Dispatches from La Paz, Bolivia

TIE Fellow 2016-17 Caitlin Matthews shares her experiences from her research trip to La Paz Bolivia

MY RESEARCH

I am working on my Masters thesis in La Paz, Bolivia, investigating the role of models in designing and implementing public policy to improve food security, rural livelihoods, and the resilience of agricultural systems in the face of climate change. For the longer explanation, I’ll backtrack to summer 2015 when I began collaborating with the Bolivian nonprofit Fundación Alternativas while I was an intern at the Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) of Harvard Law School. The mission of Alternativas is “To generate sustainable approaches that lead to greater food security in Bolivia. Alternativas works to unite civic, public, and private efforts in the design and application of public policies, programs, and initiatives related to the production and consumption of ecological, local food”.

 

To support the work of Alternativas, I wrote four policy briefs about food security in Bolivia. Each report focuses on food security and its interconnection with another critical topic: nutrition, global food trade, urban poverty, and gender inequality. If you’re interested in reading these policy briefs in Spanish, or at least looking at the graphics and gleaning the information that you can, you can find them on the Alternativas website.

My desire to continue working with Alternativas – along with a growing passion for and knowledge of the topic of food security in Bolivia – motivated me to seek funds to travel to La Paz and really dig in. Thanks to a fellowship from the Tufts Institute of the Environment, along with funding from Harvard FLPC, I am here in La Paz from July 11 to August 19.

For a little more detail on my research: I am developing three models related to the agricultural production systems and food consumption patterns in the Department of La Paz.

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The first model is a foodprint model, which works backwards from a model diet (in this case the “basic food basket” of La Paz) through various conversions, losses, and yield along the food chain to calculate the annual per capita land requirement for productive land (including annual crops, perennial crops, and permanent pasture). The second model is a foodshed model, which uses geographic information systems (GIS) to look at the land use and land cover to see how much agriculturally productive land there is in the department and where it is located. When paired with the foodprint model, the food-shed model can be used to calculate carrying capacity for the department. Additionally, the land use and land cover data can be overlaid with other data such as road and highway networks to understand the connectivity (or lack thereof) between agricultural producers and urban markets. The third model is a climate change vulnerability model for the agricultural production areas in the department and also uses GIS to model risks factors (such as risk of flood, drought, freezing, erosion, temperature shocks, etc.) and coping strategies (such as ag insurance, irrigation, etc.).

These models relate to a food security policy proposal that Fundación Alternativas and the Municipal Committee on Food Security of La Paz presented to the Governor of the Department of La Paz in December 2015. The proposal, which was well received by the governor, has three main axes: 1. technical support and access to agricultural inputs for farmers; 2. capacity building for sustainability, resilience, and adaptation to climate change; 3. an articulated plan for improving the metropolitan region’s food system (including infrastructure development and food aggregation centers). The document presented to the Governor was essentially a proposal for the development of specific policies aligned with the three axes. Alternativas and the municipal committee are currently writing a specific policy for establishing food aggregation centers in the metropolitan region (the cities of La Paz and El Alto, along with adjacent towns – together forming the largest urban population in Bolivia). My project aims to support the design and implementation of policies for the first two prongs of the original policy proposal.

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During my stay in Bolivia, in addition to connecting with agronomists and professors with additional data for the models (fingers crossed), I plan to interview professionals from academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies whose work relates to agricultural production, food security, the food system, rural and urban development, etc.

LIFE AT 12,000+ FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL

It is hard to believe that I arrived in La Paz a week ago yesterday. After nearly 24 hours of travel, about all that I could manage on the first day was an excursion to purchase food, cooking a meal, and then sitting in awe of the views from my kitchen on the 20th floor of the apartment building. The distant snow-capped mountain in the view Illimani (an Aymara word meaning “water bearer”), which at 21,122 feet above sea level is the tallest mountain in the Cordillera Real, a sub-range of the Andes.

