Sunday, April 01, 2007

A Weekend with Local Company

I had expected to spend this weekend alone. I didn’t mind that idea since I looked forward to having a few days to try to get things in order, post-move. But my friendly Bolivian acquaintances made sure I had something to do each day.

Yesterday, my colleague Maria invited me out to lunch. She took me to Alexander Café. It’s her favorite place and I think it will soon become mine as well. Owned by an American in La Paz, it’s a chain café, featuring salads, sandwichs, wraps, fruit drinks, muffins, brownies, and desserts, as well as the best coffee in the city. I had an Asian chicken salad, a strawberry yogurt shake and a whole wheat muffin – a California-style wholesome meal.

Maria, a slender, attractive, single woman with a bright smile and a positive attitude, has worked for the the past five years. Originally from Cochabamba, she worked in La Paz for several years before moving to Santa Cruz.

“La Paz is not a pretty city,” she said, “but it’s a comfortable place to live. The cost of living is low, one can walk everywhere, and cafes and restaurants are on every corner.”

I told her that I liked the atmosphere in the bank and in the country. She said it was largely due to the importance of family in Bolivian culture. She described how when the bank moved its headquarters from La Paz to Santa Cruz, many headquarters staff had to be transferred to Santa Cruz.

“There was a whole process, that took about a year – of helping people to find housing, to sign up for kindergartens. One weekend they even flew everyone and their families to Santa Cruz to allow them to check it out and make sure they’d be comfortable living there.”

I saw the family atmosphere this afternoon. I spent the afternoon with my Spanish teacher Oscar, his wife Rosario, and sons Sergio (5) and Mario (9 months). After they picked me up, we went out for lunch at one of their favorite cafes The Corner That Everyone Should Know. The unassuming exterior led into a pleasant courtyard filled with chairs and a small restaurant. Almost every table was full – young tables, families, and families with children.

“Every Sunday, families like to go out for lunch,” Rosario told me. “It’s the day of rest.” She also explained that household employees work from Monday through Saturday. So Sunday is the only day there is no one to cook for them.

“Do most families have household help?” I asked.


“But the employees don’t have anyone helping them.”

“No. That’s why they have Sundays off.”

This is just one of the indicators that sets Santa Cruz off from the rest of Bolivia – the fact that the average citizen has a housekeeper.

Oscar and Rosario are solidly middle-class, but far from rich. Oscar earns $8 an hour teaching English and Spanish. Rosario is an accountant. They rent their home and they drive a small car with no radio, clock, or glass in the side mirrors (one was stolen, the other smashed).

After enjoying our plates of grilled fish with French fries, rice and salad, we headed for our main destination, a butterfly park. To get there, we had to drive past the wealthy suburb of Urubo. We traveled on a smooth, well-maintained road, lined by brick walls with wire toppings, much like a jail wall. I asked what these walls were for.

“It’s because it’s a closed community,” Rosario told me.

I had wondered what Rosario would be like. Oscar had told me she wanted to marry him after one year of dating, but that he wasn’t interested. She continued to date him, but was sad to not have his commitment. He finally did marry her because she was pregnant. She was only 21 at the time. When I asked why she was in such a hurry, Oscar said, “Because she didn’t want to lose such an interesting guy.”

He is an interesting guy. And very nice. But his short height, his pot belly, his former immaturity and reliance on his mother, and most notably, his shrunken left arm and hand, apparently a birth defect, could make it hard for him to find a partner.

He has come to love and appreciate Rosario and told me repeatedly that “She’s a very good woman.” She looked similar a woman who one could imagine would overlook physical shortcoming. She herself was slender and pleasant, but rather plain, with a wide mouth and large teeth. But I could easily feel the tranquility radiating from her that Oscar had described. She seemed simple, kind, caring and good. I liked her.

And Oscar clearly loved his children. He had told me that their running to greet him when he comes home in the evening is one of the things that makes him happiest. Throughout the day, he held them, kissed them, talked to them, called the baby his king, his world.

After the series of fancy lots, we drove down a rough road, so dusty and sandy it was like driving on a beach. As motorcycles, 4-wheelers and large trucks and 4x4s passed us, they raised clouds of dust so dense we couldn’t see a thing.

After a couple of miles of this, we reached Guembe Biocenter, a park on 83 hectares of land. Admission cost $7.50 for adults, quite steep by Bolivian standards. I worried it was more than Oscar and Rosario expected. We were assigned a young man as a guide, who would lead us through the park.

First he brought us to butterfly laboratory, where we saw the stages of butterfly development – first the eggs on a leaf (visible through a magnifying glass), then the larvae, the cocoons, and the butterflies breaking free. Once they broke free, they were moved to the butterfly museum. They say it’s the largest butterfly museum in the world. I’ve only been to one other – on the Canadian side of Niagara falls. I’d have to say the Canadian one was better – with a denser population of butterflies and better visibility. But this is Bolivia after all and it was still quite impressive, especially since they only use local butterflies.

Inside the netted viewing area was a 120 meter observation deck that we could climb and look out over the dense tropical greenery. The butterflies lived between 24 hours and 8-9 months, with an average of four weeks.

From there, we saw a couple of orchid plants, and a symmetric stone structure, where the property owner practices yoga, considering it a center of energy.

They had a series of small pools as well as a lagoon, where one could kayak. I hadn’t brought my swimsuit, since Oscar thought it would be too cold. Although by the afternoon, it was blazing hot. Unable to swim, I took a quick spin on a kayak and spent some time reading. In the afternoon, we took a horse and buggy ride through the forest. The buggy was equipped with incredibly soft seats that absorbed the shock of the rapid trot.

We ended up spending the day there, not leaving until almost six. It was the first time for both Oscar and Rosario to visit that place and they seemed to enjoy themselves. They invited me to their home for evening tea, an invitation I appreciated. But since I still had some things to do in the evening, I asked whether I might be able to take them up on it another time.

All in all, I spent a pleasant weekend with very nice people. I think I could get used to living here.

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