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Bolivia Letter #4

Queridos amigos y familiares,                                        22-23 de julio 2006

John and I have returned from our solo trip to La Paz.  The film work was exhilarating.  I now feel we have materials to make a worthy film and, for the first time in years, feel the passion and energy to embrace another big project.  We had planned this as a half-hour film, but I think it will be the length it needs to be.  (In between these bouts of passion, the economics of filmmaking and the juggling of day jobs sometimes seem like madness.  But we would never give up our favorite form of art and service!)

Yesterday I read that the Amazon has become a net creator of carbon dioxide, rather than a net replenisher of oxygen.  “The lung of the world” is being burned to the ground at an incredible rate.  The same thing is going on here, though the purpose is different.  The Yungas valley is so full of smoke right now – to prepare fields for sowing – that the smoke is blowing over the cordillera into La Paz.  Paige and Marcus have had coughs and runny noses virtually our entire time here, but there’s no remedy right now.

Paige has had a very uplifting experience volunteering in English classes at a secondary school.  The teacher, who may not be actually conversant in English (she speaks to Paige in Spanish), is using Paige to model pronunciation and answer questions.  Paige sometimes plays soccer with the kids in the afternoons.  A boy asked her to a dance.  Kids talk about her in Spanish and she understands what they’re saying.  Needless to say, she is having a great time.

In a few days, we leave on a grueling bus ride (said to be 18 hrs. if we’re lucky) to the Amazon basin.  We’re hoping to go on a camping trip by boat into the jungle or go on a “pampas” trip, which is into the grassy wetlands where there are more animals to see.  We thought we wanted to go to the pampas (something about pink dolphins and alligators…), but now we’re dreaming of the jungle.  Also, I just read a write-up on the web by a woman who did both, she loved the jungle but not so much the pampas, where she swam with piranhas and pink dolphins.  It seems you can’t swim with one without swimming with the other.  Stay tuned for what the gang chooses.  We’re going to have a little council about it at lunch.

The trip to La Paz was high adventure.  We are indebted to our film assistant and niece, Elena, for being with the kids while we were gone.  Paige was also a help with Marcus.  She can be a wonderful big sister when she’s in the mood.  I had made a plan to sit in the front seat of a mini-bus (a mini-van rigged to stuff in 15 adults in five rows of seats) and interview a driver on the way to La Paz.  That driver didn’t appear during good daylight hours and the bus company absolutely refused to let me reserve a front seat on his or any other bus.  So, it was improvisation time, since I was due to leave and interview a bus driver on the way to La Paz.  John had bought a ticket for another bus days earlier and, miraculously, his assigned seat was the one I needed – the window seat in the driver’s row.  I had to talk a driver I’d never met into being an interview subject and having an unwieldy camera with an obnoxious proboscis (shotgun microphone) in his front seat.  The guy between us, a young Paceño, had to put up with it all.  They were wonderful and I got my interview, which was backlit much of the time, but it was a success all the same.  (We are realists and take what comes.)  It’s hard to film while driving on the camino de la muerte, because it’s very bumpy and dusty and we were packed in with no room to move.  I did not feel scared on the ride up, as the driver was skillful and careful.  Accidents on the road are attributed to mechanical failure, driver fatigue (there are only 10 feet of roadbed from rock cliff face to edge of abyss in a lot of places), and overloading of vehicles.  John’s bus ride up was an example of the latter.  Fifteen adults paid for the fifteen seats and then loaded up their “guaguas” (pronounced “wawas”, which means “children”).  That brought the load to 23 people.  These weren’t 8 small guaguas either, according to John.  The driver announced that they were overloaded but couldn’t bring himself to throw anyone off the bus.  So up they went, bouncing on the axles all the way to La Paz.  On the way, they passed the remains of a red truck that had plunged off a couple of days earlier.  There were two deaths.  The wreckage didn’t even look like a vehicle – it looked like a wad of tinfoil.

