Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bolivian Tweets

Anyone who reads this blog, if such a person exists, will recognize Bolivia as one of its recurring themes. This post documents a recent trip in six vignettes, all written during October/November of 2011.

The acronym of Territorio Indigena Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure has become something of a cause celebre in the struggle for indigenous rights. To fortify their demands that a proposed highway not cross what had been declared a protected zone ten years ago, an alliance of native organizations made a 700 kilometer march from the Amazonian rainforest to the high Andes to meet with President Evo Morales. Along the way the marchers were disparaged by many politicians and roughed up by police, but once in La Paz, they received a Presidential audience and an executive order deflecting the highway away from the park. TIPNIS proved to be a no-win proposition for Morales. Much of the President's credibility comes from his representation of Bolivia's native majority. The marchers exploited Morales' standing as an Indian President to force him to choose between indigenous rights and a development project with broad national and international support. TIPNIS is only one of a number of issues with similar implications, and the march suggests that groups with a sympathetic cause and the willingness to take dramatic action can exert tremendous pressure on the political system. The genie is out of the bottle.

La Paz, Wireless City
Bolivia is increasingly connected to the rest of the planet through the Internet. La Paz now provides a large slice of wireless access at hotels, restaurants and cafes. Most of the WiFi zones require passwords, available with purchase of services, but I never encountered a solicitation for fees from a service provider. And thus far, available bandwidth has kept up with demand, making connections fast and smooth. The World Wide Web forces aside the heavy curtain of isolation that has been so much a part of Bolivian life. I once found myself surfing for weather news at Alexander Coffee, a local chain providing passwordless access to anyone in range of its routers, when I noticed a woman dressed in the emblematic chola costume, wide skirts and bowler hat, scrolling through the New York Times. "Que bueno que lee ingles," I tried as a conversation starter. "Ay señor, no lo leo, solo veo las fotos." She's only looking now, but I bet she'll be reading before long.

Camera Obscura
Even as digital technology takes hold in Bolivia, vestiges of the past hide in plain sight. In Santa Cruz's Plaza 24 de Septiembre, where sloths climb deliberately across the forest canopy, a photographer practiced his trade using camera obscura. The whole process, sitting to delivery, took place in a wooden box fitted with a point-and-shoot lens. The photographer seated me on a park bench, aligned his instrument, and removed its lens cap. Exposure completed, he replaced the lens cap and went to work inside the box which was equipped with an elbow-length sleeve to provide light-proof access for one hand. A few minutes later he extracted a 2x3 inch piece of photographic paper and washed it in a small bucket of water that had up to that point served as a bird bath. This was the negative, printed on paper. For a finished product, the photographer placed the paper negative on a tablet positioned a foot or so in front of the lens and removed the cap for a second time. This exposure, the negative of a negative, produced a positive print. I cherish it as a relic.

A Scam Frustrated
Laboring up one of La Paz's many steep streets, I heard a "plop" at my feet and noticed a man hurry by to my right. Soon another man tapped my shoulder and displayed a tightly wrapped package, the source of the "plop," that revealed a roll of bills bills through its translucent, plastic covering. He claimed that he wanted to divide the windfall and invited me to accompany him into a nearby arcade. I would have none of it, insisting that Pachamama had smiled on him, alone, and he was under no obligation to share his good fortune with an anonymous gringo. I'm sure that was his point, that I was an anonymous gringo and probably an easy mark for a get-rich-quick opportunity. But this time he chanced upon an exception to the rule. [Full disclosure; I only figured this out after walking away from it.]

Public Works
Even if it leaves no other legacy to Bolivia, the Evo Morales administration will be remembered for its infrastructural improvements. La Paz's major food markets, Camacho and Lanza, now reside in well designed, covered, concrete complexes. Some of the city's worst traffic bottlenecks have been relieved by tunnels and overpasses. Several city streets have been resurfaced, and at least one, Calle Sagarnaga from its mouth beside the San Francisco church to Calle Linares, the famous "witch's market," is getting a new sewer and roadbed. These works are done as folk art, for the people by the people. The Sagarnaga construction site employs only one machine, a hand cranked cement mixer. The rest of the equipment is picks, shovels, and muscle power, a recipe for maximum employment in an economy where full-time jobs are scarce.

