Friday, January 29, 2010

On the Road Again

I am sitting this morning in my new quarters in Cochabamba, after yesterday's long tiring bus ride from LaPaz. I believe the distance may not be that much further than Portland to Bend about 200 miles, but the ride took over eight hours. There was the snarling traffic in the adjacent community of El Alto. Honking collectivos crammed with riders, overloaded trucks and other buses belching out diesel exhaust were gridlocked by intersections supervised by overtaxed, but relaxed, traffic police. The bus wedged its way down a narrow street and stopped at a makeshift second bus station, where more passengers loaded until the bus was completely full. I had expected the bus to be like those I had seen in India, crammed to the roof, but this was actually quite a surprise. It was a comfortable double-decker, with each person having an assigned seat that reclined, and enjoying ample leg room. My red roller carry-on was stowed in the belly of the bus, but I brought my backpack on board,which I stowed under my feet, because I didn't want to be separated from my laptop. The bus had left the main terminal by 8:40 and, by 9:30, it hadn't really made it out of the city limits. Finally heading East, it passed the airport, an industrial area, more housing developments and made it to the open road.
What I had noticed also in Brazil, but especially here in Bolivia, was the vast number of uncompleted projects. Living units stood cold and incomplete, some lacking walls, roofs, windows. rebar sticking up from foundations, like iron weeds. Some units were complete but empty, and covered already with grime. Others were inhabited, but clearly lacking power or any amenities. It was explained to me that the problem with every work project is sustainability. People start with a little money from government grants or donations or loans. It is used up and then there is nothing left to complete the project. It takes years sometimes just to build a little house.
Yet, most of all, along the narrow rutted, but paved highway, I saw dirt, poor people and garbage. I had a somewhat detached feeling about the poor people and dirt. It was the garbage that effected me. I wondered whether my discomfort was a result of my German-American sense of order. The roadway, drainage ditches, creek bottoms, alleys, and empty lots were scattered with large quantities of refuse, especially plastic bottles and bags, paper products,rusting metal and broken building materials. I am sure I will be seeing the same in Africa, probably even worse. I dreaded the thought. I had seen such environmental affrontery already in India but, for some reason on this ride, I was more bothered by it. I guess it disturbed the scenic aspect of the trip. Seeing poor people in colorful clothing in front of quaint mud structures relaxing, or tending animals, or weaving blankets can look anachronistically idyllic. Yet the garbage upset the picture and negatively effected sympathetic thoughts toward the otherwise sad human condition. Instead, I was annoyed by the refuse. It was disgusting, especially when watching people picking through it or dogs and other animals rumaging amidst it. I remembered that there was no Thursday trash service and this ever-present garbage mess was minimal, when compared to the fact most the people have neither indoor plumbing nor clean water. The outhouses in the back, if there are any, are shared by many and the constant issue of people looking for clean water to drink or to bathe is a chore beyond my understanding. I take interesting pictures, but there is really nothing romantic about poverty.

As I was considering these thoughts, the bus window in front of me slid open and a portly man, who has been incessantly and loudly talking on his cellphone, pitched an empty plastic green Sprite bottle out the window. I heard it rap on the pavemment and, in spite of the millions of pieces of trash it joined, I found myself saying audibly, "You asshole." He neither heard me nor probably would have understood me. I discussed these thoughts with the site director, Jean Carla here in Cochabamba. She understood more personally and certainly even deeper than I the complex issues facing her country.
On Monday, I will be putting my first hours at the orphange and will post pictures of my experience next week. I'd love to share the rest of the bus ride before then. Just imagine a big bus on a truck-filled, narrow, windy boulder-strewn road taking 3 1/2hrs to go 60 miles crossing over a 13,ooo foot Andes pass. Must I say more!


  1. I do so understand where you are coming from. I think -- at least where I am concerned and it may not be the same for you or others, but it is easy to have compassion for a people, a country when we view it from a distance. But we are accustomed to a very different way of life and when we are thrust into the midst of of that other world it is difficult to understand how anyone could or would live that way. The fact that there probably was never an alternative or even an awareness that there might be another way is something that is difficult for us to comprehend. And even if we do come to a place where we can begin to understand, it will never be easy to change what has been for so many years. I promise to have some more comforting thoughts on my blog this evening! Got help feed the spirit!! It is fascinating, sad, exciting, amazing reading your posts and I do look forward to them.