In La Paz, John and I had a happy reunion at a hotel.  It was like “date night” writ large – three whole nights to ourselves!  Of course, our idea of a date can be a little strange.  The first day we ran errands – replacing electrical supplies I had burned up the week before, buying alpaca sweaters (it’s still winter in the highlands) and peanuts and antibiotics and books, and doing some street videotaping.  We hired a driver to take us to Villa Fatima, where the minibuses arrive from Coroico and the wholesale coca market is located.  It’s an amazing place – a big building with multiple large rooms filled with big sacks of coca leaves.  Each bag (I helped a woman carry one) weighs 50 pounds.  Whole families who have grown their coca and brought it to market are encamped in there waiting for buyers.  They sleep and eat there.  And sometimes, as right now, the market is slow and they are forced to wait for days.  Nobody stopped us on the way in, but we were met at first with penetrating and sometimes hostile stares.  We were scolded by cocaleros, asked what we were doing, and told to go away.  Each time that happened – and as often as possible before it happened – we would undertake to explain that people in North America usually do not understand what coca is and they confuse it with cocaine.  The growers know this and have a lot to say about what coca is for them, in addition to being their sole source of support.  It has a lot of calories and nutrients and reduces both hunger and thirst, so it is their defense against suffering in lean times.  It also increases oxygenation efficiency, stabilizes glucose metabolism, reduces the risk of embolism, and on and on. We were uplifted by how people related to us after we explained our intentions – to help illuminate a confusing issue for North Americans whose leader, as Bolivians see it, endangers their livelihood.  The film is going to be about a lot more, of course, but this story is part of it.  The cocaleros suddenly opened up and were willing to talk on camera about their perspective and what coca means to their families and culture.  One man was so grateful he pressed a handful of coca leaves into John’s palm as a gift.  Naturally, I had to give them away in a matter of minutes because we do not want any drug-sniffing dogs in U.S. Customs to smell coca leaf residue in our luggage on the way back.  We drink the tea, no más.  One woman was particularly eloquent and it was sweet to be interviewing mothers right next to their children.  We were the only non-Bolivians there and the cocaleros in the Yungas selling room seemed to enjoy our relieving the monotony of their day.

The market was sleepy in the afternoon, so we were advised to return at 7 am when it opened.  We did, and this time we were stopped by officials who said no filming was allowed.  We made our case, showed our business card, and presto, we were in.  We did more interviewing and got more interesting images.  But there were no buyers….  Even though we had permission, it still felt like we could be stopped by police and asked for our footage, so we thanked everyone and left, feeling very lucky to have had such a wonderful experience with cocaleros from the Yungas and to have filmed with them.

We then interviewed the head of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, the premier, foreigner-owned mountain biking operation that pioneered the ride down the “world’s most dangerous road.”  The interview was excellent and eroded some of the biases I had built up about the enterprise and what it means for Bolivia.  (Stay tuned for our finished film for the lowdown on that.)  We also had lunch with a new friend who is a consultant in democratic initiatives for USAID.  He is actually a free-lance and gets to do what he wants, but has USAID’s funding to finance it.  More erosion of my biases.  What he’s doing is truly wonderful.  He has lived in Bolivia for years, loves the country, and doesn’t do things that he thinks don’t or won’t work.  What USAID is doing in the way of support projects in the Yungas appears to be excellent, at least on paper – potable water, tuberculosis and leishmaniasis treatment, coffee bean processing mini-plants, road maintenance, school building, etc.  This is all welcome support, but the hope that it will result in voluntary coca eradication is a northerner’s dream, I think.  And because the farmers feel compelled to resist threats to their coca growing, the Bolivian government has for the time being given up both pesticides (which would poison the people) and forced eradication here.  But the pendulum swings back and forth and the bouts of violence that accompany the struggle over coca are unlikely to disappear.  The farmers we interviewed do not feel they have other options and have not had any “alternative agricultural” assistance offered to them.

