Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Communism, Drag Queens and Bob Marley?

You are probably thinking to yourself "What in the name of chocolate could communism, drag queens and Bob Marley have in common?! That's it, the lack of oxygen has definitely gotten to her..."

Well believe it or not, Friday 12 days ago I went out with some friends (Yes, I have friends who aren't cousins! They work at the same project as I do, in Las Lomas), and we started off at a bar-like place (I say "like" because the sound system was a portable stereo of sorts) with a name I cannot pronounce (A-something), because of a performance scheduled to take place. The first person to step into the open area of the locale, to introduce the show, was from the Young Communists of Bolivia. I zoned out while an award was handed out and a poem was read, and then luckily the show started. Two women performed dancing and singing routines (individually and then together), nothing too remarkable. Then a group of 5 men with makeup and tuxedoes, called the Stereosexuals, danced, and the finale was a drag queen who sang a song and then transformed back into a man on stage (unusual, yet interesting).

Around midnight, we (Sally, Clodimir - in the picture above - and I) left to go to another bar (real this time), where the event of the night was a Tribute to Bob Marley. All in all, a very fun night in La Paz.

Schmorgusboard #1

By my books, random is good. Enjoy!

This is the "coat of arms" of Bolivia. The nine stars represent the nine provinces... And my personal favorite? The fact that it doesn't just say BOLIVIA - it says "BOLIVIA." (the period is priceless).

This here is a button shop. A shop full of buttons. There are big buttons, small buttons, colorful buttons, round buttons, square buttons, hippo buttons, clown buttons - pretty much any type of button you can think of. Thanks to this discovery, I have now added "learn to sew" on my List of things to eventually do.

This is the view of La Paz as seen from El Alto, and more specifically, the entrance of the Feria del 16 de Julio, which I visited with Clodimir 10 days ago. The market takes place every Thursday and Sunday, and stretches farther than you can possibly imagine! (One friend walked straight for an hour and didn't see the edge of the market, so he turned back for fear of getting lost). You can find pretty much anything here (cars, engine parts, tires, shoes, clothes, good-quality $1 DVDs, pets, yadda yadda yadda), and at incredible prices. Yes, most of it is either second hand stolen, but that's definitely beside the point.

Here is my cousin Daniela at her machine, at the Bingo place. The atmosphere is a little heavy, but not as yucky as casinos, and playing Bingo once in a while is actually fun (no worries, not a chance in hell I'd get addicted). My cousin goes probably once a week on average, loads up the card (you don't play with change - THAT would be illegal! haha) with Bs.20 and plays until she has either lost everything (the whole $2.50) or has made over Bs.10, in which case she cashes in the Bs.10 and goes back to play the original Bs.20 again.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Public Transport & Evolution

Some more information on public transport. Please note that pictures only convey one small part of the experience, as they do not include smells, sounds, and details.

Here is a bus, known as a Micro, in the neighborhood of Las Lomas, on the outskirts of the city (which is where one of the projects where I work is located). The cheapest way to get around, they cost Bs.1 per trip... and are definitely sized for locals. The first time I rode a Micro, I didn´t know exactly where I was or where I was going, but was counting on visual stimuli to figure it out. Too bad I got on and all the seats were taken, which left me standing with a bent neck (roof was too low for me to stand straight) and the windows at knee-level! I made it to my destination, but had to walk a chunk of the way, ahem.

This here is refered to as a Mini. Most Minis have screamers (explained in the "Face your Fears" post), and cost between Bs.1-2.30 depending on how far you are going. There is no standing room, and very little legroom. On the plus side, they do go faster than the Micro-crawl, which is what generally makes it worth the extra cash.

Note: Both Micros and Minis often have stickers inside which read "No Fume" (don't smoke) and "No Escupe" (don´t spit). Ah, the joys of a developing country!

Public transport here is extremely efficient. Between Micros and Minis, you can get from any point A to any point B without too much hassle (or too much walking, if you are lazy). Complemented by Trufis (shared taxis, which cost an average of Bs.3), Taxis (Bs.3 to travel within the downtown area, Bs.6 to go far, and Bs.12 to go way down to the area where I currently live), and Radiotaxis (the safest at night but also more expensive - Bs.6 to travel within an area and Bs.12-18 to go far)... owning a car is silly. It has to be said, however, that you only get fined if you dangerously run a red light when a cop is present or if you go against traffic...