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Each work day, I commute down the stairs twenty stories from my apartment, over two doors, and up two stories to the Fundación Alternativas office. A stroke of luck in Airbnb apartment rentals landed me this close to the Alternativas office. Although my apartment building has an elevator, I prefer to climb up and down the stairs because it’s not unusual for the old apparatus to unexpectedly stall before reaching the top floor where my apartment is located. Besides, I enjoy the cardiovascular challenge. My first days in La Paz were full and fun, as I finally got to meet the small but mighty staff of Fundación Alternativas (after a year of collaboration!). I mainly work with the Executive Director María Teresa Nogales and the Food Policy Director Javier Thellaeche. Both are fonts of information about the food system and key actors in the La Paz area. More importantly, they are wonderful and friendly people whose company I enjoy and appreciate. They share my excitement about the research I am doing and are incomparable partners in this work. Here are a few highlights from the first five days with Alternativas:

TUESDAY – On my first day in the office, I met Javier and María Teresa, talked about the agenda for Thursday’s Municipal Committee on Food Security meeting, and planned outreach to potential interviewees.
WEDNESDAY – In the morning I attended a pro-GMO forum hosted by a government agency and a commodity producers organization. It was a pretty lopsided conversation, even recognizing that it delivered on its promise to share “Good news about genetically modified crops” (the official name of the forum). I would have appreciated a little more nuance and comprehensive discussion in the presentation, but it was nonetheless an important perspective to gain. In the afternoon, I conducted my first interview with an agronomist who has worked with Alternativas and deepened my knowledge of the diversity of agricultural systems in the Department of La Paz, which includes ecosystems as varied as tropical low(er)lands, the inter-Andean valleys, and the Altiplano.
THURSDAY – I presented my research project proposal to the Municipal Committee on Food Security at their monthly meeting and observed a guided discussion about their policy work.
FRIDAY – In the evening, I accompanied Alternativas staff and undergrad interns to La Verbena, a street party of tens of thousands of revelers celebrating the Foundation of the City of La Paz.
SATURDAY – I spent the day at Huerto Orgánico Lak’a Uta, the community garden run by Fundación Alternativas. The garden is definitely my place of peace in La Paz so far. The garden is located on the upper valley slope, from where you can really appreciate the topography of the city of La Paz, which, despite being at such a high altitude, is in a narrow and steep valley bordered on one side by sky-scraping peaks and on the other side by the high, dry, flat Altiplano.

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My housing situation is a shared apartment through Airbnb. The changing composition of the apartment is evidence of the revolving door nature of NGO and research work, as at least half of the housemates come and go. But this first week, our apartment composition was: 1. US graduate student conducting thesis research (me), 2. Chilean who works for a Swiss social entrepreneurship NGO (Javier, who has since moved on to visit family in Chile), 3. Bolivian who works for the federal government in the ministry of planning (Estefani), 4. Bolivian-Japanese who is a chef and manager at a local café (Tomo). Our schedules don’t allow for much overlap in the apartment, but we did gather for a farewell dinner for Javier that consisted of an international conglomeration of housemates and friends, homemade sushi (courtesy of Tomo), and an interesting conversation about politics (including the US presidential election) and the food system (which I did not even initiate).

Politics have been a frequent and favorite topic of conversation and observation since I arrived. Beginning with my taxi ride from the airport in El Alto, I have seen the leftover murals for and against the February referendum vote that would have allowed President Evo Morales to run for a fourth term. The Bolivian voters narrowly voted down the referendum, and so it seems that the once-popular president’s star is falling. My impression is that the circle I am running in here in La Paz is critical of the president, though they freely recognize the advances made by his pro-indigenous politics. When I was working at the garden on Saturday, I had a long and far-ranging conversation with Don José, a retired gardener with a strong interest in philosophy. We found some interesting similarities in attitudes towards migration and immigration in Bolivia and the United States, respectively. Don José noted that the rural-urban migration in Bolivia incites the similar reactionary complaints about “stolen jobs” as are also commonly heard in the US. Talking politics here in Bolivia while reading the news from the US (the deadly use of force by police, deadly attacks on police, and the Republican and Democratic campaigns and conventions) all at once allows me to understand the views of the US from the outside (both what is seen and what is unseen) and makes me feel pretty disconnected and inactive. It’s just something that I’m noting and that I will keep in view through my stay and upon my return to the US.

