A week of holidays
It is hard to believe that I will have been in La Paz for one month this coming Saturday. And the unfortunate thing is I feel like I have gotten very little done project-wise. It just feels like pulling teeth trying to accomplish anything here. Again, I know that language plays a large role in the apparent stagnation and my own insecurities and uncertainties. I have sent out so many emails over the last few days and I feel like I am constantly meeting people who have vague suggestions or far off ties but then things never come to fruition. Perhaps I am not being proactive enough and am waiting around too much for things to come to me, as they seemed to do in India. But for example, just this afternoon I received an email from a prominent quinoa scholar who I reached out to in hopes of obtaining more suggestions or leads:
"It is really nice to have people studying changes in agriculture as a consequence of climate change and global demand.
From what I read in your message. Your project is too ambitious for the time you have in Bolivia and the time you require to obtain farmers confidence. Worst if you want to study the value chain. I also see that you want to study topics that are all ready largely treated and are already known for quinoa production in southern Altiplano. This goes to repetitions and rests originality to your work.
I would suggest that you study quinoa production changes in Central Altiplano were no one has gone. Please let me remind you that the area were to make the study in Central Altiplano is Aroma Province, and not Pacajes. The region to study is between Patacamaya and Lawachaka. If you do not want to go there, go to Northern Altiplano, and the Titicaca lake shore, particularly to Ancoraimes and Batallas regions. If you do that, you will really make an original contribution."
Well, he makes a number of valid points, even if his response was a bit demoralizing. I know he is probably right with my project being too ambitious (a comparative analysis of three different quinoa growing regions in the country: north around Lake Titicaca, central, and southern Alitplano), as well as following the commodity chain from field to export and trying to compare conventional/traditional quinoa with certified organic. Okay, so maybe I have three projects here (it sort of feels like when I was trying to narrow down my project choices for the initial Watson proposal, gah, how am I back to square one?). But one thing he said that struck a sort of negative chord with me: the lack of originality and repetition in my work. This year is not supposed to be about groundbreaking contributions to existing fields or even originality as much as it is about personal experiences and growth. For example, when applying for the Watson Fellowship, the coordinator notes that it doesn’t really matter if you propose an idea that has been done before because undoubtedly, it will be a totally different experience for you. It could have been done 50 times in different (or the same) countries, but by no means does this indicate that the project will have the same trajectory, individuals, interactions etc. That being said, I came to Bolivia because I wanted to know more about the quinoa that my peers and I eat at home, on our college campus, in the health foods store, and on my mother’s kitchen table. Not to say that I wouldn’t want to make a new and meaningful contribution to this field, but as this is a non-academic endeavor, I am eager to explore areas that may have already been studied because my own perceptions will certainly vary from those who came before me. Moreover, in addition to critiquing my approach, he points out that the area where I am currently studying quinoa (Pacajes region) with the NGO PROINPA is irrelevant and that instead I should focus on Aroma province. Unfortunately, I can’t just show up on the door steps of farming communities (which he very much alludes to by saying that the time frame under which I am working is too short to earn the trust of farmers), so I really have to make the most of the resources currently available to me. GAH! I really hope things pick up in the coming weeks, as I feel like I am floundering around without a compass and just waiting on other people to get back to me.
On a more positive note, after the scare in La Paz last week, things are starting to look up. I am much happier in my current living situation. I am living with a young couple (early 30s) in a large flat in San Pedro, a residential neighborhood of La Paz. There are two young women, Canadian Development workers, and an American tourist staying here as well. I’ve really been getting along well with everyone and it’s just nice to feel like I have friends my own age. Just the other night, we went out to this reggae bar/club to go dancing for one of their Canadian friend's birthday. Although it was smokey and definitely not up to fire code, the underground establishment was a fun time, between Bolivian men trying to teach me how to Salsa and watching very intoxicated foreigners hit on Bolivian women. Speaking of a good time, I also made a friend on the bus two weeks ago when I was on a mad hunt for my yoga mat in one of the many open-air markets in the city. He was nice enough to accompany me for about a half hour searching for the seemingly nonexistent and elusive yoga mat. Eventually we found it!
The beautiful yoga mat bag I had made for the new mat I bought (read: hunted down and luckily found after an hour of searching a street market)
He is very nice, a computer programmer in his late 20s, who lives in El Alto, the Aymara capital of the world (largest population of indigenous Aymara in one place). The city was originally a suburb or sprawl of La Paz but has since grown to more than one million people. Speaking of El Alto, he accompanied me to the weekly Feria, the largest open-air market in Bolivia and perhaps South America, which I heard from someone at around 5 square km of everything you could imagine from used cars to fruit to sneakers. Speaking of sneakers, he helped me navigate the busy streets of La Feria, insisting that we link arms because I am a foreigner and probably a higher target for petty theft. He assisted me in my search for running shoes since the stagnation and lack of exercise is driving me crazy. However, I should note that walking around the city is pretty good exercise in and of itself because of all the hills, which combined with the altitude leaves me breathless.
