Wednesday, March 28, 2007

first day in Santa Cruz

Today we passed by the Miss Universe/Miss World office, a nice house surrounded by greenery. The daily local paper contained a two page color spread about the Miss Paraguay competition. Beauty pageants here seem to be considered worthy news – whether they are local, regional, national or international.

I had the chance to move some more through the city today. I noted a lot of fancy, gated condominiums and a lot of SUVs – Nissan, Suzuki, SSR, needed for the dirt roads that surround the city borders. The license plates are white with bright blue letters – Bolivia written above the numbers. Those without cars travel in micros – small buses in between the size of a mini-van and a full-size bus. The fare is 1.5 bolivianos, or less than 25 cents.

I was taken to one of these gated condominiums today. The three-bedroom condo, on the seventh floor, was supposed to be my new home. Not only were there already three people living in this condo, but I was led to a small room with two twin beds and told I’d be sharing it with someone else. That would be four women sharing one bathroom and not a corner of private space to myself. While I wanted to be flexible and was ready to agree to sharing an apartment, I’m too old to share a room for a period of several months. So I moved back into my hotel.

I drove into the center of town today. On the way, we passed the National American University, a Mexican art shop, an architectural art shop, and a whole street of photo shops across from a park. “Help us keep our high school clean,” and “Don’t write or publicize on these walls,” was written right next to “Without a future” scrawled on the wall. We drove past banks guarded by men with guns. I watched a Japanese-looking man get out of an SUV and six young women in colored skirts buy fruit juices from cups being sold atop a cooler.

I spent the day with Cynthia, a young married woman who finished the university in 2001. She was trained as a production engineer and wanted to work in a factory. After applying for several months with no results, she began to become depressed.

“Our society is pretty macho and they only wanted men,” she said. “There are hundreds of men working there and they worry that having a woman would cause them to feel disrespected.”

She saw a listing advertising an opening as an assistant to a regional manager and applied. Among the 120 candidates, she was selected for the job. Two years later she became an analyst, then a manager.

“A lot depends on one’s personality,” she said. “I know that you could put me with any group in a factory and I’d be respected, but they don’t give me the chance to show it.”

She invited me to her house for the two-hour lunch break. Every day, she goes home to eat a meal prepared by her mother. She and her husband live in an annex just behind her parent’s home. We had a traditional local dish made of spiced rice with shredded meat, fried egg and plantain, followed by a small dish of gelatin and a glass of lemonade.

She told me that her employer had recently sent her to Ghana to improve her English. I asked how she liked it. “It was an unforgettable experience of course,” she said. “But was so poor. People here always complain about poverty, but when I got there, I felt we didn’t have any poverty at all.” She told me that the minimum monthly salary is 500 bolivianos ($63) but that the average, lower medium class earned 1000-1500 ($125-200).

In the afternoon I had a Spanish lesson with my teacher, Oscar. Oscar is short, with a friendly, genuine smile, a pot belly and a stunted arm and hand. He is married with two sons, five years old and eight months old. Seeing his children run to him when he gets home makes him happiest. Rush hour traffic and politicians make him most upset.

He told me he lived with his mother until the age of 28, going from being dependent on his mother to being dependent on his wife. Nevertheless, he believes that the man is the head of the family and women can only present their opinions on important decisions. By law, women are named A B de C after marriage, the C being the man’s last name and the de meaning “property of.”

He dated his wife for three years and after the first year, she was ready for marriage. He, however, resisted, until she was pregnant, another thing he says he’s not proud of. However, marriage and children seem to have been good for him, teaching him how to be responsible. He now praises his wife and his face lights up when talking about his sons. He reads books like “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “The Cash Flow” and takes copious notes. He’s trying hard and working hard to be a responsible, successful person in all areas of his life, and this topic is a major part of our class.

I like him and find him a great person from whom to learn about the local life and culture. He frequently brings up the difference between La Paz (cold and rocky) and Santa Cruz (warm and tropical). He believes that climate influences personality and culture.

“The youth here aren’t interested in books or learning,” he said, with great disappointment. As a person who loves to teach, he likes people who want to learn. “They just want toys and to have fun. This attribute is specific to Santa Cruz.”

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