LaPaz & love

Its 2012 and I'm going to Bolivia!
I'll try to share cool stuff I learn here.

Sucre-Potosi-Uyuni

Its been a couple of weeks since this whirlwind tour of southern Bolivia, so my summaries are brief and not particularly detailed.  But memories aren´t going to get any fresher, so I better write something before going home, where my recollections will jumble with the excitement of seeing family, friends, and maple trees.  In Arequipa, where I´m writing this, all the internet cafes are full of teenage boys playing online games that must be collaborative, because they´re yelling at each other about hidden enemies and urgent actions, and this nonstop screaming all around me isn´t facilitating calm thinking either.  Asi es la vida.

A canceled Cochabamba-Uyuni bus forced me to change plans and check out the famous “white city” of Sucre, of which I´d heard very mixed reivews.  Some fellow travelers loved it and stayed for weeks while others told me I should skip it.  Its a relatively prosperous city, the constitutional capital of Bolivia, and its marketed as a safe and beautiful place to visit and study spanish.  I arrived at 6am and enjoyed my early morning walk from the bus station to the market´s fresh fruit stands.  Found a hostel recommended by some German travelers whom I had bumped into four different times in Cochabamba (we clearly had the same rhythm, from plaza to park to restaurant to bus station) and took a siesta.  At this hostel I found myself surrounded by young foreign travelers, mostly european, and all white: the first such moment in my travels.  Because I´d heard from some long-time Bolivian residents that Sucre had a reputation of being a racist place (“white city”…go figure), I asked at the hostel if they had any sense of racism in the city.  The German dueño replied that its only a problem when people like me dwell on it, that he doesn´t think there´s any racism, and that I should just relax and have a good time.  I wanted to leave pronto.

What struck me about the city was its lack of graffiti.  La Paz was full of all kinds of messages and art on its walls: wheatpasted posters, stencils, colorful murals.  But Sucre´s downtown is a grid of plain whitewashed buildings.  Every building is white and unmarked.  I kept getting lost.

After just one night in Sucre I hopped on a bus to Potosi, a much more colorful place.  The imposing Cerro Rico mountain looms over the city, casting a shadow heavy with its history of incomprehensible exploitation.  Five hundred years of mining it has left it totally barren of vegetation, and it has an oddly symmetrical form, straight lines leading to a dull, dusty point. As many as eight million people have died in the mines here, many enslaved to the silver-crazed Spanish empire.  In the 1600s, Potosi was one of the biggest cities in the world.

A kind old woman looks after me on the impossibly crowded bus downtown, and I feel bad for having a giant backpack while people are crowded in the aisle and hanging out the door.  Just as I get off the bus I witness a gorgeous glowing sunset and make my way to the Koala Den, the friendliest hostel of my trip.  A trio of young French women share their excess pasta with me and I spend the night talking with folks from all over the world.

I got into some deeper conversation with a mother and daughter fresh from a vipassana retreat (seriously, mom!).  Ilivia, the mom, grew up in Chile and moved to Argentina when repression got intense.  Then she moved to Germany when dictatorship came to Argentina.  Ilona, her daughter around my age, grew up in a community of Chileans in Germany.  We decided to spend the next day together, wandering around the pleasant downtown area then taking a bus out of town to hot springs.  Eventually we found the Ojo del Inca, a serene hot spring set between gorgeous mountains, a short hike from the road.  Swimming all afternoon was magnificent, with clouds giving us occasional breaks from the strong sun, and Ilivia feeding us and the ducks slices of carrots and tunas (not fish—refreshing seedy cactus fruit!)

The next morning I woke with a fever—not a good sign, but one I didin´t think much about at the time.  Manuel, an Argentine traveler I´d bumped into twice in two different cities, and I headed to the bus station to leave for Uyuni and its famous salar.  We scored the last two “seats” on the bus…sitting up front with the driver and his helper.  One of us got a seat and the other sat on some steps in the middle, and the kid who took tickets spent half the trip standing in a squished spot by the door and half the trip sleeping…maybe in one of the luggage holds underneath, I don´t know where else he could have been.  The trip was beautiful, long, and slow.  Uyuni felt quite desolate and somehow managed to be an ugly little city in the middle of beautiful land.  Garbage is a huge problem there, strewn everywhere, and plastic bags blown far and wide, snagged in bushes.  In my search for a hotel room I made a friend in Juliana, from Cordoba, Argentina.  We shared a room…and terrible sickness that night.  Our tours were already reserved and paid for, so we took care of ourselves as best we could and hoped for the best.

