July 4-7, 2006
Dear friends and family,
Greetings from Coroico, Bolivia. Before our journey, John and I imagined we would feel moved to quickly begin writing a series of letters about our experiences here. Instead, a kind of muteness overcame us as we collapsed into gratitude at having arrived safely and into the happy leisure of being able to rest from our labors. We also recognize how much there is learn about this country and the small town in which we find ourselves. Now that we’ve been here a couple of weeks and have settled in, our inner voices are beginning to speak. I remember writing letters from Zaruma, Ecuador, five summers ago as an experience of slowly dawning awareness. I thought I knew something and the next day I would need to revise my thinking! Since we’ve already been wrong about a number of things here, we are moving slowly and with a dose of humility. For instance, I imagined Bolivians might be particularly wary of visitors from the U.S. because of our country’s foreign policy. Our experience so far suggests that that level of geopolitical engagement isn’t where most people’s attention is focused. Bolivians are very concerned with domestic politics and the politics of Latin America. Are the intentions toward Bolivia of Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, good — or is he trying to compromise Bolivian sovereignty by making his poorer but politically progressive neighbor a sort of underling? Is Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, going to preserve or ruin the coca-growing industry? Will Bolivia ever make good money on its natural resources, money that trickles down to the people? And will the indigenous majority finally feel fully enfranchised, respected and heard?
Another miscalculation on my part was thinking that we would be able to find an apartment or house to rent here in Coroico. It’s an incredibly picturesque colonial town. It’s also quite small and there’s very little “middle class” of the sort we found in Zaruma, Ecuador. Many families live in one or two small rooms, have a rudimentary kitchen that more than likely does not include a refrigerator, and some have just a single cold water tap in the way of plumbing. Not so many years ago, when electricity was new in town, electric lighting was available between 6 and 10 pm and most people used the three communal baths in town for bathing and washing clothes. The houses are made of adobe (in various stages of erosion), bricks, or concrete. We did not find any houses or apartments to rent in part because almost all houses in town are occupied and because we gringos want a well-equipped kitchen and a hot water shower. We are glad to be here rather than in the highlands, where people wear layers and layers of clothes because there’s no heating. It’s not hard to keep in mind who’s contributing to global warming and who is putting on another layer of alpaca wool.
We are happily settled into the Hotel Esmeralda, which is owned by a woman born in Coroico and her German-Bolivian husband. We have a two-story hotel room, with the kids downstairs and John and me upstairs, separated by a narrow staircase. The view from our upstairs window is spectacular. We can see layers of the Andes cordillera, including snow-capped peaks nearly 20,000 ft. high. We’re at a temperate and idyllic altitude where coffee, bananas, and tangerines grow in abundance, above the malarious zone and mainly below the gorgeous “cloud forest” that sweeps in over the peaks some days. As chief domestic worker back home, I am basking in not having to cook or clean. Meals are served buffet style at the Esmeralda, so we roll down to the dining room and eat whatever is there. This is easier for the omnivores – John and me – than for Paige the vegetarian or Marcus of the Limited Palate. After much searching, we did manage to find a jar of home-ground peanut butter for sale by the central plaza. The grocery stores are also general stores and the staples of life are sold cheek by jowl – soap, cooking oil, sacks of pasta, beans, and potatoes, matches, toilet paper, eggs, batteries, bottles of Coke in World Cup colors, sweets, gelatin, and, in some stores, fresh foods. The town is small enough that everyone knows everyone, and there is a lot of trust. Shopkeepers put a thin bamboo rod at an angle across their doorway – but leave the door wide open – when they’re gone for lunch. The many merchants who sell their wares on the sidewalk or the outdoor market cover their wares with a tarp at night and go home to bed. There are few vehicles, so children are safe on the street. Paige and Marcus are so comfortable at the Hotel Esmeralda that John and I are able to go away for a couple of hours at a time on a videotaping adventure.
