June 2008

Its ironic, somehow, that I only come back to the city for 24 hours a week to check email and do my interneting, and that the last two weekends the internet has not been working for about 23 of those hours. It feels very 2005 to be sitting in an internet cafe again, trying to work out the Spanish key board. Though I´m glad to see the prices are lower and the connection better than last time I was in this position.

Last weekend I too exhausted when I was back here to drag my sorry arse even out to the internet cafe. I spent Sunday lying in bed watching James Bond movies and eating a large box of chocolates. The emergency suspension of my otherwise strictly kept diet plan and internet needs was due to having spent the entire previous night awake, celebrating the solstice in Tiwanaku. When a girl´s been up all night getting her yearly dose of cosmic energy, she´s likely to be too exhausted to do much else the next day.

I´m becoming a bit of a solstice tourist, I´ve realised. Last year it was the Inti Rami in Cusco, and the previous two years I was at Stonehenge soaking up the summer sun. This year in I stood on the top of a big mound of earth freezing my arse off with 40,000 hippie backpackers and middle-class Bolivians from La Paz in search off their roots. I´m not sure the cosmic energy was worth the near frost bite – this is fucking winter in the Altiplano, after all – but it was certainly a cultural experience. The best bit, I have to say, was that Evo Morales turned up in his helicopter, just before dawn, though sadly the rumours that “Tío Hugo” would be coming too proved to be unfounded. To be honest, Evo was the main attraction, and he absolutely out-staged the rising sun. We had been standing around shivering in our spot on the top of the archaeological mound, overlooking the reconstructed courtyard part of the site where the main ´ritual´ was going on, for about two hours. The crowd around us was as freezing as we were, generally murmuring to themselves and occasionally huddling over to a fire further down the hill. A military band down on the plain below us played rousing marching numbers every now and then, which kept spirits up, but then suddenly someone spotted the chopper coming over the horizon, and the crowd went crazy. A chant of “EVO!! EVO!! EVO!!” went up – the kind you generally hear at football matches – and everyone started waving and clapping. Us gringos jumped up and down with the rest of them, trying to pick the president out from the crowd running around him as he landed. I have a photo I´ll post later on when my internet access is better. [Edit 13th July: Got it! look below, or see the original photo and others here.] You can just about spot Evo by his khaki trousers and casual jacket in the middle of all the media and the military. The national anthem was played (it goes on for ages, and by the end even the gringos knew and were singing along with the chorus); a llama was sacrificed; people cheered and shouted. And somewhere in all the excitment the sun came up, and most of the crowd remembered in time that this was what they were meant to be looking at and turned round to hold their hands up to the cosmic light. And then it was all over. We crawled back to bed for an hour or so, Evo went off in his chopper after doing a few circles over the town, and the new winter sun shone down on the remnants of a long night of 40,000 people drinking and puking.

A friend of mine, the anthropologist Clare Sammels, has written a far more ethnographically and politically nuanced analysis of the solstice celebrations at Tiwanaku than I could muster. Having read some of her accounts, I was interested to see the event for myself. We had been warned repeatedly by both Bolivian and other archaeological friends that it would get messy. The town of Tiwanaku is tiny. Its the kind of place where if you walk in the street for more than a ten minutes you will bump into someone you know to stop and pass the time of day with. I love the fact that *everyone* greets each other in the street with “good morning” or “good afternoon” as they pass, to the point that conversation as you stroll on your way is constantly punctuated with greetings to passers by. Its a town that is growing rapidly, as the expected and gradually realised tourism brings new construction, but also as the changing mood in Bolivia results in growing investment in municipal buildings, school and university infrastructure, and general public works. But its still a tiny place, that for one night of the year suddenly gets utterly transformed as thousands of extra people arrive. As we got closer to the date, there was a palpable sense of the town preparing itself. Extra trucks arrived with beer to the restaurants, new hotels and cafes appeared that were otherwise closed all the rest of the year, people put bollards outside their doors and moved their animals out of harms way, and the museum and the public buildings acquired a fresh coat of paint. Then the night itself, stalls selling food, drink, tourist tat and folk art popped up everywhere. Spaces you hadn´t even noticed existed before suddenly sprouted old ladies selling té con té (alcohol of some sort in hot spicy tea), woolly scarves or various versions of street meat. A stage was erected in the plaza next to Eiffel´s band stand (yes, I mean *that* Eiffel. He went to South America and built things there too, including Tiwanaku´s band stand) that was soon filled with a succession of cheesy rock bands that kept the freezing cold crowds dancing through the night. An art exhibit from the local university was put up in the church courtyard, and a line of folk crafts stalls took over one of the streets. As we wandered through the crowds that night, it was strange to feel so suddenly lost in a town that usually felt so small and homely. But the we found a stall selling fireworks. Ethnographic musings and cosmic energy don´t stand a chance against the sudden prospect of hundreds of cheap Chinese explosives. We brought nearly the whole of the guy´s stock for about $30, and the next hour or two was spent indulging in pyromania in the courtyard of our house. Its amazing we even stopped in time to get up to the site for the sun/Evo.