We shared the next three days with a couple from Australia on a round-the-world trip and two women from Germany.  Between all those english speakers and Jose, our driver, who spoke only spanish, and Juliana, who spoke mostly spanish, I was surprised to be the most adept translator in the car.  At first I tried translating everything for the German women, who spoke very little spanish, but that proved relatively unsuccessful, so they took the back seat and enjoyed the landscape that transcended language completely, entertaining us with frequent giggling.  Jose, born in Uyuni, told us that the town served as a train hub for much of South America until the 1990s, when Bolivia´s train infrastructure was completely abandoned in favor of privatization, cars, and highways.  The trains left in Uyuni now sit in a “graveyard” where artists have added beautiful and fun elements like swings to the rusting metal.  Today the city thrives on tourism, and many residents hope to see the salt flats exploited for the underlying lithium.

Quinoa is originally from the Uyuni area, and as the market for it keeps growing, it becomes more valuable to the regional economy.  Fifty kilos sell for about $100 these days, and the price keeps going up.  I liked quinoa a lot before coming here, but after seeing the beautiful red, yellow, and green plants waving in the high altiplano wind, I like it even more.  Llamas eat it too, and their meat is also a hot commodity in the Uyuni area.  Driving out of town towards the salar, we passed a lone baby llama standing near the body of its mother, dead on the side of the road.  The bewilderment of the little creature was palpable, and the memory of the poor thing haunted me for the entire trip.

We visited the salar itself that first day, taking lots of pictures of the surreal endless white and blue landscape, occasionally brightened up with a crew of pink flamingos flying overhead.  The rainy season left anywhere from an inch to a foot or more of water on top of the salt, so workers make neat little piles to dry and harvest it.  The only worker we saw out there had ridden his bicycle through the water :)

After the salar, we drove through a wild mix of landscapes: huge rocks, colored lagoons, volcanic mountains, sandy high desert.  We´d stop and climb around, taking pictures, but the vast majority of the time was spent in the vehicle.  I survived the days with minimal discomfort but each night was miserable.  Of course I´ll show you some love by sparing you the details, but I did pass out on a bathroom floor one night.  Those southern lands would be incredible to explore independently, because after the caravan of vehicles is gone, the silence must be incredibly profound.

I have lots of beautiful memories of the salar, but I´m exhausted right now and the photos will do a better job of telling you what it was like:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150596125623246.388760.527943245&type=3&l=c0171ee4e0
 

Cochabamba carnavales

I remember leaving La Paz on a rainy morning, still recovering from my mountain climb.  I arrived in Cochabamba late at night and stayed at a hostel since it was too late to call any of my contacts.  Next day I hung out in the beautiful central plaza and met a friendly professional gambler who´s famous in those parts.  He showed me to an awesome vegetarian restaurant for lunch, where I met Manuel, who´d turn up again in Potosi and be my traveling companion to Uyuni.  But that evening, in Cochabamba, I called one of the first people I´d met at the miners´strike, Sonia.  She came in a taxi to pick me up at the bus station and brought me back to her house in Moye Moye.

Sonia´s husband died in November and she lives in a rustic complex with two of her daughters, one with a family, one my age and single.  Her three other children live in other parts of the country, scattered through mining towns.  She runs a tiny little tienda, selling all kinds of things through a gate to her neighbors.  We spent a lot of time sitting in the dark little store while the TV blared.  It was nice to be with a family and away from any tourist destination, but I felt a little uncomfortable with the water and sanitation situation, drinking from the same rainwater catchment where her dog and cats lapped water.  We went into town together with a mission to reclaim a sleeping bag I´d lent the striking miners—it was an hour´s journey in a bus with loud music and stuffed animals swinging from the ceiling—where we had lunch at the market (where I definitely consumed meat broth and vowed to not feel compelled to do that anymore out of politeness) and she took me into a church, then seemed irked that I didn´t kneel and pray.

