Friday, June 29, 2007

Cecilia and Oscar

Earlier this week I had the chance to talk to Cecilia, the woman who comes by my apartment to clean three times a week. Her 2nd grade son was there cutting out photos from a newspaper, working on a project. She takes him with her to work whenever there are no classes, which seems to be pretty often. This time it was because his teachers were participating in a training.

She told me that her family immigrated to Santa Cruz from Beni three years ago.

“There is not much work there and prices are high,” she said. She works as a domestic and her husband is a jeweler, working in a place where his employer supplies him with the silver and he makes the art.

I asked her how hard it was to find a job. “Not too bad,” she said. Only the first few days were difficult. I looked at ads in the paper and also went out to find work.”

It looks like the next month or two won’t be good for her, as I’ll be changing apartment and her other employer is going to spent two months in America, where he has a daughter.

Her cell phone rang. When she hung up, she told me it was her sister, calling from Spain. “She calls a lot to ask about her children,” she said. Her sister works at a hotel in Malaga. From the $1300 she earns per month, she is able to save $800 of it.

“She’ll return after two years and use the savings for a new house and to establish a business here,” she said.

I have great respect for such people, who are able to leave their families behind, to go to a different country, and work in low-level jobs in order to set a financial foundation for their families. Usually, they lack education and opportunity. But they don’t let that stand in the way, sacrificing time with their family to work hard and give themselves a better future.

Yesterday Oscar and I tried to go to a museum he wanted to take me to. But we turned around when we saw student protests. I remembered seeing on the news that students were organizing large protests for fear of losing the right to private education, and they planned to mass on the central square.

Heading back, a man in a horse-pulled cart trotted down the road, alongside the mass of cars honking, jostling for position, and avoiding near crashes. Horse-drawn carriages, just like the man on a bicycles selling brooms, are the little details that make me remember I’m in Bolivia and appreciate that such diverse people and modes of life can unite in one place.

“Look at that!” Oscar said. “A horse in the middle of the city. That’s just evidence that Santa Cruz is really a village. A big village that wants to become a city.”

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Buena Vista

It feels as though I’ve lived through a lot of hours this weekend, as though Friday morning was ages away. I certainly packed a lot of experience into a few days.

This morning I woke up at the (for me) ungodly hour of 6:30 to take a bird and a monkey-searching walk into the jungle with a local guide. Shortly after I’d arisen and thrown on my clothes, Robin stopped by.

“It’s cold and windy, and will probably rain. I don’t think you’ll see much. It’s probably not worth going.”

Given his expertise, I trusted him and went back to bed. But then I reconsidered. I wanted the opportunity to talk to a local, to not get all of my local information from an Englishman who is not on very good terms with the community. In any case, I wanted a bit of exercise, so I might as well take advantage of a morning walk.

Roberto lives down the road from Robin and owns 48 hectares. He’s a farmer, who grows rice, yucca, plantains and vegetable for his own consumption and local sale. He also has some chickens and a cow. He and his son work the land, growing on one portion while allowing other areas to rest for 4-5 years.

Robin has to walk across his land to do his beetle work, and to take tourists on walks. So it seems they have an arrangement. On the rare opportunities when tourists come, they are expected to take a walk with Roberto, at a cost of $10. I thought this was fair.

True to prediction, we didn’t see too much. But we went much further into the damp, thick greenness. We crossed a small stream, scampered up and down bank, and walked amidst a mist of butterflies. Besides the sloth, the butterflies are my favorite animal in Bolivia, flapping around in a brilliant array of reds, yellows, whites, blacks, blues, and oranges.

We could hear monkeys, and at one point, looked up to see a capuchin monkey almost directly over us. We took a short break at a simple thatched hut. Underneath the roof was a pile of hay, some dried corn, oranges, and a few dishes. Roberto offered me an orange, saying this was where his son worked. We then slid down a steep slope and approached the clear sound of monkeys. We could hear their calls, we could see the tree branches shake, we could hear the fruit falling from the boughs, banging against the ground.