The next morning the town was one giant rubbish heap of puke, trash and fighting/vomiting tourists. I had planned to stay there and sleep off the night without dealing with the drive to the city, but even as gangs of old women were out sweeping the streets clean again I couldn´t take the mess and caught the bus back to La Paz for 24 hours of recovery. The whole event had an unreal quality to it. Tiwanaku makes a lot of its money each year from the solstice, and a lot of those tourist dollars that are cleaning the town up are generated on this one important night. This weekend is the festival oif San Pedro and San Pablo, which is another big event. But its event for Tiwanaku itself, rather than a tourist money generator. We will be eating, drinking and dancing all tomorrow and Monday with the community we work with, and its going to be great. No choppers, no fireworks – but also no strangers puking in your patio and accidentally burning your fields. Hopefully next weekend my internet will be working properly, and I´ll send a comparative description of more Tiwanku festivities then.

Ferretería – one of my favourite Spanish words. Its means Ironmonger, but whenever I go past one I get images of a shop full of ferrets and ferret paraphernalia that makes me giggle. The ferretería that I was in yesterday with my three other gringo friends was a cornucopia of delights, despite there not being a single ferret to be seen. Row after row of shiny steel tools covered every wall, and great big metal clunking things hung from the ceiling. We had some fun trying to guess what things were – tools that manage to look both sleek and ponderous at the same time, massive chunks of worked metal and handy gadgets that make you desperately try to think of an excuse to purchase. We got a bit carried away at the sight of a huge drill – the drill bit was nearly a meter long and 3 cm in diameter. Sure, sure, there’s something a little phallic about getting excited by a massive powerful drill… but it was kinda cool.

My friend asked the guy in the shop for some callipers – our reason for going there in the first place. “Sure, sure”, he says, “I have plenty. What size do you want, I’ll get some to show you”. “Oh”, she says, “fairly big”.

My friend is a rather petite, very pretty little North American girl. Us lot hanging around in the back were a mottly assortment of gringos, drooling over the machinery on the walls and the huge phallic symbols. Casually, he asks my friend what she wants it for. “Ah”, she says. “Its a bit strange. For measuring bones”. He looks at her and laughs. “Oh, you want a calibrador!”

The guy had thought she was asking for a “caliber” – as in, a revolver. He had been about to sell us a weapon, and just wanted to know what size. More to the point, he had a whole selection ready to show her there and then, which is more than can be said for his stock of callipers (we had to go elsewhere).

Ferreterías. Strange places. They can’t sell you ferrets, and they can’t sell you callipers. But they will sell you automatic weapons.

Wandering around La Paz this morning, before the weird temporary blindness incident, it seems there have been a lot of changes in the last year. Buildings are being renovated, a huge new pedestrian bridge has been built over one of the busiest and most dangerous intersections in the centre of town, and new flower beds have cropped up in the centre of the main street downtown. These may seem like small things, but to my eyes they seem monumental – the city feels like someone is starting to take care of it and invest in its infrastructure in some way. Its still chaotic, noisy and polluted, but there are little signs here and there that there is some investment in making it a more pleasant place to live.

One of the things I always notice here in Bolivia is the graffiti. There is a healthy sense of public politics and the expression of popular sentiment though the ubiquitous graffiti and slogans written on every vertical space all over the city. Being the north of Bolivia, most of it is pro-Evo, and recently I’ve noticed that these seem to be expressing an awareness of the change in the infrastructure as well. “Thank you brother Evo for the telephone lines” and “Health used to be for the few, now health is for everyone” being two that caught my eye this morning. As we get closer to the vote in August, though, there had been a proliferation of graffiti referring to the separation movement coming from the South. Little maps of Bolivia coloured in the green, yellow and red of the national flag pop up everywhere with the words “United Bolivia” above. More direct is the one I have put a photograph of here though – “Sucre, the capital of Racism”.

Otherwise, its hard as a visitor to really feel the changes and the politics that are going on, though I wonder how much any ‘normal’ person living day to day would feel it anyway. I see the day to day lives of the people I live with, and mostly they don’t involve intense speculation about political events or revolution. They involve discussion of things like the local gossip, or the coming San Pedro fiesta, their family or the weather. On one side, I know what is happening in Bolivia at the moment is hugely significant, but on the other I’m beginning to realise that revolutions can only really be seen from a certain perspective. In the price of bread perhaps, but more commonly only in the newspapers or the ‘big’ events of history. Take for instance last Monday – we had been told by the family whose house we live in that Monday would be a bad day to come back to Tiwanaku from La Paz, because there was probably going to be a blockade. Various speculative rumours suggested the blockade was about the contraband issue I talked about last week, but the ‘meaning’ of the blockade for us and for our friends was that we would plan to come back on Sunday night rather than Monday, and that we ought to make sure we were stocked up in food just in case it lasted longer than expected. Only yesterday, when we got back to La Paz again and read on Jim’s blog that the blockade was about the failure to extradite Sánchez Berzaín did it take on any other significance. I find myself wondering about revolutions… how do you know when one is happening? What does it look like? What does it feel like to have the world watching you and waiting for you to do something spectacular, when all you’re really thinking about is what to make for dinner that night or whether you ought to marry the boy next door.