It was the day after Carnaval officially ended, but the spirit, the water balloons, spray foam, and random explosions of dynamite persisted.  All day I´d been sprayed and doused, and I told Sonia that I felt especially targeted.  She told me not to worry, that they target all the girls.  But as the day waned and we headed for the bus station to go back to Moye Moye, we rounded a corner and I knew I was in trouble.  A crowd of more than a hundred teenage boys surrounded me and quickly overwhelmed me, soaking my clothes and covering me with spray foam from head to foot.  A boy aggressively pushed and groped me, so I gave him a few swats and shoves, trying to make it clear that I wasn´t putting up with any physical attack.  But foam was in my eyes, Sonia was nowhere to be seen, and there were so many boys around me, I couldn´t escape.  They closed in around me, grabbing at my clothes and body, and someone unclasped the fanny pack around my waist.  I dropped to the ground, leaning over the fanny pack, and screamed several times.  They relented, letting me stand up and collect my things.  I was disoriented and it took me a minute to find Sonia.  We immediately got on a bus, where everyone stared at me, bedraggled, foam-stained, and distressed.  Sonia chided the boys, saying, ¨tan abusivos¨ but didn´t seem to understand how much the attack shook me in that moment.

The next day I took the bus back downtown, this time with my big backpack and a feeling of freedom, deciding not to travel to the little mining towns with Sonia and other miners.  Instead, I would stay with couchsurfing hosts and at hostels, roaming the tourist circuit.

I stayed in Cochabamba for a couple more days with a wonderful couchsurfing host, a young woman from the US.  Finding privacy, a warm shower, and cameraderie in her simple apartment was a relief to me after days at Sonia´s.  I enjoyed a day in a beautiful park just outside the city and evenings of social gatherings.  I remember talking about nuclear disasters and crises around the world, and one of the Bolivians said, ¨tenemos suerte de estar aqui (en suramerica)…somos mas tranquilos¨…that we´re lucky to be right here where we are, smack in the middle of South America, because this continent isn´t on the brink of an explosive war or nuclear crisis.  We´re more chill, he said.  Several times now, people have asked me about the US approving the construction of new nuclear power plants.  This news sounds crazy to many people down here, and I agree: its insane.

The quietest place I’ve ever been. There are no cars on the isla del sol, and the effect of silence is stunning. Add the birds, the incredibly beautiful lake and mountains, and I was crying, in love with the place.

Here´s the photo I took while clinging to the cliff, terrified, glad to see the sun.

Here´s the photo I took while clinging to the cliff, terrified, glad to see the sun.

Huayna Potosi wins

I made the extremely last-minute decision to climb the 6088m Huayna Potosi peak before leaving La Paz, thinking I´d never again be so well acclimated, and it would also be nice to escape the city during the weekend´s wild carnaval festivities.  So I found a travel agency willing to take me the following day, borrowed some gear from my roommate Rodrigo, stocked up on chocolate, and tried to get some sleep with excited nerves.  Showing up at the appointed corner the following morning, I met the small group of fellow climbers—Polish animal enthusiasts—and we got along really well.  Then the tour director looked at my receipt and told me that there was a mistake and I had to go with a nearby agency with a very bad reputation (indeed, I had read unfavorable online reviews of Adolfo Andino).  Parting ways with the Poles, I went to the office a few doors down and learned that I´d be traveling alone with a guide: disappointing, since I was looking forward to the camaraderie after spending so much time traveling by myself.  They leant me more gear and Ivan, my guide, and I climbed into a dilapidated taxi stuck in thick carnaval traffic.  I struggled with my sinking mood, feeling guilty for using all these resources for a solo recreational outing, and worried about the other tour operator´s warnings of bad service, food, safety precautions, etc.  But I knew that my attitude was my choice, and nobody was going to lift my spirits for me (Ivan didn´t talk much).  So I breathed and thought about this amazing opportunity I had before me, and as the taxi incredibly made it out of the valley (breaking down only once) and over the gorgeous altiplano to the base of the mountain, I climbed out of my funk.