When we stood still for a while, we began to see them crossing. First one, then another, later another. I had the realization that I was standing in the middle of the South American jungle watching monkeys and I appreciated the moment. Not a bad way to spend a weekend. Despite my fuchsia windbreaker, they didn’t seem to pay any attention to us. We were silent witnesses to their gathering and feeding off the bobosi tree, a fruit popular among several local mammals.

Coming back, we had a nice close-up view of a hummingbird, which seemed to freeze momentarily in mid-air. Around us, we heard the calls of many different birds, including toucans.

Last night I stayed up until midnight skimming through a draft manuscript Robin has written about his experiences in Bolivia. It left me with a sad feeling after reading of constant tension, conflict, and inability to create alliances – the result of a man with a singular drive and passion who has difficulty bringing others to his cause. After reading about the opposition in the town and the government towards founding the National Park, I asked Roberto what he thought about it. Had the town benefited from it’s creation?

“For us, who live a bit further away, not so much,” he said. “But those who live closer to the boundary and in town have had more opportunities to earn money from it.”

Did he support its creation?

“Sure,” he said. “It was only the people who lived in and near the park who were against it. For everyone else it was OK. I think it’s a good thing that we have this area saved. So that something is left for my children and their areas. So that if they use up everything outside the park, something will still be left for them. The problem is that many people have a hard time looking into the future. They only think of what they can get today.”

So for him, a toothless middle-aged farmer, the benefit was not so much the preservation of species as making sure some resources remain for his family in the future. His perspective was understandable.

He did have a good quality pair of binoculars, one of the 18 Robin say exist in the village, and seemed to enjoy identifying birds, though not with the same passion as Robin. I learned more about the wildlife from Robin, who was able to bring it to life for me through descriptions in my own language about the vegetation, birds and animals. From Roberto, I learned more about the local life.

He told me only a few people are employed in Buena Vista. “Much of the work is only short term, for a day or a week. There is not much stable employment. So many live off the land, growing what the can. And the young are heading for the city, where they can earn a bit with more stability.”

In the afternoon, I met several work friends for lunch on the plaza, followed by a tour to the local coffee producing factory, and a stop at the river Surutu, a river that one can walk across to enter the Amboro National Park. Even though the river wasn’t too high, and a busload of locals were on the other side, cooking lunch over a campfire, I wouldn’t want to wade across. It was wide, moving at a good pace, and hard to tell exactly how deep it was. I read that each year, several people die walking across the rivers in that area. A run-down, sad-looking, but evidently formerly colorful bus was on the beach, part of it’s occupants across the river, the rest sitting in the bus to escape the cold wind. “Comfortable, elegant, service” was written across the top of the bus.

I’ve got a couple of days to focus on working and on packing up, then begins a pretty hectic month of travel.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Beetles, monkeys and birds

Last night I woke up at 3:30 in the morning, itching my arm. The darkness was deep as velvet. But as my eyes adjusted, I looked out the screen across from my bed and saw a light show – a flashing display of lightening bugs. Robin told me there are tyrophorous bugs as big as his thumb, with two lights on back and one on the front. He said catching one would provide enough light to read a book by. And the natives cut off the head and thorax and make a necklace from them that glows for an hour.

After turning on the light, I checked on my three companions – the moth, the spider, and the toad. All had moved and were now in unknown areas of my room. I noticed a bug bite on my wrist. So I got up, put on a long-sleeve shirt, rubbed some bug spray onto my hands and wrists, and went back to sleep.

In the morning, I had breakfast with Robin and Sonya in their modest 3-room house. Then Robin offered to take me on a 15-minute walk to spot a particular bird. I agreed. It ended up being a two hour hike, complete with education on how beetles lay eggs, develop and mature, how the forest is affected by slash and burn agriculture and how the birds are affected by wind.

He showed me a tree with a dual name – the Palo Devil’s Stick or the Palo Saint’s Stick – depending on whether it’s being recognized for the stinging ants that live inside the branch, or for the arthritic help these ant bites can provide. He brought me right up to the bird, a heliconia. According to Robin, it’s the cutest bird in the jungle. When we heard howler monkeys, a loud roar like a powerful wind, we walked off the path to track them. Although we could hear them nearby, we failed to find them. But we did come across a group of squirrel monkeys moving across the branches. That was my first monkey sighting in Bolivia.

