Driving Bolivia

Last week I got caught in a flash flood in the streets of Quillacollo AND a bloqueo/road-block thrown up by transportistas demanding a better chunk of pay– both at the same time.  So — after an hour of going nowhere, brown water lapping at my engine, and now stuck back in the casita at El Planeta de Luz with the rain pounding the tin roof – I this is clearly the time to tell you about something that’s been on my mind:  driving in Bolivia.

It’s different.  To begin, a quite urgent taxista in La Paz asked me if people actually obey traffic laws in the EE.UU.  A crucial tip-off was buried in this question.

I bought a natural-gas-fueled 1978 Jeep.  (Small detail: my second choice was the marvelously-shaped, early-Fiat-sized Lada, made in the Soviet Union.) Finding the Jeep was a months’-long journey that made me practically a major donor to the Sunday Los Tiempos classified section.  People selling cars know nothing about them.  What work has been done on it?  No sé.  How many miles does it have?  No sé.  Do you have papers for it?  No sé.  After giving my prospective Jeep the once-over, mecánico Don Fredy called it “precioso” – so, wasting no time, I flung down (curiously) the same amount of money I’d received for my ’79 Jeep in New Mexico.

But then, try getting out into the streets … The US has red, yellow, green (and a camera to catch you if you don’t do right) at each traffic light, no?  Here some honcho decided to save money by not actually putting bulbs in all the traffic-light outlets.  Red turns to green by a process in which red blanks out, “yellow” shows no light at all, and then green appears out of nowhere.  Green turns to red by going out, again “yellow” doesn’t exist, and then red arrives.  Or, perhaps red and yellow don’t exist, but lo and behold! green does.  Or green and yellow are blank, and then suddenly red flashes on.

But then, really, who cares?  No one actually obeys red lights.   Look both ways – or not – and lunge into the fray.

If lines are painted on the streets – big “if” — I assure you they are wild ideas.  The agreement seems to be:  if the lines indicate it’s a two-lane road — but then if five vehicles can fit across, why not go for it?  The upshot being that the patterns of traffic are perpetually changing like a shape-shifter on a rampage.  One minute you’re moving along in what appears to be an orderly manner, when suddenly the bus ahead stops to pick someone up – and everyone in front of/behind you simultaneously charges toward the opening on the other side of the road.  No matter that another car is coming!  It’s now four, five, six across.

The basic traffic controller is the speed bump, often handmade by the neighbors themselves.  One day the folks in lower Ironcollo got disgusted that drivers kept swinging to the wrong side of the road to avoid the bump that covered only the north-going side — so appeared on the previously-non-bumped side a pile of rocks, barbwire, and wooden pallets guarding what looked to be someone’s homegrown attempt to plaster a speed bump.  After it had dried, voila!  a brand-new, all-the-way-across speed-control contraption.  In Santa Fe County such a thing costs months of frustrating meetings with the county and $10,000.

Yes, things are built up.  Things also open down.  Back roads and freeways alike boast potholes the size of horno ovens, and when the road department decides to fill one in, they dig it down deeper, waay deep; leave it for a week with no warning signs; and only then throw down some rocks and tar.

Given the mutability of roads and traffic, it’s curious that everyone drives, not with cuidado — but at break-neck speed.  One theory I’ve harbored is that the big hurry reflects reverberating trauma from the dictatorship days when it was best to do your business and get home.  Another is that the sense of space reflects an indigenous sensibility.  Few rules.  Patterns always changing.  Fluidity.  And get this: although cars are constantly butting in and striving to get ahead, there is no road rage.  Cheerfulness and courtesy abound: a general sense that we’re all in this together.

Curiously, Bolivians have fewer traffic accidents than US-Americans.

My temporary residence at the Planeta de Luz has been a blessing.  This is the closest I’ve been to residing in A. A. Milne’s One Hundred Acre Wood.   I inhabit a cabin tucked away in the northwest corner.  Others – mostly young Argentineans, Uruguayans, Colombians dedicated to organic foods, spirituality, and natural living — live in one or another of the various thatched-roof houses scattered about.  You walk through the woods or across the grasses, by grazing llamas, to get to the solar shower, the telephone, internet access, the tool shop, Eeyore’s house, Kanga’s root cellar, etc.

The big event yesterday was the arrival of … the cow.  Nacho went to Ironcollo to buy her, and it took him nine hours to navigate the two kilometers back because, pregnant, she had to rest every few meters.  Despite that her idea of the arrival was focused entirely on the grasses and flowers of her new environ, to us it was the appearance of the ocean liner in Fellini’s Amacord!

The plan is to use her milk for organic yogurt and cheese – and I am convinced that, as the rest of us succumb to the millstones of econ-eco-peak-oil-collapse, the folks here will be the last ones standing.

Which brings me to the condition of Bolivia.  The country is swiftly traveling the narco-estado highway – and not on the wan natural gas the rest of us are using.  Meanwhile, the government jets around in its French Falcon pronouncing uranium  mines, nuclear power plants,  nuclear agreements with Iran, giant Brazilian dams, Argentinean pipe lines, Mitsubishi lithium mines, industrial highways, Chinese telecommunications satellites, etc. — just as food prices shoot up beyond reach of the populace.  When people throw a protest, the president calls them terrorists and refuses to listen.  (See: “The Techno-Fantasies of Evo Morales,” CounterPunch, 24-26 December 2010.)

Ben Dangl’s Dancing with Dynamite tells the story well: Latin American leftists/progressives/former guerrilla fighters-organizers-torture-victims get elected to the presidency … and turn rightward.

So here we have it: the human condition, early 21st century – after centuries of expansion, exploitation, empire, and eco-disaster.  And herein are couched the choices we each make to contribute our best spirits to humanity and life.

I want to end this letter to you with a tribute to a man who did just that.  I’m still in the I-Can’t-Accept-a-World-Without-Him phase — and maybe will be until I join him.  But John Ross was a whopper of an intellect, activist, journalist, poet, author — not for a moment letting down his resistance to injustice.  He was the first to report from the selvas on the Zapatista uprising, went to Iraq as a Human Shield, and wrote a parade of award-winning books on the Zaps, the U.S. left, and his last, El Monstruo, on his beloved Mexico City.  Yeah, I can’t grok a world without Ross’ wit and strength … his friendship, his being — but maybe, just maybe:  if we take some of it for ourselves?

How are we living in these times? is the question.

CHELLIS GLENDINNING is the author of five books, including When Technology Wounds and the award-winning Off the Map: An Expedition Deep into Empire and the Global Economy. She is Writer-in-Residence at Asociación Jakaña in Cochabamba. She can be reached through her website.


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