A Tale of Two Statues
In 1973 Bolivia installed its monument to the unknown soldier at the east end of La Paz's principal thoroughfare. A colossal bronze statue depicted the tragedy of the Chaco War with a shirtless combatant draped lifelessly across a length of barbed wire. Apparently, this fallen image was unacceptable to the military regimes that ruled the country for the next fifteen years, for as plaques on the site document, another statue, this one a fully equipped soldier charging, bayonet-first, toward some unknown adversary, was erected on the site in 1979. But while it disappeared from public view, the original statue remained intact, and in 2006, with democracy again established in Bolivia, it was reinstalled and the charging soldier carted away, one hopes, forever.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Haiti Cafe

In 2011 I hardly recognize the Lima I saw forty years ago when my parents took me here for a break halfway through my Peace Corps service in neighboring Bolivia. The colonial city, then vibrant with commerce and living, now exists as a relic of the past, visited but not enjoyed. Formidable urban traffic makes travel in the city tedious and uncertain. And as Lima's population continues to grow, it further splays itself across what is a coastal desert further challenging an infrastructure already stretched beyond capacity.

One constant on this changing landscape is Haiti Cafe. Founded in the 1950s as "Haiti Coffee" beside the Government Palace in the city center, the original locale doubled as literary salon and smoke-filled room, a gathering place for poets and political plotters alike. That location closed soon after a drive-by bombing in 1962. Following its clientele, which was then abandoning downtown, Haiti reestablished itself in the Miraflores suburb beside what would become Parque Kennedy, during the hemisphere-wide mourning for JFK after his assassination.

My wife and I lived in Miraflores in 1975 and frequented Haiti while I researched in the National Archives. In those days, as in these, the layout defined two, distinct spaces. A sidewalk cafe--largely inhabited by tourists-- looks out on the park. It takes only one experience to realize that sitting there is asking for relentless solicitation from itinerant vendors hawking souvenirs, knockoff sunglasses and the Miami Herald. In the past, I have feigned both indifference and illiteracy to ward off their overtures. But I learned that the unwelcome swarm ceases only with a retreat to the second space, indoors. Here the clientele, the whole ambience, changes abruptly. The noise level increases markedly; the language of discourse becomes exclusively Spanish, and conversations deal with the myriad themes of daily life. Today to my left a father bids goodbye to his daughter. On my right, men from two generations discuss what sounds like a business proposal. And while the patrons hardly represent a cross section in a country where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, they reflect, accurately, Lima's middle class. Cell phone chatter hums in background as a well-dressed woman feeds her dog some pastry, and a man with a cane and a hearing aid works the daily crossword puzzle.

To date-stamp this post, I have just noticed that CNN is announcing Gadhafi's demise.

Haiti's menu offers typical Lima fare, arranged by meal time. At 10:30 I flipped to the breakfast section. Eggs predominate here, but in a nod to the tourists and the local sweet tooth, pancakes and waffles-- each served with manjar blanco-- appear as well. The lunch crowd is arriving as I write this, and the menu insert today reads "ENSALADAS HAITI, all the flavor made fresh and natural" (my translation). I hope that the phrasing reflects a transformation of middle class taste, but that's a stretch when so many local dishes are heavily buttered, creamed, and fried. Some things never change. I like that.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

At Her Feet

When asked to name a product they associate with Colombia, most North Americans would respond with coffee, or emeralds or with “the fine Colombian,” celebrated by Steeley Dan in Hey Nineteen. While not so appreciated as the big three, Colombian leather goods are among the world’s best, and a bespoke shoe fitting on a recent trip to Bogota brought a brief glimpse of how fine craftsmanship survives there.