I enjoyed walking through the forest, listening to Robin attract birds with his pygmy owl calls, and watching bright butterflies flutter around us. I also enjoyed Robin’s evident passion for the land, the animals, the birds and the bugs. He is a cynical, negative person, with almost every other sentence coming out as a complaint. But those alternating sentences were full of interesting facts and stories. In two days, I learned enough to imagine the story of his unique life – the moves from country to country, the relationships that didn’t last, the jobs that didn’t last, the consuming passion for the land and animals, and eventually, a focus on a subject that took him out of the conflict zone - beetles.

In the afternoon, after a nice siesta, I went to the top of the observation tower, where I could hear howler monkeys, making a noise like cows. I felt the warmth of the sun, the light breeze rippling against my skin. As I looked out across the greenness extending in all directions, I listened to the rustling of leaves and the cooing of birds. I really felt out in and one with nature. Looking out over the patterns of light and shadow made by sun and clouds, it was as though I stood on top of a big, green, wild world.

Later, I sat with Robin and Sonya on their overlook, to watch the birds come back. We peeled and ate mandarin oranges as we waited for their arrival. Robin pointed out the pretty green white eyed parakeet. As dusk fell, Sonya showed me the progress two beetles were making in chopping off branches.

The beetles were dull dark, colors. I could barely see them against the branches. I had imagined brilliant sparkling, Amazonian insects. Those black things seemed to me a rather boring way to spend one’s concentration. But later that evening, he showed me his collection, which contained a wider variety of sizes and colors. In just about every collection box, several of the species were highlighted yellow, an indication that it was a new species he’d found. While the bugs he’s focused on now, the Hemilophi tribe, aren’t very pretty, they are unique in that they make two cuts in a branch before dropping to the ground, extra work that isn’t explained. According to Robin, he’s the first to discover this species and this habit.

I spent my evening reading a draft of a book Robin wrote about his life and battles in Bolivia – against the exporters of endangered animals, against the indigenous squatters, against his colleagues and bosses, against his romantic liaisons.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Alone in the Jungle

Boy, this is sure an adventure. Tonight I should have been in a romantic cabana in Samaipata, showing my husband Bolivia for the first time. But due to flight delays, he didn’t make it. And rather than come for a hurried two-day visit, we decided to postpone it a month or so until he had more time.

Of course, I was disappointed, after putting in so much planning and expectation. It would be too sad to follow through on our planned trip alone. And being home would just remind me that he should have been there as well.

So I decided to get out of town and travel in the other direction, to Buena Vista. While Samaipata is situated on one end of the Amboro National Park, Buena Vista is at the opposite end.

I found a hotel mentioned in both my guidebooks, promising 200 hectares of primary forest, a bird-watching tower, and guided wildlife walks. Sounded great.

After work I took a shared taxi for the two hour trip to Buena Vista. There is room for 5 passengers – two in front and three in back. When I saw a Japanese couple approach the car at the same time I did, I thought they were Japanese tourists going to visit the park. Only after I got in the car did I see two more young Japanese in the back.

It turns out they are all students in Santa Cruz and come from the village of San Juan, which is one of the local Japanese colonies. Similar to the Mennonites, the Germans, the Russians, among the variety of ethnic colonies, they have maintained their language and culture since coming year during the war in the 1940s.

The girl next to me told me her father is a mix of Bolivian and other nationalities, but her mother is Japanese. The other three appeared to be pure Japanese. They played with their cell phones and mp3 players and spoke in alternating Japanese and Spanish.

After we got to Montero, about an hour from Santa Cruz, the traffic disappeared and the road became dark, with few settlements along the way and no streetlights. I looked up at the clouds moving across the half moon.

The driver let me off at the motorcycle taxi stand on the central plaza of Buena Vista. There, for $1.25, I got a ride to my hotel.

It took no time at all to get out of town and soon we were riding down an isolated dirt road, stars twinkling above us in the striated sky. I breathed in the fresh air and tried to enjoy the nature. But I found it pretty uncomfortable riding on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle, on a sandy, dark road, in the middle of nowhere. At any point, he could turn off the engine, pull a knife or gun on me, steal all my stuff or worse, and leave me there on the rural road. Unfortunately, those are the kinds of scenarios that Nicaragua put in my head. I tried to reassure myself that Bolivians are nicer, this is a small town, and the whole posse of motorcycle taxi drivers saw me go away with him.

