Saturday, August 11, 2007


I arrived yesterday morning in Cochabamba, the city in the middle of La Paz and Santa Cruz. I took AeroSur for the 30 minute flight. Despite the short distance, we had an almost full 727 plane, staffed by professionally dressed and polite employees who served us a snack and a drink. My last two trips on South American airlines, Taca and AeroSur, have shown a better quality flight experience than what I see on U.S. airliners lately. I wonder if the high cost of salaries in the U.S. makes airlines cut every other expense possible. Whereas here, even though the flight only cost $50, I didn’t feel the company was cutting corners to save money, but providing a good service for the price.

From the window of the airline, I could see a dry, brown mountainous landscape. The city seemed to similarly lack color – a conglomeration of buildings of various designs and sizes – mostly brown, grey or insipid.

This impression was confirmed during the taxi ride to the hotel. We drove along a rubbly canal almost devoid of water. The landscape was a pale, dusty brown, with lots of beige rocks scattered about as well as a proliferance of large, mangy brown and black dogs. I breathed in the smell of sewers and wondered where the beautiful, mountainous city my colleagues had told me about was.

The driver told me it’s now fall, and for that reason it’s very dry. “By September it will be green again,” he said.

The taxi was much nicer than the taxis in Santa Cruz, and cheaper. Rides in town run about 50 cents. I asked the driver why.

“In Santa Cruz, people work a lot, so they buy old cars that will last. But here, people don’t want to go about in old cars. They want more luxury.”

Not all taxis are that way. Later in the day, I rode in vehicles that I doubted could make it up the hill to my hotel, or with a chassis that seemed to be centimeters from the street below. But the feeling of life being a bit more developed here, of a slightly more advanced quality, remained.

I’m staying in Hotel La Colonia. It advertises itself as a five-star hotel. I’m not sure how the star system here works. It doesn’t seem to correspond to the international system. But while it might not be a five-star hotel on a world scale, it’s definitely a very nice and comfortable place, with wood paneling, a swimming pool, very nice bathtub and shower, and refrigerator. It attracts a variety of small, tropical birds to its grounds, which are pleasant to watch pecking through the grass in the morning.

I spent the day at the office and was able to get a glimpse of the town. The main streets are nicely maintained. A variety of trees line the medians – many of which sprout colored flowers, even in this dry season. I could see a giant, white Christ statue on a hill, and was told it flashes various colors in the evening. We had lunch at La Casa de Campo, a popular place decorated in local style and serving huge portions of Cochabamban food.

I immediately noticed the improved quality of food – from my first bite of bread. I realized that the reason Santa Cruz food doesn’t grab me is that it is bland – it doesn’t use much of anything – salt, sugar, or spices. This includes breads and cakes, as well as salads, soups and everything else. Grilled meat is the specialty, and that doesn’t need much in terms of seasonings.

But here, the bread had taste, the hot sauce was actually spicy hot, and the sweets use sugar. “You’ll probably gain a couple of kilos here,” my colleague Celia told me. Until recently, at work, all employees were served a complete meal, at the employer’s expense, for the late afternoon snack. This was after they’d already had a complete meal at lunchtime. I’m hoping to avoid substantial weight gain, but will definitely enjoy the culinary adventure.

I visited the Cochabamba branch of my Santa Cruz health club, Premier Fitness, and was amazed by the five-story complex – complete with cardiovascular equipment, weights, all kinds of classes, and even an internet terminal. It was full of people – a sign of the middle to upper class here. From what I’ve heard, Cochabamba was the leading center for industry and finance in the country. But due to continued protests, road blockages and political problems, companies began to move to Santa Cruz. And Santa Cruz has now overcome Cochabamba in commercial importance.

I also noticed what seems to be a greater gender equality. For the first time ever in Bolivia, a female taxi driver picked me up. Her son crawled around in the passenger seat, allowing her to combine work with childcare.

I asked why there weren’t more women drivers. “I suppose not many of them like it,” she said.

“Had she had any problems with crime?”

“Thank God, no.” She works for a radio-mobile cab company, and only takes calls that come through the call center. She doesn’t pick up random people off the street, which makes the work a bit more secure. I also saw a female security guard in a bank – another rare sight.

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