Monday, October 20, 2008


Today is a historic day in Bolivia. More than 100,000 campesinos, labor leaders, miners, coca growers are converging on the city of La Paz to urge the Congress to approve a new Constitution. How not to get caught up in thousands of marchers who demand a new country!

In this new Bolivia -- the State guarantees food, education, public health, housing, and basic infrastructure -- water and sewage are basic human rights – limits ownership of private property unless approved by the State and guarantees self- determination for its 36 Indian Nations. This is definitely moving towards the socialist/communist spectrum and it will definitely change the country. Change is imminent – whatever form it takes.

The preamble to this new Bolivian constitution begins: “In time immemorial mountains rose, rivers ran, lakes were formed, our Amazonia, our chaco…our altiplano…valleys were covered in green and flowered. We populated this Sacred Mother Earth with different faces and we understood since then the plural nature of our being, our diversity of being and culture. That is how we founded our communities. We did not know racism until the fateful colonial times. Let us leave this colonial, republican, and neoliberal State in the past. We now assume the historic challenge to construct a new Social Unitarian State made up of a Plurinational Community that integrates and promotes a democratic Bolivia which will promote peace, development, and free determination of it’s people…..We complying with the mandate of our people, with the fortitude of the Pachamama and thanks to God reestablish Bolivia.”

It is a cry from the indigenous population that demands that the society adopt its cultural precepts: “The State assumes and promotes as moral-ethical principles of this plural society: ama quilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (don’t be lazy, don’t lie, don’t be a thief), suma qamaña (live well), ñandereko (harmonious life), teko kavi (good life), ivi maraei (earth without evil) y qhapaj ñan (noble path).”

The opposition, who believes they need to have more autonomy in their regions and wants less of what will be STATE intrusion came to the Congress over the weekend with their sleeping bags – try to picture your congressman sleeping at his seat in Congress. They came ahead of the marchers in case they were not allowed entry by these protestors. This had happened before during the last attempt to approve this New Constitution. Because the march is led by the President Evo Morales and they plan to circle congress and stage a hunger strike if the Constitution is not approved. The opposition actually is quite brave to do this.  Currently Evo does not have a 2/3 majority and he needs some of this opposition to accept his Constitution. Therefore the opposition may face some violence but appears to be making progress towards a concession that will benefit everyone.  

So far the marchers seem very peaceful. Opposition forces say the marchers are paid, but unlikely that so many people could be paid off to stage a march of this magnitude.

The cry for now is for a people who are not on their knees – “El Alto de Pie – Nunca de Rodillas.”

I watch with amazement as these marchers who have been walking for 5 days arrive and in the old fashioned way sacrifice a small white llama to help their cause.  I pray she brings rational informed democracy and peaceful transition.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Where’s Waldo almost got to visit “Brokedown Palace” yesterday. I had started out the day with this insane but full agenda of things to do – Pilates in the morning (Note: I’ve never had one single class of Pilates to-date even in the US), a visit to the American Embassy to legalize my birth certificate (see first blog entry for Kafka resume), lunch with my friend mother of Victor/Victoria and then off to my favorite pastime – a French-Bolivian co-production of the film “The Hunt for the Nazy Klaus Barbie” at the new Cinemateca Boliviana.

Like the mouse I am, the day went in some other direction. My Pilates class was cancelled because I was the only student, which was disappointing, but then they arranged a different class for me, which now starts at 10:00 instead of 9:00 and for which I am still the only student!

The drive in to the Embassy, which is in the city, was ecstatic because at every turn of the highway I could see Mt. Illimani which is always the gift of this city with its snow cap. though global warming is melting it yearly. They say it has 10 years of beauty left.

The American Embassy is a fortress with a flag that is bigger than the fortress and you are taken through triple gated security before you can even enter the building. Nothing we haven’t experienced before at the local Courthouse. While waiting I caught the plasma screen reporting these now routinely alarming 500 point drops that were occurring all over the world where now I am a distant watcher – the dollar has gone from 8 to 6 since I have been here and the “401K is now 201K” is being spoken of here as well.

The window for American Citizens was empty and when I told the clerk that I wanted to legalize my Birth Certificate which I showed her she told me the Bolivian government had imposed some new rules and that I would have to first go to the Civil Registry and have it legalized and then I would have to go to the Foreign Chancery to have it stamped for foreign parties and then and only then could they legalize it. The clerk was Bolivian and her instructions were just that “go to the Civil Registry and have it legalized and then to the Chancery for stamping.” I asked her could she at least give me an address so I could locate these things and she looked at me and said she didn’t know where they were. It’s the Kafka gene passed on internationally. Eventually we were able to establish the vicinity of these offices and I thought I could handle it -- go unaccompanied by locals to experience the “local flavor” of things plus I had my Video Camera. So off I went to the Plaza Venezuela in a trufi tax (cheaper taxi).