Unbelievably, we turned off the dirt road onto an even smaller road, rough, rutted, and overgrown with grass. Overhead, trees united to form a low arch. Only a small wooden placard labeled “Forest and Fauna” assured me we were actually heading in the right direction.

After what seemed like a long ride, but was probably 15-20 minutes, we reached some cabanas, but they were dark and look abandoned.

“There is no one here,” the driver said. He pulled over as if to turn around.

“Go a little further please,” I asked. “Let’s see if there is an office.”

Finally, we spotted a light. I could see a man without a shirt inside. Were these guests? Was this a private home? It didn’t look much like an office. But it was a human, so we approached the door.

“It’s pretty late,” the unshaven, 50ish man said as he opened up the door, buttoning up his shirt. “We go to bed early around here.”

I told him I’d called the Santa Cruz office and told them I’d be arriving around 8.

“You know we’re closed,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “I thought I’d made a reservation. Do you have room for one?”
“Yeah, sure, come on in.”

I paid the motorcycle driver and wondered how I’d ever find transportation back into town.

Robin, who spoke to me in English, became more friendly, offering me supper, and when I refused, got me some boiled water.

“How long have you been closed?” I asked.

“Forever,” he said. “There are no tourists here with Evo Morales.”

I’d read that Buena Vista was becoming part of the “gringo trail.” If anything, I worried I was going to someplace too touristed. But it seemed I was the only guest.

“It’s OK with us though,” he said. “We have scientific projects that keep us busy. And if some people come and we’re able to make some money from that, it’s good. Mostly though, we have scientists visiting us.”

He showed me to my cabana, pointing out a wooden observation tower on the way. “If you don’t plan to sleep right away, you can do some moonwatching there.”

One of my guidebooks had listed this as a luxury hotel. When I called to make a reservation, they told me they had a swimming pool, gym and bar/restaurant. So the simple twin beds and disheveled facilities came as a surprise to me. However, it’s perfectly comfortable. I have good light, good screens, a normal toilet and shower, warm
water and a fan.

Nevertheless, I feel myself very much in the jungle. On one wall I have a unique moth, on another a large spider, and on a windowsill some type of frog or toad. All three have been motionless for a very long time. Several bugs are pressed against the screen, approaching the light, and sometimes I hear them bang against it. The jungle is full of noises – crickets chirping, the coo of some nocturnal birds, and the sounds of an animal I don’t recognize at all. Sometimes I hear the cracking of branches. Since I know the only couple here is going to bed, it has to be an animal. Maybe they are the monkeys Robin mentioned.

I took Robin’s suggestion and went up for a little moonwatching. It was pretty sitting at an elevation, looking out over palm fronds and the shadows of tropical trees, and up at a dark sky brilliant with the light of stars, a half moon and the illuminated, moving clouds.

This doesn’t seem to be much of a place for resting. I was given the choice to get up at 5 for breakfast with Robin, or to come by at 7:30 for a more complete breakfast with his wife Sonya. I chose 7:30. Probably on Sunday I’ll get myself up at dawn to try the bird and monkey exploration walk they offer.

My plan was to head to town tomorrow and to see what kind of tours the local travel agencies offer. Then I did something unusual for me – I appreciated what I have at the moment. I’m already in the jungle, surrounded by animals, and all alone. What do I need a tour for? I should enjoy and explore the place I am. So while I’ll probably have to head to town for food tomorrow, I mostly plan to spend the day in the jungle. And I’m looking forward to it.

Exploring Santa Cruz

Today, during my mobile Spanish class, Oscar showed me some interesting sights. First he showed me some of the upper-class, gated communities, built on the outer northern side of the city, in the sixth and 7th ring. I thought they looked like dull places to live, completely separated from life outside the gate, requiring a car to go anywhere or do anything. But some people like exclusivity, especially here it seems.

