jueves, 24 de abril de 2008

Cokoo for Coca: Bolivia part 2

I came to Bolivia to take a quick listen to a music style called saya afroboliviana, a little known groove played by Bolivia´s tiny, unrecognized black population – some 30,000 people who live almost entirely in a few rural villages in a lush coca-growing region called Los Yungas, the descendents of enslaved Africans forced to work in the gigantic silver mine of Potosi, a mine so gigantic it made little old Potosi the biggest city in the world at its time of glory. Before the 1980s, the community was so isolated that most Bolivians had no idea that afrobolivians existed, and then people started coming to the city to study and work, and now the going to a saya party played by the group in La Paz is common for cultural savvy paceños. I went to one such party, at a swankafied bar, with the drummers at 2 in the morn beating giant drums on the bar as the whitest of all Bolivians got very down. But this was just a taste, I really needed to go to the Yungas and see what was really going on for myself.

Luckily I got an invitation to stay with a family from Tocaña, the biggest afrobolivian village, and down I went. The Yungas are geographically close to La Paz but a world apart. At thousands of meters below, until the 50s, the only way to get to the city to sell produce was climb the mountains with a pack of donkeys. Then the built a road, which the UN declared the "worlds most dangerous road", a tiny dirt track hugging the edge of mile-long cliff drops and crossing slippery waterfalls and curving around giant mountains. Buses, I am told, would pass each other despite the complete lack of space, entailing hanging the back wheels off the cliff long enough for the other to get by. Some 12 buses would fall off a year. Just last year, they completed a new sexy paved road, leaving the old road to become one of Bolivia´s top tourist attractions – "bicycle the road of death!!!", which sounds great, but then somebody died doing it a couple of days ago, oh so they were serious about that road of death thing.

The journey to Las Yungas was really, in the only word I can think of to describe it, breathtaking. The sheer scale of everything in Bolivia makes everything feel so tiny, the mountains loom so high, the valleys cut so deep. First, the road climbs to the top of the Bolivian Andes into bleak bare landscapes filled with, literally, thousands of llamas. Llamas, which are a stable food and pack animal here, just about everyone's got them, still manage to fill me with wonder and awe, but godamn, the llamas are just everywhere, being led around my hardcore little cholas. Then the bus descends, curving into ever greener sceneries, and then all of a sudden, it's the yungas, impossibly lush and covered in coca fields on impossibly steep hills, green everywhere you look except for the explosion of bright purple flowers that cluster like sunspots, and huge condors sailing the air overhead, and tiny evil bugs that bite you incessantly below. Every hour or so we pass a roadside village where the ubiquitous course-faced little women hawk every manner of delicity, empanadas, dried llama meat, skewered chicken hears, touristic llama-printed everythings.

I arrive in this village, and I must say, for all my journeys hardcorness, this was as rustic as things have gotten, I had never been smack dab in the middle of the campo before, and it was immensely beautiful and difficult all at once. David and Maxima took me graciously into their home, having hosted all manner of musicologists before me and used to dealing with gringos. They were absurdly good people, but so hardworking, they get up every day at 5am and go harvest in the coca fields until 5 again including weekends, and hustle to transport and sell their products, and build things, and fix things, and still barely scrape by, chewing coca at noon to curb mid-day hunger, and godamn Bolivia makes the inequalities so incredibly glaring.

But first a note about coca. Everybody in Tocaña survives only because of coca, in fact, most of Bolivia survives because of coca, and nearly all of them turn a blind eye to where their little cocita is going. A huge amount of it goes to local, traditional use, that is – just about everyone in rural Bolivia chews a wad of the pungent leaves in the side of their cheek, producing a mild less-than-a-coffee boost, curbing hunger, and making your cheek lining novocaine-numb. Another large quantity goes to Coca Cola, who swoop down in spaceships once a year and buy very large quantities of the stuff for their secret "addicting" flavour. And the vast majority, lets be honest, goes to feed the endless American hunger for cocaine. But it's something everybody is part of and nobody talks about. There are endless narcotrafficing checkpoints on Bolivian roads, but its all winks turned heads, Bolivia is producing HUGE amounts of cocaine. The friendly US, realizing at some point that curbing demand was just not going to happen, started a program to curb supply, the Bolivian curse word "eradication." US AID signs are everywhere, advertising the construction of a sexy new mountaintop basketball court or spacious cultural center, and in return, don't get mad at us, because we will burn your coca. So to be cool, the Bolivian government destroys coca fields. But the farmers just plant their coca again, because they can't survive on any other crop, coca fetches a good price, and grows three times a year. The government says plant coffee instead, but it just isn't gonna happen as long as the people keep going hungry. Of course, now, the president is the former head of the Coca grower's union, and a fiery anti-Yankee, and the truth is, cocaine production is only surging, and with increased difficulty getting the stuff northward, markets emerge in the comparatively-developed world of Argentina-Uruguay-Chile-Brazil, in the form of pasta base, low-grade crack. And in Montevideo 8 year olds in the street hobble around blasted off their brains on pasta, and in Tocaña poor farmers pick the stuff all day long so that their kids might get some education, and can you point fingers at anyone?

