“I want to become a person more conscious of the owrld and people. I want to love and live an a way that includes as many different kinds of people as possible. What if I went to Colombia next semester to live with or near Mamie and Richard to get my TEFL & teach? I’m suddenly feeling the weight of being in the same place for a full year– is it what I want for real? We’ll see. Come what may.

**edit for those of you still checking/subscribed: this was something I found in my journal, written one year ago (3/3/2011). while I would LOVE to, I’m not actually thinking about packing up and moving to Colombia! fear not!

Advertisements

This is the calm before the storm.

I woke up this morning not too late, but then again not too early. I found my way to the kitchen of the stunning Recoleta apartment where I am staying and made myself a cup of nescoffee which, unfortunately, has become an adequate source of morning warmth and caffeine. I painted my fingernails mint green. I read three chapters of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (Have you read it? It’s fantastic.). I sat on the balcony looking out over Plaza Francia and the ombu tree for a bit. I browsed the internet. I read some more inside once it started to rain heavily.

An older sister of one of my very best friends from home did a ten month experience in South America. I stalked her travel blog (Hi, Gillian. I think you’re great. I hope you don’t think this is creepy. Haleybug, I love you.) many moons ago, in that awkward February month that flew by. I have always remembered an entry that she wrote just before going home, comparing these ten months to a rollercoaster. It starts out thrilling; everything is new and wonderful and great and exciting. There are some twists and turns that come around month four. From then on, it’s up and down, a back and forth of emotions.  But now, here we are at the tippy top, just before the final drop. Gillian writes (and I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing):

In this lingering moment I can see the end clearly, along with everywhere else that I’ve been, everyone I’ve known, looking out over the park. What comes next is that stomach-in-the-throat effect of the final drop at the end of the ride, soon to be followed by the sadness of the ride ending. But mostly, what I expect to feel is the need to turn to someone, to heave a big sigh and say, “Man! That was great!”

So life is re tranqui for the moment. Soon, a flurry of despedidas will begin that will last two days. Then, I’ll cry in an airport, as I am known to do. Then I’ll probably cry on an airplane, sleep on that airplane, eat a biscuit or a bagel (or perhaps both), and wait anxiously for the sad hugs of goodbye to turn to happy hugs of welcome home.

A storm is coming. I have always been a fan of storms.

Greetings de nuevo from one of my favorite cities in the whole wide world, Mendoza, Argentina.

So I´m sitting by myself in the plaza principal today, reading a horrid Nora Roberts book in Spanish, but mainly watching the fountain turn off and on, absentmindedly drinking a pomelo and contemplating the meaning of life when an old man approaches me.

¨WHERE IHS THE TRAVELER FRAHM?¨ He asks me through his gummy smile.

I explain to him, in Spanish, that I lived in Mendoza and am now back to visit. He, continuing to practice his English, explains to me (I think) that the sun is hot and that I´ll burn if I don´t move to a shady spot. I answer that I´ve put on sunscreen, and the conversation dies. I go back to the Nora Roberts book about love in a secluded Alaskan village, expecting the chatty man to move on.

But he sits down on the bench beside me.

¨DOES THE TRAVELER WRITE?¨ He wants to know.

Well, I explain, I journal. I like to write. But I am not a writer.

Turns out this man is.

¨CAN I MAKE TO JEW A PREHSEHNT?¨

Of course, I laugh. And he pulls out a poem. Translated into English so I can understand it to its fullest. Ready?

YOU ARE PRETTY

Without more words

Without less words

You are pretty.

Looking at you

Is to invent the brightness

In the morning.

You are pretty.

When you smile

In your smile

The poem is born bright.

When you walk

You are like a flower

That decorates the eye views

Without more words

Without less words

You are pretty.

Xzflos (sic.) Lépez

Thanks, gummy old chap in the Plaza on the bench near that bench where we met Mike, Bets´ boyf that day to see him off. The bench just across the path from that place where we once played hearts and were interrupted by a man with a mohawk who wanted to sell us LSD. The bench in front of the patch of grass where we drank TSwag´s birthday wine and met the Chilean camper.

So many memories in this wonderful little city.

Caps (and multicolored bras!) for sale! Fifty cents a cap!

A multitude of umbrellas and temporary booths makes up Cochabamba’s slightly sketchy and hilariously expanded version of Super Wal Mart. This great place is called la cancha (the field).