It is winter here, but it’s not any sort of winter that I recognize. Essentially, it is the dry season with daily highs in the high 50s to low or mid 60s (Fahrenheit) and nighttime lows just above freezing. The days are sun-drenched and warm – in my opinion – but the lack of central heating can make for a chilly office and a cold apartment at night. Also, regarding adjusting to altitude, I haven’t had the typical symptoms that most travelers experience in La Paz. I thank my time in Colorado for this. On Sunday, I explored the city on foot, observing that La Paz is organized in clusters of competitors. For example, in one section of the city, there are blocks on end of alternating funeral homes and florists, whereas in another there is a row of furniture stores. On Sunday, I also discovered the Parque Urbano Central where I saw a handful of people jogging on the trails. So, of course I had to try it myself. Let’s just say that running at 12,000+ feet is challenging but recovering from your run by climbing twenty stories back to your apartment may be harder. Nevertheless, I will repeat the experience.

NOTES ON ARCHITECTURE AND TRAVEL

Since my primary purpose of being in Bolivia is to conduct my thesis research, I have invested most of my time in immersing myself in the food security and food systems world than I have in being a tourist. This means that I will leave Bolivia without having visited many of the “must see” places. However, these last two weekends, I have done some near and far exploring in Bolivia.

Two weekends ago, I visited El Alto, the city perched on the Altiplano just above La Paz. Combined, El Alto and La Paz constitute the largest metropolitan population in Bolivia (approximately 1.6 million people). The two cities form a continuous urban area, despite the steep ~1000 foot elevation drop between El Alto and the valley where La Paz resides. The small brick houses of lower income neighborhoods cling to the valley walls that are sometimes impassible in automobile, but these neighborhoods incredibly make the transition between La Paz below and El Alto above. El Alto is a city with seemingly limitless population growth and outward urban expansion (whereas La Paz has filled the valley and is now expanding upward), and it has received many internal migrants from Bolivia’s rural areas.

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Among other things, El Alto is known for its cholets, a hybrid word that combines chalet (yes, the French word) and cholo or chola (a word commonly used to refer to the indigenous people of the Bolivian Andean region). Cholets are a bizarre amalgam of wealth, indigenous patterns and color palettes, and futuristic imagination. The bottom level of the buildings are stores and garages, followed by lavish salons for events, then apartments, and finally a luxurious penthouse. An architect that I interviewed says that he has even heard of one cholet that has a small indoor soccer field above the ballroom, while others are no more than extravagant facades masking an empty shell of a building. Unfortunately, on the Sunday that I visited the cholets with my housemate Estephany and her friend Gustavo, none of the cholets were open and we did not get to see the fantastical interiors. However, these buildings have world renown, and you can see photographs of the interiors in The New Yorker.

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In addition to visiting the cholets, we visited a public housing project that features 14 murals by arguably the most famous Bolivian artist Mamani Mamani. Each of the vividly colored murals features an image that speaks of indigenous mythology or tradition . Only two of the seven buildings are currently occupied by 82 families. Gustavo chatted with a resident but was unable to learn more about how families are selected to live in this development. The size and brilliance of the murals are impressive on their own, but their location emphasizes the out-sized construction, as these buildings are out in the middle of the dusty neighborhood of Villa Adela with its one story brick buildings and dirt roads.
Last weekend, I traveled to the city of Sucre with Christophe, a French engineering professor and fellow short-timer at Fundación Alternativas (a category in which I lump volunteers, interns, and researchers like myself). Sucre has many monikers, including the Constitutional Capital of Bolivia (whereas La Paz is the Administrative Capital), the Cradle of Latin American Democracy, the White City (due to its rule that all buildings within a certain radius of the city’s historic central plaza must be painted white), and the Chocolate City (Mmmm! Need I say more?). Ever since I began planning my travels to Bolivia, the idea of traveling to Sucre had me hooked…but I wasn’t sure why. Invariably, Bolivians called it a “beautiful city,” and, having visited, I would agree.