The Civil Registry was full of people in completely disordered lines with no idea of where to go and flowing out the doors. There were some handwritten signs posted letting you know where you could go and how much certain items would cost. Legalization of a birth certificate was $10. I also noted a sign that said:

Those people who are caught trying to submit false documentation or judicial testimony will be surrendered to the Special Forces Against Crime (FELCC) for having committed a crime of false and ideological materiality through the use of a falsified instrument, as stated in Article 198 and 203 of the Penal Code.

I distractedly filmed the sign and the madness in the place. I got up to window 11 and turned in the birth certificates (mine and my mother’s) and said I needed to legalize them. The lady behind the counter said: “These are false, you need to get new ones!” I told her my brother had spent months getting these documents after the death of my mother in 2004 and that they were not false, I had used them for probate purposes. She told me to wait a minute that she would verify what needed to be done.

Next thing I knew, a policeman and a man in civilian garb came and asked to talk to me. They took me to a room with a table – well imagine – the green of old government buildings in the 50s -- green walls, green table, couple of chairs, one lightbulb above the table. The man in civilian garb asked, “Can you tell me for what purpose you are using these papers?”
“I need these legalized for the American Embassy.”
“Well, madam, I have to tell you that the papers you have submitted are false and I must arrest you!”
Tears started popping out even though I was having that feeling that this really can’t be happening to me and I have to be tough I mean I have never been in a situation like this. The policeman stood by the door looking at me with stony ego-authority and I was not unaware of the large gun which rested in his hand.
“Why? Tell me why, would I show up here with false papers? First of all, I am a Bolivian, I was born here, I don’t need to falsify my birth certificate. I’ve been here a little over a week and I don’t have reason to bring false papers anywhere. I am here for a few months so I have time and I am doing this unaccompanied by anyone because I trusted that your system was not what everyone says it is – a bunch of corrupt thieves. I haven’t lived in Bolivia for 43 years! Tell me how would I know the difference?”
Of course I usually cry at the drop of a hat – so I am nothing but tears now – feeling stupid that I didn’t come with someone who knows the ropes and could offer these people a bribe or something culturally relevant and imagining myself pleading to EVO that I believe in the people!
The man questioning me finally says, “I believe you! I should be arresting you regardless. For now, we will confiscate the papers, forget you ever spoke with me and I will show you out the door. Don’t say you spoke with me to anyone because I shouldn’t be letting you go!”
He signaled to the policeman to open the door, ushered me out through a clichéd shadowed hallway and out an alleyway with an aluminum half door which I hunched through and I was back out on the street. FREE and with without my birth certificate!

Friday, October 3, 2008


Counting on a friendship when you are in a strange place is truly tonic. I happily, have one friend here in La Paz outside of my family circle who is of like mind – she is a jewelry designer and artist and very much in tune with the things I like and dislike so that visiting her is very freeing. I love my family of course, but a long visit to family is yielding your familiar world to their range. They know you as one thing and who knows how you grew or how different your notions of the world are – learning to be family again for a person used to no constraints is hard – they love 24/7 media and I prefer quiet meditative days filled with reading and dreaming.

I went to lunch at my friend’s house yesterday and perhaps the tone of this post will mirror the fact that I am deathly ill today from a bad lettuce. Things could be so much worse than a bad lettuce!

My friend is a pet fanatic! She has four dogs and two giant turtles in her garden. The dogs have their own fenced-in yard and each dog has their own separate house completely furnished. It’s like visiting the three bears since they are all different size dogs and their houses look like a little community. Even more amazing is that the yard does not reflect so many dogs roam there and the gardens were fragrant and amazing -- we picked a bunch of sweet peas for me. I adore sweet-peas and these were dark purple and pink! An interesting thing about gardens in La Paz is that they are all behind walls – you don’t see the gardens from the street. The homes are either hedged with tall pines or walled up, so that entering these gardens is magical because you have no idea what to expect. I think this makes for more interesting gardens because you aren’t particularly allied to matching the lavender of the next door neighbor and can do what you want with your own species of plants. The gardens I have seen thus far are all extremely personal and I like that.

What I loved most about my visit though was feeding Victor and Victoria – the giant turtles -- their fresh papaya/banana salad. These are well fed turtles! They live in their own HUGE home built to protect them from the cold with a bathing pond. It is always amazing to hear the lengths to which pet owners go to make sure their animals are well. Apparently Victor had a parasite last winter and only one veterinarian was willing to help Victor come back to life by giving him antibiotics. Of course you treasure the animal even more!

