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Bolivia Letter #5

Dear family and friends,                                        July 29-August 5, 2006

John here.  This will be a challenging letter to write, as it is likely to be composed in pieces from various internet cafes, using kezboards that are cleverlz rearranged so as to make my favorite punctuation, such as dashes, semicolons, and parentheses, unavailable.  Actually, this may be the universe telling me, just one noun and verb per sentence, PLEASE!  Oh, and as you maz have noticed, on this particular kezboard, y is z.  I will probablz go back and clean up all the transposed zs and ys from this document before zou read it, but then again, I may leave them just to make up for all those missing parentheticals.

We are now in Rurrenabaque, a town in the upper Amazon basin.  We arrived this morning after a 16-hour bus ride on dirt roads.  We knew the ride would be gruelling, and we told Paige and Marcus ahead of time that it is often the bus rides that give one the most enduring travel stories later on.  This one began by taking us farther down the same steep canyons and steep dropoffs that characterize the “road of death.”  It’s the same road, after all, just without the bicycles or the hype.  Then, after darkness fell, the canyons widened, the curves lengthened, and we went down, down, down in a series of steep winding descents that seemed to go on all night.  I kept thinking, we must be at sea level by NOW, but there always seemed to be more altitude to lose.  The bus, a Volvo that in a prior life was a fancy tourist rig but is now a grimy shadow of its former self, did well with the steep grades, and the driver stopped to pick up everyone along the way who needed a ride.  As a result, the aisles were packed, and I spent some of the time marvelling at the fortitude of people standing on an all night bus ride.  The extent of my empathy, however, did not reach actually offering anyone my seat.

There is something about an old bus travelling an old road that is symbiotic and very alive.  The bus and the road have worn deep grooves into each other through endless repetition of the same journey.  Some places are worn smooth and comfortable, others raw and sore.  The bus and the road talk to each other, familiar and complaining, like an old couple sharing their too-small bed on a hot night.  Every noise is part of the conversation, from the rumble and squeak of the rocks jarring the suspension to the rattle of windows that long ago lost their gaskets.  The “music” one hears through the blown stereo system is merely the upper register of this deeper song.  Last night it was an endlessly repeated cumbia, a three-beat rhythm limping like a lame horse or a loose axle, the bass and guitar grinding over the transmission, the singer’s tale of loyalty in the face of mistreatment rising above the throaty backup of the engine pulling over a grade.   There was a period, somewhere between the fourth and the eighth hour of last night’s journey, where it all felt deeply soulful.  By the end, of course, as the fatigue of the ride approached nausea, there was nothing poetic about it.  One gets off such buses with a mix of gratitude and revulsion at an adventure that ends with too much intimacy.

Beret will write her half of this letter after we return from our three-day jungle tour that begins tomorrow, so I’ll save the rest of Rurrenabaque for her.  Instead, I want to tell you about my little experience with the evolution of the expatriate psyche.  We saw this a lot on Saipan, the island in Micronesia where we lived in the 90s.  A foreigner arrives and, at first, is idealistically in love with the local people and culture.  Then, the glow of feeling that the local people are “just like us,” it begins to dawn that they are also NOT just like us in certain ways.   In particular, the issue of trust becomes very sensitive, as the foreigner tries to be accepted and liked, but perceives that locals do not trust him, and that some locals themselves behave in ways that are not trustworthy.  Also, the foreigner begins to see local customs that no longer appear picturesque and deeply spiritual, but rather, wrong, self-defeating, perhaps even – ahem, er, — ignorant.  A cynical, judgmental attitude takes over, as the foreigner begins to decide that he “knows” these people.  Some expats never abandon this cynical stance.  Others work through and past it.  But it takes time.

So what does this have to do with me?  Well, it started with the burning.  Before we left Coroico, the smoke in the valley below our hotel had gotten so intense that you couldn’t see the mountains on the other side.  This smoke is caused by the indiscriminate burning of fields and forests as part of traditional agriculture.  The local press reported the other day that the Amazon, often described as the “lung of the world,” has become a net exporter of carbon dioxide.  From our observation point in the Yungas, it seemed that the burning was giving the entire region, and everyone in it, a serious smoker’s hack.  The kids have not been able to shake their coughs acquired earlier this summer, and now Elena and I have it too.  So I have begun to get very judgmental about why in hell in this day and age people still think indiscriminate burning is an okay thing to do?  I tend to think that in the cosmic Bridge game Earth trumps Culture, thus my stance of cultural respect stops when it appears that the cultural practice is harming the Earth.  Not to mention my lungs.

