Bolivia (2005-01-19 to 2005-01-27)
Arriving after an early morning flight which required me to wake up around 4am Bolivia time, I found that people had arranged a speech for me that afternoon at the vice presidency. The vice president was not at this meeting, but some government officials interested in free software were there.
We stayed with my friends who hosted me in my previous visit. They live at the southern end of La Paz, and taking a taxi up to the airport from there means ascending some 600 meters to El Alto, which is on the altiplano, through the valley that La Paz occupies. The road that goes up through city streets provides stunning views of the city (see photos). However, on my first four taxi trips this time we took a different route, a toll highway that avoids the best views. To get to the highway requires driving up through the center of the city, which tends to be congested. I could not see any advantage in this route.
The next day, the day of our trip to Santa Cruz, the phone line in the house was not working--perhaps the problem was due to torrential rains that happened nearly every day that week. Since I could not transfer mail by phone, we planned a stop in an internet cafe on the way to the airport. However, the power went out in the whole southern half of La Paz while we were still there. We tried stopping in another Internet cafe in the center, but they would not let me connect my laptop. Then Tania looked at the time and we had to go straight to the airport.
When we got there, we found that the flight had been canceled. We eventually found out that the airport in Santa Cruz had been blocked by protests. All we could do was take a taxi back.
At this point I wanted Tania to have a chance to see the city's beauty as I remembered it. I assumed there must be some reason why the taxis had used the highway, but when I asked the taxi driver, he said there was no advantage at all. He was happy that I wanted to go down through the streets. Tania was delighted with the view, just as I was when I first saw it, just as I am every time I see it. My friends told me that Bolivians prefer the highway because they see it as a sign of progress.
By the next day, the protests in Santa Cruz had reached a crisis point. Protesters had occupied many of the government buildings in the city. Their demand was "autonomy"--but what does that mean?
What they are specifically demanding is to be able to elect a governor for their state, replacing the prefect that now is appointed by the president of Bolivia. This demand has support around the country, as other people in other states also want to elect governors. A constitutional convention, planned for next August, could very likely approve this.
However, my friends told me that the movement for "autonomy" in Santa Cruz also has a vague idea that the state government could nullify national laws. Most especially a national law now being considered that would impose a 50% tax on oil extraction--a tax that the oil companies, which are located in Santa Cruz, don't want to have to pay. My friends said that the businesses have created and manipulated this protest movement, partly by paying people to protest, partly by threatening their employees to protest or be fired.
During the weekend I was worried that if I was able to go to Santa Cruz, protests might flare up again and prevent me from returning to La Paz. What if I could not leave Bolivia in time to go to India after? But people told me that a public meeting, the Cabildo, was planned for later in the week and there would be no disturbances until then. The trip to Santa Cruz was finally arranged for Jan 23-25.
On Saturday we visited Lake Titicaca, and on Sunday I made spaghetti sauce for everyone. As part of this, I learned to make strong tomato paste by blending tomatoes and frying them.
On Sunday evening there was no problem with the airport, but the flight was quite delayed. I had had no dinner, and was hungry, so we went to a place to eat--but I did not realize how late it was getting. I said no to appearing on a breakfast TV show because I wanted to get some sleep, but I agreed to a radio interview at 10am.
Unlike La Paz, which descends from the altiplano, Santa Cruz is at low altitude like most of nearby Brazil. Even in winter it was painfully hot for me there, and this was summer. Of course, I had insisted on air conditioning. The hotel room indeed had air conditioning, but not very much of it. It seemed to use a central cold-air supply that put a lower limit on the temperature it could deliver. I tend to feel hot while trying to sleep, even if in conditions that feel cool while I am awake. It wasn't comfortable.
The next morning we went to the radio station at a university, and I did my interview. Then it was Tania's turn--she founded and manages a free software support company. As she was making her first remarks, I went to plug in my computer. There was a short circuit! The socket exploded in sparks for a second, and then the breaker operated and the whole studio went dark. My whole hand was covered by black soot, and part of my index finger was burnt. But my main thought was that I had just cut off Tania's interview. I felt somewhat ashamed of that. At the same time, the unexpectedness of the situation made me want to laugh.
But Tania had her interview after all. By the time I was able to wash my hand and put some burn cream and a bandage on my finger, they had got the studio running again.
My speech that afternoon was poorly attended. A lot of people had arranged to come to the conference the previous week, when my speech was supposed to be, but only a fraction of them could come at the new date. Nonetheless, it went well. While putting on Saint IGNUcius' tunic at the end, a motion of my arm caused the bandage to fly off my index finger. I said, "Look, a miracle!"
We went back to La Paz the next day without great difficulty.
On my last day in Bolivia, I went with Tania to see the Valle de la Luna. When it rains, the water goes down through sinkholes into a subterranean river. Some of my photos show a bridge; the bridge was built in a place where it is possible to see down into the subterranean river. The guide told us it received that name after Neil Armstrong visited and said it reminded him of the moon.