In many ways, being a foreigner in Sucre reminded me of being a foreigner in Cusco, Perú. The central city is unselfconsciously tourist-oriented, with restaurants and touring companies that cater to international tastes and interests. I will say that I did have a delicious falafel sandwich with a Bolivian twist, but I would have preferred to be less visible as a foreigner because here in La Paz I am accustomed to passing through the city uninterrupted (with the exception of visiting offices near the bus terminal, where it is assumed that I am in transit to another Bolivian attraction). But, aside from the sometimes unwelcome attention to tourists, I enjoyed the slower pace and warmer climate of Sucre and found the Spanish colonial influence to be a familiar element from my travels elsewhere in Latin America.

On the first day in Sucre, I also had the pleasure of overlapping with Gustavo, so we spent the day developing a budding friendship. Aside from his company, the highlights of Sucre were the La Glorieta Castle and the indigenous art and anthropology museum (Museo ASUR). La Glorieta was a private home and product of mining wealth that preserves a curious number of architectural influences – Greek, Spanish, Moorish, Russian, Chinese, and English. As a museum, it is poorly maintained and understaffed, which means that visitors take advantage of the lack of surveillance to explore the home and scrawl graffiti at the top of one of the towers. Nonetheless, La Glorieta kept our attention for several hours.

Museo ASUR (Anthropologists of the Southern Andes) is part museum, part research center, and part community economic development project. As a museum and research center, it features astonishingly intricate weavings from three indigenous cultures – Jalq’a, Tarabuco, and Tinkipaya. Each style is unique in its color palette, symmetry and geometry, and imagery. Unfortunately (but understandably), visitors are not permitted to take photographs of the textiles – both to protect the magnificent works from physical damage and to protect the designs from theft and mechanized reproduction. The museum also features the contents of a pre-Columbian burial cave that contained well-preserved woven tunics, as well as the remains of five people. The skulls and braided hair of two individuals are also displayed in the museum. One of the two skulls bears the characteristic elongated cranial deformation of the upper class, which was achieved by binding the skull. The museum’s store sells textiles woven by the Jalq’a, Tarabuco, and Tinkipaya artisans, as a source of income for the involved communities. Artisans from these communities also rotate as artisans-in-residence to demonstrate their weaving techniques. When I visited, I watched in fascination as two female weavers from different communities made painstakingly slow progress on their weavings (see attached photo 8 for an example of a Jalq’a weaver). The patience and artistic vision required to complete these works are truly beyond imagination.


A BIT ON LANGUAGE

The first particularity of Bolivian Spanish that I noticed was the interjection “no ve.” Depending on whether interjection is used with or without an interrogative, in English it could be just a space-filler or could mean “right?” In addition to the Bolivianismo “no ve,” a common way to address a friend (male or female) is “che,” as in “¿Cómo estás, che?” This is the same as in Argentina, which is why Argentinean Ernesto “Che” Guevara was so nicknamed.
Bolivian Spanish also uses the informal 2nd person singular “vos” and the accompanying conjugations. I often catch these little reminders of Argentinean Spanish (my point of reference is Argentinean Spanish, though that doesn’t mean that these linguistic patterns passed from Argentina to Bolivia). Food vocabulary often reminds me of the Chilean Spanish that I learned while studying abroad. Many words for crops and vegetables are distinctly South American. I am guessing that these words were absorbed into Spanish from indigenous languages such as Quechua and/or Aymara, whereas in Mexico and Central America food words were adopted from Nahuatl (Aztec) and Maya languages.

With the various interns, volunteers, and researchers who pass through the office or the garden, I have also been listening to Spanish spoken in other foreign accents. The French maintain the guttural (throaty) R when speaking Spanish. The Germans speak with a staccato rhythm that breaks the native fluidity of the Spanish language. I also heard a Romanian woman speaking Spanish, but not for long enough to describe how her native tongue influences her accent in Spanish. This is not to say that these speakers did not communicate well in their second, third, or fourth (?) language, just that I have noted and enjoyed hearing differences in pronunciation.