With Alpacas at the Feria de 16 de Julio Market in El Alto :D
Yet I am beginning to think that me and exercise in Bolivia are not meant to be. My yoga mat has been away for more than four days now since I sent it off to a friend to see if a tailor could sew a bag for it. I am itching for some downward dog! And I tried to go running on Monday, however, La Paz was basically shut down as public transportation and taxi drivers blockaded the city in protest of a new municipal government initiative to introduce large buses. This meant that I couldn’t go up to El Alto to meet my PROINPA colleagues for our field visit and also that I couldn’t run in the city park. When I woke up at morning, the sounds of gunshots rang through the winding streets and narrow alleys, which I later learned were only “fuegos artificiales” (fireworks). Apparently a popular addition to organized protests, which are all too common in Bolivia. I thought I would try running again today but almost immediately after I stepped out the door, it started to rain. I made my way to the center of the city towards the main park, only to discover that the city is indeed preparing for Alasitas, a major three-week festival that will take place on January 24th.
According to one website (http://www.boliviabella.com/alasitas.html):
“Alasitas is a 3-week long fair that, in La Paz, takes place beginning on the 24th of January and in Santa Cruz takes place in September. Everything is in miniature! This festival originally took place in September throughout the country when it's spring time in Bolivia and farmers prayed for a good crop so their harvest would be bountiful. Alasitas is an Aymara festival Bolivia celebrates in reverence of the indigenous "god of bounty" or "abundance" called the Ekeko. Therefore, Alasita has been called the Festival of Abundance. It takes place at the Parque Urbano in La Paz and the 5th Ring between Tres Pasos al Frente and Cumavi in Santa Cruz. As it grows each year, its location is sometimes moved.”
Alasita "festival of miniatures"
You gift a hen for men and a rooster for women to wish upon them marriage
Foosball at Alasitas in the city center
Yes, that is Twilight playing in the background while everyone is eating fried cakes and drinking api, a purple maize/corn drink
Translation (more or less):
-It's the most beautiful fair of fortune and hope joy of children, youth and adults
-It is the enjoyment of families, gathering of friends, walk in love and writing materials (?)
-Bustling streets admire their thumbnails (miniatures?) in a living museum of human knowledge
-Little [bank] notes, little plots, little trucks and stuff and also blessed by Yatiris (traditional healers) and bandages
-Concert of Charanguitos (musical instruments), charm of cholitas, chirping of birds to the beat of pinquillitos Alasitas
-Ch'ukuta is well-born offspring of his godfather don Ekeko San Francisco with his star Illimani"
Well el Parque Urbano is exactly where I wanted to run today, but unfortunately for me, it seems that everyone and their mother is in the park setting up for Alasitas. Men and cholitas alike are constructing makeshift structures for selling various things. Some booths were already erected and included artisanal woodcrafts, candy, toys, jewelry, and of course miniature fake money, the last being the strangest. In many cases, the bills, both Bolivians and US Dollars, look frighteningly real. It is strange to think that so many counterfeit bills are printed each year for this festival, so now more than usual, vendors will hold up your money to the light to check to see if it’s authentic. Even though my running plans were thwarted, I enjoyed chocolate covered strawberries and a fruit salad of mango, banana, and apples in a strawberry yogurt mixture. Fresh, peeled fruit from a public/street establishment is never the wisest choice for a traveler, but I’m hoping that I’ve built up enough bacteria over the last seven months that I’ll survive ;) In fact, I was discussing with someone the other day, wondering if the bacteria in the food and water is basically the same around the world. For my own sake, I certainly hope so!