The base camp had an unusual amount of snow and Ivan warned that it was likely we wouldn´t be able to climb much past the higher camp, but we were going to try.  I had to leave my comfortable hiking boots at the base camp and wear hard plastic trekking boots the whole way instead.  Like hiking in downhill skiing boots, really awkward, with painful pressure on my shins at almost every step.  We headed out as a group of three hikers arrived at base camp to suit up.  The hike was slow, up, up, up, in the unusual quantity of snow.  I had to stop frequently for short breaks to breathe, and I was exhausted and sweaty by the time we reached the high camp a few hours later.  Some other hikers warmly greeted me and we all had soup and tea, watching the weather change rapidly outside, rushing to take pictures when there was a little bit of sun and blue sky.  The cabin´s walls were covered with signatures and comments about the mountain from past climbers.  Many didn´t make it and many did; all warned that it was a tough climb.  Other travelers trickled into the cabin, and in total we were about 20.  Three of us were women, including the only Bolivian climber who wasn´t a guide.  The rest were all european or australian.

We tried to get sleep in the early evening to be ready for our midnight wake-up call.  Not easy at that altitude, in a room full of people sleeping on the floor, all nervous.  Half of us were already awake when a guide told us to get ready.  Already affected by the altitude, feeling a little queasy, I forced down some crackers with jam for energy and submitted myself, dressed in four layers of polypropalene and fleece and goretex, to Ivan for the addition of more gear: a harness, crampons, ice pick, and a rope tying us together (no helmet, though everyone else had a helmet…).  We left last at 1am, under bright stars in pitch black night, following small clusters of headlamps up the first major ascent.  It felt like we were chasing fireflies!  In slow motion, step, step, step, step.  I sang songs in my head but couldn´t form many words whenever we encountered others.  Everyone was moving slowly, both physically and mentally.  Even ¨hola¨ took a lot of effort.  At the halfway point I felt incredibly tired but surprisingly good, actually optimistic that I would make it.

Then the giant wall rose in front of us.  I was somewhere in the middle of the group, and could see the little lights hanging in the sky overhead, one on top of the other.  Everything was dark, and my mind was not working quickly: I could not fathom this obstacle.  So I started, shaking a little, glad I couldn´t see more.  Pick, step, step, pick, step, pick, step, on and on.  At the top I was freezing cold, probably partly out of fear, partly from the tremendous altitude gain.  My hands felt too cold to work well from that point on.  Ivan had to unwrap a snickers bar for me, and he carried my pick when I didn´t need it so I could shove my triple-gloved hands in my coat pockets.  We walked on, stopping more to breathe, and I got colder.  Time seemed to slow down, and I found myself in an awful position, feeling so cold that I was worried I soon wouldn´t be able to function, the giant wall looming in my memory, fearing descent.  Walking onward and upward had the chance of warming me up through exertion, but I couldn´t seem to move fast enough to achieve that effect.  The sun was still an hour away from rising, so if we turned back, it would still be very cold for a while.  We moved on, and another solo climber and I kept leap-frogging, passing the other, then getting passed during a break.  I could feel major tension in my shoulders, hunched to the cold, and tried shrugging and swinging my arms to loosen and warm up.  All I wanted was for the sun to rise.  I vowed to go to the sacred Isla del Sol—where the Incas believe the sun was born—and bask in its holy glory when I got down.  At 5900m there was a trio resting, and there I decided, finally, that the cold was sapping my life force and I had to turn back.  Another guy, at that point, came to the same conclusion.  So we started down, and almost immediately I felt better.