Second is the trust thing.  We foreigners tend to be busy people who want to “get a lot done.”  Beret and I came back from La Paz with a large to do list of people we wanted to interview and footage we wanted to “get.”  We hoped to tick a series of items off this list before taking our “vacation” (I can hear snorts of derision from beyond the Northern horizons at the idea that this whole summer has NOT been a vacation) to the Amazon.  But, of course, the people we wanted to interview didn’t return our calls, weren’t in their offices when they “said they would be,” had unexpected family obligations, etc.  So, we didn’t accomplish much of our “list,” and we now realize that we will have only ten days in Coroico to do all this filming when we get back.  My response?  Of course, “they” are doing it on purpose.  “They” expect me to fulfil promises but don’t expect the same of themselves.

Underneath all of this, of course, is my sense of anxiety and loss.  Our trip will end soon, and we are unlikely to get past the outer vestibule of this culture in the short time we have.  Which was, of course, predestined to be true. Bolivia is a landlocked country in more senses than geographical.  Other than the initial Spanish conquest and the silver boom of the first fifty years of the colonial period, the country has received virtually no immigration in the past 500 years.  The few foreigners who come are almost uniformly interested in removing natural resources on terms favorable to the foreigner, or in “doing good” in ways that have often come to grief for the locals.  Add to that the current policies of the US administration (when we tell people we’re from the States, there is usually a hitch in the conversation as the other person tries to think of a polite response to such an embarrassing admission), and it is completely predictable that people would have enormous trust issues in talking openly with us.  In fact, we did predict it.  Yet my frustration is hard to escape, and I realize that one of its forms lately has been to become rather judgmental about certain issues.  Still – what is so hard to understand about NOT BURNING DOWN THE WHOLE DAMN VALLEY!?  I guess the same thing that seems so hard for us up north to understand about not cooking the whole damn planet.  Sigh.

And I’ll try to end on a positive note.  Above Yolosa, the town at the end of the “road of death” that is threatened with economic ruin once the new road comes in, a few people are building new houses and planting new coca fields on the steep hillside of an old hacienda.  A few of these people’s parents worked these fields as slaves before the agrarian reform.  Now they are returning to the land as a bulwark against the possibility of future starvation.  We interviewed one of the community leaders, a guy named Freddy who drives a taxi, and whose family plants coca, and operates a truckers’ kitchen, to feed their two kids.  He is guarded and occasionally defiant in his relationship to outsiders who want to tell him how to run his life but don’t offer him practical means of following their advice.  But he was willing to trust us enough to bring us up to his coca field, to meet his kids, to wait for us to follow through on our promises to him.  When we return, we hope to learn more about Freddy and his half-dozen neighbors.  We will see if there is enough time.

P.S.  Now we’re back in Coroico after a glorious jungle trip that I promise to leave for Beret.  But I wanted to add one thought on the tone of “regret at not enough time” in the above.  What there HAS been wonderful time for, is each other.  We have all thrived on the easy intimacy, inside jokes, and sheer time with each other on this trip.  Getting to know Elena as an adult has been a particular pleasure.  And the time with Paige and Marcus has been priceless.  After we got back from our tour of the jungle the jungle, we passed a truck with an illuminated “Globetrotter” sign.  Marcus, walking beside me with his hand in mine, asked, “What’s a ‘globet rotter’?”  So we spent that evening making up rhymes about the dreaded Globet Rotter, who goes slinking down the slankey water.  On the way back from dinner, we passed a bar blaring out another cumbia, and Marcus and I danced in the street as we passed, doing our best Where the Wild Things Are stomp.

Con mucho cariño,



I wrote my half of our 5th travel letter in an internet cafe in Rurrenabaque and promptly lost it, so I have started over, longhand.  When I travel or live in certain parts of the world, I try to open myself to fate or, otherwise expressed, to what is.  It’s a kind of que será será relationship to things.  I had longed to return to Bolivia since John and I visited in 1988, so I wake up here feeling happy and lucky.  I am happy that my dream of turning Paige and Marcus into intrepid world travelers is coming true, most obviously with Paige.  Marcus was born with joie de vivre, finds pleasure wherever possible, and keeps close track of how many days of our 60-day trip have elapsed.  He misses his tree swing back home.