So I titled this post: “A Week of Holidays,” because it sort of has been. For instance, with Monday being protest/blockade day, I couldn’t “go to work.” Friday is the beginning of Alasita and today, Wednesday, is also a national holiday: Plurinational State Foundation Day. Yep, that’s a mouthful. Basically they are celebrating the fact that the president, Evo Morales, transformed Bolivia from “The Republic of Bolivia” to “The Plurinational State of Bolivia” through the new 2009 constitution. This change is “in recognition of the multi-ethnic nature of the country and the enhanced position of Bolivia's indigenous peoples under the new constitution” (according to Wikipedia). In fact, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and to me, he seems to be loved and hated by many. His administration has made great strides for advancing the needs of the indigenous, poor, and historically marginalized, but not without creating tension and isolating many of Bolivia’s mestizos/European descended citizens and wealthier inhabitants, especially in the east near Santa Cruz. One study provides very interesting context and perspective:
“From a comparative-historical perspective the Morales regime would probably be considered as the world’s most conservative radical regime or the most radical conservative regime. This apparent contradiction is resolved by examining the policies and practices of the regime. But what is not in question is that the Morales regime, his advisers and government, have extraordinary wide backing. His allies include leaders of the social movements at home, as well as overseas investors and mining executives, trade union leaders and domestic bankers; agro-business exporters and business leaders and Indian coca farmers, all enthusiastic supporters of the “First Indian President” in Latin America and the region’s leading advocate of extractive capital!
The Morales regime has won every election, six in all, since 2005, including two Presidential elections, each by a larger margin. His vote has increased from 50% to 60% and Morales, looking to national elections in 2014, promises to garner 70% of the ballots. No President in the history of Bolivia has secured consecutive electoral victories, and ruled democratically for such an extended period of time (8 years) with political stability.”
If you are interested, more can be found about his fiscal, trade, investment, and labor policies here: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-most-radical-conservative-regime-bolivia-under-evo-morales/5363248
Anyways, I thought it was interesting that it has been dubbed as both “radically conservative” and “conservatively radical.” Even in my own conversations with people, Bolivians both like and dislike him, as I suppose with any political party or regime anywhere in the world. For example, my computer programmer friend is a fan because of the proposed “teleferica” project Morales is implementing, which is basically a massive cable car line that will run from El Alto to La Paz. He has also constructed new towers for improved cell phone and Internet service, which has worked wonders for my friend’s computer repair business. And as noted previously, 2013 was the International Year of the Quinoa per the United Nations, so the regime has been promoting the industrialization of quinoa for export, while also promoting domestic consumption through proposals for school lunch programs and supplemental nutrition for breast-feeding mothers. He has been known to give out dozens of free tractors to Altiplano farmers, but perhaps without taking into account the full environmental consequences of expanded quinoa cultivation on already fragile and erosion-prone soils.
Hmm, more on the politics of quinoa later!
For now, this may be a week of holidays, but nothing in Bolivia has been easy. Until now, I am not a fan of the weather (it’s been raining cats and dogs for weeks, but I guess that’s what I get for showing up during the rainy season), the food isn’t so good (remember those freeze dried potatoes that look like cat poop I mentioned?), I’m not sure who to trust (don’t want to have an attempted robbery happen again), and my research has been rather stagnant (and with the upcoming Carneval at the end of February/beginning of March, it’s going to take another stand still). In retrospect, I was floating on cloud nine in India and Bhutan. Everything there seemed to miraculously work out; people were so unbelievably helpful and accommodating; and I had more research material than I knew what to do with. It sounds crazy, but sometimes I have these thoughts or visions of heaven: I imagine myself entering this ethereal kingdom, passing through the quintessential golden gates and being welcomed by all familiar faces from my travels so far: dozens of people, mostly from India and Bhutan, greeting me with open arms. Here, however, I don’t even want to tell people I am American because of the rocky relations between Bolivia and the U.S. Just today, I had a short conversation with my colleague and his brother on the way to one of our field visits and he noted how Evo Morales (Bolivia’s president) hates Obama and the U.S. and these negative sentiments run deep through much of Bolivia’s population (cool – makes me feel really welcomed! Haha). Just last June, Evo kicked out DEA (Drug Enforcement Adminisrtation) and USAID (claiming they were “meddling” in politics and conspiring to undermine the government), and even threatened to close the American embassy in La Paz, saying, “we don’t need you, we’ve got other allies,” following the drama with Edward Snowden’s plane (more can be read here http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-05/bolivia-threatens-u-s-embassy-closure-after-search-for-snowden.html).