Don’t let the name fool you. I challenge you to find one vendor selling cloves of garlic, wilted flowers and (perhaps) used toenail clippers in any normal field. And if you happen to find one such vendor, is the man beside him selling live geese, donkeys and cow brains? Right, didn’t think so.

I went to the cancha on this particular day with a mission. Seeing as I have accumulated lots and lots of treasures (many in the form of shoes) this year, I was in need of a new suitcase. Which I found. The suitcase section is about three city blocks from the breakfast foods section, which is about two blocks from the used electronics section, which is just on the other side of the fresh vegetable and (primarily) potato section, which sits, unfortunately, just in front of the meat section. We’re talking big slabs of bloody cow, various types of animal heads, bins of eyeballs and barrels of juice that terrify me. It’s best just not to think about it, I remind myself as my gag reflexes engage.

But fear not! No vomit was spilled, for as soon as I, holding my breath, escaped the friendly (recently dead) animal section, I arrived at the watch section. Oh, yes! I do need a watch, don’t I!? A woman nursing a baby and eating a bowl of something tries to sell me an original Casio from circa 1993 for a whopping 140 Bs. I thank her and move on to the next booth, where I him and haw over a $3 purple waterproof number with smiley faces on the band. I let the woman know I needed to think about it and compare prices (I tell you what, I’ve gotten mildly good at this rebajar-ing business) and wander into the hallway where they’re make you any type of clothes or shoes your size, very good price.

Three hours, one cheap watch (the smiley face one turned out to be broken, so I made out with a man’s sports watch for the same price as the kitchy one), one large suitcase and a $1 top from Forever21 later, I emerged into the hot, Cochabamba sun with minimal ideas as to my location.

I did manage to find my way back home, thinking about my new treasures and their implications. The shirt, well, because I have officially ruined four of the five tops (three of them brand spankin’ new) that I brought along with me and I suspect I will need something to wear in Argentina. The watch because I will be cellphoneless (and therefore utterly lost in terms of time of day. Isn’t that something?) for twelve whole days of my life. And the suitcase because it’s time to go.

I ship out from Cochabamba, the city with which I have fallen head over heels in love, next Monday, December 5. From there, I’ll be hanging with the folks I’m lucky enough to call family in Mendoza for a time. I’ll kiss the Andes a teary goodbye and promise to be good and write and assure them I’ll be home soon. And then, I’ll take an overnight bus to Buenos Aires for a few days and attempt to thoroughly thank the people there for enduring my not-always-perfect Spanish and extended stays, for providing me with beds and colchones to sleep on and milanesas and grilled chicken (just like home!) to eat.

The cancha is just one of many bizarre yet totally endearing Cochabamba locations that I am sure going to miss. I know that the whirlwind is coming, but for now I’m oddly peaceful. Of course I’m going to miss so much more than I can even recognize about living on the bottom half of this planet,but I can finally see the light on the other side that is biological family, great friends, delectable food items, a cold Christmas season and so, so, so much love.

Saludos from Cochabamba once more.

Alejandra

Fall in Love, attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ

Nothing is more practical than

Finding God, than

Falling in Love

In a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,

What seizes your imagination, will affect everything.

It will decide

What will get you out of bed in the morning,

What you do with your evenings,

How you spend your weekends,

What you read, whom you know,

What breaks your heart,

And what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love, stay in love,

And it will decide everything.

Here I sit, listening to the Marketa Irglova tiny desk concert and the hail that rhythmically beats against our tin roof, watching a thunderstorm overtake the bowl that is Cochabamba and sipping tea. Naturally, I’m feeling fairly pensive.

I’m thinking about the dream that I just had during my Wednesday afternoon siesta—a dream that involved being back in the United States and having to dig a bed out of a sandy floor to be able to go to sleep. I woke up, shared the dream with Allison, and jokingly explained that I was probably just half asleep and thinking about how horrifyingly shitty my mattress-on-the-floor is (it has now permanently, I fear, taken the shape of my body, not unlike the way that laying in soft sand would leave a footprint of sorts). “Or,” Allison suggested, “you’re thinking about re-entry and how much work it’ll be to habituar North America again.” I think you’ve got a point, Al. Though I am looking forward to a bed with an abundance of pillows, t-shirt sheets and a down comforter. Among about nine thousand other things I’m looking forward to. One month from today, I’ll be boarding a plane back to the land of barbeque and sweet tea!

