The wind started blowing, lifting grit and spinning it into odd shapes in the air before thrusting it against walls and skin. Normally August is the month of winds, but it started in July. Everyone is talking about it. The wind makes it feel cold, cold and gritty.
Nevertheless the morning sun shines through the grit, giving a strange, eerie look to everything. Light bounces of the tin roofs and irregular, unfinished brick construction that dot the valley in which the city of La Paz is nestled, as I drop down into it. Illimani, the massive, snow clad guardian of the city stands proudly there, only slightly dimmed by the grit that steals light from its face.
They say that the other day a group of foreign tourists was killed in a sudden avalanche from off one of Illimani's glaciers as they tried to climb its 22000 foot peak. In the summer clouds boil up from the jungle on the other side of Illimani's fastness. They hide it for days on end as they cover it in snow, and bring daily rain to the highlands of La Paz. But in winter, there is no new snow and no rain. Every day the sun shines, although the temperature can feel only a few degrees above freezing at times.
Tomorrow is the day of La Paz, a holiday celebrating the founding of this city in a gorge. Already people are setting up banners and marking space for the construction of bleachers along parade routes. The county's president Sanchez de Lozada reportedly wants to push the holiday to Monday, for a three day weekend, like is done in the United States where he grew up. But the people are resisting. From what I hear all plans are on for tomorrow.
Back in February Mr Sanchez tried to impose a series of taxes mandated by the IMF and the World Bank. The result was days of rioting, scores dead, and almost two dozen buildings burned and looted, many of them government buildings. People still talk about those days in February, precisely February 12th and 13th. “Where were you? What did you see?” They also talk about February 19th last year, when rains pummeled the city and the river that flows in its bottom, now hidden under the city's main street, refused to stay underground and cascaded in a rush of overturned vehicles, merchandise, and people down the city's main street.
I have been spending my days seeking information about the social structure of the city that will help explain the riots. Why this year? Why not last? Of course the bigger issue is around the role of neo-liberalism and international economic pressure on fragile third-world states. Last week I found the books, this week I am reading, sometimes at home in my room where at times it is cold and at times the sun fills the room with warmth, as the walls keep the wind at bay. Other times I read while riding , crowded in minivans making the way back and forth between El Alto and the basin's floor. And other times I sit in a cafe, with a glass of water in front of me, while I read.
There are lots of numbers about poverty, employment and unemployment, the lack of expansion of the formal sector of the economy and so on. But as I walk I see the people begging in the street, the Indians from Southern Bolivia, dressed sometimes in colorful clothes and sometimes in somber utilitarian dress, selling weavings and toasted grains. All along the streets people hawk wares. There are maybe a hundred thousand people making their living in this informal, small scale commerce. Then there are the big stores and the high rise offices, from which the workers descend into the streets several times a day in high heals and makeup, or the obligatory dark suit.
Everywhere I look there are signs of the vitality of Catholicism and the stupendous growth and visible public presence of evangelicals. The numbers come off the page and become the people among whom I move, a strange observer from another place.
Things are starting to make sense. I hope I will be able to write a good paper from what I am seeing and learning. But there is something very unfortunate in all of this. I come to get data and write a paper, but the people who have leapt off my pages are caught in this structure where IMF pressure can cause civil strife that lasts days.
Yesterday the city was congested by a couple of miles of older people, marching maybe twelve across and demanding improvement, not to mention simple honoring, of their retirement agreements. They represented an older Bolivia, where there was a strong railroad sector, a national petroleum company, a strong national mining concern, and so on. Those have all been privatized. The ways of living and thinking of these people are supposed to be quaint, archaic fossils. But they poured into the street to demand they be recognized and heard, and that the government honor its agreements with them.
After the march cleared and traffic started flowing again, I caught a van back to El Alto. The wind was stronger and I found myself feeling suffocated in the closed and crowded fastness of the van. I arrived home to spend the evening playing cards with Romy, Juan Carlos, Joaquín and their nephew Carlitos.
Carlitos, at one moment, said “can we talk privately?” We went into my room, and he nervously asked me if I would consider being the godfather of his licenciamiento, his exit from his servicio militar. In just a few days he enters the military to do his service and he is very nervous, because he is Mormon and he hears Mormons are marginalized and treated poorly, and because of all the negative things people are saying about how the military treats its recruits. He is also nervous because this is a traditionally important right of passage for young men. He stands before adulthood, with a gulf of the unknown and painfully difficult before him. He asked me to meet him on the other side as his sponsor into a new life.
Wow what an honor. How can you possibly turn it down. When I said yes, his face broke into a grin that calmed the wind and defied the grit. I started making plans to come back next year for the ceremony.