Thursday, March 29, 2007

a day in the life

I spent the first part of the day in a busy, lower-income part of the city called Ramada. The office was surrounded by small shops – selling stationary, glass display cases, party supplies, snacks. Buses, taxis and cars filled the street in a noisy congestion. At 9 in the morning, one man sold cups of red gelatin through the windows of the micro buses to passengers.

The clientele was varied. In contrast to the areas I’ve been spending time so far, here I saw women with dark, lined faces and long black braids, dressed in pleated skirts and aprons. They sat next to a white man and a Hispanic woman, a couple, applying for a debit card. A little girl sat the desk with her mother. Her tiny face so pensive and patient, I felt I could almost see her mind developing.

The staff were young, professional and seemed comfortable and capable. But the air smelt of flour and sex, of the dust of life that collected on the customer’s clothing.

I spent the day with Vanessa, an experienced customer service representative. She had a glamorous photo of herself copied across her computer screen, in 15 repetitions.

Despite what seemed to be an unusually strong interest in herself, she interacted well with the various clients. One middle aged woman came in looking for funding to get a refrigeration storage space at the slaughterhouse where she works. This simple woman carried a cell phone, a sign of the increased access the poor have to technology. She told me she sells trip, heart, and cattle innards.

“Before, we used to give those things away,” she said. “But in the past 30 years, they have become popular.” She works in the largest slaughterhouse in Santa Cruz, the same one that supplies meat for Burger King hamburgers.

“Yes,” Vanessa concurred. “Those parts are really delicious. We’ll have to invite you to try some.”

I feel the strong emphasis on meat here, which makes me feel like I’m in a cowboy-like atmosphere. The love of meat is really no different than in Siberia or in Kyrgyzstan. However, there seem to be less vegetables available here. Inside of the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber salad served in Kyrgyzstan, here the meat usually comes with potatoes, dehydrated potatoes, and rice – a huge carbohydrate collection. Even the beans, the nice source of fiber so common in other parts of central and south America, are virtually absent here.

I think there are vegetables available in the market. But since I don’t have access to a kitchen, I eat all my meals out. I usually balance it with a full lunch (since that is the main meal of the day here) and a chef salad or soup in the evening from my hotel.

Vanessa took me with her to lunch at a local café. We watched the local news on television. The 309 passengers on the LAB flight to Spain that had still not departed were rioting at the Santa Cruz airport. They were originally told that LAB couldn’t find the funds for jet fuel. Three LAB managers were brought to jail for corruption for diverting the funds collected for this flight. In the meantime, the passengers, stuck at the airport, were going to miss the April 1st deadline for entering Spain without a visa.

A former Miss Bolivia (a single mother of an 11 month old daughter) was arrested for trafficking cocaine and was said to be an addict. And a car accident resulted in two serious injuries. The TV camera showed one of the men being removed from the car, his face streaming blood.

“Poor guy,” Vanessa said.

I instinctively turned my face away from the TV. “How can they show that on TV?” I asked. “How would you feel if you were dying and the world watched.”

“They don’t follow the laws,” she said. But then went on to tell me how she watched the entire video of Americans being beheaded in Afghanistan a few years ago. “It’s quite a process,” she said. “And the sounds they make, it’s just awful. They take a knife and slice all the way through the head, then they put the head on the stomach of the victim.”

“Didn’t you have nightmares after watching that?” I asked. I myself found the still photos just before death, knowing what would happen imminently, disturbing enough.

“No, but I had a real headache, from the extent of the cruelty,” she said.

Vanessa is one of 8 daughters in a family with 8,000 hectares of land. She hates the current government.

“It’s a socialist government that wants everything under its control,” she said. “It’s the worst that could have happened to our country. He wants to get rid of the rich.”

Her dream is to inherit her father’s land, raise cattle and grow the cattle feed. “I don’t make much in the bank,” she said. “But I’m working in order to learn, so that someday I can establish something for myself.”


