Sunday, April 15, 2007

Where the Action Is

Last night the office hosted a karaoke contest among its female employees. It rented out an entire disco club and the employees from throughout the city gathered there at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night.

It wasn’t too far from my house. We drove down San Martin avenue in Equipetrol, which is the hang out place for upper class youth. I had known this, and seen it. But never had I seen so many people gathered as I did late on Saturday night.

The street was lined with SUVs and trucks parked on either side of the street. A steady stream of vehicles moved slowly down the street, checking out the scene, deciding where it might be worth it to stop.

Many vehicles had large stereo systems installed in the back. Young women in tight, low-cut tank tops and high heels and muscular young men sat on the hoods, in the trunks, or rested against the sides. Jewelry, make-up and colorful clothing glittered under the streetlamps. Some couples embraced, or French-kissed, in public. Some danced. Most held a bottle of beer.

Among these crowds of privileged youth walked an Indian woman, her braided hair covered with a hat, a colorful striped cloth tying a bundle to her back. It was such a contrast between the traditional Indian woman and the carefree modern youth, such as could be seen in any cosmopolitan city. Other lower-income entrepreneurs roam the crowds, selling snacks, drinks, and cigarettes.

The karaoke concert was nicely organized, and for a work function, was a fun way to spend an evening. We listened to quite a bit of mediocre singing, as well as a few people with talent. It was scheduled to begin at 11. My colleague, Maria, is very timely, especially for Bolivia. We arrived by 10:30 and the place was virtually empty. It started a little after 11:30.

Today I decided to join in the custom of eating Sunday lunch out. I walked through an area where I thought I could find some restaurants. Almost everything, except the supermarket, a few kiosks, and some restaurants, is closed on Sundays and the streets were almost deserted. But I quickly realized how to find a place to eat – look for large numbers of SUVs concentrated in one area.

This signal led me to several options. I ended up choosing a steakhouse, where they advertised the best meat in the world (and Oscar, my Spanish teacher, told me they had especially good meat, backing up their claim). It was an attractive, classy restaurant, packed to the rafters, the staff buzzing professionally around, the owner (who looked Argentinean) monitoring the action.

Their specialty was grilled meat, which was served with a plate of green salad, rice, French fries, fried yucca, bread, spiced mayonnaise and salsa. I’d guess the average patron spends about $8 there, which is definitely higher end. Yet every table was full. I looked around at the patrons, the comfortable, middle and upper class families, enjoying their nice meal while their “employee” had the day off. Such families exist everywhere. But what is remarkable here is that there are so many of them. And that these differences in lifestyle seem to be taken as a matter of course (although, not by the President, Evo Morales).

In Kyrgyzstan I felt it much easier to integrate into various aspects of society. I lived in an apartment with normal people – students as well as families and professionals – across the street from a brothel. Sometimes I ate at the upper end restaurants. Other times I went to little holes in the wall. And it didn’t really make a difference either way. I walked, biked, took the buses and taxis, and was fine however I chose to travel.

Here, because of the differences in income, and because of the safety threat, I feel much more of the need to segregate myself with the middle and upper classes. I live in a condo with 24 hour security, when I need a car I order a taxi by phone that picks me up by name, and I even hired an “employee” to clean and cook a few times a week. The best I do at integration is taking the bus to work in the morning. But it’s dangerous to walk, it’s dangerous to take a taxi off the street, and it’s dangerous to stroll into unknown neighborhoods carrying anything of value.

This I find unfortunate. As much as I like the weather and people, I don’t like the segregation of the population and the inability to move freely.

This week I spoke to a Bosnian/German colleague here, who is interested in working in Colombia. I asked whether she was concerned about the security situation there and she told me she liked the people a lot.

“Yes, you have to be careful and you have to go from place to place in a car, but it’s not so bad once you get used to it.”

I guess if you are OK with moving from one sheltered space to another, it’s true, it is OK. You can work, go to the gym, go shopping, visit your friends, and take vacations, all in safe, upper-end places. But for someone who wants to move and breathe and interact with one’s surroundings, to have a symbiotic relationship, it’s hard to consider it living.

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