The Amazonian jungle of Bolivia provided an idyllic experience of wilderness and beauty.  It’s an eat or be eaten ecosystem.  If a plant doesn’t have spines or thorns, it’s poisonous.  The river Tuichi, where our albergue (camp) was located, is in Madidi National Park.  In this season (the year is divided into two seasons, wet and dry), the river is the color of red earth, and is shallow and wide.  Pilots of motorized canoes read the rills of the river to keep from running their outboard motors over the rocks.  We traveled up the Bení river to the Tuíchi in a motorized dugout canoe.  Our camp was four board-and-thatch buildings with screens for windows, including on the toilet doors, so you could always see who was where.  We came during a surazo, an unusual stretch of cold weather, that turned out to be a blessing, except at night.  I ended up sleeping in a hat, socks, cotton pants, a shirt, two layers of fleece jackets, and my raincoat.  John spent that night in a t-shirt under a light blanket.

Our guide, Diter, is a true naturalist and we learned a lot from him.  He always took the lead, in rubber boots (poisonous snakes usually attack the first pair of feet to disturb them) and with a machete for trail maintenance.  We tucked our pants into our socks because of the remarkable assortment of biting ants, vast highways of them.  The bite of the worst sends you into a fever and acute pain.  I tried to pry one off Paige’s sock with a stick, and discovered it had suction cups for feet.  What amazes me about the tropical jungle is the interdependence of species and the struggle to survive.  Tree and plant species that are perfectly harmless elsewhere are covered with sharp thorns.  I impaled my fingers on tree thorns as we watched a stampede of wild peccaries.  I like these pigs!  They make an incredible noise as they chomp down on hard palm nuts.  When spooked – they’re rather shy – they run, emitting the foulest smell imaginable from glands on their backs.  (I would rather have a day and a night with scent of skunk than fifteen minutes with odeur de peccary).

The bird calls in our camp were other-worldly and went on all through the night.  We saw leaf-cutter ants, hair-cutting bees (they can’t sting, but when threatened they attack your hair, snipping with a pair of scythes sticking out of their heads), gorgeous pairs of red, blue, and green macaws who mate for life, alligators (and their red eyes glowing in the dark), squirrel monkeys high in the tree canopy, and a caravan of irridescent caterpillars traveling by day and resting bunched up like freight cars at night.  We also saw ‘walking trees’ that grow multiple slender trunks from the top down and the mata-palos tree, a very thick, coiled vine that strangles trees the way an anaconda asphyxiates its prey.  The branches of a certain tree, when cut clear through, drain a liquid that looks and tastes like water.  Paige loved drinking this tree water.  Marcus’s favorite moment was swinging on a thick vine over a creekbed as if he were Tarzan.  Actually, we all liked that.  I could not manage to watch my feet and head at the same time, and whacked the latter on low-hanging branches more than once.

Camp was very appealing. There was cold-water plumbing because of a well and a generator they turn on once a day to pump water into a gravity tank.  The kitchen stove and refrigerator were powered by a propane canister.  The only light was from candles.  We had picked a luxury tour, which means life preservers in the canoe, mosquito netting on the beds (more for dengue fever than for malaria), and good food, including a massive catfish the cook caught in the river.  Backpacker and budget travelers are also served, and they get what they pay for.  We saw a completely overloaded canoe full of tourists heading out on a tour with no life preservers and the boat so low in the water that one tourist’s shirttails were dragging in the river.

I have wanted to write about the domestic side of life in Bolivia, both for Bolivians and for affluent tourists like us.  As you gathered from John’s description of people standing all night in the aisle of a long-distance bus, transportation is a challenge, including the expense and difficulty of getting products to market, let alone out of the country.  (The national airline nearly imploded not long ago, due to having only two functioning planes and a cash shortage.)  Money is clearly a challenge, as many Bolivians work 12-hour days for $2 to $4 a day.  Some kids in Yolosa who should be in secondary school aren’t because their parents can’t afford the half-price bus fare of 37 cents a day.  The ‘bus’ is a truck with a lot of students crammed in the bed, standing up for the 20-minute ride to Coroico and holding onto a lattice of bars.  Money presents a different challenge for tourists, as the communication infrastructure and banking situation generally make it impossible to use credit cards or traveler’s checks outside of major cities.  Major tourist destinations do not rank as major cities, by the way.  The only bank I saw in Rurrenabaque hangs a “Visa / Master Card CASH ADVANCES” sign outside it to tease tourists.  As I suspected, only people with Prodem cards (the name of the bank) can get cash advances, and no tourist has this card.

