Monday, January 11, 2010


Woohoo. It is summer. The air is warm. I can walk around in shirtsleeves and not feel cold in the daytime. People around me are in short sleeves and some even in shorts.

OK. Those are mostly tourists: Argentines and Brazilians although a few Nordic heads and languages thread their lines.

Local people still dress mostly with a long-sleeved shirt or, if women, with a light sweater over a short sleeved blouse, and no shorts. A jacket or heavier sweater is never far away.

Day before yesterday I was not feeling well. The evening before, I ate something and shortly afterward, as stars splattered the sky, I lost my dinner in a ditch while hoping no one saw. I tried to do it in a dark corner where light was faint at best. That way not only could I not be seen I could not see either. In the morning I felt weak and faint.

Still I made rounds to say hello to people. On the corner of the main plaza, called the “2nd of February Plaza”, under the massive, white wall that encircles the Arabesque Basilica that looms over this town from most views, my friend Roxana has a store. She befriended me when I was here last February with a student to document the Feast of the Virgin of Candelaria (generally called Candlemas in English but I just like Candelaria better.)

I walked by the plaza and saw Roxana standing in the doorway of her store watching the world pass by. “Hola Roxana”, I greeted her. “Ah David, How are you” she asked. Breaking with my Anglo heritage where the only answer to that question is “fine thank you”, or some variant of it, I said “mal”, which means in Spanish, “bad” or “not well”. She asked what happened and so I told her of my encounter with the ditch. “Oh she said, I am mal too.” “What is wrong?” I asked. “My tonsils hurt and so I am wearing a heavy sweater with a collar around my neck to keep them warm so they will get better. At least I hope so.” “I hope so too”, I said. “It is hot though” she said. The sweater makes me too warm, but I am afraid if I take it off cold will get to my tonsils and they will not get better.”

I am not from here. I do not like it when I feel too hot. I cannot peel off enough layers to make it cool. In that I am more like the Argentines and Brazilians with their flipflops and colorful shorts. But I have been here often enough that I have a fleece pullover hanging from the strap of the bag that itself hangs from my shoulder. I have learned to be wary of cold up here. Like a living being it can strike.

Though the Virgin of Candelaria is the holy patroness of this town, its protector and advocate, she is under the name of the Virgin of Copacabana. I am in Copacabana. But, just as the Virgin of Copacabana is an advocation, an iteration of Candlemas who is originally found on the Canary Islands, your images of Copacabana are probably one or many iterations removed from this place. This is the Ur spot of Copacabana-ness in the world. All other usages ultimately derive from this town on the peninsula of the same name that splits Lake Titicaca in two.
I am higher up than Lhasa in Tibet. And I can still feel the altitude pull at my capillaries and arteries, even though I have been in the highlands for more than a week now.

I am in Bolivia, where I have come many times since I first arrived here as a nineteen-year old, in a suit from Deseret Woolen Mills and a suitcase full of white shirts. But I started my journey to the highlands at the altitude of Lhasa in Cusco, Peru where for a few days I hoped my body would adjust from its sea level fall. But, before it did, I met one of my students who was studying Spanish there, because the appointment book said it was time to help her get to Bolivia. We took an eight-hour bus-ride up hill to the huge lake and now my body gets to adjust to even higher altitude. The bus’ windows were sealed shut and it got very hot, tropically hot. In the native language around the lake the word for wind and cold is the same; people frowned on bus windows being opened while the bus was in motion.

Berlin still plays in my mind, even though it has been exactly a month since I flew out of Tegel Airport on a cool rainy morning. Since then I visited a very snowy and cold Utah, and spent Christmas morning in a chilly Las Vegas, before going to St. George to eat Christmas dinner with my niece, her husband and two children. Morning found me and John eating breakfast with my brother and his wife. But now I am in Bolivia and it is summer.