I’m thinking about my weekend trip to Lake Titicaca in La Paz, Bolivia. Thinking about just how astoundingly blue the water and sky are, about how beautiful our hikes were on the Isla del Sol and to the top of an observatory overlooking the town of Copacabana and the expansive lake. Thinking about the magic of listening to Hoppipolla while driving through the altiplano, while snowy mountains loom in the distance.

I’m doing all this thinking, you see, and Marketa says to me, “This song is called Let me fall in love—it’s like a prayer for falling in love, not necessarily with a person, but, with Life and, you know, with life as it is and therefore always seeing the better side of it because that’s what Love does somehow.”

And now I’m thinking about the idea of being in love. This idea has been central in our volunteer reflection meetings over the past month. A few weeks ago, we read an article by Dean Brackley, a Jesuit who lived in El Salvador for many years, entitled Meeting the victims, falling in love. The article is a brutally honest piece about the journey that Brackley observed not only in himself but also in the “waves of foreign delegations” that came to El Salvador in the nineties.  It contains an almost uncomfortable amount of “us” and “them”, but manages to detail the falling in love that happens on our journey with the poor. The journey, according to Brackley, entails first a dull sense of dread about what will be found in living with the poor: how will I be shaken, how will I be changed?  In North America, there is a tendency to live in a kind of blindfolded bliss: the sufferings are small (why the hell can’t I register for classes for the spring semester!!!) as are the joys. These visitors, says Brackley, soon begin to see themselves in the eyes of their hosts.

“[The visitors] say to themselves, ‘Hey, these people are just like us!’ They sense a gentle invitation to lay down the burden of their own superiority (of which they are mostly unaware) and identify with these humble people, despite the differences between them. The begin to feel smaller and more ‘ordinary.’ A sweet shame comes over them, not bitter remorse but more like the shame one feels when falling in love. The visitors feel themselves losing their grip; or better, they feel the world losing its grip on them. What world? The world made up of important people like them and unimportant poor people like their hosts. As the poet Yeats says, ‘things fall apart;’ the visitors’ world is coming unhinged. They feel resistance, naturally, to a current that threatens to sweep them out of control.

They feel a little confused—again—like the disorientation of falling in love. In fact, this is what is happening, a kind of falling in love. The earth trembles. My horizon is opening up. I’m on unfamiliar ground, entering a richer, more real world. We all live a bit on the periphery of the deep drama of life, more so, on average, in affluent societies. The reality of the periphery is thin, one-dimensional, ‘lite,’ compared to the multilayerd richness of this new world the visitors are entering. In this interchange with a few of their representatives, the anonymous masses of the world’s poor emerge from their cardboard-cutout reality and take on the three-dimensional status of full-fledged human beings.

[…] The victims of history—the destitute, abused women, oppressed minorities, all those the Bible calls ‘the poor’—not only put us in touch with the world and with ourselves, but also with the mercy of God. There is something fathomless about the encounter with the poor, as we have said—like the opening of a chess game with its infinite possibilities. If we let them, the poor will place us before the abyss of the holy Mystery we call God. They are a kind of door that opens before that Mystery and through which God passes to get at us. Clearly we need them more than they need us.

Small wonder people keep returning. Something has happened, a kind of falling in love, I think.”

Though I can’t say I know what it feels like to fall in romantic love with a person (save, perhaps, the strangers whose stories I invent with whom I frequently  fall in love in libraries, on trains, in coffee shops), I surely know what falling in love feels like. I am in love with Bolivia. I’m in love with the people with whom I spend my days. Just as Brackley says, it’s disorienting and it’s earth shattering and it’s question-inducing, but it’s real. My heart fills up when I hear my four and five year olds scream out to me “Empujáme, Alejandraaa?” or when we read stories or when they proudly hold up their latest masterpiece or excitedly show me how they have learned to write their name and the numbers one through ten.  I love my girls at Madre de Dios, the orphanage where I work two afternoons a week. I love that they are receptive and allow me to explain (read: try to explain) how to borrow when subtracting or the fact that addition and subtraction are really just the same operation in reverse. I dig dancing with them at the end of class (Shmabs: they really love that antes que te vayas dame un beso song from the taxista’s CD!). I love my neighbors, my friends, the people who have so graciously accepted me into their lives for such a short time and who have shared so many laughs, food and stories with me. I love my housemates, Allison, Veronica and Lil.