My friend Paula needed a new pair of little heels for those dressy occasions in her life. She remembered from a previous trip to Bogota that one of her friends had recommended a store on Carrera 11 that makes shoes from the sole up on short order. But where was it? Without a name we were reduced to window shopping or using a generic description, “una tienda que fabrica zapatos de ocasión.” These words brought blank stares, assurances that no such store existed, or, on one occasion, directions so unlikely that we ignored them. It turned out that our problem was having turned east on the 11, when we should have turned west. There it was, Calzado Corrado, number 82-00.

This is not your granddaughter’s shoe store, nary a flip-flop or canvas top in sight. Instead, behind a locked, glass door (“only to keep the drunks out,” we were assured) a small showroom arrayed several shelves of elegant pumps and bags. Despite their conservative stock, the Corrado maintains a loyal clientele. While Paula and I were addressed anonymously as “señora” and “señor,” the other patrons were greeted by name and, often, with hugs and kisses. The store's prosperity is also the result of its cobblers' skills. "They can fit anything here," a male client told us in perfect English.

Paula quickly located a model she liked and asked to try it on. Nothing in stock fit perfectly, but by trial, error and measurement, the saleswoman determined that an 8.5 length with a size seven heel was what Paula’s foot required. “And we don’t have one,” she assured us in a way that sounded like a dismissal. When Paula explained that she wanted made-to-measure, the saleswoman seemed dubious that a week would be sufficient to make the shoes properly. I began to suspect that the fix was in and that an offer of rush service for a fat fee would be the next thing out of her mouth. But no, the next thing out was a call up a stairway off the right side of the showroom and the descent of a man authorized to speak for the production side of the business. He looked at the shoe, at us, at the saleswoman and said “sí podemos.” Then another man from upstairs, wearing cornrows and black Puma athletic shoes, measured Paula’s foot and suggested that we return for a fitting in two days.

I had completely missed the significance of the upstairs/downstairs architecture of Corrado until we returned for the fitting, and I situated myself on a bench next to the stairway. From that vantage, a rapping and tapping—like Poe’s Raven—was unmistakable. The workroom was upstairs in a large sunlit space filled with leather, shoe blanks and cobbler's benches. Subsequently we had a series of consultations with a Geppetto look alike who explained, in terminology beyond my vocabulary in either English or Spanish, what they would do to make the shoes fit just right. So it was a segregated shop, with the women downstairs and the men upstairs. But the results are great; right, Paula?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Mexico, City of Museums

Mexico City is a great museum town. As the seat of the Spanish Viceregency and, briefly, a Francophone Empire, Mexico City has a long tradition of royal patronage that assembled treasures from its rich, multicultural heritage. The Museo Nacional de AntropologÍa, inaugurated in 1964, began what is now a half-century of cultural enterprise sponsored by public and private means. The latest addition to this assemblage opened the last week in March. Museo Soumaya, built, furnished and endowed by Mexico’s premiere entrepreneur, Carlos Slim, is marvelous in its architecture and its collections, and, as Slim has repeatedly insisted, Mexican from design to execution.

I’m staying in the historic center, a ten-minute walk from some of the city’s marvels: the Palacio Cultural Banamex, which opened in 2002 and exhibits colonial painting; the Museo del Estanquillo, home to the Mexican writer, Carlos Monsivais’, whimsical collection of objects; and my favorite, the Museo Franz Mayer, which houses the decorative arts assembled by the German-Mexican financier in the 20th century. With so much at arm’s length, why bother to visit a museum beyond Polanco and far from the nearest Metro? I can only say that it’s well worth the effort.

The first challenge is getting there. I touched off a spat between the bell captain and the concierge at the hotel when I asked for routing. Turns out that there are two Soumaya museums which complicates matters, but even having the address —Plaza Carzo, Colonia Ampliaciones Granada—gave them little to go on. As the hotel staff parsed its maps, I went out on the street for some real expertise. Locating the nearest taxi stand and waving a newspaper account of the museum’s opening, I asked for volunteers. After a few blank stares, one driver offered that he’d never heard of the museum, but he knew how to find Plaza Carso—and he did. The museum is located on the west side of Delegación Hidalgo, on an appropriately neoliberal site between Saks Fifth Avenue and Costco.