The horizon started to glow as we approached the high wall.  I watched the other guy inch down ahead of me.  Ivan tied into the security bolt thing and told me to start climbing down, carefully.  The other guy and guide stopped at the bottom to watch me.  I stepped down, surprised how secure the crampons made my feet feel as I dug into the snow.  Halfway, Ivan told me to stop while he untied, secured the rope to himself, and started down over me.  It was terrifying to hang out there, clinging my little spot of snow, halfway down the cliff, but the sunrise was glorious and I decided to try to take a picture, so I dug into my pocket with my clumsy huge gloves and got one.  At the bottom, everything was illuminated, and the shadowy mountain transformed into pure white layers of smooth snow, with occasional gaping crevasses.  We floated downward through the magical world for a while, apporaching thick clouds, where the sky and mountain seemed to become one.  The plastic boots hurt a lot going down, and I got permission from Ivan to slide down the last part on my butt—pretty fun—but when I stood back up I almost couldn´t take the final steps to the cabin.

Snow had gotten inside my goretex suit during the slide, and I crawled in wet clothes up to my sleeping bag, feeling absolutely sick, and huddled there for a couple of hours while others trickled in.  I heard that nobody had made it to the summit because conditions were dangerous further up, and was really glad I turned back when I did.  Nobody wanted to suit up for the hike back down to base camp.  I went first, pulling on the miserable plastic boots and all the clothes I could wear.  It was a long hike, but it was the last leg.  Ivan slipped a few times, saying his boots were slippery, and I felt grateful I´d never tested his life-saving abilities by falling.  I learned that the kid is only 18 years old!  He was meeting another client at the base camp, and hiking back up that same day, another midnight ascent that night.  I have no idea how he does it.

I felt sick in the taxi going home, and laid down in the back seat, passing up the scenic views.  Back at the office I returned my gear and wanted to go straight home to bed.  Normally, a bus would take my straight down the main avenue, directly to my apartment, but this was Carnaval, and the main streets were all shut down.  So I walked with my backpack, skin burning from cold and sun exposure, legs wobbly, but feeling decent in the mid-day warmth—alive!  A few blocks before my apartment, an open-bed truck full of kids passed me and they both nailed me with water balloons and threw a bucket of water on me.  Awesome.  Then I got to sleep, even more awesome.

Ritual for safe and productive year in the mines…when the dynamite exploded I could feel pieces hitting me!

This morning marked four weeks of life in this city, and I celebrated with some warm rice pudding for breakfast from a street cart for about 20 cents.  Its been a rainy and cold week here, so I guess I´m looking forward to exploring other parts of the country, but the impending departure will still be bittersweet.  One highlight of the last week was a trip outside the city; my roommate Rodrigo took me for a motorcycle ride, northeast along the expansive altiplano, climbing some mountains and passing a large dam.  We climbed around on rocks in thin crisp air, looking for a lost pocket knife and cautiously eying some heavy approaching clouds.  Fog rolled in and we headed back to the city, stopping at a museum to see some murals and eat the delicious plato paceña, a local vegetarian specialty comprised of corn, beans, potatoes, and cheese:  all ingredients produced in the area.

On Saturday I got to visit the indigenous university in El Alto after bumping into a law professor who teaches there in my apartment building´s elevator. We took three buses and arrived at the school at 9am.  The university rents space from a primary/secondary school on the weekends.  Rooms are unheated and bare, with small wooden benches and desks, and a chalkboard for which students have to buy chalk at the snack/supply hut.  I found out later that morning that the unversity students do not even have access to a bathroom at the school—they have to go outside to the street and pay one boliviano (around $.15) to use a public bathroom.  The professor outlined a plan for the morning as students (from late teens to people in their 60s) trickled in, then he left us to work in small groups for more than two hours, while he went back to La Paz for a job interview that didn´t even happen.  We looked at the case of Jose Carlos Trujillo Oroza, a 21-year-old who was disappeared while in police custody in 1972.  His mother pushed his case for years, and wound up at the Inter-American court of human rights, where the state of Bolivia was found top be responsible for his death and disappearance, fined money, and ordered to name a school after the young man, I believe.  The students worked with the minimal materials they had, writing group reports on the case and translating human rights violations to the proposed TIPNIS highway.  I was stunned by the challenging circumstances, shivering and bewildered by the fact that this was a law school.  Since the teacher was absent for the majority of the class, we had plenty of time to wander into casual discussions, comparing liberties and problems in Bolivia and the US.  One student told me that 70% of young Bolivians are fascinated with foreign culture and styles, and they don´t realize how much harm is done in the pursuit of such a lifestyle.  “Materialism isn´t what´s important,” she said, “its alimentation.”  What actually sustains us is the food that comes from the earth, she continued, and here we eat natural fresh food, but foreign influences push processed food in boxes.