In short, I feel so lucky to live a life so full of love. That love lives here in Bolivia, here in the southern zone of Cochabamba. It lives in Argentina at the foot of the Andes and the mouth of the Río de la Plata. It lives in Winston-Salem in the hugging arms of my family, in the trees in Reynolda Gardens that watch our snacknicks and the benches at Krankies. It lives in the arboretum in Chapel Hill, in Warehouse apartments, at the Daily Grind and Open Eye, in the pit in swinging hugs. It’s love that I’ll soak up here for four more lovely weeks and love that I’m more than anxious to get back to on the other side of the equator.

I’ll close this long, rambling post with yet another excerpt from the old journal.

Things I’m digging, week of November 6, 2011:

  1. Germans
  2. Lakes and mountains; hiking around them
  3. Trout
  4. Earrings
  5. Spicy foods; llajua
  6. Long hair
  7. Jónsi
  8. Airplanes
  9. Coffee

10. Leg room

11. Stillness

12. Teaching

13. Dancing (mi vida no es igual, como te voy a olvidar?)

14. Bolivia

15. Internet access

16. Creative writing

17. Early rising

18. Skype (especially being able to spend the afternoon with Sierra, despite the distance)

19. Llamas

20. The altiplano

21. Being filled with a nearly uncontainable happiness re: life; Being content about no longer having concrete future plans

Thursday night in Coch and I’m just way too busy being overwhelmed by an incredible nostalgia for everything that has ever been (read: Mendoza, amid the pines, everything that is so very squelchily Winston-Salem), an incredibly happy contentment that is Bolivia (have I mentioned that I love it here?) and an unshakable desire to eat a barbecue tray from cookout with double hush puppies and a sweet tea and a chocolate chip cheesecake milkshake. Also a desire to be at moogfest with my baby brother and best friend and the blue ridge mountains (and Annie Clark, but that would seriously mess up the B alliteration).

Past and present and future. Might it be possible for Mr. Time to slow himself down, speed himself up and rewind himself, all at the very same time? Glass case of emotion, y’all. In the very best way possible.

Feeling brainy and not-so-very footsy. Or perhaps footsy and not-so-very brainy.

Monday, October 17 was the two-month mark. I was reminded with a flurry of e-mails, facebooks and various other internet communication thingers. My feet will be back in Carolina del Norte (queda en el sur de los estados unidos, mas o menos trece horas en auto al norte de Miami is the description I’ve gotten pretty good at reciting since February) dentro de poco. How in the world has time passed this quickly!?

I found a journal entry (I know I’m no longer a teenager, which makes blogging about jornaling THAT much more angsty, but bear with me…) from November 9, 2010 that I couldn’t not share.

these days, it seems like the change has kicked into hyperdrive. fall is finally, finally here. the leaves are changing (slowly but surely), jumping off the trees and fluttering to the ground. the fall air hasn’t quite resolved its identity crisis: today the high is seventy and I had to resurrect the birkenstocks; on sunday, we barely made it to fifty five. I don’t blame it, though: I can’t decide if I’m rearin’ to go or terrified to leave.

regardless, I’m out of chapel hill in thirty four days. I’ll be back, of course, but it won’t be the same.

I’ve been meaning to attend Spanish mass for a while now, for quite a number of reasons. namely, I need a way to hear and speak real Spanish with some kind of frequency. I finally got around to it last Sunday, and let me tell you what, the definition of “gringa” in the dictionary probably has my picture beside it. my first mistake was arriving fifteen minutes early, as things in the latino community rarely begin anywhere close to on-time. the choir (rehearsing at the time) actually stopped singing to stare as I, a five-foot-very-tall, blonde chick, came strutting in wearing a dress, tights, knee-socks and boots. slowly, the church filled up and mass began. if my height, outfit and hair/skin color weren’t indicators enough, my awkward flubbing of the mass parts was a clear sign of how out of place I was. I raised my hand as a visitor and was subjected to a small interview in front of the entire congregation (“Me llamo Allie… ehh… soy una estudiante de Chapel Hill… estoy aqui para… ehh… quiero aprender Espanol?”). then, I was struck by all of the little ways that mass differs between languages. it made the experience so much more authentic, though. instead of words pouring out of my mouth, mindless and void of emotion, I had to think about what I was saying. once I got past the initial “being out of place” thing, the experience was beautiful. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I was able to comprehend without too much effort. the homily was centered around the idea that “los momentos pasan volando” or, literally, “moments pass flying.”

and boy, does time ever fly.

Time flies indeed. It really does. It’s amazing how much in common I have with this girl, despite how the year that’s passed between now and then has changed me. I can’t decide if going home sounds like the most exciting or the most terrifying experience in the entire world. First, what does going home mean? Where is that, exactly?

