Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Arrival in Bolivia

On my American Airlines flight from Miami, most of the passengers looked Hispanic, but well-off. I don’t think I saw any Indians, who are said to make up 80% of the Bolivian population.

After flying through the night, the plane first landed in La Paz, then continued on to Santa Cruz. Taking off from La Paz, I saw basic adobe or brick houses, much simpler and more poor than in Quito. Then I looked out over desolate, sparsely populated mountain peaks, snowcapped in the highest areas. Clouds settled among them, the peaks rising like islands and peninsulas in an ocean.

The most beautiful flight I’ve ever taken was from Bishkek to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. In a country with 90% mountains, the view of the peaks from the sky was spectacular. Bolivia is similarly impressive.

While moving from Kyrgyzstan to Bolivia is truly jumping across the world, I realized that the two countries do have their similarities. Both are land-locked, poor, highly mountainous, and hold a similar number of inhabitants.

For the first time I became excited. It was hard to leave my new husband after three weeks of marriage, my friends and my family. But looking out over the harsh scenery reminded me that travel to the remote and exotic, coming to know foreign lands, is my passion.

Forty minutes later, I looked out over a flat, green terrain with many agricultural plots, brown rivers snaking through the land. I saw a city along a river. It spread out in a large flat mass, like a stain, then dribbled out into villages.

Memories of my short visit to La Paz, five years earlier, caused me stress. I recall extreme altitude sickness, a lack of roads, and my rental car catching fire in an isolated neighborhood. But thoughts of Santa Cruz inspired ideas of romance. Santa Cruz de la Sierra rolled nicely off my tongue. The airport code, VVI, stood for Viru Viru International. That also sounded exotic to me. The greenness, from the air, looked clean, the roads appeared well-tended, the trees thick and bushy. I looked out over banana trees with uplifted fronds and saw sheep or cattle being led across a field, like a small colony of lice. Unlike La Paz, from the air Santa Cruz seemed calm, clean and prosperous.

We landed near a flat field, from where I could see a few billboards, street signs, and buses. The airport staff were friendly. Women, dressed in civilian clothing, served as the passport stampers.

A man named Eduardo picked me up and drove me the 15 minutes into town. He told me Santa Cruz is an important agricultural center. I could see the influence in the number of farm machinery shops we passed along the way – as well as Nissan, Toyota and Suzuki dealerships. Quite a lot of pickups and SUVs drove along the main road – a sign not only off driving country roads, but of wealth.

Eduardo tells me that Santa Cruz is different from anywhere else in Bolivia, that most of the population is descended from Europeans and other foreigners. He himself comes from German ancestors, who came to Bolivia to escape World War I. And it’s green. “I don’t like La Paz,” he said, “because it’s so barren. They don’t have any of this vegetation,” he said, pointing at the green around us, even as we entered the city.

Eduardo told me that drugs made the fortunes in this city. He said the height was in the 1980s and most of the drugs were grown to the U.S. “But now, due to US help, it has been reduced,” he said. “People used to carry around drugs like anything else. Not any more.”

He took me to a fast-food fried chicken joint for lunch (fast food seems prevalent here, as it was in Nicaragua), then to my hotel. At first I thought I was in for luxury when we came to the Royal Lodge Hotel and I saw four stars in the comfortable lobby. But once one leaves the lobby, it becomes dim and shabby. I had to leave my first room due to water dripping constantly from the air conditioner. The second was more comfortable, but 1970s comforters in bright red, orange and yellow covered the beds and the other furniture seems similarly aged. Yet, the stain-glassed window of a fish on the bathroom door, and the balcony step looking out over a small pool are both pleasant.

I looked through one of the two local newspapers, the El Deber, to see what makes up the news. A color photo of Miss Bolivia, Jessica Jordan, covered the first page of the society section. And she had another whole page to herself inside the insert. The beauty pageant news included the information of who won the Miss USA contest, a young woman born in Panama. I doubt I’d come across that easily in a US newspaper. But here, it appeared in color and took up a quarter page.

The obituaries announced “The person who was Luis Mario Roman Justinario,” a baby boy, or other names, “has stopped existing.” The baby’s father’s employer, Weitnauer Bolivia printed their condolences on a subsequent page.

I saw lots of medical ads, promoting assistance with impotence, rheumatism, plastic surgery, and dermatology, among other medical specialties.

In my brief car journeys across town, the city appeared to be flat, open, and relatively safe. I entertained thoughts of buying a bicycle and biking to work. But when I relayed my experience of being attacked in a taxi to Eduardo, he told me that two years ago he was mugged in mid-day. One attacker put a gun to his stomach, the other a knife to his side and they threatened to kill him. Other people on the street could see what was happening, but they didn’t do anything for fear of being attacked next themselves. He gave up his wallet and cell phone.

“But still, compared to Nicaragua or El Salvador, where they went through civil wars, it’s better here. The violence is more randomized, rather than being institutionalized.”

I hope so, because Santa Cruz is my new home and I’d like to be able to feel safe here.

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