Whoa. That was an exhausting paragraph.

So in the morning I woke up on my straw palet, and having nothing to do, followed maxima to work, romping down paths through the thickets with a four year old on my shoulders, and ending up on one of those absurdly steep coca fields, the world's most breathtaking view beyond me, and I spend the morning harvesting coca, which is really women's work, and the ladies laugh at how pathetically slow I am, and slap my hands when I break valuable stems. I collect my little leaves, and can't help but wonder where this is going – straight into the nose of a Wesleyan student? Into a Coke drank by a Taiwanese schoolchild? Or just mashed up in the spittle of a stale little campesino?

At mid-day, I skip work to wander and try to get some interviews. I meet many strange people in this little mountain paradise – one Pulga, an escaped Bolivian anthropologist who built a little house on the mountain who makes general hippy crafts and entertains passing hippies that somehow make it here. He was brewing coca tea for a couple of Zambian NGO workers in La Paz. Then I ran into an old cane-wielding Iranian novelist, who came to Tocaña for break a writers block, who told me about how he disguised himself as a Bolivian woman to see where they sold their coca, who was trying to get an audience with the black king (oh yeah, afrobolivians have a king, recently recognized by the state as a political figure) so he could compare him to Pushkin. WTF.

On that note, I have to say, probably the greatest single aspect of this journey is the endless people I meet constantly – every conceivable size of gringo traveller, Latin American rich kid bohemians, simple country folk, insane characters from another universe.

At night, I had the luck of catching a town birthday party. People drifted town the midnight dark roads with their flashlights to the hotel at the end of town, and I was fed countless passion-fruit and moonshine drinks and raspy old guys played cuecas and boleros on guitars and drums. I spent the night hanging out with my age demographic, and was really amazed at how these kids – living so far from modernity, in a place where a shower is pouring water on yourself out of a bucket, a place where dinner is picking up a guinea pig off the kitchen floor and throwing it into a pot of water (Andean delicacy) – that these kids, were so on the same wavelength. We talked about how dope Calle 13 is, about all conceivable things, and got along really amazingly. They knew what was up. And for all the 200 years of sweat and toil and really the equivalent of modern-day slavery, the youngest generation is all in college, all going to be managers and maybe doctors, and will probably leave the town and the old ways, but its what needs to happen. Two of them are coming to New York to study on a grant. Opportunity does exist in Bolivia, it would seem.

Old feisty ladies spent the night flirting with me, and cracking up making fun of me and my vegetarianism, and the time came to drift back down the mountain to our homes, and I went solo, stumbling lost and drunk in the hissing night, throwing rocks at brave barking dogs, and somehow managed to find my little house and avoid tripping over a chicken.

I went back to La Paz, and green receded into grey and purple flowers transformed into llamas, and the warm turned to bitter cold again, and there it was.

I then went to a beautiful Incan ruin island, also llama-licious, in the middle of the world's largest lake, but I have no finger energy to make any comment about that.

And actually, right now, I'm in a strange bohemian neighbourhood of Lima, Peru on the seaside, filled with esoteric graffiti and spicy cold potatoes, awaiting Vladimir, who will journey with me in 8 hectic days to Ecuador.

miércoles, 23 de abril de 2008

Something Else: Bolivia, part 1

Bolivia is, truly, something else.

But before I get into that I would like to nominate myself for the award of worst blogger ever. I mean seriously. It’s been months. All of you dedicated readers have lost your faith, and for that I apologize. I’m going to start this up again. And I really do want to inform you about Carnival, how I became a Uruguayan rock star, and other tales, but that will have to be later. Now I will tell you how I came to be a coca growing farmer in the Bolivian lowlands, because that’s what’s on my mind.

My three peaceful and accommodated months in Uruguay were a respite from the journey that is to follow – the pace of my journey has changed dramatically. After spending a couple of days in Buenos Aires, I flew to Sao Paolo, Brazil to meet my pops and drop off my luggage, and three days later I landed ABOVE the clouds, into the impossible mountain fantasy world that is Bolivia. I decided sort of last minutely, against all possible odds (read: having to apply for a visa like any South American dose to get to the US), to make a short trip to the poorest South American nation to take a listen to the saya afroboliviana, and to be a little hardcore again after three months of languishing in delicious first world excesses.