Then he took me to the central cemetery. I found that fascinating. It looked like a city, formed of a combination of elegant structures, blocks of stone, and modern creations that could be mistaken for a jewelry store. Everyone was buried above ground. Some families had entire monuments, or vaults to themselves. Others purchased single spaces. These were stacked five high and up to eight wide, each space sufficient for a horizontal coffin, and coming with a window at the front of the stone, where the family could include a photo, an engraving of their name and date of death (usually they didn’t include the birth date), flowers, and any other artifacts that represented that person.

I loved this set-up because it conveyed so much personality. Rather than reading a bunch of script on granite, I could look out and immediately see the meaningful symbols of 20 lives.

Oscar said this is an expensive cemetery, with an individual space selling for $1,000, cash upfront only. Whereas other cemeteries will sell plots on a payment plan.

He took me to where his father was buried. There was a family plot, a large mustard stone. Half of it was recessed and contained a monument and a large photo of a woman who he said was his aunt. Several other family members had individual spaces and plaques on the other half.

“My father is in there,” he said, pointing to his aunt’s grave.

“Is there a photo?” I asked.


“What about his name?” Oscar’s last name, Hidalgo, appeared on only one of the plaques.

“When my father died, we didn’t have the appropriate resources to get him a spot, so our relatives allowed him to be put here.” His remains were just put into the same place as the remains of Oscar’s aunt, which no marker of his name or existence.

“We never prepared anything for him because we always expected we’d move him,” Oscar said. “My mother has purchased three spaces in an American-style cemetery and when she dies, we’ll bury him with her.”

I asked about a photo of a man in the family plot who seemed to have died fairly young.

“He was 45,” Oscar said. “Unfortunately, he was involved in drug trafficking. When he was in Colombia, some people got upset and just shot him, without giving him any chance to explain.”

The quote on the plaque said, “You will live eternally in the hearts of your loved ones.”

Drug trafficker or not, to his family, he was still their son, brother and relative.

Finally, we stopped by a private environmental organization which is implementing an interesting project to encourage children to recycle. They produced a video called The Little Train, that encourages them to separate their waste and put it into the recycling train. They put these trains in the school, each carriage for a different type of garbage. People from the community can bring their waste as well. The school uses the money it gains from selling the recyclable products to buy materials, and the children learn about keeping their city clean.

Oscar wasn’t in a very good mood. He hadn’t come home until 12:30 the night before, having gotten caught up with beer and conversation with some friends. He hadn’t told his wife in advance.

“She’s so jealous,” he said. “Tonight she’s going to leave me with the children.”

“Yes,” I defended her. “She’s jealous that you should have more free time than she does. She also wants to have time to enjoy herself.”

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Guided by a Nun

On Friday afternoon, I had my mobile Spanish class with Oscar. Generally we visit different places in the city to learn about the place, the culture, and to practice the language. This afternoon, he surprised me by taking me to his aunt’s house.

Two days earlier, one of his aunts had died in her 50s from Chagas. She had contracted it three years earlier when visiting her native village of Vallegrande, about three hours from Santa Cruz. This is near to Higueras, the place where Che Guevara died. In the past three years she had wasted away. While medication is available to slow down the progress, there is no cure.

Oscar told me the name of the bugs that spread it, but I didn’t understand it in Spanish. So I took a look at the CDC webpage and see they are called triatomine bugs. Found in simple houses, made of adobe, straw, mud and palm, the bugs come out at night. After biting and sucking blood, they defecate on the person. The person becomes infected by accidentally rubbing or scratching the feces into the eyes, mouth or bite wound while sleeping. Sounds pretty gross.

I think it’s relatively common in the rural areas of this region, which makes a local homestay sound like not a very good idea. Wikipedia says 25% of the Latin American population is at risk, and about 50,000 people die annually.

As a result of this aunt’s death, Oscar’s family gathered for the funeral, including an aunt from Tarija. I was surprised when we arrived and I saw a nun, dressed in a long, shapeless ivory smock, with a white wimple.

“I’m surprised to see you are not in black,” Oscar said to Marlena, as she and her sister got into the car. Both of them were sisters of his grandmother.