La Paz is a city built in and up the steeps sides of a deep canyon at 13,000 ft,. with houses climbing the walls in all directions.  It’s gorgeous at night because there are twinkling lights all around.  There’s a wealthy zone called El Prado and many more rustic and poorer zones, along with fabulous decaying colonial buildings.  The taxi drivers stop for red lights much of the time during peak driving hours, and only when and if they feel they have to at any other time.  Hanging from the rearview mirrors of some buses and taxis is an air freshener – a cardboard Christmas tree cut-out decorated like an American flag.  Taxi drivers turn off the engine and coast downhill to save gas whenever they can.  There’s an incredible amount of jockeying where vehicles miss each other by about four inches.  Virtually no one wears seatbelts.  I asked a taxi driver about seatbelts and he said, “It’s not our custom.  They once tried to make us, but they gave up.”

Our USAID friend advised us to catch a glimpse of the US embassy in La Paz because it looks (embarrassingly) like a cross between a bunker and a high security prison.  Naturally, we had to go.  The windows look precisely wide enough to stick machine gun muzzles out of.  It’s surrounded by a tall, fortified security wall and takes up a large city block.  In the center, away from the walls, is the embassy.  Next door is a sweet-looking house that contains the British Embassy and has a “We are open to the public” sign on it.  We began to take video images of our embassy and were told by an armed police officer that photographing was forbidden.  We’re citizens of the US, we protested.  Absolutely not, he said.  It was discouraging (and yes, embarrassing) because of the level of paranoia.  We have the most highly protected building in the city and you can’t take a snapshot of it?

The Amazon high council decided we are going on a jungle tour.  Right now John, Paige and Elena are out filming the “new road”, the eternally unfinished one with asphalt, two full lanes, a locally mythologized “geologic defect” said to be irreparable (having to do with ground water and the hillside sliding down eternally in one stretch), and a significant World Bank debt.  The joke is that one day people here will be able to choose between the world’s most dangerous road and the world’s most expensive road, which half of them think is the more dangerous.  It’s a land of ironies.  When people aren’t joking about it, they’re mad at the self-dealing, embezzling contractors and politicians.

John’s going to regale you with the story of his bike ride down the road.  I was actually a bit more scared that day than he, because my jeep was frequently racing ahead to set up the next video shot.  This provided me with the experience of driving fast on the world’s most dangerous road.  I was in good hands, though, and I’ve grown quite fond of the road, except for the choking clouds of dust.  Today we gave new surgical masks to our favorite semáforo humano, the handsome Don Timoteo, to help him protect his lungs.

Hasta la próxima vez.  Con cariño –Beret


The mountain bike ride down the “world’s most dangerous road” was fun, challenging — and actually not all that dangerous.  Thousands of tourists do it every year, making the “death road” a well-known stop on the proverbial Gringo Trail through Latin America.  When we interviewed Alistair, the company owner (a very savvy New Zealander who was a management consultant before his midlife crisis) he was succinct about what the young backpacker tourist really wants – to be able to tell a good story “down the pub” when he gets home.  This person wants to be able to say, “No shit — there I was …”, and the predicate to that phrase cannot be “in a museum looking at this really cool rock.”  These folks are looking for bragging rights to something apparently hair-raising — but they also want to be relatively safe and comfortable while doing it.  They don’t actually want to be in danger on the world’s most dangerous road.  So this particular company (one of several plying this rich trade) markets its services, paradoxically, on the basis of safety.