I guess I should explain the root of the hostility a bit more. There are a number of reasons why Evo/Bolivia don’t love the United States. One rationale is that we have been harboring one of their former presidents, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada aka “Goni,” who was charged with human rights violations and genocide after ordering open fire on protesters following his plan to sell off the country’s natural gas reserves to foreign countries. After, he fled and sought exile in the U.S., where he has been given sanctuary (apparently he’s living an extremely affluent lifestyle somewhere in New Jersey), when some believe that he should be forced to come back to Bolivia and tried for all of his crimes. Another is our policy on drugs, namely related to cocaine. Bolivia is one of the largest producers of coca, whose leaf is the raw material for cocaine, and Evo Morales came from a coca-farming family and was a cocalero union leader. Coca is an extremely important part of Bolivian culture: the leaf is often chewed as a stimulant, like caffeine; it is used for rituals and in traditional medicine and foreigners usually drink coca tea to help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. Even though coca, in its raw and unprocessed form, really has little to do with cocaine, previous U.S. presidents, including George W. Bush, have condemned Bolivia for not doing more to control drugs, and going as far as to place Bolivia on a blacklist along with Venezuela . Another reason for the hostility seems to be the general political leanings of Bolivia. They have been careful to ally themselves with Hugo Chavez and Venezuela, as well as Cuba, two countries with which the U.S. has even worse relationships, if that’s even possible.
Early on in the planning process, someone mentioned to me that carrying out my research on the Bolivian Altiplano wouldn’t be easy and that the communities I am attempting to work with, indigenous farmers, are historically the most marginalized demographic and are naturally suspicious of foreigners, as well as the fact that Bolivia has been characterized as being fiercely autonomous. She even suggested that I all together switch to Peru to carry out my research. While Bolivia hasn’t been a joy ride, but rather a slap in the face – it’s been an important reality check and perspective for my research. Sure, I could have gone to Peru where maybe it would have been easier and I seriously thought about it and even told the Watson Foundation I wanted to add it to my itinerary. My reasons for wanting to go there, however, were flawed: because it would be easy? That’s certainly not what the Watson is all about. And right now, I am glad I didn’t.
Bolivia is the birthplace/center of origin of quinoa and is currently the largest producer in the world. And I think it’s been really good for me to go somewhere where America isn’t worshipped, as a pleasant reminder that my country is not the hegemony and paradigm for everyone in the world (obviously, duh!). But it’s been quite the change – in Tanzania, everyone wanted to talk to you because you were a mzungu (foreigner, usually white) and the relationship between the U.S. and Tanzania seems to be much more based on foreign aid. In fact, I’ve had so many organizations and even individuals I didn’t get to meet emailing me and asking me about connecting them with donors and funding sources for their efforts or studies. Plus, with Obama, our first black president, having visited Tanzania while I was there, it’s safe to that the diplomatic relations are much better. In India, many people were equally fascinated and enamored by the U.S. and there were many aspects of American culture present throughout the country, while at the same time, maintaining their own rich and beautiful customs and without begging for foreign aid (I think Gandhi and swadeshi or self-sufficiency has really stuck). In Bhutan, it was more neutral, the first country I visited where America didn’t really have a political presence as I learned that the diplomatic ties between the two countries is virtually nonexistent, for better or worse. Perhaps the States thinks they have nothing to gain from ties with Bhutan, but in my opinion, Bhutan has much to teach the world about life in general. And here in Bolivia, clearly, they want nothing to do with the U.S., further reflected in the $135 visa fee, which is free for Europeans and other foreigners. This appears to be another one of Evo’s middle fingers to the States, since we apparently make it ridiculously difficult for Bolivians to come to America, even for vacation, never mind permanent migration. So yes, Bolivia has been quite the reality check – unaccommodating in terms of language, which is a good challenge for me, and the it’s unrealistic to think I could spend the whole year without rain (besides, without rain, crops can’t grow!). Unless I move to Ladakh where they get around 300-320 days of sunshine a year…or the Bay Area of California, with the latter being slightly more realistic.
Anyways, after having a conversation with my supervisor at PROINPA and also reflecting more on the previous, demoralizing email, I realized that for once, I am going to try not to “Lauren Howe” the hell out of this (as one of my roommates once phrased it). This means that I am not going to kill myself to see and do everything (compare the south, Lake Titicaca and central Altiplano production, compare traditional cultivation with certified organic, try to follow the commodity chain, and talk to NGOs/cooperatives/government/private business etc.). I have to work with what I have and not beat myself up over falling short (a constant question that’s been swirling in my head: “how to measure success?” and also being okay with “failure,” which probably isn’t even failure in a true sense). Even my supervisor told me that it is very difficult to accomplish work related things here: people seldom respond to emails and are very hesitant to assist random people unless I am contributing to the organization in some way, shape, or form. Even an American colleague who is doing work in quinoa here told me that unpaid internships or volunteer positions are practically unheard of and that it is a rarity that this particular NGO, PROINPA, even took me on at all. That being said, I would love to do all of the above, but unfortunately, my time and resources (and language) are somewhat restrictive, so I simply have to make the most with what is available to me at present. C'est la vie.