Houses in the Yungas are usually constructed from hand-made adobe bricks and usually have concrete or earth floors.  A thin stucco-like facade fooled me in the beginning, but now I know better.  The older colonial buildings have walls two feet thick.  In Amazonas, many houses are made out of thin, loose boards (with daylight and breezes filtering through the cracks) and thatched roofs.  Less common are bamboo pole or brick houses and tin roofs.  Where we stayed, Paige and Elena and I concluded that there’s at least one chicken for every inhabitant.  Dogs sleep in the middle of the quiet dirt streets.  Some people have outdoor earthen ovens or cook over open fires.  In Coroico, many people cook on a two-burner stove attached to a propane canister, our equivalent of a camping stove.  Grocery stores here have a small but fascinating range of goods, and stores called “bazars” have mind-boggling collections of life’s other necessities, from pots and pans to safety pins, batteries to bowler hats, and fireworks to flashlights.  On the street, you occasionally see a whole, carefully skinned pig’s head or a hand-cart with open bags of vibrantly-colored spices.  At home, people in towns usually have a cold water tap and sink, but a great many of the people not in cities do not have a plumbed bathroom.  We watched a man build his family’s bathroom, a tiny adobe building with no water and a hard-dirt floor.  It’s very close to the family’s house and I wonder how it’s going to function as a bathroom….

Refrigerators are a luxury, so food is blissfully fresh.  (That chicken in your lunch soup lost its head at dawn).  Our lovely hotel in Coroico has a laundress who washes acres of sheets, towels, and bedspreads in two utility sinks.  It can take days for clothes to dry on clotheslines and until we asked for faster service, it took four days to get our clothes washed, squashed, and returned.  Cleaning is often a matter of sweeping and ‘throwing water’.  In fact, in public bathrooms with dry toilets and a single water tap, there are signs begging users to ‘throw water’.

In Rurrenabaque in the Amazon, we decided to splurge on the hotel.  You probably know this feeling – that little yen for luxury, something that might remind you of home. In my case, this means enough decent toilet paper (since toilet paper is on the list of “chemical precursors” used by illegal cocaine labs, you need a special permit to have or transport more than 20 rolls), a good shower, sheets that actually stay on the bed all night, and a warm swimming pool.  In Rurre, this meant $10 per night per person, including breakfast, and gave us the luxury of two rooms.  John picked the gorgeous Hotel Jatatal based on a recommendation from the jungle tour people and pretty ‘tropical paradise’ pictures on a website.  The hotel turned out to be in the quiet town of San Buenaventura, on the other side of a wide river from Rurrenabaque, the Amazon tour take-off point.  There’s almost no commerce on the Jatatal side of the river, so every time we wanted lunch or dinner or a bottle of drinking water, we crossed the river in a boat.  When we first arrived at the hotel, there were no guests, the pool had no water in it, and the cook was AWOL.  It felt like the hotel that time forgot.   We ended up liking it, though, and returned to the Jatatal after our time in the jungle.  It was so peaceful there.

The boat that ferries people back and forth across the river is a dugout canoe with built-up sides and a thatch canopy.  It holds up to 40 people, costs 12 cents per ticket, and has no pretension to safety (you can watch the guy running the outboard motor light up his cigarette two feet from the greasy gas can that shouts ‘DANGER: HIGHLY FLAMMABLE’ in English).  A handful of life-preservers are tied (for show or symbolic purposes) so securely to guy wires it would be very hard to extricate them in an emergency.  At night, the boat is lit by one orange and one green lightbulb powered by a car battery.  On the bow, there’s room for one motorcycle (the local land taxi and preferred form of transportation for families with up to two young children), a hand-cart, or a merchant’s wares.  We found the boat irresistible and loved riding in it.

We also fell in love with the sleepiness of our hotel and its hammocks and sky chairs.  The Jatatal is a four-star hotel (perhaps because of the not-plugged-in aircon units and mini-fridges), which makes it a great portrait of the meeting ground of form and function in Bolivia.  In form, it is very beautiful, at least on the outside and in the dining room.  Furniture is artesanal and made from local jungle wood. It has hot water showers (in six weeks, we have yet to encounter hot water at any sink in Bolivia) by virtue of a device known as a calefon, which heats water as it comes through the showerhead.  Years ago, these devices were known for giving 220-volt shocks to the unwary, but the design has improved.  However, if you want warm or hot water, you have to keep the water flow low.  It’s a relationship of inverse proportions: more water volume equals less heat.  A heating coil in a shower head can do only so much, even if it’s 5400 watts, as ours was.  Turning it on caused every bulb in the building to flicker and dim for the length of the shower.