But - it has to be said - driving here is based VERY loosely on traffic laws and regulations, and much more on the law of the jungle. People honk when overtaking to make sure they don´t get run into, right of way is to whoever gets to the intersection first and is the most daring and has the bigger car... Quite fascinating, except for the fact that when you observe this, your life is generally at stake! Natural selection of sorts? Either way, it makes you appreciate being a live.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Here's the most stunning picture I have of the city, taken on the way to the Alpacoma project in Achocalla (you don't even want to know how coated in dust my lungs were after that 10min walk... but no regrets!).

Here are two photos from the Oncohematology ward last Friday. The kids were making Christmas decorations when I arrived, and everyone was in an amazingly good mood. They even danced for a while, and then we clebrated Victor's 12th Birthday.

Above (left to right): Betty, Rodrigo, Me, Jhon, Wilder, Abel and Maria-Elena. Below (also left to right): Wilder, Maria-Elena, Jhon, Nurse Carmen, Me, Betty and Rodrigo.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Views of La Paz

Here are a few more pictures, so you can maybe get an inkling of a feel for the geography of the city I am in...

Down the street from where I am currently living, a neighborhood called Sequencoma. That piece of mountain jutting out from the rest of the mountains is called "La Muela del Diablo" (The Devil's Tooth).

In case you can't see it without me pointing it out, the outline of the mountain looks like a camel swimming in water (head just above the water level and the two humps to the right). When my cousin Jorge showed it to me, it made my day, hehe. Simple pleasures.

Another picture of La Muela del Diablo, in a different light.

Not sure where this is taken from. Somewhere in the city though, for sure!

Monday, November 14, 2005

In case an image really is worth 1000 words...

A few pictures of La Paz (copyright yours truly):

Plaza San Francisco, in the center of town, seen from above (specifically, the roof of Basilica San Franciso). If you walk down the neighbourhood of the black market, this is where you arrive.

An example of those roadblocks I mentioned, because of the gas deficit. Note that they haven't been happening lately (I good thing, I think).

Me in the middle of a typical, crowded, La Pazian street. This is right before the black market neighborhood begins, i.e. very much uphill from the first picture.

A typical stall/stand/shop at La Sagarnaga, also known as the witches' market. In case the little amulets and statuettes weren't enough to convince you of that title being earned, check out the items above the lady on the right. Can't see them properly? Let me spell it out for you: LLAMA FETUSES. To bless a constrution site, for example.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lightning speed update

Jhonn's ok! In the intensive care unit, recovering. I went in for about 2min to wish him a Happy Birthday and let him know the official celebration was postponed to Monday so he could eat cake. He looked knocked out, but that's to be expected. Hope the weekend is complication free, and that I find a nice little present for him (or at least an entertaining card!).

Other than that, now is when it really begins. Now that I am starting to know people and see how things work... Neuron picking up speed, weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Thursday, November 10, 2005

El Hospital del Niño

This is the Children's Hospital where I have been working as a volunteer (locally known as Hospital del Niño, abbreviated HDN by yours truly). The two people in the photo are my Great-Aunt Alicia (left, in fuchsia), who used to be head of the Bolivian Red Cross and knows everyone there is to know, and Maria Rene Berdecio (right, in navy blue and with grey hair), the treasurer for the Damas Voluntarias who are in charge of the Neurosurgery unit.

So, for the past three weeks, this is where I have been coming at 9am three times a week: on Mondays, the Neurosurgery ward with Maria Rene, and on Wednesday and Friday, the Oncohematology ward.

At the Neurosurgery ward, we go around and revise each case with the intern Dr., to see why the kids were brought in, what their diagnosis is, and what treatment they are prescribed. Then everything is logged in a Master Notebook, and we help parents finance medication they need for their kids and cannot afford.