In Berlin it was a cloudy, drizzly, and cool fall. Temperatures would rise to maybe a bit above fifty Fahrenheit and would drop to almost freezing. Though I saw its Christmas markets and ate Stolen at a stand, I missed its snow, its winter. This year I am skipping winter, except for the two weeks or so in snowy, smoggy Utah. Though at the same time in one place on earth people have to layer themselves till they are rounded and waddle like penguins, in others people can peel off those clothes till sleek and almost nude they stride like they own the whole planet.

In the warmth, my student Mandy and I were standing on a narrow street between two two small grocery stores owned by siblings. Their children, a gaggle of boys from about ten to twenty four surrounded us as we teased back and forth. I had been showing them pictures on my lap top from my travels. They were not impressed with Europe and only wanted to see the United States. They were curious about where we live and what life is like there. They had seen it in movies and on television but wanted to verify what they had seen through our experience.

“Is that a Ferrari?”, Ivan queried. “How much does a Ferrari cost? A million dollars?” His cousin Ronal asked “How is Obama doing? Why doesn’t he change US policy toward Latin America?” Efraín jumped in “Why do you even want to come here when you have everything in the United States?”

The boys were fascinated that Mandy had played competitive soccer and wanted to organize a game for the evening to see her play. Here boys and girls play separately, but they wanted her on their team and so began to debate whether they could get the priests to let them use the indoor “cancha” that belongs to the Church. “If you just take some food to donate for the poor he will let you use it. We need to go talk with him and see.” “But he is really busy right now with all the pilgrims. Maybe he won’t see us” Their mother lectured “You have to set a time and stick with it. You cannot tell Mandy a time and show up late. She is used to things being exact, punctual, so you cannot play around. You have to be sincere.”

Mandy stood there listening to the boys wrangle. Excitement at playing soccer and at getting involved in people’s lives in this place far removed from Orem where she grew up, along with worries about exercising at high altitude, played their own game across her face.

“Do you have a cell? We can call you when we find out where we can play?” “Yeah I have a cell, Mandy said, as she reached in and pulled out her Blackberry clone, but it doesn’t work much in Bolivia.” I added “she and I both will have to get cells here in Bolivia to communicate.”

The boys oohed and awed over her phone but were dismayed it would not work here. “How much did it cost?” “I don’t know” Mandy said. “I got it for free when I bought my latest two-year plan with the cell phone company”

“They don't do that here. You have to buy your phone and pay for minutes. The phones are cheap here. Everyone has cell phones now” the boys said. “You can get one in La Paz for as low as 70 Bolivianos” (10$US). “You can use my chip,” Ivan offered.

Finally they settled on a time to meet and a place. They even pressed an Argentine into the game. A tall, slender, pale young man he had been drawn into a chess game with Rolan and now was further drawn into soccer.

I met this family when I got off a bus from La Paz twenty-six years ago. At the time there were no cell phones anywhere, except maybe in obscure laboratories somewhere. So, I had no room reservation. The town had only recently gotten electricity and to make phone calls you mostly had to go to the offices of the national phone company in the shadow of the Basilica, which forwarded the signal to a microwave tower on the mountain.

A twelve year old boy greeted us as we descended offering rooms. I let him lead me to a hotel called “La Porteñita” where we discovered we were both named David. His brother Edelberto (called Elber for short) managed the hotel. Thus I became friends with the family.

David now owns two restaurants, a store, and several vehicles that travel between La Paz and Copacabana. He is even reported to have bought his own hotel. He asked me if I thought it was a good idea for him to open a supermarket in Copacabana. “But David, there are only five thousand people here. Do you think that is enough to support a super market.” This conversation was last year. I notice he still has not opened the supermarket and am glad. But he did open the shiny, fast food broasted-chicken place he had promised. It draws lots of pilgrims right now.

I worried that if he did open a supermarket it would drive his siblings and other store owners out of business. Everyone of his brothers and sisters owns a small grocery store. They are almost the paradigm of the Aymara shopkeeper family.

