April 25, 2008

Impressions About the City I Was Born In

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After around 20 years I came back to La Paz, the place I was born in, without a doubt, a different person and with the eyes of a stranger. I know it is a bit too early to have some definite impressions about the city where I spent my childhood. However, I intend to answer here the question I am getting the most from friends and strangers: how do you find your city after all these years. These are first impressions after spending almost three weeks here.

The first thing I say to people when they ask me that question is, the city has completely changed. The La Paz I knew is no more. With that I concur with a friend of mine (I forget who) who once told me, as we spoke of my oncoming trip to Bolivia, that one could never go back to the place one once knew. It was impossible. In the beginning I thought that was a strange thing to say. I had always thought of going back to La Paz. Now, that I am living it, that I am there, my friend's piece of wisdom rings truer than ever.

One of the first things that made an impression on me is that the streets have physically changed. Where there once was nothing, now there are tunnels, bridges and multilevel streets. Just half a block from where I used to live, there is a new tunnel passing right under two or three blocks of houses. Funny, I had never imagined those days when I was playing soccer in a school nearby, that one day cars would be driving through right underneath it. Although I should have, because already at that time, the traffic was getting worst by the day. Some times, I need a map to orient myself. People have made fun of me because I needed some instructions on how to get to that place I was heading to. It feels strange not to know where something is anymore. Sometimes I really feels like a tourist.

The city grew incredibly. I am constantly pointing out how that hill or the other, did not have any houses. Many places around the city have been urbanized. Just yesterday I went on a horse riding tour to the nearby Devil´s Molar (Muela del Diablo) mountain. This area was once desserted. There were maybe one or two small villages (200 people perhaps, just to give an idea). Now, as we rode up the road or better yet, the way, two thirds of it was populated. The streets (if one can call them streets) were even numbered. Electricity and I assume water and some kind of sewer system must be in place too. From the top of that hill, we could see the extent to which the southern part of the city had grown. I don´t mention names of areas because they won´t mean anything to you, but as a way to illustrate, I can tell you that once I stood on a hill, not as high as the one I just talked about, but one could see fairly well the whole valley. What I saw was empty land, and mountains. Now, what I saw were brick houses, paved roads, some builgings and some parks and soccer fields. I am not even talking about the northern part of the city. Where once there was a gap between the city and El Alto, now there are brick houses. It looks as though these houses are spilling over the edge of el Altiplano into La Paz.

Another thing that striked me, is the quantity of uniformed personnel just present on the streets. The city seems to be militarized by police officers and private security. At least, this is true for the center of the city, the business district and the south of the city. There are people with hand guns or some type of weapon in every corner. Compared to the places where I have been living the last 20 years, this is a bit striking and unsettling.

Now, the city has a commercial spirit, I say. You can find commerce anywhere you go. The most striking is that the neighborhoods I used to go to, which were residential areas, have become small hubs of commerce. Where there once were small family houses, now there are tall buildings, housing luxury residences, car dealers, lots of restaurants, boutiques, cafes, etc. Even some international organizations such as the UN and embassies and even government buildings are located there. Of course, I am talking about the southern parts of the city known as Obrajes, Calacoto and San Miguel. Lots of changes there. Unbelievable.

Lastly, one thing that I don´t like is the amount of smog being released by the cars. The worst are the so called micros (short for microbus). These kind of transport release the most foul kind of smog. I am staying pretty close to a main street. One cannot set foot on the street without being asfixiated by the fumes of these cars. The whole city smells pretty bad of smog. My hope is that the city government will do something about it, some day, before it gets worst.

Other than that, I haven´t found myself going down memory lane too often. Life is busy here, people come and go and life goes on. But, I am happy for having met some people I knew. See how they are doing and how life has treated them.

April 23, 2008

The Media War

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The current power struggle taking part in Bolivia is playing, literally, before the eyes and ears of the people. The day I arrived in La Paz, I turned on the TV and discovered that the cable service has nothing to envy to those in the US or Europe. In my hotel room I have the choice of over a hundred channels, in French, German, English, Portuguese and Spanish. Flipping through, I discovered that Bolivia has come a long way from the around eleven channels I knew when I lived here. What I quickly realized, however, is the media war taking place right before my eyes.

The most important sources of information for people are, I think, television, radio and newspapers. This is in order of importance. Now someone might pull some statistics and try to argue with me, but that is ok. This is just my opinion. The first flips through the gamma of Bolivian channels made me realize an important part of this struggle was taking part there. Almost every channel, and I say almost, because I am still not sure I visited every channel originating in Bolivia, has propaganda showing how the other side is wrong and the own side is right. This is pretty much, as one might expect it, divided regionally. The channels originating in Santa Cruz, are showing spots on how the autonomic statute is best for Bolivia. They almost always say that because of the statutes Bolivia will develop and will unite. Whereas, in the channels being broad casted from La Paz and El Alto, the spots show how the same statutes are bad for Bolivia because they only benefit the rich and will divide Bolivia.

The government and the opposition must be spending large amounts of money to produce these propaganda. It seems to me that in La Paz, we see more of the government's side. I don't know yet how is it in Santa Cruz. My guess is that the opposition side is more prevalent there. Although, theoretically one can watch any channel one wants. I am just not sure. However, what I am observing is that the government has put a lot of effort and money in organizing a large media campaign to drive "inform the public". There are spots showing the good sides of the government's constitution. For example, there is a woman who, in very colloquial paceno accent, is worried about some of the rumors she hears against the constitution. She repeats these to another woman or man, who in a more calmed and informed-sounding voice, corrects the woman and tries to calm her. Finally, the woman takes the printed version of the government's constitution, reads it and convinces herself that her fears are unfounded.