“That just makes me feel worse,” she said, “It makes me think sad thoughts all the time. So I decided I’d do better in white.”

I learned that both sisters had been sent to the nunnery at the age of 12. Sofia left as a teenager, though she never married or had children. But Marlena had remained for the past half century.

Oscar told me it was common at that time for families to send their young daughters into nunneries. “They were too poor to take care of them themselves,” he said. “So they sent them where they could get some care and instruction.”

Fifteen years ago, Marlena was ordered by the powers that be to serve in Tarija. “They have to sign a vow of obedience,” said Sofia, “and must do whatever they are told.” In Tarija she works with a nursing home run by the nuns. While visiting Santa Cruz, she wanted to visit the partner nursing home here.

We went with her. After leaving us in the lobby while she went to introduce herself to the mother superior, she returned to fetch us and give us the tour. As we walked along corridors, she bustled ahead, keeping me following her flowing white robes, wondering how she kept them clean. Whenever we reached a doorway, she’d pause to let me go first.

The facilities were quite impressive – clean, orderly, large, airy – a multi-storied building centered around a courtyard. Topiary spelled out Love Jesus, and little sticks and signs with religious slogans appeared everywhere.

About 200 elderly live in the facilities. The poorest live there for free. Those who have pensions or relatives who held support them pay between $40 and $100 a month, depending on their ability. This includes an institution-like bed in a room shared with 2-10 others (they are now trying to make all the rooms for three people only), all meals and use of the facilities. It may include medical care as well.

She told us that this group of nuns, headquartered in Spain, run nursing homes like this in 20 countries. They’ve recently opened homes in the Philippines and the Dominican Republic. She said standards were identical at all of the homes, and she led us through the facility as though she was walking through her home turf in Tarija, pointing out the plastic covers that protect the tables from spills, the high windows with short curtains to allow in light, the kitchen facilities and the TV room.

Except for the shared rooms and the stale, institutional smell of mass produced food, it was quite a nice place, especially by Bolivian standards. The saddest part, as in nursing homes worldwide, is having to live surrounded by so much death and dying.

Before we left, she led us into a room with a single large table and chairs in the center, artwork on the walls. There, she treated us to bottles of ginger ale and wafers.

I asked Oscar if she was always this energetic.

“Yes,” he said. “She’s always been very efficient and full of energy. She puts everything she has into her work at the nursing home and is always coming up with new ideas.”

I asked Sofia whether the church had any difficult finding priests and nuns these days.

“Yes,” she said. “The majority of priests now from thieves and drug addicts who come for assistance to a center run by the church. And while they are there God calls to them. They have a harder time finding nuns now.”

Yesterday I finally had my first guests over, inviting ten colleagues over for an international lunch. I asked some colleagues what time I should put on the invitation if I wanted them to arrive at 2. 1:30, they said.

At 1:35, the first person appeared. Another came at 1:45. Shortly after 2, a few more came. Then came a phone call. Two people said they were just about to leave their house and would be there in ten minutes. They arrived at 2:50.

We had people from Argentina, Germany, the US, as well as different areas of Bolivia, and everyone brought something from their region of origin. So we ended up with quite a feast. We started out with a meatball and leek soup, made by a German, together with chanca de pollo, a wonderful Bolivian soup made with rice, potatoes, chicken and beans. The chanca was my favorite of all the contributions. We followed that with a diced apple and celery salary, something similar to a Caesar salad, a European arrugula salad and a form of Chinese wontons I’d never seen before. Ariana made the star dish, a Cochabamban speciality called fritanga. It’s made from fried pork, potatoes, and potatoes that are dehydrated on house roofs for a month. For dessert, we had canned fruit in a sweet yogurt sauce and from the States – brownies and chocolate chip cookies.

Most stayed until the evening and we all had a nice time. It was several hours of good Spanish practice for me, and I was glad to have finally shown a little hospitality. I haven’t been integrating as well into Bolivian society as I’d like to, and as I usually do elsewhere. The societal stratification is definitely a factor. But more importantly is that some things have been going in life that haven’t left me with the time or energy to do much beyond work and whatever I need to take care of personally. So if my colleagues are to be my main social network here in Santa Cruz, so be it. I may lose out on exposure to a wider variety of backgrounds and experiences among the general population. But they are intelligent and interesting people who can teach me much about the life and culture. As well as cook a mean almuerzo!