CONTINUING CONVERSATIONS ABOUT POLITICS

My housemate Estephany works for the Ministry of Development Planning at the national level. Her work brings her in contact with President Evo Morales and his cabinet members with some regularity. We’ve talked about the president’s love of soccer and marching band music, which has lead to spontaneously organized soccer matches in which the the president plays with and against teams from military units…with the accompaniment of a marching band. I have also learned about his peculiarities, such as holding his weekly cabinet meetings at 5:00am on Wednesdays, unless he has to travel and then holds them at 4:00am. On more than one occasion, Estephany and I have stayed up to talk about the presidential campaign in the United States, discussing differences and similarities in our respective country’s electoral process, political parties, and leadership. Through these and other conversations, I have been able to discuss and process the unfolding events in the United States – for better or worse.

PLANNING FOR THE END OF MY TIME IN BOLIVIA

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Two weeks from tomorrow, I will embark on the long journey back to Boston (La Paz –> Lima –> Los Angeles –> Boston!). The days have passed quickly and I anticipate a sense of acceleration of time in these last two weeks. I have a few more interviews and one more meeting with the La Paz Municipal Committee on Food Security. Aside from that, I have set aside a few days to travel to the salt flats of Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia and I hope to squeeze in a few visits to some natural interests near La Paz.

RESEARCH OUTCOMES

By the end of my almost six weeks, I conducted 17 formal interviews for my research and had numerous informal conversations that helped me to understand my research within the context of Bolivian society and the lives of individuals. Altogether, the people that I interviewed were a generous group that gave freely of their time and knowledge, and encouraged my curiosity. Our discussions were rich and stimulating, and they both deepened and broadened my understanding. The topics of conversation ranged based on the professional expertise of the interviewee, but all conversations struck at the complexity of food security as an issue to be addressed by public policies. I have learned such a great deal and I am excited to review the recorded interviews and my notes in the coming academic semester.

To give you all a little more than my vague reflections, I offer this: I am still working to understand the contradiction between the rhetoric of the pro-indigenous government, which speaks against capitalism and neoliberalism, and its agricultural policies and trade agreements, which favor the export-oriented agro-industry in the eastern Bolivian lowlands to the apparent neglect of or disregard for the smallholder farmers in the western Bolivian highlands (including the Department of La Paz). These policies and trade agreements seem to be excused by saying to the small farmer, “If you produce enough of your crop, then you too can join the export market.” But this is really an unrealistic hope for the vast majority of the producers in the Andean region, who cultivate their crop on ever smaller parcels of land that are carved up by inheritance with each generation and who face the infrastructure challenges of unpaved roads through steep mountains valleys (more on this later), among myriad other obstacles ranging from limited rainfall, lack of technical assistance, and (most basically) poverty. I have also observed that, as Bolivia’s rural-urban population distribution has inverted in the last fifty years from about 70%-30% to 30%-70%, the focus of development policies has also shifted to cities. As I continue to analyze the information that I collected, I am looking for opportunities for linkages between rural and urban policies with respect to food and agriculture – mirroring the rural-urban linkages of the Bolivian people themselves (many of the young people who have left the rural areas to work in the cities return for planting and harvest, leaving the old and very young to tend to cultivation in the meantime). Again, these thoughts are early reflections that I offer somewhat hesitantly – as many of you know my work style, you are aware that I prefer not to deliver thoughts half-baked.
WHAT I LEARNED ON THE ROAD TO CHULUMANI

At the end of my last dispatch, I suggested that I would use some of my final days in Bolivia to travel to the salt flats of Uyuni, which is probably the most recognizable tourist destination in Bolivia. You have likely seen the Uyuni salt flats in photographs that take advantage of the flatness of the landscape to create the illusion that a group of miniature backpackers is being chased by a small plastic dinosaur or that one backpacker is holding a group of her friends in her hands (a simple Google image search of Uyuni will retrieve an archive of optical illusions). However, the most stunning photographs of Uyuni are undoubtedly those that capture the “mirror effect” when there is moisture on the salt flats and the sky is perfectly reflected on the land (see here, for example). Uyuni is an unquestionably beautiful place, but it requires three days to take a jeep tour in addition to the travel days. I had also wanted to visit rural areas in the Department of La Paz in order to gain perspective on the realities in the rural agricultural communities that form part of my research. But I didn’t have time to do both, so I faced the seemingly difficult decision to be a tourist in Uyuni or have a little more time in La Paz with my new friends at my host organization and take a shorter trip to a rural area in the Department of La Paz. In the end, the relationships won out and it was an easy decision. Additionally, I had a standing invitation from José (the community gardener whom I met during my first week in La Paz and who made a cameo in my first dispatch) to visit his hometown of Chulumani.