My friend also has an incredible collection of original paintings by renowned Bolivian painter Ricardo Perez Alcala who is a family friend and many of his paintings take their themes from her house. I’m sort of reminded of Frida Khalo’s blue house where what populates the paintings is in evidence in the house. I notice that there seems to be a trend (in the houses I’ve visited) to display antique sewing machines, old irons, locks, trunks, folding toasters . They are usually displayed in masses at the entrance – 10 irons, a couple of sewing machines – interesting sort of ties to the past. Perez Alcala in one particular painting in the house shows these antiques surrealistically lined up in space with a modern building in the background. The things we like to keep in our modern apartments are floating in the air and it is an interesting tie our modernity and our love of the old. The painting is extraordinary. The majority of the paintings are moody in color but are populated with surrealistic details that one might miss but in time after looking a while at the washed out colors one find’s oneself in a city falling off a cliff. So like this city. It is always definitely a privilege to see original art in a setting that is not museum. Hopefully next time I will have my camera and can take pictures of the garden, dogs, turtles and paintings.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

First Thoughts

Mennonites On the Plane

Boarding my plane in Miami it continues to sink in that I am going somewhere where life will be stranger than fiction. Half of the plane is a large U.S. Mennonite family –the women all in dark green flower print long and long-sleeved and the boys all in mustard colored small-check shirts buttoned up to the collar. They huddle sort of clumsily together heads bowed down but with these amazing straight backs. They are bound for Santa Cruz – the tropical part of Bolivia -- an extension of the Amazonian basin. What is unusual here though is that the girls are carrying giant shiny gold purses, wearing sexy sandals and dangly earrings more like a Britney Spears than a holy girl. I can’t help but smile at the way things become what they are -- they have become Cruceñas too --because women in Santa Cruz are known for their cult of beauty. It is a town of beauty queens and beauty pageants and why not – in the tropics amazing flowers fall on the ground and you can’t help but thread them into your hair and learn to take your day on like butterfly would.

The family is returning their farm after having been evacuated by the U.S. Embassy during the recent political dustup. They are worried because although they are returning to their home their home is no longer guaranteed to be theirs. They have been caught up justly or unjustly in the middle of the government’s decision to appropriate land from the “wealthy” -- while they have been working huge pieces of land (I’m not sure of what provenance?) they have prospered with their hard work and their ability to produce exemplary agricultural goods. Now there is also the fact that they are GRINGOS and as such well persona non-grata. Their land is being sought by the Morales government to be redistributed to poor campesinos. There are peasants and then there are peasants. It appears on the surface to be patently unfair – after all your work is your work and where is this truer than where you till the soil day in and day out.? But I don’t know the details of course, so the issue of who is owed what when begins to surface on the plane. It will continue through my journey where the first thing I am told to do is to stop speaking English because the “racial” problems are big!

My New Home
After my arrival I spend three days of headache and tomb-like sleeping due to altitude sickness and slowly return to normal breathing and activity. Some people take less time because they are in better shape, but alas not so for me. The time flies though because I am extremely well cared for and really could get super spoiled. I’m staying with my niece in her amazing 21st century home in the southern part of La Paz in a neighborhood called Achumani. Their house is built on a treacherous hillside and is super modern glass and wood – my brother who is an architect designed it –it has a striking view from every angle and at night the lights of the city shine on the hillsides and morning brings amazing light over these rock formations. Obviously I will be staying among “nice society.” Everyone has been supremely welcoming. I am also here with my little grand-niece and grand-nephew who are children and children give you reasons to be in the moment --- there are accidental bloody noses and comfort needed when they really ate too much chocolate or their shoes gave them blisters – things which I have been doing over the last few days. I’m not forcing myself on them, we are making a nice and easy friendship with each other. A few days ago a wounded bird appeared in the yard and it can’t fly – it’s not a pretty bird but it is a small life to care for. We decide to adopt it so that it can return to health and already it’s very accustomed to its water bowl and small offerings of food and I think its a lot like my being here – a little bit of a wounded bird who has been adopted by the loving tenderness that is a child.

Choir Championship
Saturday night we attend a regional choral championship which my niece is participating in. Eight choirs perform in the new Symphonic Center –once one of La Paz’ most beautiful movie palaces -- still under construction as the new home for the National Orchestra. We note that it will all be very beautiful soon, there are no fire breathing OSHA dragons about and the technical director is at work with an incredibly hazardous electrical setup right in front of us. The event is sponsored by Acropolis a non-profit organization whose noble goal is to create individuals who learn to be humane through art. It is an endeavor fraught with problems because it too cannot escape the taint of the political juncture this city is in. The director of the National Choral Program, a Bolivian-Japanese man, basically says so in his tone while delivering the results saying that it is a “judges privilege in our divided nation.” He asks how is one to judge what went on behind the scenes when there were schools with less resources and therefore had to do more with less? I can relate – as a poetry judge over the years it isn’t the easy fantastic children at Oyster Bilingual who make it hard to decide who is better but the kids at difficult schools who make it hard to decide which one even is good enough to count but you always end up with a shiny diamond somewhere and you nurture the rest to become their very best. Here too what you get is perhaps the fairest possible balance in this devil’s bargain– the top prize winner would have won anyway because they were the diamond -- had the talent and the style to take the room and beyond, beautiful tawny girls in skinny black jeans with bright blue scarfs singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” like a warm windstorm. The rest is a compromise towards mediocrity which left out the most privileged children – who performed an unbelievably wonderful arrangement of “All You Need is Love” with all the difficult harmonies and whose young hopes were running high and those with the least privilege who in their dusty smocks singing the “Our Father” were the face of those who are on their last shred of hope.