Then I think about Spanish Mass, or, as I like to call it in Bolivia, Mass. I think about how I’m still not-quite in my element (see that one time I started to eat the communion wafer, then realized that our church is a take-the-host-and-dip-it kind of church, so I pulled it out of my mouth. #smooth), but how comfortable and at home I feel. I love the little chapel. I love how street dogs come in and hang out around the altar; I love how no one seems to notice this. I love acoustic guitars and the big spreading of peace and singing happy birthday and the liberal use of holy water, flung at the cumpleañeros with a pink plastic rose. But of course I’m still me, still the awkward gringa. How could I be totally comfortable with the sloppy double-beso (which I’m never prepared for and can never anticipate)? I still half-fake the part about mi paz les dejo, mi paz les doy and all-the-way fake the creed. But oohWEE it makes me happy.

The way I feel about Mass is, really, the way I feel about Coch. I am in love with this city. I love the dusty streets, the sprawling markets, the sing-songy spanish with the exaggerated “S” sound. I love that, frequently, two little boys gallop down our street on their horses, dodging motorcycles and busses. If you know me, you’re familiar with my affinity for all things mountain, so it’ll come as no shock to you that perhaps my favorite part about Coch is living in a soup-bowl of purply (which is a real word; WHO KNEW!?) and snow-capped mountains.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I fit in. Far from it. I am reminded that I am not a Cochabambina, for example, every time I get on a bus. Because I don’t fit on them. If I stand, I must assume a horrendous slouchy-posture. If I sit, it had better be on an aisle and there had better be room for these knocky knees to flop out. There’s no chance in the world that they’ll fit in the miniscule space between the seat and the bench in front of it. Other friendly reminders from the city that I am certainly no Cochabambina: constant sunburn/sunscreen smell, lack of shoes in my size, lack of really anything in my size, inability to consume anything on the street without the threat of monstrous bowel issues, a dire need for a bottle of water at every moment of the day, getting winded extremely quickly, blonde hair, Chacos.

I guess one of the most amazing things that I’ve found in this year of adventure has been three new homes: one in Coch, one in Buenos Aires and one in Mendoza. My definition of that goofy, four-letter word has changed. It’s no longer the way I feel driving down trade street or past my picnic tables at Starbucks or the tree from that one time. I mean, it is, but it’s also 2879 Patricias Mendocinas, frente a la plaza Irigoyen and NesCafé in tiny cups and mate in Parque San Martin; it’s Calle Cipoy and silpanchos and potatoes and cholitas and mountains.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I could not possibly be luckier to have more than one home in my heart. Happy to be home in Cochabamba, happy to be headed back to my home in MDZ and then in good ole Carolina del Norte.

Unrelated: I was given a great piece of advice by John Morgan this week that I thought I’d share.

Listen to Rihanna’s We Found Love until you feel really connected with the song. I mean numerous times. Until you start to feel one with Rihanna. And then watch the music video. You will literally die. Okay, not literally. But you’ll love it. 

JohnnyMorg, you could not be any more right. I’ve been blasting the music all afternoon.

 

 

 

What do a very goofy, purple polka dotted manicure…

 

 

…an infestation of Chulupis…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

… yet another failed attempt to learn the cuenca with yet another gracious (and short) dance partner…

… not-so-tiny sister’s TENTH birthday…

… Marchistas arriving to La Paz after more than two months of marching…

… and a crowing rooster at 3:45 AM have in common?

Long time no update! Just a few quick photos of what’s been up the past few weeks. Last weekend, I tried (and failed) yet again to learn how to dance the cuenca. Maybe one of these days it’ll come…

Tiny Sister turned ten last Saturday– HAPPY BIRTHDAY Maddie G!

I treated myself to a 3-boliviano manicure (mas o menos forty five cents), complete with tiny white flowers that came out like polka-dots on Monday, just in time for a chulupi infestation at the guardería on Tuesday. YIKES. There were hundreds of these guys of all sizes crawling all over behind the bookcases and on the walls. The chulupi attack was punctuated by the screams of terror/delight from a slew of six-year-olds.

The Marchistas were received in La Paz today after being on the road since August 15. I’ll be sure to link more articles as they come out. Read about the TIPNIS here.

Last night, I camped out on the living room floor with some sweet kiddos who live not far from us. We watched Ramona and Beezus on the projector and made our own pizzas before sleeping in the real live tent. The kids all bailed on the tent in the night (it’s not actually too fun to sleep on concrete) and the rooster started announcing his presence this morning at 3:45.

