Bolivin´ at high altitude
During Kiva orientation, we each had to name our biggest fears about the fellowship. I said I was nervous about not fitting in—I’d learned to adapt pretty well while living in Chile for a year and on my best day I could pass for Chilean, but I knew living in Bolivia would be another story. As soon as I set foot in El Alto, however, I realized how silly my worries were as this fear was immediately eclipsed by another—the constant feeling that I was about to be run over by a minibus.
El Alto is a really vibrant, mostly indigenous Aymara city on a plateau above the valley of La Paz. The neighborhood I’m living in is called La Ceja (“the eyebrow”) because it’s perched right on the rim, about to spill into the city valley. I’ve never seen so much life packed into so little space before—virtually all of my needs can be met without going outside of the two square-block radius around my hostel. Buses to anywhere in Bolivia, international flights, four different microfinance banks and at least one regular bank, quinoa juice, whole limbs of animals in jerky form, you name it. Like Cara and Chantal, I’ve found that Spanish only gets me so far here. Many alteños, especially older folks and recent migrants, speak Spanish as a second language to Aymara. I had hoped to be really good at picking up Aymara, but as it turns out I’m totally useless.
At home in the U.S., two of my tried-and-true maxims are “I’ll take whatever’s cheapest” and “They wouldn’t sell me that if it were really dangerous.” However, after a month in Bolivia (and a handful of broken down buses, a bout with food poisoning and an attempted trip up a narrow mountain road in a snowstorm on a minibus with no snow tires), my mom will be happy to hear that I’ve reluctantly retired these maxims and replaced them with “Is this really a good idea?” There doesn’t seem to be a regulatory agency for much of anything in Bolivia, which leads to delightful labeling like that of my favorite Bolivian beer, El Inca: “An iron-laden beer tonic recommended by the most renowned doctors for anemic, weak and convalescent persons.” Another one of my favorite claims was by a boy on the bus from Oruro to La Paz who was selling powdered maca (a Bolivian root vegetable)—“Do you feel tired? Weak? Jittery? Anxious? Lackluster? Señores y señoras, I have the answer. Maca, señores y señoras, will cure what ails you. Maca is the most potent vegetable known to humanity. Señores y señoras, maca prevents osteoporosis and cancer. It cures anemia, señores y señoras. It is a stimulant, señores y señoras; it is a tranquilizer. It cures impotence, señores y señoras—maca has been called the Bolivian Viagra by international experts. Señores y señoras, maca is used by NASA scientists in the United States to ensure the vitality and heartiness of their space astronauts. And I’m here to offer you, señores y señoras, three envelopes of miraculous maca for just 30 bolivianos.”
One morning, about two weeks ago, I awoke and walked outside my room at the hostel where I’m staying, only to nearly walk into a giant hole with a two-story drop (pictured). Confused, I asked the nice young guy at the front desk what was with the giant hole outside my room. “Oh, that—just wanted to let some more light in,” he replied, equally confused as to why I would ask a question like that.
There’s a lot of improvisation in everyday life here – which can be fun or frustrating, depending on the circumstances – and serves as a continuous reminder of just how orderly and predictable my life usually is. Last week, for example, we were heading back to El Alto from La Paz, and halfway there the driver told us we couldn’t go any further because the alteños had taken to the streets in an impromptu pro-Evo rally. So we got out and walked along the shoulder. Along the way, we noticed that an awful lot of drivers had gotten out of their cars and were taking apart the highway median by hand so that they could turn their cars around—this was a standard, sturdy metal freeway median with big bolts the size of my fist! It never would have occurred to me that such a thing could be taken apart by hand, much less that this was the logical solution to being stuck in traffic. But when in Rome (or El Alto)…
All in all, Bolivia has been a great experience and quite the adventure. I’ve really enjoyed my first week working with AgroCapital, my MFI, and have been really impressed by the hard work of both the loan officers and the clients I’ve met with. I was also lucky enough to meet up with Partner Development Specialist Dan, retired Kiva Fellow Cara and her husband Engineer Sam in La Paz—it was great to see some familiar faces.
Looking forward to writing more soon!