The sky is backwards, the constellations upside down. I’ve been to the Southern Hemisphere before, spent several weeks in South Africa around ‘98-‘99, but I never looked at the stars. Standing outside alone at night in Johannesburg and staring up the sky is a bad idea. But when I look above Cochabamba after sunset, the stars are somehow… off. It’s strange, kind of cool and disorienting all at once.
Dogs are everywhere, more than I’ve ever seen. They’re not feral; they roam the streets during the day, fend for themselves, and their owners let them back in at night. They’re neither hostile nor friendly, but as oblivious to everyone as any other morning commuter. They cross the streets carefully and flow with the foot traffic. I’ve yet to see a carcass or even an injured animal, and these dogs respect the sidewalk far more than their San Francisco counterparts.
I got hit with a big time jones for the ease and familiarity of fast food. Other South American countries are rife with American and European franchises, but they don’t do well, here. I found one of two Burger Kings, the only places of their kind in Bolivia. The cashier’s name tag said “Ivan.” The previous generation of parents on the political Left christened their kids with Bolshevik names as a minor middle finger to the existing dictatorship, and that’s as subtle as Bolivian protest ever gets. McDonald’s tried to stake a claim a few years back. All over the city, the walls were tagged with ¡McMierda! and Ronald and his crew were run out of town like snake oil peddlers.
Bolivians don’t waste their time with catchphrase bumper-stickers or ironic expressions on t-shirts. They don’t circulate petitions. They build fire bombs and block roads with boulders. A large group of prostitutes organized a civil rights protest, recently. They took to the streets with their mouths literally sewn shut. Hard to ignore. Before that, there were the Water Wars. Bolivia had privatized its state-run industries, per the conditions of its loans from the World Bank. A consortium of companies headed by Bechtel in San Francisco purchased the Bolivian water works. The Aguas del Tunari thus monopolized Bolivia’s water and in 2000 hiked rates by 35%. The typical Bolivian earning $100 per month would be spending upwards of $20.00 per month on water, more than on food. Fire bombs and road blocks followed. The police—their insignia is a pair of crossed shotguns— keep plenty of tear gas on hand for such emergencies and use it with little provocation. A decade later, the water belongs to the people again, but you never know if the municipal supply will be on from one day to the next. And you still need to boil it before drinking it.
Now trash is piling up in the streets of Cochabamba, and this is a place where you can’t flush toilet paper. The dump is just at the edge the city and it’s far beyond capacity, but the trucks keep going and the overflow has unofficially annexed the poorest section of town. Those citizens are tired of literally living in garbage and having their complaints go unheard. So the boulders and scrap piles are out, blocking access to the dump. Nothing do but wait until they find another location that doesn’t threaten another section of the city or a small village or the nearby jungle.
There’s a particular bar a few blocks from my house, where my roommate tells me the ex-revolutionaries hang out. Not people who carried picket signs or who chained themselves to trees or sat on steps of buildings and chanted, but people who ran guns and fed insurgents during the dictatorships of the 1970’s, a time when judicial verdicts, police officers and civil rights were being bought and sold long before the drinking water. Many of them only returned to Bolivia after years of hiding in exile. And then there’s my other roommate. He used to be an electrician; he re-wired the Governor’s palace when it was rebuilt after being firebombed. He’s not sure what they were protesting that time.
Evo Morales is trying to change things. He won even more popular support after his election by deciding to stick around and actually lead things, get the country back on its feet. That may sound obvious, but it’s not. A number of past presidents gutted the national coffers some time after assuming office and fled the country, leaving Bolivians leaderless and even more impoverished in their wake.
My first week, flexing my pidgin Spanish, I was fumbling for a description of the street traffic, and asked the word for “anarchy.” There isn’t one, at least not the way I meant it. La Anarquía is not figurative here in Bolivia, it’s a political term that’s still in use according to its original definition. I would be wise to use it properly and with discretion.
I will be home, eventually. At some point, I’ll be in the company of some Fair Trade, hemp-wearing, San Francisco vegans whose organic food is just as mass-produced as any other, who compost and recycle individually more than entire families down here throw out in the first place; “activists” who reap the same benefits as the rest of us Norte Americanos who have the Third World do our dirty work. I wonder, will I be able to keep my mouth shut?
The electricity here is 220 and ungrounded. Faint current numbs my fingers if I touch my laptop while it’s recharging. When it’s finished, I unplug it and the built-in adaptor in the power cable is hot to the touch. The outlets all spark when I plug something in. They tell me this is normal. Then there’s the shower head, a bell-shaped, porcelain apparatus containing a coil of uninsulated copper to heat the water.
“The trick,” Freddie tells me, “is to keep your head below the part where the stream first breaks up. That way you’re safe. And what ever you do, don’t ever, ever, hit your head against the shower nozzle.” He tells me about the time he did exactly that, and it wasn’t good. As the average Bolivian tops out somewhere around 5’5”, the shower head is mounted fairly low on the wall. I suppose it’s as inevitable as was my first stomach ailment last week. At some point I’ll reach for the shampoo and wake up beneath a trickle of cold water with two or three months wiped from my memory.
I’m writing more than I ever have. I take my notebook to one or two of the same cafes in the morning, but make a point of finding someplace new each night. It’s not hard. I order coffee and usually in a matter of minutes I’ve tuned out the music and work for at least two hours in the dim light. The good days far outnumber the bad.
“Crash-landing and buckshot, for instance. Had plenty of help and I always bounced back. All solid on the outside. No, the trouble’s with the candy center.” Icarus tapped his forehead. “Got a few bells and whistles what make me qualicated to sniff out the likes of your Thin Air Man. Elsewise, new brain’s just a bunch of top-of-the-line options bolted onto a factory-issue extinction machine.”
And so on.