The next time I visited the miners, expecting a street action, I ended up staying in the federation´s kitchen to help prepare lunch.  I chopped onions and peeled potatoes, trying to imitate the women´s long peel spirals, but ending up with innummerable pieces of peel and potatoes dirty from clumsy handling.  As more onions were chopped my eyes teared up, and when a bag of meat entered the scene, I left to walk in the rain and get some fresh air.  I had lunch at my usual vegetarian place and the rain continued to fall hard, so I went home.  Seeing the miners at the tent early the next morning, they all asked, “Where were you yesterday?!  You cooked but didn´t come back for lunch!” and defintely seemed a little offended.  So when noon rolled around, I headed down to the federation with them for some soup.  When they served me my bowl, it contained a chicken foot, nails and all, along with several unidentifiable chunks of meat.  I pleaded my vegetarian case and returned the chicken foot and some chunks to the pot, then slurped the broth and rice, grateful for their kindness and camaraderie.  Reclining outside after lunch, there were many new faces—younger men—in the federation´s courtyard building a fire.

They were representatives from mines throughout the country, active mine workers and union president-types, gathered for an annual celebration of Pachamama and el Tio of the mines.  I´d seen this ritual in the mining film; its a day to make offerings and pray for safety and good production in the coming year.  Normally, they kill a llama and throw its blood into the entrance of the mine, but they (thankfully) skipped that part, and made offerings of other types. Over a little alter of coca leaves and other items, the miners raised glasses of alcohol and spilled some out of each glass, an offering for the earth.  Then they burned the entire doused alter, setting off dynamite right next to me as I tried to videotape the moment.  Someone gave me a glass of beer, and, wanting to participate in the gratitude for Pachamama, I took it, spilled drops around the fire, and drank the rest.  More dynamite, more toasts for Pachamama, and they sweep me inside the federation´s office room and decorate each other with confetti.  Beer and singani (a delicious local spirit) flowed freely, music played, and we chewed coca over political conversations.  I ended up going home with a gifted copy of Chairman Mao´s speeches in spanish and several invitations to go see mines around the country, starting this Friday with a visit to Huanuni, near Oruro, site of the famous Carnaval celebrations, so it may be quite an interesting weekend…

Here are the miners taking the streets! They blocked the main avenue in downtown La Paz for hours, seriously affecting traffic all over the city.

roadblocks and radicals

Today I had a long talk in the midday sun with a 75-year-old from Potosi named Romulo.  He asked me where I´m from, and I told him upstate NY, where its usually (used to be?) snowy in February.  He said that here in the alitplano of Bolivia there used to be much more snow also, and that in his lifetime he´s seen the snowline recede dramatically.  I asked him what´s going to happen to everyone who relies on that snow for water when it all melts, and he said, “we´ll dry up like raisins, like charcoal, and we´ll be part of the earth and the world will go on.”

Romulo said that the US and other industrialized countries know what they´re doing to the world but they´re deaf to all cries to cut carbon emissions.  They know how to drastically reduce emissions—they could if they choose to—but they´re choosing instead to stuff their pockets with money, hoping that life as we know it will go on long enough for their money to be worth something.  I told him that there are people in the US and other countries fighting the industrial system of destruction.  He said, as a miner, that he´s not fighting industry; he´s fighting the intentional abuse of land and workers.  Industrial development, he claims, is not the root problem.  I think I disagree, but we didn´t go down that conversation path.