Ever heard the Tom Lehrer song “Pollution”? That could have been written about La Paz. Don’t drink the water and don’t breath the air indeed. I’ve been feeling a bit queezy each time I come back here, but having said that, it doens’t seem to be the pollution that’s the problem. I wonder if I’m cursed. I’m beginning to think it would be better for me if I stayed in the countryside. All three weekends I’ve come back to La Paz since I arrived in Bolivia I’ve got ill in some way. Not you’re normal stomach problems and altitude sickness, mind you. But fricking weird feeling-odd-for-no-discernible-reason ill. Last weekend I got cold in the same way one usually gets hot with a fever. I had been sitting indoors all morning, and got colder and colder to the point I was shaking all over even though the temperature wasn’t really that low. I went home and got into bed with all my clothes on and covered with 5 blankets, and still felt so shivery I began to feel sick. In the end I went over to a friend’s apartment, and sat in her little patio garden for three quarters of an hour trying to warm myself up in the sun. After that I felt better. But who ever heard of someone feeling nauseous because they were cold?

Then this afternoon, our second weekend back from the campo, it was even weirder. I was with my zooarchaeologist friend in a shop in the witches market, waiting for her to buy a dried llama foetus for her comparative collection, when I noticed that there were big spots of light in my vision – like when you look into the sun, except that I hadn’t and it wouldn’t go away. It continued like this after we left the shop for about 20 mins, and began to get really annoying because I couldn’t see anything properly with these big blobs of light in my vision all the time. Especially as I was trying to buy a rug, and kind of wanted to be able to see what colour it was before I handed over cash. Anyway, after a while it got worse, and then I began to loose all depth perception and most of my peripheral vision in one eye. At this point I freaked out because I couldn’t see to walk properly and the streets are very steep and crowded, so I got in a taxi and came home. A few hours later, my vision has come back but left me with a headache and a very garishly coloured rug. La Paz isn’t healthy for me, obviously. I need to get back to the campo where I just get food poisoning and sprained ankles like everyone else.

I’m back in Bolivia, and its good to be here. But things seem to have changed considerably since my brief trip last year, and its not just because my Spanish has improved so that I now have a better grasp of what’s going on. Everyone is talking about how much food prices have risen – some say prices are four or five times as much as they were a year ago.

While in the US I was beginning to notice that it now takes $40 to fill the tank of my car while less than a year ago it took $30, I hadn’t begun to notice the rise in food prices much except for a small sign in the bread section of a supermarket explaining why they had rise their prices by 50 cents. Here in Bolivia it is glaringly obvious everywhere we turn. The supermarket near my apartment in La Paz has a big sign over the front door saying “Solidarity against inflation! Buy rice here!” (and this, by the way, is the very posh neighbourhood where people actually shop in supermarkets rather than in street markets). In the rural town of Tiwanaku where I am doing most of my work there are bread shortages. Usually the archaeological project I am working with eats a lot of bread – for breakfast, accompanying each meal, and at ‘tea’ in the afternoon. This year we were told no-one was selling bread in Tiwanaku any more. Elsa, the woman who used to make and sell bread each day in the plaza, had to give up because wheat prices were too high for her to make it affordable. The project cooks suggested they make us Buñuelos, a kind of deep fried donuts/pancake instead. I can’t stand them (I’m a crepe purist), but even those that like them as an occasional treat are baulking at the idea of having them everyday for breakfast. But while we will have to make do with deep fried non-wheat alternatives for a few months, Elsa has lost her business and the rest of Tiwanaku are probably having to change their eating habits for good.


Not quite a donut. Not quite a pancake. Certainly not toast.


Everywhere prices are higher, and wages are slow to catch up. Having put in grant applications for research a year ahead of when they plan to do field work, several anthropologists I know are finding that when the money comes through its already not enough. The airfares have doubled, the cost of living is three times as much as they budgeted, the wages they were going to pay assistants are not engouh. What with the dollar falling even against the boliviano money doesn’t go as far as it once did, although living in Bolivia as a foreign will always be very cheap in comparison to Europe or the US. I’m beginning to worry about when I go to Chile next year though. The cost of living in Chile is comparable to the US already, limiting the amount of time I can afford to do my research in by the limits of the grants I can apply for. Speaking to members of the project I will be working with there next year, they are saying that this year they already can’t afford to run their vehicles and are having to cut back on food costs.

I am only feeling this so directly because I have just left the US and am in South America. Other than gas prices, are we feeling this crunch in the “West”? Is it affecting us on a day to day basis, so that our eating habits are changing as dramatically as they are everywhere else in the world?