And I, who unlike most young backpackers have my lovely spouse and two beautiful children (not to mention my other beloved family, friends, and the last 30-40 years of my life) awaiting at the other end of the ride, did not want to be in danger either.  So I was happy to benefit from all of the precautions that were taken on the ride.  Because the road is mostly a single-lane shelf with several-hundred-meter plunges around its curves, they sent riders ahead with radios to advise of oncoming traffic.  We were alerted by a system of whistles when to get off the road into the periodic lay-bys whenever a vehicle approached.  A sweeper guide and a support vehicle trailed us to take care of any stragglers or flat tires.  They also had a full first-aid kit and a rope-ascent kit complete with a backboard in case of accidents.  We were made to stop about every fifteen minutes to keep the group together and keep everyone from getting too tired.  The bikes, helmets, and other equipment were of top quality and fully maintained every night between groups of riders.  So with the risks of oncoming traffic, equipment failure, and excess fatigue nearly eliminated, all we had to do was concentrate on riding within the margins of a dirt road no steeper, narrower, or more winding than most jeep roads in Colorado.

In fact, the biggest challenge was NOT deviating one’s gaze from the thirty feet of dirt straight in front of you, because that would distract you from your task of NOT riding off the edge.  It would also scare you witless.  So the whole thing was an exercise in client-management for the tour leaders and anxiety-management for the participants.  It also had the corollary effect of nearly eliminating Bolivia from the experience.   You couldn’t look at the countryside very much, other than at the stops.  You were insulated from any real contact with Bolivians (the main guide was Belgian, and his two Bolivian helpers were too busy racing ahead and keeping us safe to have any real interaction).  Once we reached the valley floor, we were given celebratory beers and t-shirts proclaiming “I Survived the World’s Most Dangerous Road” (complete with a photo taken by a Bolivian woman who worked a “saucy wench” act in order to keep the company coming back to her roadside stand instead of the fifteen others who weren’t seeing any of our money).  We were then whisked up to Coroico for a buffet, shower, and swimming pool for two hours (at the same hotel where we’ve been living, as it happens).  Then, for most of the group, it was back on the bus to return to La Paz the same night.  Thus, not only can you tell other travelers and friends you rode the “road of death,” you can also say you’ve “been to Coroico” as part of the deal.

So when we asked Alistair if the riders generally learn something about themselves, or about Bolivia, in the course of the ride, his response was cynical: “You mean, do they think about the fact that there are people who live here, and have to take this road for their livelihood, and who are actually scared of it, but have no choice?  No, these backpackers are generally shallower than you give them credit for.  They don’t typically make that connection.”  To which — having now done the ride and met the people in my group, most of whom did not seem shallow to me — I would now respond that the tour is designed to avoid that connection.  But then again, to allow for such a connection would probably make the ride less popular, less lucrative, and would expose the customers to more of the actual danger the Bolivians are dealing with.

So there you have it.  “No shit, there I was . . . .”  And I have to admit, it was a blast!

It is also somewhat surreal living an entire month in a tourist hotel where these mountain bikers come and go like tides.  They arrive dead tired and jagged from adrenaline, eat their food, discover the pool is cold, receive a few chuspi bites, and then are gone.  Only a few of them stay overnight.  The hotel owners are resentful that most go back to La Paz the same day, and many blame a conspiracy between the bike companies and the La Paz hotels for this phenomenon.  To which bike-entrepreneur Alistair replies, “If Coroico would come up with something interesting for these backpackers to DO, maybe more of them would stay.”  So if Coroico takes this advice, I guess we’ll soon have the “world’s most dangerous waterfall,” or the “world’s most dangerous riding stable,” or “the world’s most dangerous coca field,” or, more plausibly, the “world’s most dangerous buffet.”  Although our hotel is not in the running for this moniker (we’ve only gotten sick once, from another restaurant down the hill), our place may claim the title for the “world’s strangest versions of western dishes.”  We regularly eat what is surely intended to be European comfort food, such as scalloped potatoes or lasagna, but made with ingredients about which we can only speculate.  It’s a bit like watching “Bambi” dubbed into Serbo-Croatian.  Last night there was a casserole that after some discussion we dubbed “beetloaf.”

Con mucho cariño,


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