As for how the kids are faring, it has been interesting to watch. Marcus, who has always said that this trip of over eight weeks is much too long, suffered acute homesickness and bouts of sorrow for the first week. And then, bit by bit, el norte faded away and he began to live fully in the here and now. He still misses a few things – his swing in our back yard in Boulder was mentioned most recently – but not a lot. He’s a good-natured child and he looks for his pleasures where he can find them. This hotel has a swimming pool (with cold water – I’ve ventured in exactly once for about two minutes), a foosball table, a pool table, and TV for watching World Cup games. We adults have John’s laptop, so we and Paige are able to send email via the new Wi-Fi connection. It is sort of mind-bending to have Wi-Fi here and take in what the town does not have…. For instance, a computer hooked up to a printer – I’m not sure that configuration exists in this town. And yet, the future has arrived. Yesterday, the caballero who rode with us on horseback out into the countryside had a cell phone on his hip because it was part of running the rustic stable. It was a wonderful place in its own right and Paige was delighted to find sheep, hens and cocks, green parrots, and friendly dogs in addition to the somewhat hungry horses we rode.
I had (unfortunately) led Paige to believe that being in Bolivia would be like being in Ecuador and that there would be plenty of kids with whom to make friends. Well, it’s not like Ecuador, and it’s not as easy to meet kids or make friends because this is a town where tourists come and go quickly and are basically not considered friendship material. There’s also a greater culture gap for us here, as the people are more indigenous (mainly Aymará or Afro-Bolivian or mestizo) and don’t look to North America as a cultural role model the way many people in southern Ecuador do. So Paige finds herself living in a hotel where the 12-year-old owners’ daughter could easily befriend her, but instead ignores her. Last night, though, we had fun all together setting off fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July and just because we could. The 12-year-old girl has a 10-year-old brother who decided to set off his prodigious collection of Norwegian-made fireworks last night with us. It was loud and fun. School has been out of session for the last two weeks (‘winter break’ here), but next week Paige and I plan to visit a local secondary school, see if we can sit in on a class or two, and ask about whether Paige can do a linguistic “intercambio” with a girl her own age. She is quite able to carry on a conversation in Spanish when she wants to…. Marcus is integrating Spanish words into his vocabulary little by little.
John is the most relaxed I have seen him in a year, perhaps longer. I am thrilled to be here. We got John a 5-Boliviano haircut this morning (that’s a 40-cent haircut) and I read a Chilean fashion/women’s magazine from 1998. It had a lovely photo spread on the island of Capri – very picturesque in its own way – and I had no desire to be there (or anywhere else) instead of here. John and I passed through Bolivia in 1988, on our way back from a year in Argentina, and I fell in love with it and have wanted to return ever since. So, when our friends ask us with some bewilderment, “Why Bolivia?”, that’s my answer. I like being here – a whole lot!
Every day we learn something new. Two days ago, we spent part of the morning in Coroico’s cemetery, which is a remarkably alive place, full of fresh flowers, grave decorations, and conversations directed to the dead by the living. Yesterday, as I mentioned, we rode horses out into the countryside past coca fields, citrus and banana trees, and coffee beans drying on racks in the sun. The coca grown here has the most tender and delicious leaves of any grown in Bolivia. It is legal to grow it but illegal to sell it as a raw material to be used to make cocaine. Even the so-called “chemical precursors” of cocaine are strictly controlled. Most of them are chemicals, but a few items are in universal use, such as toilet paper. The Hotel Esmeralda had to obtain a special permit to get the amount of toilet paper it needs for its clients. The U.S. would like to see the end of coca-growing in the Andes, for obvious reasons. But coca here has a traditional role and meaning, and many people drink coca tea and chew the leaves without in any way harming their health. They rely on growing coca to make a living, and are threatened by the prospect of having their livelihood taken away from them. A young U.S. embassy “drug eradication” intern stayed here at the hotel last weekend and warned John that if he so much as drank a cup of coca tea he could test positive for cocaine. And so John poured himself another cup, of course. It’s very mild – reminds me of chamomile. We are enjoying the tropical fruit, the fabulous coffee, and (sometimes) the fact that when you order food, they may start by making the noodles from scratch and then cooking them….
