Bolivia in a week

By Published On: July 10, 2007Categories: Living in Bolivia0 Comments on Bolivia in a week

In my last week in Bolivia, before a two month return to Europe, I ended up travelling across huge swathes of the country. Here are some visual snapshots of one week in Bolivia:

I sit drinking lumpy api (maize drink) and pastries with a group of American teenagers in my favourite agricultural market of Quillacollo. The market hums with noise, shouts of sellers, animated conversations, enthusiastic singing of two boys busking with guitar and mandolin.  Next to us are women in traditional skirts, colourful blouses and aprons with bountiful piles of fresh vegetables and fruits adding to a cacophony of colour. Beyond them, campesinos with faces engrained with hard work and plentiful sun peruse amongst piles of seeds, hoes and spades, at times distracted by a video of proudly plump women singing the latest Bolivian folkloric hit.

The teenagers, many of whom had never travelled to Latin America before, are openly absorbing it all. The day before I had seen them in a small farmhouse act out what home and Bolivia meant to them. Time and time again the actions about Bolivia were about learning, opening up, changing, moving from boredom to new experiences. I find it strangely moving, and hope that I always continue to keep a bit of that innocent awe for the world, its cultures and its peoples.

In Sucre, I head again to the Constituent Assembly for my third time. As I walk in, I am stopped by the President of the water commission (who I had seen a few weeks previously). He tells me proudly that his commission has completed its work, and that it has decided to enshrine water as a public human right in the new Constitution, prohibiting its privatisation or its sale as a commodity. It is a profound victory that has its roots in the popular rebellion against water privatisation in Cochabamba in 2000.

Strangely the President represents the right-wing party PODEMOS indicating perhaps the depth of mindshifts that has happened in Bolivia since the 90s when privatisation was the religion. It could perhaps also reflect his roots from El Alto, the radicalised city he was a leader in, that enabled him to go beyond party politics. Or perhaps the fact that personal friendships and learning in a small group enabled the commission representatives to guage the sense of the country and agree to profound change.

Outside his commission, a large group of campesinos from North Potosi (all in traditional vibrant colours, who apparently came down in lorries early that morning) have arrived to push for systems of "community justice" to be included in the Constitution. En masse, they enter unannounced into each of the Commissions. After each presentation, they play dissonant and spine-tingling tunes on large t’arkas (vast flutes) that seem to communicate more than their words.

Back in the plenary that night, however, the constitutional assembly representatives are back to making long discursive speeches scoring political points and repeating what everyone else has already said. The chair and executive panel up at the front of the theatre look unsurprisingly very bored. It takes me back to the first time here when I saw part of a debate about systems of voting that ended up taking 7 months to resolve. I can’t help feeling that the decision to extend the assembly by four months will still fail to get a resolution. There are profound fights around power going on, but I also can’t help thinking that the system of deciding in huge plenaries is more conducive to making long political speeches than building consensus and being open to change.

On my way to Potosi and then to Tarija, in a neck-cricking journey of more than 16 hours, I am forced to get out and walk across a road blockade. Bricks and stones have been scattered along a mile-long route. Protestors, this time students, sit under dark-red craggy rocks watching us. I half expect them to swoop down like horsemen in an ambush, but they just look like they are enjoying the final bits of sun before the cold on the altiplano sets in. Some enterprising kids with wheelbarrows are making a good business carrying peoples bags across the blockade. Not surprisingly too the shared taxi onto Potosi charges us double.

In the city I bump into a friend of a friend in a cafe and we watch Bolivia equalise against Peru. It means we are out of the Americas football cup. I find myself shouting at the screen, talking about "our" team with my Bolivian friend, and then feeling gutted when we are out. "It’s not just. We definitely played better than the other team" I muttered to my friend. In terms of football, without thinking about it, I am already Bolivian.

In Tarija, I am leading a workshop on campaigning and lobbying for an NGO called Fundación ACLO that works in rural areas and runs a highly popular radio station across the south of Bolivia. The Fundación has decided to campaign against contamination of River Pilcomayo. The studies presented show such high levels of contamination (principally from mining) that it is hard to take in. It feels strange for me to be talking about campaigning in a country like Bolivia where it would seem to be in the bloodstream, and I admit as such.

As I present about political campaigning having focused targets, realistic goals, planned strategies and evaluation, I also find myself questioning whether that undermines a culture of resistance in Bolivia that has not necessarily been realistic but fought for very profound changes often at huge personal cost. Resistance based less on programmes but more on feelings, cultural values, and reversing huge tides of power and domination. Yet my suggestions seem appreciated, especially my examples about campaigning in Britain and Europe, so perhaps the cultural exchange at least is a useful one.

Back in La Paz, I head to a cramped underground bar where teenagers from El Alto are rapping in Aymara. They wear the baggy clothes and surly attitudes of a New York rapper. One with a carefully crafted beard and tight-knitted dreads carries a girl on his arm like a trophy. But their lyrics are about resistence, insurrection and 18th Century indigenous leader tupac katari. The whole bar is soon with their arms out pushing the air down and bouncing in time like a scene from Eminem’s 8 mile.

Yet afterwards, the rappers are openly chatty and friendly asking me about the rap and hiphop scene in London. (OK, I’ll admit, I was a bit crap in my answers). One of them does a spontaneous rap about ending talk of K’ollas (indigenous people from the west of Bolivia) and Cambas (people from the East) saying that we are all brothers and Bolivians.

Unfortunately, the next day as I arrive in Santa Cruz in the east of the country, the graffiti artists at least, are not on the same wavelength: "Get out K’ollas (and Mennonites)" read one, the last bit added apparently as an afterthought. "Evo. Son of bitch. You deserve to die". "MAS is a regime of communist narcotraffickers." In the central square, almost every building is covered with autonomy flags and a plea to its citizens to support Santa Cruz’s liberation from the "repressive MAS regime" in La Paz. The cold damp weather and terrible service in a dull restaurant seems to reflect the attitudes, as I try to kill hours waiting for my plane.

On my way back to the airport, my taxi driver born in La Paz tells me that racism is rarely expressed openly but lingers under the surface bursting out only when there are large numbers or when it is scrawled on streets at night. He said ironically that the worst offenders are those who have migrated to Santa Cruz and are descendents of k’ollas. It seems strangely universal – the tendency of migrants to be the most racist to other migrants than indigenous inhabitants (Michael Howard, Nicolas Sarkovsky to name just a few of the more famous contenders).

I finally get to Madrid, six hours later than planned. I find a bar at 1am serving jamon serrano and beer and sit at the bar. Two very sunburnt plump women with unsuitably skimpy clothes behind me cackle with laughter. They are British of course 🙂 A man with a notted little tail of hair smiles at me and says "salud" (cheers). I smile back and venture to ask him where the Bolivian neighbourhoods were in Madrid thinking of spending my last day in Bolivia in Madrid. He smiles, and says "I have got some great cocaine. Do you want some?"

It wasn’t quite the answer I was expecting. I guess he associated Bolivia with cocaine, although I have never ever been offered cocaine there. In fact the only offer I have had for cocaine in the last 3 years was from him and prior to that the daily ones I got on my walks in Brixton, London. So I smile and decline. Perhaps I should have suggested he should chew the unaddictive and much more restorative coca leaves (which western consumer demand has turned into drugs) that I ironically have had to smuggle in to Europe. But like a snort he is gone.


Leave A Comment