Most employees here have two hour lunch breaks, and the majority go home. The importance of family is clear and I think it works out to be a very nice schedule to allow people to balance work and family. They go to work or school for a few hours in the morning, spend a quality lunchtime together, then go back for several more hours, and then have the evening together. In this way, I think people are more refreshed for the two periods of time they spend at work, and since they are able to see their families throughout the day – in the morning, afternoon, and evening, as well as weekends, there is less conflict in balancing work with family, even with only 3 weeks annual vacation.

In the late afternoon, most employees provide their workers with a snack. The day before yesterday, they brought me a square of yucca with some slivers of meat. Yesterday it was a yogurt and a small package of cookies. This is another tradition that makes the work day pass with more ease and comfort.

I suppose it’s still a matter of learning the local products, but I’m glad to be eating out so much now. Because what I’ve seen in the small supermarket near my hotel and the stalls I’ve gone by, doesn’t appeal to me at all. There are the standard junk-food products – the sodas, the Pringles, and the candies. Chocolate cereal flakes seem to be common as is gelatin. Then there are the local products – the fried plantains that are so greasy they are almost see through, the yogurt in weak packaging that somehow scares me, the juice made from mystery fruits and questionable hygiene, the fried empanadas with a mystery surprise inside. They seem to like sweets, and there are a lot of rolls and cookies, but those I’ve tried so far are pretty dry and not very sweet.

While none of the groceries appeal to me particularly, I do like the entrees they are able to prepare from them. One afternoon, I had lunch with some colleagues at a popular local restaurant, La Casa de la Camba. There, a man dressed in white and wearing a sombrero directed our car into the parking space. And all the servers were similarly dressed in the style of horsemen from the pampas. There we had fried yucca with a tasty, green hot sauce, greasy rice with duck and plantain, chicken, beef and rice with milk and cheese (like rice pudding, but without the sugar).


I learned quite a bit more about the city and the country where I’m living. Bolivia is divided into nine departments, the equivalent of states and Santa Cruz is one of these. The rainy season, which continues through April, has been strong this year and a department to the north, Beni, suffered serious floods. During the rainy season, the countryside fills with water, roads are ruined, and entire areas become very difficult to access. The rumor is that this year, the combination of El Nino and La Nina will bring drought after the rain, so farmers are collecting water in tanks and the city of Santa Cruz is relying on its wells.

Bolivia used to be driven by mining. But the main industries in Santa Cruz today are wood, petroleum, agriculture and cattle. There is also a large hill full of iron being exploited by an Indian enterprise, Jindu. It is the most expensive city in Bolivia and the most dangerous. Cochabamba had been developing into the eastern capital of Bolivia, but due to constant political problems and protests, companies started to move to Santa Cruz instead. At the same time, many people migrated to the area for the fertile soil.

“The very rapid growth in Santa Cruz has made development disorganized,” my Spanish teacher Oscar told me. “Five years ago there were three rings. Now there are seven.”

He told me there has also be a large increase in street children in the past few years. These kids sniff shoe glue and are called chuferos. One afternoon we drove past a group of women and children seated on a median. Police circled around them, trying to convince them to move.

Maria told me they were chuferos. They wanted to stay there in order to rob from people to get money for the glue. She said the parents gave the glue to their children.

“I’ve even seen a mother giving her baby glue,” she said. “If the children are high, they don’t feel hunger.”


There are two statues in the city that have grabbed my attention. The giant white Christ, with arms outspread in the middle of a rotunda, is a focal reference point. What stands behind him is north, and in front of him is south.

In addition, there is a giant statue of liberty on top of the New York Mall. It’s strange to be driving through a city and suddenly seeing the pointed crown of this icon.

I learned how people who are paid salaries, have to save their receipts for all their purchases in a month, which is subtracted from what they owe.

“Why can’t there just be a simple tax?” I asked my colleague Maria. To avoid people getting fake receipts, one is asked for their last name and ID number every time they buy anything. It’s quite time consuming to repeatedly give that information and then save all the slips.

“They started out with a tax that was simply a percentage of income. But people protested and made blockades,” she said.

So rather than have all my purchases go to naught, I give Maria’s name and ID number every time I make a purchase. And much to her gratitude, I hand her my pile of slips.

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