In Oncohematology, it's different. The person in charge of the volunteers there is Señora Ilse Horvay, a 79-year-old Swiss lady who has been living in La Paz for over a quarter century. She sponsors an average of 10 children at a time, covering ALL their costs, and also makes sure the ward is functional (bathrooms, electrical outlets, TVs, drawers/cabinets - it all needs to be checked regularly and fixed). Here you get to know the kids because their treatments take time. Funny thing is, Señora Ilse's first language is German, and because she knows I understand, even though she also speaks Spanish and English, she addresses me in German! Had you told me I would be practicing my German when I came to La Paz, I would have laughed at you.
In the photo below, Jhonn Quilo and I in the Oncohematology ward (we were exceptionally allowed to take off our mask-thingies for the photo). He is 11 years old and has a brain tumor. Went to about 4 hospitals before someone finally accepted to do a biopsy to confirm the brain tumor diagnosis, but then they basically threw him out saying there was nothing they could do to help. Stubborn, he came back to the HDN where he knew Señora Ilse had a sponsorship program, and he pleaded with her. She agreed to cover four sessions of chemo, but if there was no progress, that was it! Luckily - no, miraculously! - after four sessions, the tumor had shrunk. Jhonn was scheduled for an operation yesterday that would remove what was left of his tumor... Hope it all went as planned! He's an incredibly bright kid. Always helps me distribute medication when he's around (and would you believe he knows medicines' names better than me? granted he's been around the oncology ward longer than me, but still), and the other day he told me he had opened up a watch to see how it worked, picked it apart, and put it back together - and it was functional! I was impressed. To add to his natural charm, his Birthday is tomorrow - he's a Scorpio! Something's in the works (even though it won't be the Playstation he asked for, ahem).

Now, time to head home and call another one of the volunteers, Mabel, to see if she was able to get in touch with the doctor who operated Jhonn yesterday to get a status update. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Face your Fears!

Public transport in La Paz has always intimidated me. Mostly, the minibuses which include a driver and a screamer as full-time staff. The screamer sticks his or her head out the window as the minibus drives its route, and yells out various stops and destinations in a very particular way (i.e. as fast as possible so you can barely discern what he or she is saying). Scary stuff.

This time around, however, I have partly mastered my fear. I ride a minibus to the Children's Hospital, and often catch a ride halfway home from town. It's invigorating! Of course, I'm still not at peace with how many germs I pick up every time I ride one of them minibuses (I probably have the TB microbe in me, for one)... But let's focus on progress. I am no longer 100% dependent on cabs.


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

23 and On Top of The World!

Yesterday was brilliant.

The sounds seemed normal, as though everyone was getting ready for school like they would any other day of the year. Just as I let my guard down, I hear Daniela say "Shahnaz?" - I refused open my eyes, so she had to elaborate: "Te mandan un mensaje de Suiza..." I had to turn around, and bam! The whole family was there, some more awake than others, to wish me a Happy Birthday! I got to blow out a candle and start the day laughing at the balloons which had been made into faces (one alien, one with glasses, one with weird eyes from watching too much tv, one with french fries eyes from eating too many Burger King fries...) and reading the poster-size Birthday card Daniela, Maria and Sergio had made for me. They misspelled my name and couldn't remember my dad's name, but that's beside the point.

As for the rest of the day? I spent the morning at the Children's Hospital, then had lunch at Tia Alicia's (salteñas and mango cake, mhmmmm) before swinging by the Hogar Soria and heading to the Black Market with Martin and Monica (another cousin, whom I met at lunch), making it back to Tia Alicia's just in time for tea... and then rushing off to get home and be off to Tia Lila's, where all the cousins met up for Pizza and a delicious cake of unidentified flavour.

If a year is a step, then I'm officially one step closer to the quarter-century! Hehe.

Thank you mom for calling me everywhere, and to everyone who remembered me and sent me emails, e-cards, text messages, smoke signals.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

It's a kinda magic...

Life here has a certain magical quality to it which I don't think I have ever experienced anywhere else.

When a house is being built, before any worker accepts to do the job, an offering must be made to the Pachamama (Mother Earth), often in the form of a buried llama foetus (for sale in the Witches' Market called La Sagarnaga) - and sometimes even human remains! Women are not allowed into mines because they are bad luck (perhaps the same way women were thought to be bad luck on ships back in the day when the British ruled the world). Your future can be read in the palm of your hand, in coca leaves, and in tea.

It's hard to explain, and it goes beyond the few examples I give. Things work which shouldn't work; every school has a uniform; birthday parties include piñatas, magicians, and party bags for guests... Every day is full of hope and of enchantment. This may be the "developing" world, but that doesn't mean developed nations couldn't learn a whole bunch from the way things are here.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Singing the melody line I hear in my head...