For much of our time at the Jatatal, no one was taking showers — because there was no water.  The water was turned off for most daylight hours because the hotel did not have enough water pressure to refill the swimming pool with the equivalent of a garden hose and have water for the rooms.  So much for my longing for a couple of days in the lap of luxury.  We watched the progress of the pool filling – about three inches a day – and concluded that it would take 10-14 days at that rate to fill it.  The form versus function issue is intriguing and sometimes comical.  The rooms have a wooden door and a screen door, but you can’t close both at the same time.  When the screen door is open because the wooden door is closed (as at night), it bangs in the breeze.  The Jatatal’s showers seem designed to spread water all over the floor.  You get the ‘throw water’ effect with no way to dry the floor in a very humid (and mildew-prone) climate.  And along the way, you begin to ask… why, why, why?

Breakfast at the Jatatal was also interesting, most likely because what foreigners want to eat for breakfast is not what Bolivians necessarily want to eat.  We’d be served butter and jam, but no bread, or bread with no butter or jam.  The last morning, they forgot there were five of us, set the table for four, and failed to bring silverware or bowls (although there were corn flakes).  And while there was hot milk, nearly frozen milk, and tepid water in a carafe, there was no tea and no coffee.  We were at that moment on our way to board the dreaded bus back to Coroico and decided to stop for coffee during the long walk to the bus depot (we couldn’t all fit on a moto-taxi after all, and never saw a car taxi).  We asked for cafe con leche (coffee with milk) at a cafe, but were served cups of hot water and a thick sort of coffee concentrate syrup.  John politely asked, “Hay leche?”, which is code for “Could we have some milk?”  The waiter said yes – he had also indicated when taking our order that we could have cafe con leche – and then he didn’t bring any or indeed charge us for more than coffees without milk.  This is an example of “yes means no,” a language I am becoming more adept at decoding the longer we are here.

I have been urging John to write about food, as he sometimes lapses into hysterical laughter at some of the cook’s valiant efforts to create vegetarian entrees here at our hotel-home in Coroico.  Memorable highlights include a stew of leftovers from the salad or vegetable selection of the day before topped by sodden french fries floating on a sea of broth.  Today was truly creative: half a boiled potato stacked with half a hard-boiled egg, peanut paste, and a slice of sour-tasting local cheese.  It was weird, but it gets high marks for protein content.  Paige and Marcus are able to survey the entire buffet here and walk away in dismay.  John and I eat more healthfully here than in Colorado, as there are fabulous fresh fruits and unprocessed, pesticide-free foods.

I am now writing from the far side of the dreaded bus trip back to Coroico, so I can say we survived.  I don’t know about the people who stayed on the bus all the way to La Paz, however.  It dawned on me – with some horror – that our driver, who had driven 16 hours with minimal breaks by the time we got off, was going to start up the camino de la muerte in a state of utter exhaustion.  His wife (who also served as his ayudante or helper) was working hard to keep him awake by talking to him and fiddling with the radio as their four-year-old daughter slept on a shelf right above and behind his head.

Only about 10 percent of the road system is paved and vehicles get horribly beaten up by these long hauls.  We had tire changes, ropes being tied ominously around parts of undercarriages, and other sorts of adventures in both directions.  John briefly toyed with flying back, but that is possible only on the military airline (aging prop planes anyone?) on Rurre’s grass and dirt runway and only 2 or 3 times a week and only if the grass isn’t wet.  It’s not cheap either, and you land at the La Paz airport and have to drive down the camino de la muerte to get back here.  Elena and I thought about that and vetoed the flying idea.  Besides, the bus costs only $9 and it’s expensive to fly.  We got to Yolosa at 2:30 am last night, a mere two and a half hours past the scheduled time, and had arranged to have a jeep taxi waiting for us. The ride to Rurrenabaque was the third circle of hell, but the return was merely the second circle.  The trip was more than worth it and we’re glad to be home again.  We will be back in Colorado in less than two weeks, full of gratitude at having had such a delicious break from northern obsessions with individualism, efficiency, the latest machinery, and speed.

P.S.  Today was Bolivia’s national independence day, all 181 years of it, and there was a moving and shared dignity, pride and celebration at being Bolivians and being free.  The spirit of autonomy from all other nations is palpable.  I felt a pang that I feel so ambivalent about my country, especially our foreign policy, and wish I could feel the pride I saw today.  An Afro-Bolivian man sang to the assembled crowd a song whose most important lyric was “Me gusta la palabra ‘libertad’” (“I like the word ‘liberty’).  Coming from someone whose people have been free for only 54 years, it was deeply affecting.  John was filming.  I looked over at him at the end the song and his eyes were misty with unshed tears.  The people take care of themselves and do it with dignity.  Given how hard they have to work to do it, witnessing it has made me fall in love with them and their country.  I hope I can bring some of their spirit home with me and weave it into the threads of our lives.



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