So, for my last weekend in Bolivia, I embarked on a journey with José to the town of Chulumani in the Province of Sud Yungas in the Department of La Paz. In José, I had a spirited travel companion and local guide, all 70 years and 4 feet 10 inches (approximately) of him filled with love and pride for his small town, but also with sadness and criticism for its transitions and struggles.

As soon as our minivan (carrying 15 people inside and cargo on the roof) left the city of La Paz, I knew that my decision to forego Uyuni for Chulumani was right. Namely, while traveling to Chulumani, I experienced firsthand the reality of the road infrastructure connecting the rural areas to the metropolitan region of La Paz. The journey began with the vehicle climbing up to the summit above La Paz, above the dam that supplies water to the city, and into the stunning high peaks above the city (see attached image 1). From there, we descended the winding, paved highway that meets up with the unpaved highway to Sud Yungas. José had warned me in advance that the road to Chulumani was closed from 8am to 6pm on weekdays for the widening of the road, and we arrived too early to pass, so we made the first stop of what would be a 7-hour journey covering only 117km (about 73 miles). Once we were able to pass the blockade, I discovered that the “highway” to Chulumani was a narrow (barely two car widths), bumpy (in the back row of the minivan, I nearly hit my head on the ceiling several times), and curvy road clinging to a steep hillside above a river (see attached image 2, which shows the road before it narrows). The vegetation transitioned rapidly as we descended further into the subtropical provinces. After many weeks in La Paz, the green was a welcome sight. Before long, we had to stop again for two hours as an excavator cleared a rock slide from the roadway. Needless to say, this journey is not suitable for the claustrophobic, the motion sick, or the fearful of cliffs. As I bumped and sped along the road, I imagined the journey of a tender fruit produced in the rural provinces making its way to markets in La Paz, as well as the time it would take to transport agricultural goods along these roads with their unpredictable closures for construction, rock slides, and rainstorms.

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From the first day that we met, José took an acute interest in my research and believed that his hometown was an exemplar case of how agricultural policy has impacted development. Chulumani, as the rest of Sud Yungas, historically produced large volumes of fruit such as mandarins and bananas for sale in the national market. However, with the passage of years and regulations on growing and selling coca leaves and coca derivatives, Sud Yungas became the area where coca production is legal. In other provinces, coca production is prohibited by the government and illegally growing coca can result in the loss of government funding for infrastructure. Given that coca can be harvested multiple times a year, is less perishable than fruit, and garners a higher price, coca production in Sud Yungas has taken over fruit production and taken over the landscape. The heart of the amateur agronomist inside me broke many times over to see the forests cleared from the steepest hillsides to be replaced by coca production. Now, much of the fruit consumed in Sud Yungas must be imported from the neighboring province of Nor Yungas.

José has lived in La Paz for over forty years, but has returned to his town for holidays and festivals, and he greets many acquaintances walking through the streets of the town. We covered many kilometers on foot during our two days in Chulumani, during which we visited a “la granja” (the farm), which I discovered was a military outpost where José had served as a young man. To José’s surprise (as well as mine), we arrived to discover that the outpost was manned by only one sergeant and his 11 soldiers (young men from about 17 to 22 years of age doing pre-military service). Our arrival was equally surprising to the sergeant, who invited us to the patio and ordered his soldiers to bring us chairs and sodas. Shortly into our conversation, having described my research, he invited us to stay for lunch and, while the soldiers prepared the meal, the sergeant described the agroforestry project he and the man are undertaking. The sergeant, who has no training in agronomy or agricultural production, is leading the men in clearing land for some ten thousand coffee seedlings that they are growing. The visit to the military outpost was filled with curious and incongruous details – the young men training with their wooden rifles, a soldier who keeps a pet rat in the barracks, the sergeant putting on a DVD of Guinness Book of World Records, and riding on the back of motorcycles through the forest to a higher viewpoint.
The weekend in Chulumani was one of the most memorable experiences from my time in Bolivia. José implored me to return to Chulumani in the future, “when the road is paved,” he said. But I hardly wish to imagine how fast the minivans will drive around the curves once the highway is paved.

