Beauty and Poverty in Bolivia


How beautiful the people are here. I have many pleasant exchanges with university students, with mothers, with Holiness Christians and now I’ve talked with prisoners inside San Pedro penitentiary. But after 3 weeks here, I only feel like I’ve scratched the surface. The Aymara are an old race, I live in El Alto near the cliff’s edge, I feel there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

I travel from the Cortez’ home in Barrio Satelite from Sunday to Monday down the valley to LaPaz. I live in a burgeoning city of 700,000, it's the Aymara capital of the world, and GoogleMaps labels about 4 streets over about 15 kilometers. Google doesn't work well in Aymara I suppose, nor do Aymaras use many street names to locate themselves.

I make my way down the mountainside of cascading houses to the BQE office usually in the afternoon. Monday AM for 5 hours I teach English classes with a sweet Quaker, Elizabeth Lucero at the 2nd of 3 Quaker schools, this one is Emmanuel, run by the Holiness Friends. I enjoy the students immensely, I teach from 9-12th grades and they're bright and eager, or sometimes shy and disdainful. They seem real, without the disguise adults hide behind. I started 11th grade class asking about their football teams (why should I impose the US word, soccer?), the oldest national Bolivian team is called The Strongest. Seriously? What fluke 60 years ago led Bolivans to adopt that English title? Another archaic part of the history I'll never know.

This week I led an AVP class in the prison for 3 hours, I went on a boat ride in one of the 184 Bolivian lakes, this one in Achocalla, I met with Ruben about hosting US volunteers in LaPaz, I met with 6 Young Friends who are organizing a Quaker gathering of Young Friends across the 6 Bolivian YMs, and I paid for someone to do my laundry. This took me quite awhile to get clean clothes and since I only brought 3 turtlenecks I was desperate.

You might be as fascinated as I am by parts of the city culture. My Aymara mother, Idelfonsa, seems concerned for my appetite and fixes me for breakfast, Te de quinoa, which is delicious. There are many paupers who ask me for money, but not nearly as many as in Central Square, Cambridge.

I asked 2 dedicated Quaker teachers what was the birth of Jesus. They hesitated. One said Dec 27th and finally they both agreed on Dec 25th. I agreed with them that the 25th was just a convention so maybe not so important.

Many street vendors in the tourist section try to sell fossils. Then there is the witch’s market with many dried frogs, llamas and plants. More about the ubiquitous coca in another post.

There are few people in LaPaz who speak English, although it’s now a required class in high school. So it tickles my funnybone when I see many English words, on the bigger buses (built like a short US school bus), they have fancy script with names above the windshield like Scorpion, Mayflower, Falcon Forever. On the flimsy mattress in my bed, made in Bolivia, the brand is Comfort.

So I see poverty, but it manifests its face differently in Bolivia. One becario university student started his studies in engineering with only a dollar a day to live off of. So he had to eat, buy supplies, make fotocopies, and travel from home in El Alto (at least 80 c roundtrip) in a day. Often he skipped meals and walked home so he could buy time on the Internet (about 50 c an hour).

But the beggars don’t bother me as much as the shoecleaners. They are common on many streets, are men and they dress in worksuits that remind me of prisoners garb. They wear a pullover knitted hat that covers the face except for the eyes. At first I thought they were a gang, they looked so ominous carrying heavy wooden brushes. Then they grabbed my heart as I heard that they are often students who don’t want their professors or friends at school to know their plight. Why are they ashamed to do such labor? It’s distressing to me as they look like they are as covered up as someone taught to wear burquas.

My friends, there are many parts to Bolivia to understand. Please hold the relationship between Friends in Bolivia and Friends in the US in your hearts today.