Elber asked me this morning what I thought of supermarkets. I told him I thought they were blah. On my high horse I preached. “They only have packaged foods of dubious nutritional value and the vegetables and fruits, though pretty, taste bland and have little value. Many people at home would rather shop in the markets like you have here where the food comes straight from the farmers and is fresh.” I was thinking of the Saturday crowds at the Farmer’s Market in Salt Lake or the wonderful market that bloomed all around Kollwitzplatz in Prenzlauerberg. “But”, Elber replied “people like supermarkets. They want what is new, not what is old.”

Mandy and I roamed the market. Women with fresh vegetables and fruits sat on the streets, their produce displayed on cloths in front of them. On another street trout, kingfish, and smaller fishes still flailed, although weakly, in pails and on plastic sheets. fresh cheeses sat on straw, only walked early this morning from the farm.

There also is a domed market place where women have stalls that ring each other in twin circles inside. There produce piles high, though the door way takes you through hanging sides of beef and mounds of plucked chickens. A woman named Brígida, Spanish for Bridget, was working on a spreadsheet. It was not on a computer screen but was a paper laid out over her pile of lettuce. “Hola doña Brígida. What are you working on?”

“Hola Don David. It is the roster of all the market women for our guild. We just changed officers in a fiesta on the sixth and I now have to keep track of everyone’s participation and payment of dues. What are you doing?”

“Mandy got to help make a Bolivian meal yesterday.” “¿O sí? What was it?”

Mandy explained it had potatoes, fresh fava beans, corn on the cob, friend cheese and a little bit of steak.” Brígida immediately jumped in, almost before Mandy could finish. “You made plato paceño. It doesn’t usually have meat in it but I guess its ok to make some variety.”

Outside the market building Hermana Zaida, and her friend Marcia have tables where they sell soft-drinks, made from boiling dried peaches with spices, along side small bowls of jello topped with whipped cream. They are happy to have Mandy here and to know that she is going to stay for almost three months. Across the path their colleague, Nancy I think her name is, sells clothing on a low stand. They introduced us to her and when Mandy looked at an apron such as local women wear, they said she should try it on.

They thought she looked so good in it that they then gave her a pollera, a broad pleated skirt, to try on. Oh look she looks so good dressed like a cholita, a local woman. She needs braids, added Doña Meri when she came up. Let’s braid her hair. So they did. They pulled and stretched, while Mandy frowned a bit, until they had two long braids of blond hair. Then they put a shawl on her and Nancy loaned Mandy her hat so we could take pictures of Mandy dressed like a local woman, surrounded by the market women. People walking by stopped to look in amazement at the gringa dressed like a local in the market. It was a surprise.

“Do they have cholitas in the United States?” Ivan had asked? Many people here don’t want to dress as cholitas. It is too expensive to do well and anyway they would rather wear blouses and pants like almost everyone else on earth, or so they think. “No Ivan, there are no cholitas in the US unless Bolivian or Peruvian women come and dress as cholitas.” But maybe Mandy and other women from the US who like native dress will start a new trend at home. Maybe we will get the dress, but it will be very difficult o get all the meanings attached to the cholita in the United States.

It is cold there now, anyway. It is winter. Here it is summer. The air is warm. Birds chirp in the bushes and trees. More Argentines walk by in even less clothing. You can play on the beach. Cold is not here yet.


  1. David,
    Jan Wellington just linked our students to your blog. We're teaching a course called Wanderlust: Writing Travel, and your thoughts, so beautifully expressed, will be part of the class.
    Rachel ??? came by today and talked with me about Integrated Studies funding for her thesis, part of the research she'll do when she comes to Bolivia in March.
    And my son Sam called from Logan today. His girlfriend Ashley is going to do an internship with a non-profit microlender called SWAN in Bolivia starting in March, after two months in Chile.
    So, all kinds of good people heading your way.

  2. Welcome to all your students. I am glad to share my travels and experiences with them and look forward to some give and take.

    Rachel is a great student. People here are excited to have her come and want to work with her. The ground is prepared for her. She will do an outstanding job I am sure.

    I hope to meet Ashley. Hope your semester is great.