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 CruceƱas 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.

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