Friday, June 15, 2007

New York and Santa Cruz

I spent several days in the US. As usual during my periodic visits, most of my time was taken up by various appointments, buying things, catching up with mail and administrative matters, and maintaining contact with friends and family.

The highlight of the trip was the two nights Jim and I spent on the Hudson River Valley. We stayed at the River Hill Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful Victorian home located on a bluff with a prime view of the river. We could see it both from the settee in our bedroom as well as from the wraparound porch, where we sipped English tea and juice.

We headed into New Paltz, a small college town, to try some Thai food and to see Knocked Up (a very funny film). We twice visited the local dairy barn. And best of all, we spent an afternoon hiking at Minnewaska State Park. The entire area is full of cliffs, which provide a beautiful backdrop, as well as heaven for avid climbers. We followed a path without much elevation, but which took us into isolated, brilliantly green woods for several hours. Eventually, we reached a remote lake, a lonely mirror of blue amidst the wilderness. We were treated to beautiful views from cliffside perches, enjoyed the carpet of fluorescent green ferns that lined parts of the trail, and were treated to sightings of birds, rabbit, and even a close-up of a cottontail deer.

When I returned to Santa Cruz, it was freezing and I had to adjust to the reality of it being winter here. Returning home after the all night flight, I changed into sweats and a sweater and climbed into bed under my comforter. My alarm clock thermometer said it was 16 degrees Celsius in the room.

Warmer weather had since returned with a comfortable sunshine and periodic breezes. Everyone is waiting for the next cold spell, which can arrive any day and last anywhere from a few days to a week. It makes it hard to figure out how to dress here and I’ve gotten better at layering.

I can’t say I’ve done too much exciting since I’ve been back, mainly focusing on my work. I did attend a jazz concert at the French-German cultural center one evening. The band was led by an American from Missouri, who has been living in Bolivia since 1991. During that time, he has held a variety of arts-related positions. It seemed a bit out of place, to see Bolivians playing jazz. In the same way it’s strange to see the local Indian youth playing violins, cellos and operatic music in the Chiquitano churches. But it’s as beautiful as it is strange and I enjoyed it.

I’ll share a couple of things from the local paper, El Deber, that I find interesting:

60-70% (it’s either 60 or 70, but I threw out the paper before cutting out the article) of all Bolivians girls aged 13 to 16 have been victims of sexual abuse or assault. And in this in a country where they don’t have a right to get an abortion.

Since January of this year, in the city of Santa Cruz alone, there have been 1,593 registered auto accidents, of which 512 were caused by drunk drivers. Just last weekend (from Friday through Sunday) there were 81 accidents and at least 6 deaths, with 51 (63%) of the accidents caused by drunk drivers.

Santa Cruz now has at least 1,5 million residents.

Santa Cruz has the highest average salaries in Bolivia, followed by Cochabamba, Sucre and La Paz. The average salary in Santa Cruz is 2,406 bolivianos, or $306. I think this may be inflated by the high income disparities though. I’d like to know what the median is.

I just finished an interesting and well-written book, Whispering in the Giant’s Ear by William Powers, which recounts his two years working on an environmental project in this region. He gives a good overview of the events that led to Evo Morales becoming the first Indian President in South America. I also learned how important road blockages were to his eventual victory and I can now see that the current government would not actively prevent people from blocking the roads, given their own use of that method. The book speaks of the distinction between the camba (eastern, more Europeanized) and collya (native Indian, from inland areas of Bolivia) cultures. I appreciated the insights he gave into the collyas. Santa Cruz is the camba center and I think the opinions I hear come predominantly from the camba perspective.

Overall, I’m feeling more comfortable in Santa Cruz. I was without a cell phone for a week and had to take taxis off street. After almost three months, nothing terrible has happened, besides the street robbery by children. This is allowing me to lower my guard a little, to feel a little more comfortable.

Mark is coming to visit for the first time next weekend. I have only three days to introduce him to Bolivia, but I’m excited nonetheless.