Another form of propaganda are the so called opinionated news casts. These are newscasts directed by an anchorman or woman who instead of giving just the facts, he or she introduces the news report with a commentary. This form of newscast is common in Germany, but the form it takes in Bolivia is extreme. Some anchors in some channels hold five minute monologues advancing the government's position and criticizing the opposition's actions. Some anchors go even further and engage in personal attacks against people from the opposition.

A third form of propaganda takes place in the radios. There are lots of programs which receive calls from people. The thing is that the critique I hear is mostly directed to the opposition. Ok, yes, the chances are great for this kind of criticism to be heard because La Paz is the stronghold of the government's supporters. But, it is still strange not to hear one voice supporting the opposition.

The same can be said for the channels supporting the opposition. The spots show how good autonomy will be for Bolivia. Other spots show how bad some government policies are. For example, the recent problem over the export of cooking oil. The opposition's channels say that the government wants to control prices or show how the prohibition of exports results in unemployment.

The newspapers are more or less the same. There are those which support the government and those which support the opposition. I think this media war is not entirely without consequences. It tends to misinform the public opinion rather than inform it. And the readiness of some media outlets to lend themselves to this kind of practice is astounding to me.

April 16, 2008

Second Week in Bolivia

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This is the second week I am spending in La Paz, Bolivia. Since I found a bit of time to write on my blog, I will share some reflections.

First of all, I did not yet resolve my computer troubles. The issue of pressure affecting my hard drive, has not been cleared up. Some computer technicians insist it is true, some others laugh and dismiss it. I am perplexed though, because I carried my pc all over Chicago and nothing, but the first time I turned it on, it did not function. I don´t know what to think, but I won´t dismiss the claim just yet.

The process of adaptation to the altitude is, I think, nearing an end. The Coca tea (mate de coca) is really helping. I have not taken any of the medicine it was recommended to me, just Coca tea. My head is not hurting as much as it was the first days, but it is still hurting. I am attributing it to the smog the cars release. I see this as a real problem in La Paz. One cannot walk on the streets, during peak hours, without inhaling dirty air. Plainly said, it stinks!

I can walk a bit faster, but I still have to be careful. Specially when I am conducting interviews. Some times I ran out of air and have to stop speaking. It is somewhat problematic, but people understand. It is a funny feeling, to go up 10 to 20 stairs and be really out of air at the top. I assume this will disappear the longer I stay in La Paz.

Now on to the city. As I said before, the city has changed a lot. Some times, I cannot find my way and I have to pull out my map. Entire streets are gone and others are there where there were none before. Some of the neighborhoods I used to frequent are giant malls. The city is vibrating with commerce. One thing that shocked me was that the city seems to have deconcentrated. Before, there was only one center, El Prado. Most paceños had to go to the center to do shopping. Specially when it had to do with clothing, electronics, etc. Now, each area within the city has its own center. The southern neighborhoods are a micro city on their own. One can find, at times, better things than in the center.

Also, it must be that I am living outside La Paz for so long, but I find the people a bit too serious, and unfriendly at times. Paceños seem to be taking life too seriously. It hits me when I go to some stores and I want to consume something. I am expecting a welcoming smile, when I get instead a serious face and no answer at all. It might also have to do with the tourist phenomenon. I don´t know. That is my first impression though.

Alright, I have to stop here because I am at a hotel computer. Other people are looking at me funny already. Next time I have to comment on the political situation and the interesting conversations I have been having with paceños.

April 11, 2008

On the Ground, Things Seem Different

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Well, it is my third day in La Paz. Slowly getting used to the altitude. Even a born Bolivian like me can be affected by it. The first day, it was even hard for me to speak. You just run out of breath. But, anyway, it takes time to get used to, but slowly one gets to speed.

One thing to report, my laptop is broken. It seems I have to replace the hard drive. I don´t know whether the product was too fragile or my handling of the laptop was too rough. I did take care of it, just for the record. So my plans to have a computer and a connection to the net all the time has been shuttered. I am forced to rely on public pcs or other media. We´ll see how I manage. I won´t go into the repair discussion, because it is complicated (with insurance coverage and all). But I will say what a computer guy told me when I inquired about repair. He said that he has seen some foreign computers brake down under the altitude due to "pressure" (his words, not mine). Whether that is right or not, I am afraid I won´t be able to prove.

Well, the political environment and/or climate here is surprisingly calm. There is a feeling of continuity and even of normalcy. That, one does not get from outside. I expected to find a climate of tension, almost hostility, but so far not.

One thing though, my impression is that time changes everything. The city has completely change since I was here. A guy once told me, when talking about me going back to the place I was born, one does not go back. It is impossible to go back to the place one once was. Today, I can say, that is true, to a large degree. La Paz has evolved in so many ways. The neighborhoods I used to frequent as a school child have changed not only physically (the houses and streets) but also the people who once lived there are there no more. It seems to me that the city has become more commercialized. There are shops everywhere. Commerce reigns!

However, it is a bit too early to draw conclusions. After all, I am just three days here. But I will be posting my impressions and what I am doing and learn. The mundane things, such as getting a cell phone or getting from one place to another.