Last night I read the speech Bono gave to my graduating class (it can be found here), and it made me happy. Thought I'd share.

In terms of what's going on in La Paz...

Last Wednesday (Nov. 2) was a holiday, the day for everyone to visit cementeries to see their loved ones which have passed on. It was an amazing sight - I went to the Cemeterio Jardin and it was absolutely full of flowers, of families picnic-ing, of children running around loving life.

The elections were postponed from Dec 4 to Dec 17, and now apparently they might be postponed again. Certain provinces have grown in population, which means they constitutionally have the right to more deputy chairs in congress. Other provinces don't want to give up deputies though, and the overall number has to stay the same... and as long as this problem isn't resolved, elections can't be organized. There has been progress, but apparently Santa Cruz (the province which should get 4 more deputies but got 3 in the last offer made) isn't willing to compromise. Elections will take place eventually, but no one really knows what to expect because the hot favorite is Evo Morales, who is from an indigenous background and whose life experience is coca farming and leading the coca unions... and none of the alternatives are really that convincing either.

Road blocks continue, although their frequency seems to have diminished.

Other than that, Halloween was quite a success here, with children trick or treating around town and the main supermarket chain (Ketal) organizing a massive haunted house. McDonalds and Domino's Pizza went bankrupt, but the American influence can still be felt!

And I am still loving it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

La Paz rocketh!

Although my trip from New York to La Paz took about 36h longer than expected (stayed overnight in Miami, then landed in Santa Cruz and flew to Cochabamba before finally arriving at my destination, one suitcase short), I made it! Got here Monday October 17th early afternoon.

This is the view of the city when you come down from the airport - stunning, no?

So it's been two weeks. I am still living with my mother's cousin, Lucho, and his family. Never a dull moment! There are four kids, aged 23, 21, 16 and 6, the two parents, two household helpers, a dog, and yours truly. The house is in an urbanization down the valley, which means it's a 10min drive into town. My guess is I will stay here another few weeks before looking for an apartment in town, but there's no rush.

In terms of what I came here to do... I've started volunteering at the Hospital del Niño a few times a week; in the Neurosurgery ward on Monday mornings and in the Oncology ward on Wednesday and Friday mornings. Some afternoons will be spent with children, and as they are generally quite young and uneducated, all pedagogic support materials are welcome! I figure if they are going to be stuck in hospital, they may as well learn something useful and be entertained while they get better!

I have also visited a couple other projects and am in the process of deciding which ones I want to volunteer at for the first few months. One thing is sure - there's a ton to do here, and a volunteer experience can be whatever you make of it. It's amazing! So if you aren't sure what to do for the next few months, let me know. Hehe.

In terms of the society... Elections were scheduled for December 4th but have been postponed because of complications (the deputies haven't been able to resolve a problem they have in terms of congress spots per province). And although the country is full of natural gas, it doesn't get processed fast enough so there have been shortages in La Paz for the past few weeks, which often leads to road blocks. The people set up the small gas containers across a street and sit on them, being a nuisance to everyone and therefore making their voices be heard.

As for the informal sector? It is stunning - I think it's what holds the country together. The Black Market here is a whole neighborhood! Unbelievable.

What else? I've met one pseudo-single person here, everyone else is in a relationship! That's considered normal from the age of about 12 onwards. Piercings are in, strawberries and undercooked porc are health hazards because they can harbour a bug that gets into your brain and causes god knows what damage, the weather is 100% psychotic but it has been mostly sunny so no complaints, and the food is delicious.

My local cell phone number is +59 1 705 64461, and if you want to send me a letter or Swiss chocolate, your best bet is to go with the following address (via my great-aunt):

Shahnaz Radjy-Crespo
c/o Alicia Quintanilla de Crespo
Casilla 7820
La Paz, Bolivia
South America

One thing's for sure - I am absolutely loving it here!

Considering the general speed of internet access (I am currently using a dial-up connection!), I think from now on I will aim for more frequent blog updates and with fewer photos each (I just tried uploading two more pictures and basically just wasted 1h of my life, ish. *shakes fist in air and swears*)...