I’ve been feeling quite a bit like some international man of mystery these days, or some jet setting famous person, hopping from country to country a couple of days at a time. Sao Paolo is a shocking and incomprehensible place. It’s one of the biggest cities in the world, some 25 million people, and buzzes like some science fiction nightmare, endless towering skyscrapers as far as the horizon in ever-stranger shapes and clapboard shantytowns creeping through like kudzu, clinging to spare spaces, hoping to be invisible. Traffic moves at a standstill day in and out, a cloud of smog hovers above the city at all times, and it all just makes you tired. The amount of wealth that is in that city is just staggering, there is no place in Latin America with so much stuff, and in the fashionable Jardins district you might as well be in Beverly Hills. Of course the favelas are never too far away. It’s a strange place, and I’m sure it has its pleasures, but it seems so inherently un-Brazilian, un-caipirinha and invisible-bathing-suit and un-unapologetically insane, that I can’t wrap my mind around it.

La Paz is a dream world in a different way. The city, which is the highest large city in the world at 12000 something feet, started out in a broad valley in the cruel Andean altiplano, has since sprawled up the sides of the mountains that surround the city, the little brick houses clinging to steep hillsides looking like shining stalactites in every direction. The Bolivian tourism association advertises the country with the vomit-worthy catchphrase “where the authentic still exists”, but for those of us who kind of get off on going back to a time before the shoppingmallification of the universe, they kind of have a point – Bolivia is, basically, really hardcore. It is the most indigenous country in the Americas, with some 60% of people pure blooded Aymara, Quechua, or one of endless other tribes, large swaths of the population don’t even speak any Spanish, and life outside the city in many ways goes on as it did in pre-Incan days.

La Paz is an incredible place because modernity lives side by side with the ancient, briefcase toting businessmen hustle by wrinkled witches selling dried llama fetuses, and nobody blinks an eye. Old colonial glory, soaring skyscrapers, and tin huts all compete for eye space and it all kind of fits in, in a way. The most characteristic Bolivian character, by far, is the chola, or traditional indigenous woman- mouths full of gold, these ladies of deceivingly small girth wear countless layers of patterned skirts, scarfs, and a comically small, high bowler hat pinned to a head of long tough braids- these incredibly tough mamacitas line the sidewalks of the entire city hawking every possible product imaginable, and occasionally throwing a rock at a tourist who dares to take a picture of their ancient glory. But, especially now with the pro-indigenous socialist government of rabble-rouser Evo Morales, being chola is kind of hip in its own way, and the Aymara ladies of the aliplano villages and La Paz shanties wear their top hats with pride, even the youngest of generations.

I’ve said this about a lot of places, but I think I’ve never seen a place with as much bustle as La Paz, even if Santo Domingo wins for the hustle. The streets are just clogged with celphoning mestizos, llama toting cholas, lost gringos, every which kind of vehicle flying in every direction town impossibly steep hills, it’s a functioning madness, but the conspicuous lack of traffic lights that makes crossing the street and exercise in blind faith. This has led, though, to what I think is probably the best-conceived social program in the world- the government has hired people to dress in zebra costumes and dance in intersections to direct traffic during rush hour. Swear to pachamama.

The other drastic change in my lifestyle was rapid reinsertion to the international traveller scene – my first week in La Paz I was staying in a place called Loki Hostel, and its just absurd, hundreds of beautiful young Europeans drinking cocktails day in day out in a bar swanky enough for your local bohemian hood, mostly in Bolivia to go dance at all-gringo clubs and go on three day coke binges in the cities many barely-concealed drug dens, and really I cant help but being a little disgusted by it all, and remember to feel lucky that I managed to avoid the gringo trail almost entirely on this trip. At the same time, I’ve met a lot of great people, and had some quality hippy sing-along, and finally adapted to remembering how to speak English, but I was kind of freaked out for a moment.

The other shocking random tidbit is that there about 300 Israelis currently in La Paz, which has become one of the biggest post-army backpacking destinations, leading to a whole industry of countless falafel restaurants, Israeli-specific hotels and bars, just to cater to the masses. I now have entirely new concepts about how one should dance to electronic, just watch some wilding Israelis. And those of you who know me intimately know about my very intimate relationship with falafel. But it’s another element in the mind-blowing bizarreness of this place.

Part two and pictures to be added tomarrow!