How Sierra Found Her Glasses
Emprender has two offices in Cochabamba and three in Santa Cruz. Both these cities have a distinct character, and reputation that precedes them. The Cochabambinos, or “ “Bambinos” (best nick name ever right?) are known for their gigantic plates of food. Everyone tells me that I would eat a lot in Cochabamba, and that I would find the climate perfect. In Santa Cruz, I would find people of a totally different culture. The kind that whistle at the women in the street, take off dancing at a moment’s notice, men with mojo and women with hot blood. All ferociously against La Paz’s beloved Evo Morales. I’m told that when I travel to the other parts of the country, that I would understand the background of Bolivia, what goes on behind the scenes. They couldn’t have been more correct. In the last few days, I’ve really learned about what goes on behind the scenes….and…under the table.
I was ushered into the station at 7am in the morning by screaming, bartering women in the Cochabamba station and rapidly found myself down 30 Bolivianos, and carefully stowed into the top seats on a bus, or floata, to Santa Cruz. The seats directly above the driver are incredibly beautiful. A huge surround seat window gives you the feeling you are flying above the road, the panoramic views simply take you’re breath away. I wondered, how did I score this!! I soon found out.
The beautiful windows in this seat don’t open. Though I had space, a comfy seat and, of course, the view, I have never been so hot in all my life. The windows acted as a green house, and the little space got hotter and hotter and hotter. People, bags, food and even a dog in a box filled the aisle- there was no where to go. Luckily, in Bolivia, people come running to the window to sell you coolish jello at every stop, so I slurped my way down the road. The worst part though was that my glasses kept fogging up in the humidity became unbearably slippery, so I hung them on the curtain.
Nearly 16 hours later, I arrived in Santa Cruz, flopped out of the bus covered in sweat and filled with jello to wait in the heat for Julio, Emprender’s regional director to meet me at the bus station. I normally keep my cool (pun intended) in these kind of situations, but something unnerves me about Santa Cruz. Everyone has told me that this is a really dangerous station, and I’m just a little flustered. Which pocket has the big bills and which is the small? Do I have all my electronics? Did I keep that tiny scrap of paper they handed me when I boarded, and now inexplicably want back? When I get to the hotel, I realized that in my fluster, I left my glasses on the bus!
Though I’m not supposed to be running around a bus station at night, I pop into a cab and rush over for the price of 30 Bolivianos (a 10 minute drive that cost the same as the 15 hour bus). I run around the whole station looking for someone from the Trans Copacabana line. I find a friendly worker who after asking me to marry him, or provide sexual services, tells me that I arrived in bus 81, parked down this alley way. Keys between my knuckles, taxi driver following me at the rate of 5 Bolivianos, I make my way down the ally way plastered with anti-Evo posters. The drivers are at dinner, and are probably drunk, says a neighbor driver. I can return by 6 am to catch them.
The next morning I am there by six with another expensive taxi driver waiting in the parking lot (other taxis aren’t safe at this hour apparently) in the pouring rain trying to find my bus. Its not there. The ally is, but the bus is not. Trying to be as quick as possible, I run towards toward the main terminal to ask for information and I crash right into a line of barbed wire mysteriously strung between two trees. Maybe I should mention that without my glasses, I can’t see.
The bus has gone on an unexpected trip and won’t be back until night, several loads of passengers have been collected and everyone, six different people I’ve consulted, tell me there is no way they are still aboard. A pair of frames like that can be sold easily here. A last ditch effort, I leave my number with Juan, an assistant with Trans Copacabana who seems helpful, has told me I’m beautiful, and I make my tired, wet, bloody, dirty way back to the hotel to rush into the shower before I have to leave for the office.
Like modern miracle, at lunch, Juan calls – they found my glasses!! For a fee.
I ask how much, he says, “a small amount” and my phone cuts out. Rober, the Emprender loan officer I’m with, kindly accompanies me to the bus station, and waits with his car while I follow Juan to the bus. An error. I should have gone with Rober, who might have known what my glasses would cost. When I get there, they bring me down my glasses, and putting them on, the world seems clearer. I realize I have no idea how to pay a fee, or a bribe, or whatever it is I have to pay. Not expecting to have to pay this kind of thing, I don’t have the best denominations. I have a 20 B note, or about $3, and a 100 B note, which is about $14, which is a bit of money here. I rarely spend 100Bs in one setting. I give the driver the 20. He looks at it, scoffs throws it in the mud and trumps off. I feel terrible I want to do whats right. Is it right to pay? Is it right not to? Juan picks it up, tries to make me feel better, but explains that the driver was expecting at least 50, oh, and that he himself expects an additional amount. Can I ask for change? 100 Bs is a lot of money for me, and I’ve already spent hours in the mud, tons of money on taxis, I’m all cut up from the barbed wire, I was at the station late last night, and at 5 o’clock this morning and now this!? I miss the lost and found boxes so common in the US. Where is the little drawer behind the counter?
The driver won’t look at me, or stop grumbling loudly to his buddies “Gringa blah blah blah Gringa blah blah”. I leave the 20 B plus the 100 B (because I have to pay Juan something) with Juan asking him to share because the driver now won’t take anything I hand him and keeps throwing it in the mud. And looking at me with a combination of repulsive lust and hate. Will Juan share? I feel like a bumbling cultural idiot, I ashamed I can’t do what seems to be normal all over the world, and what looks so easy in American crime movies- passing slippery money from hand to hand, no one noticing. At the same time, I’m furious that I should have to. Who knows if it resolved. Glasses in hand, or rather, on face, my last pair of pants thoroughly wet, Rober and I take off for the next Kiva client.
Later, I met a group of women today who really brought it all into focus. One of them sells cosmetics for Avon and needed a loan to pay a fee to them that she feels is unfair. One of them was unfairly fired from her job as a babysitter and is trying to make ends meet by selling sweets from her home. One of them has a husband who is a bus driver who is constantly working more hours than is legal, and because his company doesn’t pay insurance for the truck, only the cargo, a recent accident has devastated their family, and they needed a loan. Rober and I have a long conversation about how lawyers are all crooks and their only ability is to suavely do what I couldn’t – pay bribes. Later I learn from one loan officer that El Torno, a town outside of Santa Cruz, where Emprender has an office, is suffering from a corrupt mayor who avoided corruption charges by signing up with Evo´s party, now he´s a true Masista. This is of course what everyone believes, but the truth is probably somewhat more nuanced.
Its not that the country is so ramp with corruption that small businesses can’t get ahead, but rather that it happens often enough that it appears no one trusts the system. They don’t trust the political system, or the economic system or any of the promises that have been made to them by most institutions. Despite all this by at the end of the day, as Rober helped me over a slippery slope, I realized, maybe trust can begin with your solidarity group, and then with your bank. Then with your neighbor, your employer, your political party, and with your country. I felt a little bit more cheery, and felt like I could see.