Thursday, November 17, 2011
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.
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.]
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.