The exterior is nothing short of stunning. Clad in a reticulated, shiny skin and situated on a sculpted hillock, the Soumaya stands at a dignified distance from its commercial surroundings. Its silhouette forms a crescent, from foundation to waist to roof—bearing an unfortunate resemblance to the Fukushima reactor. Taking in the full perimeter is currently impossible, as heavy equipment applies finishing touches to the landscape, but the juxtaposition of cranes with the building, one solidly straight, the other delicately curved, provided a striking consolation.

One rectangular door provides the only public entrance. Another rectangle, this a metal detector, stands just inside. Security yields to an enormous vestibule, currently decorated with couches, floor-standing metal sculpture and a multi-media exhibition done by Mexican school children. Looking (way) up reveals a curvilinear, dropped ceiling shaped like the hull of the Starship Enterprise—surely the resemblance occurred to the architect—and looking left reveals a ramp raked gently upward.

Yes, the Soumaya is a serpentine. It’s a museum, after all, and comparisons with Bilbao punctuate descriptions of the opening. The incline feels gentler than Wright’s Guggenheim – I haven’t been to Bilbao—and its surrounding spaces are bare, white, and lowly illuminated. Each of the five floor levels breaks out of the dim monotony in its own way.

The first floor begins with a tribute to gold and silver, and why not? Money built the place and assembled its collections. However, given the telecommunications source of the Carlos Slim fortune, silicon might have been displayed, as well. Precious metal transitions smoothly to their early extraction in the Indies, particularly Mexico and Peru, and to illustrate the South American mines, two floating partitions exhibit a set of paintings from Potosi, Sucre and the north of Argentina done by an anonymous artist in the 18th century. These paintings establish a tone that subsequent floors would maintain—an expansive range of tastes from sculpture and easel-painted high art to the objects of everyday (if elite, every day) life. They also demonstrate the capacity of modern capitalists to search the world for treasures. The Peruvian paintings are known to scholars as the “Crombie Collection,” after their former British owners. I do not know if the current owner will now attach his name to them; the Slim Collection doesn’t sound quite right.

Even with their striking chronological and geographical sweep (El Bosco to Botero; El Greco/ Van Gogh) collections of fine art are strikingly French -oriented. The fifth floor has what must be the largest collection of Rodin sculptures ever assembled. Major impressionist painters, Degas, Pisarro and Renoir (11 paintings and 3 bronzes from the last by my count), all have representatives of their ouvre on the third floor. The fourth floor is dedicated to Mexican artists of the 20th century, with a Diego Rivera painted head at the entrance and canvases by Orozco, Toledo, Tamayo, Dr. Atl and Soriano scattered about. An enormous mural, Siqueiros’ La Tierra como el agua y la industria nos pertencen, strikes a prescient tone. Along with these contemporary Mexican giants, curators have arranged three dozen cases of masterworks by anonymous precolombian ceramicists.

Curators have successfully toned down the glitterati with themes from the Mexican earth. Near the gold and silver tribute hang remarkable sets of Mexican family portraits, including a dozen from the Cumplido Rodriguez clan, completed in the 18th and 19th centuries. A large part of the third floor features travelers’ paintings of the Mexican landscape. An eighteenth-century depiction of the Iglesia de Itzacalco by Pedro Villegas gives way to more familiar scenes of the Valley of Mexico done by English and French visitors in the 1860s. Nearby is a collection of resplendent Guadalupe images done by Mexican artists in the 18thcentury. And would any Mexican art collection be complete without the set of casta paintings displayed on the first floor?

At closing time, the staff was gentle but firm, I noticed a small convoy of black Tahoes pulling up to a side entrance. Apparently, I just missed a private showing that Mr. Slim gave to the Colombian pop star, Shakira, who is in town for a concert. I hope she enjoyed the museum as much as I did.