Despite my lack of sleep, life is grand!

A few of my [current] favorite things:

1. Mindy Smith. Our groovy new roommate, Allison, is a guitar goddess and has brought lots more happy, folky tunes to Calle Cipoy. Also Beyonce.

2. Cooking things (read: eating things) like pumpkin carrot ginger soup. Planning to make eggplant caviar this weekend. YUM.

3. The following message from Sarah which made me almost-cry with happiness and flattery and because I miss my TinyFo:

because this reminds me of you/your future and because this tumblr girl’s name is alexandra and because I still read tumblrs religiously. skype soon?

Slob, I love you all there is. Skype really soon.

4. Pretending to be Buzz Lightyear with six year olds. Thank goodness for ToyStory 3 and Spanish Buzz!

5. Bolivia.

In other news, Winston-Salem, North Carolina countown: 55 days. This is unreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[important note: the title of this post is to be yelled enthusiastically, as Papa J yells “(s)he’s okay!” after anyone takes a spill. if confused, telephone the Paps and he’ll scream it for you]

I have been informed by my mother that my last blog post was worry-inducing. Fret not! I really am OK. Here’s a video of me and the most adorable children in all of the land eating chips and reciting poetry to prove it!

These kids, Fabiana Alejandra*, Carolina Sofía**  and José Manuel*** , live down the street from me and come hang out frequently. Here, they are reciting a poem: Quisiera ser un caballo para llevarte trotando, pero como no soy nada, QUE PENA, te vas caminando! (Which, roughly, is: I wanted to be a horse so I could take you trotting, but alas, I am nothing, BUMMER, you’ll have to walk!). Fabi wants to take a photobooth-style photo and we goofily say goodbye to the camera. Carito shows off her glass of mango yogurt. The video ends on a lovely still of the crew that involves a spectacular view of the quadruple chin of yours truly. I blame Argentina (specifically, I blame empanadas, bread and dulce de leche).

* It’s actually really hard to not pinch her cheeks all the time.

** This chickie has my heart; she is currently a big fan of her middle name and tries to convince everyone that she’s “just Sofía.” It should be noted, however, that the biggest-name producer of chicken here, akin to Tyson in the states, is Sofía. We also live right beside the factory. Hence our laughter.

***Two things: 1, when I ask him “Who are you?” at the beginning of the video, he responds with “I am your Godfather” which is just goofy. 2, Isn’t he cute!? If only I knew any cute 9-year-old girls in the United States…

Real talk, folks, I am only slightly affected by the protests going on. The vast majority of the action is happening in and around La Paz. Here in Cocha, there are many signs and posters plastered around town; there was a peaceful march last Wednesday as a way to demonstrate solidarity with the marchers as they made their way to the capital. Because of the march, there were blockades around downtown and public transportation was spotty at best. Regardless, though, I live and work outside of the city– I have yet to see with my own eyes any marchers, protesters or blockades. Really, I only go into town if I have shopping to do or time to explore on the weekends.

Pinky swear, promise (but not promise-womise), cross my heart, I’m alright. Not to worry, Mama! Your girl will be home in one piece in exactly 74 days. Your girl is having a hard time believing this, but that’s another post for another time.

I’m hesitant to analyze (read: attempt to analyze) anything political on the bloggy blog, for fear of totally misinterpreting and misinforming. However, the situation here in Bolivia is such that I felt obligated to write at least a bit about what’s been going on recently. I tried, I typed, I read many a BBC articles. And then I received this e-mail titled “An Open Letter To Our Friends About The Current Situation in Bolivia” written by Jim Shultz of The Democracy Center. Mr. Shultz has the words and the expertise that I lack, so I thought I’d pass on his letter to those of you who are willing to strap in and read it.

The Morales Presidency Takes an Ugly Turn

In 2005, Sacha Llorenti, the President of Bolivia’s National Human Rights Assembly, wrote a forward for our Democracy Center report on an incident here two years previously, known as ‘Febrero Negro’. The IMF had demanded that Bolivia tighten its economic belt and President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada complied by proposing a new tax on the poor. His action set off a wave of protest and government repression that left 34 people dead. Llorenti wrote of the government’s repression, “Those days refer to an institutional crisis, state violence, and her twin sister, impunity.”