Yesterday I visited the local hospital with a nurse we know. I wouldn’t hesitate to seek care there. Remarkably (this is something Bolivia does much better than the U.S.), there’s government-paid universal health care coverage for pregnant women and children 0-5. If a woman needs a caesarean, no problem. And if a person without any government or private health care coverage needs care – and this category includes most adults – here it costs $1 to see a doctor, including a number of specialists. We also learned yesterday that you can pay $70 a night for a “single” hotel room in this town (they charge by the person, not by the room per se) and you can also pay the equivalent of 62 cents to sleep on a concrete floor on a couple of wild-grass-filled cushions without bedding of any kind (brrr!).
And now, though I could go on and on, it is John’s turn to share some impressions…. I haven’t said a thing about the famed “road of death” (also known as “the most dangerous road in the world”) over which we traveled to arrive here from La Paz. Our niece Elena arrived an hour ago and now she, too, has braved the road. The road figures in our film project, currently in gestation, which is an unending source of rumination and imagination. We send greetings and love and we hope you’re enjoying your northern summer.
John here. Coroico is gorgeous in the way that Zaruma was, but even more so. The vista from our hotel room window (through which I am now looking) extends from the river valley 1500 feet below to the high peaks on the horizon 13,000 feet above. The disappearing remnants of two glaciers are visible when it’s clear, and the swirling clouds and haze fall into constantly transforming layers of green, blue, and grey as the nearer mountains fold and drop into the jagged peaks beyond. It reminds me of the view from Beret’s family cabin above Ward looking up to the Indian Peaks, except vaster, higher, steeper. Two days ago there were fires on the highest slopes, sending plumes of smoke sideways and down into the deep valleys, hanging in a skein that turned at dusk from brownish-grey to deepening blue, in such a profusion of textures, with bright little points of flame flashing red as darkness descended, that the high peak and its surrounding valley looked like Tolkien’s Mount Doom.
We awake to a riot of birds. Flights of wild parrots gabble loud as they beat past. Another bird with a black body and a long yellow tail loiters in the trees next to the hotel pool and gives an exotic cry. Buzzards circle lazily, riding the thermals up past our window (there’s two out there right now). The buzzards are easy to videotape. The parrots are elusive, because they buzz by so fast. But they were a good excuse for me to get out early with the camera on the balcony adjoining the hotel dining room today, taping sound more than sight, birds and breeze intermixed with the faint morning sounds of the town below, church-bells and motorcycles, roosters and radios, all mixing quietly together until the hotel turned its stereo and started the endless random CD shuffle of European and US pop that plays from dawn to dusk in the dining room (this morning it was Rolling Stones). Many of the parrots have been domesticated around town and provide refracted windows on the households of their captors as we walk by. The other day I could have sworn a child was terribly injured inside the adobe wall I was passing – only to look up and see it was the parrot screaming.
By midday, the smaller creatures are commanding our attention. There are no mosquitos here, and we have seen exactly one cockroach since our arrival in Bolivia (around here, that’s probably the result of pesticides). But the bug situation is by far the worst I have ever encountered. The nemeses in question are tiny brown gnats known locally as chuspis. They swarm intermittently and unpredictably around midday. They make no sound that I can hear, and you cannot feel them biting you. You simply notice that there are four of them around your arm or hand or foot and that you have fifteen fresh bites in the exposed area all about an inch apart. That night each bite goes go pink in a quarter-inch radius with a tiny red blood-blister in the center, and it itches like poison ivy for three days. You get a new crop of bites on a new part of the body every couple of days. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Marcus’ legs now look like he is in the early stages of leprosy.
Anyone care to visit?
I was going to rave about my favorite topic when we travel to Latin America, safety and the lack thereof, about which, owing to the steep mountains and dangerous roads, there is much to say around here (in fact, our current best idea for a film topic may take up this theme) but the kids are bored and restless and want to swim, and this group letter has gone on quite enough to try the attention span of most of you (as has this sentence). So I’ll sign off. Much love and warm regards to all.