  2. Incredible. I'm going to have to read this again. No, I can't imagine your bus mind doesn't stretch to those limits!

    And then there's Haiti.

    The comprehensive failure of human beings to care about one another speaks, I think, to the inability of our political, educational, business and religious institutions to do even a minimal job of constructing effective bridges to span those chasms that divide us.

    It's easier, in our words, to make war than it is to make love.

    Hang in there, my friend. You remain a symbol of hope in my eyes!

  3. You're giving me a first-hand account in English of some of the things conservationists face. A number of years ago when the Tapir Fund was giving money to Ruben Nuñez in the Andes of Ecuador, I became aware that "tapir conservation" was not so much about tapirs, as about basics. Ruben steadfastly walked miles day in and day out to help his countrymen understand some of the things we take for granted, such as picking up trash, recycling, and contourplowing on the steep Andean slopes. In his own right, Ruben was a visionary and ahead of his time for his location. One day he taught the mayor of a town about contour plowing (a new concept). Another day, he came to a town where he'd been working with the people and found that someone had rescued a bird from death rather than let the youngsters stone it. In seeing these things, he knew he had accomplished something.

    You are seeing and relating the reality of why conservation is so difficult in some areas. I mention conservation because that's my touchstone with what you're seeing. When I started out with the tapir cause, I wondered why someone didn't just go in and teach or promote conservation. We almost come from another planet with perceptions like this.

  4. I can see where you are coming from perfectly. And then you think to yourself--if I police my area and myself and then I see what happens here in such a vast area how will my little bit help our environment or peoples. Ya know it just has too. I couldn't comprehend the garbage and the carelessness of anyone just to pitch something out a window---but they see a mess and figure one more thing--who cares. WE DO DAMMIT!!!

    Jacob's right, ya know. And we will do what is easiest. MB

    BTW: My Mother's home is for sale not mine. MB

  5. There is so much to think about here--in your post first of all, but also in the previous comments. And then there's my own first-hand experience of poverty, and the fact that I've befriended some very poor people in my life, including some homeless people.

    Poverty isn't a comfortable subject either to speak about or hear about. I find that most people maintain a kind of "firewall" (I'm not quite sure what to call it), where they compartmentalize and very often end up blaming the victims, whether consciously or not. I've been seeing a lot of this kind of thing lately on the various discussion boards I frequent with regard to Haiti.

    What's happening there deeply threatens people, so to protect themselves they invent or imagine ways in which they are somehow "better" than the victims. It was the same thing with New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It's a total illusion of course, but it allows people to maintain some sense of control, not to mention a few tattered shreds of ego.

    I had no idea I was going to say any of that when I started typing this comment. This was just going to be a brief one, telling you I need more time to think about it all before I attempt to put my thoughts into words. Funny thing is...I still need more time to think about it!

  6. Lee, I left you a note on:

    It's interesting that the comments are all long on this post. You've tapped into something here.

  7. Especially after reading these comments, I also feel the need to chime in. Beth (my wife) started a business making reusable shopping bags - the idea to replace as much as possible, produce and bulk food use of plastic. We have found it very difficult for people to undertand any impact - although I do think people comprehend the effects on a deeper level.

    I started to really understand the different places where people view from - but I have to continually remind myself. We have a hard time simply getting people we work with to recycle cans - and they get a few cents for them (by the way this is in Oregon and I'd think people were more aware).

    Now if you add the mental consumption of poverty to the mix, its absolutely a tough deal to understand and make change. I can only imagine my reaction if I were on the bus with you. Damn.

  8. Look back in time. Think of streets in medieval days: trash, excrements, urine, you name it, it was there, thrown right through the windows. Nobody was bothered by it because it was all they knew.

    Isn't the real problem plastic?

    I'm glad that the ride, though long, proved to be in more comfortable conditions inside the bus than you had initially thought.

  9. You seem to be stirring up a hornets nest without even trying, just looking through several of your very interesting posts. Still its good to be made to think and to be challenged.