Only months after Llorenti wrote those words, that era in Bolivia’s history seemed swept away in a wave of hope. The nation’s first indigenous President, Evo Morales, rode into power on a voter mandate unmatched in modern Bolivian history. He proclaimed a new Bolivia in which indigenous people would take their rightful place in the nation’s political life, human rights would be respected, and a new constitution would guarantee autonomy for communities ignored by the governments of the past. Overnight the people who had been attacked or ignored by Bolivia’s leaders suddenly became Bolivia’s leaders. Llorenti eventually rose to the most powerful appointed position in the nation, Minister of Government. The rays of optimism that spread out from Tiwanaku and La Paz extended worldwide and Morales become a global symbol of something hopeful.

It is a sad measure of how deeply things have changed that it was Llorenti himself who stepped behind the podium at the Presidential Palace last Monday to defend the Morales government’s violent repression of indigenous protesters on September 25th. Five hundred police armed with guns, batons and tear gas were sent to a remote roadside to break up the six-week-long march of indigenous families protesting Morales’ planned highway through the TIPNIS rainforest. Llorenti’s declarations echoed the tired justifications heard from so many governments before: “All the actions taken by the police had the objective of preventing conflicts and if cases of abuse have been committed they will be punished.”

Men, women and children marching to defend their lands were attacked with a barrage of tear gas, their leaders were beaten, women had bands of tape forcibly wrapped over their mouths – all under orders from a government that had promised to be theirs. How did it come to this?

The Highway Through the Rainforest

The indigenous families that were attacked by police on that Sunday left their lands in the TIPNIS on August 15th to march nearly 400 miles to their nation’s capital and press their case against the road that would cut through the heart of their lands. President Morales had made it very clear that he was not interested in hearing any more of their arguments against the mainly Brazil-financed highway. In June he declared, “Whether you like it or not, we are going to build this road.”

Morales argued that the highway was needed for “development,” creating new economic opportunities in parts of the country long isolated. In the name of those goals he was willing to ignore the requirements of community consultation and autonomy in the new Constitution that he had once championed. He was willing to abandon his own rhetoric to the world about protecting Mother Earth and to ignore studies about the likely destruction of the forest that the new highway would bring. What could have been a moment of authentic and valuable debate in Bolivia about what kind of development the nation really wanted instead became a series of presidential declarations and decrees.

As the march of some 1,000 people crept slowly onward toward La Paz its moral weight seem to grow with each step, drawing growing public attention that Morales couldn’t stop. The march became the lead story in the country’s daily papers every morning for weeks. Civic actions in support of the marchers grew in Bolivia’s major cities. More than sixty international environmental groups, led by Amazon Watch, signed a letter to Morales asking him to respect the marchers’ demands.

From Morales, however, each day only brought a new set of accusations aimed at stripping the marchers of their legitimacy. First, said the government, the march was the creation of the U.S. Embassy. Then the government declared that the marchers were the pawns of foreign and domestic NGOs. Last week while in New York for his speech to the U.N., the Morales entourage announced that it had evidence that it was former President Sanchez de Lozada who was behind the march. The litany of ever-changing charges began to sound something akin to a schoolboy scrambling to invent reasons for why he didn’t have his homework.

When the charges failed to derail the marchers’ support, the government and its supporters decided to try to steer them off their path to La Paz in other ways. They blocked the arrival of urgent donations of water, food, and medicine gathered and sent from throughout the country. But this only added yet again to the moral weight of humble people walking the long road to the capital.

Tear Gas at Dusk

Just after 5pm on Sunday, September 25, five hundred police dressed in full battle gear descended on the encampment (see video) where the marchers had pitched themselves for the night. Running at full speed they began firing canisters of toxic tear gas directly into the terrified groups of men, women, and children. Then the police began forcing them, screaming and crying, onto buses and into the backs of unmarked trucks for unknown destinations. Television footage captured the police knocking women to the ground and binding their mouths shut with tape. Many others ran to escape into the trees and fields so far from their homes. Children were separated from their parents.

Later that night those who had escaped the police began to take refuge in the small church of the town of San Borja. Early Monday morning government planes tried to land on an air strip in the town of Rurrenabaque, where more than 200 captured marchers were to be forcibly put aboard and returned to the villages where they had begun their trek so many weeks and miles before. The people in the community swarmed the runway to keep the planes from landing and were met with another attack of tear gas by the police sent there by the government.

Hours later the country’s young Defense Minister, Cecilia Chacon, announced her resignation. She wrote in a public letter to President Morales, “I can not defend or justify it [Sunday’s repression]. There are other alternatives in the framework of dialogue, respect for human rights, nonviolence, and defense of Mother Earth.”