We stuck with climate change: Pablo Solón Romero, the climate change negotiator for Bolivia until last year, is one of the people who inspired me to come here.  The positions he took at world summits were consistently the best, most ambitious (realistic) of any other official ambassadors in the world.  Romulo agreed that, obviously, if you read anything about climate change, we´re pretty much screwed because we´re NOT taking the most ambitious steps possible.  Bolivia might have the most visionary perspective, but they´re not producing most of the greenhouse gases in the world and cannot force influence over those who are.  So, he said, you continue in the struggle and raise kids who will continue it after you´re gone, and you live your life.

I liked this guy a lot.  We talked about racism (he said that here, people from the rural areas are discriminated against in the universities, nudged out of classes if kids from urban/business families want in).  Also covered the military.  He had two bullets lodged in his body on August 21, 1971, during the coup of Hugo Banzer.  He saw lots of others die during those bloody days at the dawn of a dictatorship.  What a waste of human energy producing guns and bombs is, he said.  Stop all that and we´ll find out that our resources go a lot further.  When I brought up depleted uranium (maybe the first time I´ve found the opportunity to talk about DU in Bolivia) he said that the thinks that we should ban uranium mining.  This from a miner!  It only sickens the workers and contaminates the land with radioactivity.

Eventually I got thirsty in that bright sun and, reluctantly, had to leave Romulo to find some water.

Early this morning I left home in the thick fog to meet up with the strike organizers to pay a special visit to the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), in (desperate) search of support.  We walked into the office right as it opened, and crowded up and down the stairs, waiting for a meeting to convene.  COB folks trickled in—giving the random gringa in the corner some curious glances—and eventually invited the mining union organizer to speak to them.  The dozen of us who didn´t go in waited anxiously outside, pressing up against the doors to try to hear what was going on.  We heard David get pretty passionate, and soon he emerged looking exhausted and triumphant.  Returning to the tent at San Francisco plaza, several media members came by to do interviews, and the COB folks were expected to come by in the afternoon to give some support.  I don´t know what specifically was won; will they simply show up to offer some extra numbers and their name to the cause?  Will they use their negotiating power to help the miners win their benefits?  We´ll see.

During my first week here, I saw the film Todos Los Dias La Noche at the local cine that plays national films.  Its incredible!  A Swiss photographer spent a good deal of time in the mines of Bolivia, made a book, and documents his return journey, sharing the book with miners and their communities in remote parts of Bolivia.  It would be a great addition to Rochester´s Labor Film Festival, so I got in touch with the director of the film to see how I could go about making that happen.  When I wrote to him, I told him about the miners on strike, and he wrote back, saying he´d like for them to see the film, which is only showing at this theater in La Paz.  He called the theater director and she agreed to waive the entrance fee for the miners, as long as I told her when they were coming.

So I tried to arrange this trip to the movies for a bunch of elderly folks who are camping out in a city that is not their own.  They were tired at the end of the day, reluctant to go out in the big city of La Paz, and worried that I´d bring them but then leave them and they´d have to get back to the camp alone.  From what I gathered.  The first day I tried to arrange this, the people with disabilities who are protesting in the same plaza blocked the streets and we had no chance of finding a bus to take us anywhere close to the theater.  The next time I tried to arrange this, the same thing happened.  But we decided to walk down the street to where we could catch a bus.  Then a german juggler entertainer set up his show right outside the miners´ tent and the crowd that gathered kept me from finding anyone when the time came to leave for the cine.  So I walked down the street by myself, found some miners´family members and convinced them to go see the film.  We picked up a few miners as I hailed a taxi and someone else negotiated a reasonable rate for us (my bumbling spanish apparently screams, take advantage of me, please, overcharge me!) and we got there in time!  The film is beautiful and heartbreaking and brought several folks to tears.  The older folks would call out a location when they recognized it, and were talkative at the end, saying, yes, its really like that down there, isn´t that amazing?

I sent them back to the mining federation and walked home with a huge smile.  We´re going to try to organize a larger group trip soon.  Organizing anything can be difficult here, taking into account the enthusiasm for roadblocks.  Earlier in the day, when I was really frustrated that the film field trip wasn´t working out, I bumped into my neighbor from the apartment building and expressed my feelings: he smiled and said, “welcome to Bolivia!”