos los ladrones aquí,” the badly-stuffed figure read. A scarecrow it was not: “We lynch robbers here.”

I took out my camera, and looked around nervously. I feared neither robbery nor lynching but the bemused looks of the neighborhood’s paceñas (as those from La Paz are known). I had spent the last hour getting myself purposefully –and thoroughly — lost in the city, and now found myself in a most untouristy outskirt of town.

“Outskirt” is actually a misleading term – “highskirt” would be more accurate. Founded in 1548, La Paz is built into a deep valley. As the city grows out, it grows up. And with the rapid population increase of the last decade, that’s meant serious vertical integration; while the downtown is hilly, the surrounding neighborhoods are upright mountainous. Walking in nearly any direction from the center, you soon reach shantytowns built on slopes of 15˚ and 20˚. Too steep for cars, roads are replaced by staircases. Rather, the staircases are the roads – small corner stores are located at major intersection, and drainage systems run alongside them. Without trucks to carry goods, human backs and large, colorful canvas bags – tied at the top and thrown over the shoulder – fill in.

The houses and infrastructure – not to mention to the robbercrows – are a testament to the lack of government presence; the roads are built largely through community efforts, resulting in construction that, while sturdy, lacks any coherent plan or uniformity. The sewage system is makeshift at best; deep, narrow ravines interspersed among the neighborhoods have become waste channels, converging on the river that runs through the heart of the valley. Still, the views are so incredible, and the air so clear, that the neighborhoods maintain a certain clarified beauty.

Above the neighborhoods run long ridges traced by single lane highways – the stairways end along these roads, where residents can transfer to trufis to drive down in to the city. Trufis are like buses, only not. Large vans run privately by unions, they follow set routes around Bolivian cities. There are no maps for the trufi system; rather, each trufi has a sign in the window which lists major landmarks by which the van will pass. Locals, of course, know the routes. Foreigners, of course, do not. Adding to the excitement of the trufi ride is the boarding and seating process. Desperately trying to read the trufi sign as they zig by, you raise your hand. The trufi swerves to a stop, and the van door swings open. Jumping in, you realize there are 17 people already sitting in 10 seats. As you fail to make yourself comfortable, the door speeds back into place behind you and the snaking journey continues.

After trufi-snaking my own way down from the ridge I had just ascended, I wandered through La Paz’s central market. Like the population, it has expanded upwards and outwards from the city center, so that many of the narrow streets – too steep for cars – are home only to stalls, vendors and shoppers. The sheer commercial scope takes one’s breath away – a blessing in the fish and seafood zone. There are kilometers of sneakers, alleys of butchers, avenues of fruit and ramparts of potatoes. Before coming to Bolivia, I thought potatoes came in two flavors: red and white. Here, they come in 800. Literally. Try to imagine 800 kinds of potatoes.

Overcoming my potato-induced paralysis, I finally managed to navigate my way out of the sellable labyrinth and into La Plaza de La Catedral de San Francisco, the historic center of the city. Resting in the public square, fresh-baked empanada in hand, I realized that, somewhere over the course of my adventure, I’d fallen in love with the city, charmed by the unique combination of human ingenuity, rock-hewn elegance and the light-headed breathlessness only possible in a capitol city located more than 3,000 meters above sea level. Nowhere else have man and mountain, I believe, shaped each other in such a strangely beautiful way.

Leave a comment

Filed under Social and Cultural Observations