She became the latest in a string of former Morales allies who had dramatically split from the government over the TIPNIS highway and the government’s abuses of the marchers. Morales’ former ambasador to the U.S., Gustavo Guzman, and the President’s former Vice-Minister for Land, Alejandro Almaraz, had not only left the government but also gone to join the marchers.

Over the course of the following Monday public denouncements poured out against the police attack on the marchers – from the National Public Ombudsman, the U.N., women’s groups, human rights groups, the Catholic Church, labor unions, and others, including many who had once been fervent Morales supporters.

By that Monday evening, with his public support in freefall, Morales finally spoke to the nation. He began by denying any involvement in Sunday’s police violence, blaming it on unnamed subordinates. But after years of arguing that his predecessors should be prosecuted for the abuses of soldiers and police under their command, it was a defense that convinced no one. Several key government officials told journalists that such an aggressive police action would never have taken place without orders from the government’s highest ranks.

Morales then announced that he would put the highway to a vote by the two Bolivian states, Cochabamba and Beni, through which the project would pass. Almaraz, the former Lands Vice-Minister, and others, quickly pointed out that such a referendum was unconstitutional, a direct violation of the provisions allowing local indigenous communities to decide the fates of their lands.

If Morales thought he had plugged the political leak in his weakened Presidency, it became clear Tuesday morning that the anger against him was only growing. Larger marches filled the streets in the cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Sucre. The country’s labor federation (C.O.B) announced a strike. By nightfall the nation’s transportation workers announced that they too would stage a work stoppage Wednesday in opposition to the highway and in support of the marchers.

Just after 7pm Tuesday night Sacha Llorenti appeared at the Presidential Palace podium once again, this time to announce his own resignation. It appeared not so much an act of conscience, in the mold of Ms. Chacon’s the day before, but more a man being tossed overboard in the hope that it might afford the President some political protection.

Then Morales took to the airwaves to add an announcement of his own –
the temporary suspension of construction of the disputed road. But by early Wednesday news reports revealed that the Brazilian firm happily bulldozing the highway had received no such order.

A People Rising

Wednesday morning Evo Morales woke to a nation headed for a transit standstill, with new marchers headed to the streets, schools closed and a nation deeply angry with its President. The cheering crowds of his 2006 inaugural had become a distant memory.

What is behind Morales’ devotion to a road through the heart of the TIPNIS? Is he simply a stubborn believer in a vision of economic development filled with highways and factories, in the style of the North? Is it a matter of Presidential ego, of not wanting to make the call to his Brazilian counterpart (Brazil is both the financier and constructor of the road, and eager to gain access to the natural resources it would make accessible), admitting that he can’t deliver on a Presidential promise? Are his deepest supporters, the coca growers, so anxious for a road that will open up new lands for expanding their crop that Morales has been willing to push things this far? Only President Morales knows his true motivations. But what is a certainty is that he has paid an enormous political cost for sticking to them.

The events of the past week represent something new rising in Bolivia. The people – who have now listened to many Morales speeches about protecting the Earth and guaranteeing indigenous people control over their lands – have risen to defend those principles, even if their President has seemingly abandoned them. Ironically, Morales has now inspired a new environmental movement among the nation’s younger generation, not by his example but in battle with it.

In my interview with Sacha Llorenti for our report on Febrero Negro, he also told me something else. He told me that the 2003 repression was, “the moment in which the crisis of the country was stripped down to the point where you could see its bones.” Today in Bolivia a different crisis has laid bare a new set of political bones for all to see.

Evo Morales, in his global pulpit, had been an inspiring voice, especially on climate change and on challenging the excesses of the U.S. In Bolivia on economic matters he has often been true to the world, raising taxes on foreign oil companies and using some of those revenues to give school children a modest annual bonus for staying in the classroom.

But the abuses dealt out by the government against the people of the TIPNIS have knocked ‘Evo the icon’ off his pedestal in a way from which he will never fully recover, in Bolivia and globally. He seems now pretty much like any other politician. What has risen instead is a movement once again of the Bolivian people themselves – awake, mobilized, and courageous. The defense of Bolivia’s environment and indigenous people now rests in the hands, not of Presidential power, but people power – where real democracy must always reside.

Important note: Not to worry, oh family and friends far away. Though the marchers have been met with incredible violence and repression and though there is still so much progress to be made, I am safe as can be.