 

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

Parades
During my stay in Bolivia, three holidays were celebrated in La Paz: July 16, the day commemorating the foundation of the city of La Paz; August 6, the nation’s independence day; and August 17, flag day. Working on a major street in the heart of the city meant that I witnessed many parades. While my office colleagues were inured to the passing of parades below our office windows, I was struck by a few peculiarities of the Bolivian festivities. First, Bolivia has a robust tradition of school marching bands. However, these marching bands do not have a diverse repertoire, as it seemed that every other band that marched past was playing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” (a.k.a. “The Ants Go Marching”). This song will forever form part of the soundtrack to my time in Bolivia. Second, Bolivia must have the highest number of white Go-go boots per capita of any country in the world. In these parades, the bands were often accompanied by troops of girls who carried flags or twirled batons. White Go-go boots were invariably the footwear of choice.

Transit

Transit in La Paz was somewhat of a curiosity for me. For one, the sheer number of mobility options is impressive: there are taxis, trufis(taxis that follow a specific territories and that are shared by passengers who hail a cab along the route), minibuses (with fixed routes but no fixed stops, you can embark and disembark wherever you please), privately owned and operated buses on fixed routes, the recently inaugurated city buses, and the teleférico (three gondola lines that span the city’s steep elevation gradients). The most peaceful ride and spectacular views are from the teleférico, especially if you board in El Alto and ride over the rooftops of La Paz all the way to the lower elevation of Zona Sur (the longest gondola line in the world, so I have heard). But the buses and minibuses also impress with feats of strength and determination in climbing these elevation gradients. The roads that ascend the valley walls into La Paz’s lower income neighborhoods have hairpin switchbacks and, even so, there are buses that serpentine between their lanes and opposing lanes, seeking better purchase on the steep hills.

Climbing

To my great pleasure, about halfway through my time in La Paz I connected with a rock climbing community. The La Paz climbing community is small but dedicated, eager to leave the bouldering gym and head outdoors, and so welcoming to visiting climbers. I was able to spend two days climbing in La Paz with a handful of climbers, exploring new rock in the intense sunlight. Next time I am in La Paz, I hope to explore more climbing routes, as well as head summit some peaks in the Bolivian Andes with these new friends.

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REMINDERS OF HOME BUT UNLIKE ANYWHERE ELSE

For all the reasons that Bolivia felt unfamiliar and foreign, there were also aspects that made it feel familiar and comfortable. There were a number of reminders of the places I have called home in the United States. From the beginning, the climate and elevation welcomed me home to the aridity and altitude of Colorado. The driving behaviors are reminiscent of Boston’s notorious drivers, though La Paz’s drivers are more assertive than aggressive. And riding the new, clean city buses transported me to Portland, Oregon.

But beyond all other things, La Paz most felt like a familiar home due to my new friendships. I really could not say enough about the people I worked with, lived with, and climbed with; but to even begin to express my gratitude and sentiment feels cheesy. At Fundación Alternativas, I was part of a small but mighty team and felt that I was able to contribute to and collaborate on projects outside of my thesis research. Following graduation, I hope to be part of a team with such dedication, heart, humor, and intelligence. In the apartment, though our busy schedules didn’t overlap often, Stephany and I took advantage of the opportunities to have conversations that sprawled over hours, that questioned politics, culture, and gender norms. In the last two weeks of my stay, one of the most frequent questions I heard was, “So, when are you coming back?” I’m certainly asking myself the same question.


Caitlin Matthews is an M.A. Candidate, Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning; & M.S. Candidate, Agriculture, Food, and the Environment (Friedman School) at Tufts University.