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.

Buñuelos_con_piloncillo_y_canela

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?

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There aren’t so many moments, now that I’ve been here two years, when I get to use that ‘just-off-the-boat’ expression “Its just like the movies!!”. Familiarity of the real eventually begins to blur the memory of the imaginary, undercutting the primacy of fictional representation as the point of reference from which reality is compared. The question of which is the shadow of which that is constantly asked when one first encounters the origin point of all representations, becomes less urgent. But perhaps for that reason, moments when life imitates art imitating life occur to the point of parody – and thus force the question to ask itself – become all that more precious. This morning I visited a police station that was clichéd to the point of being gleefully so. It was all so serious – and yet so preposterously a rendering of the imaginary.

Now, the Chicago police have a fairly unsavoury reputation for being minority murdering thugs, so its not surprising that its taken me over two years to have my first serious interaction with them. I try to avoid them at all costs, something that is not so difficult being a white woman and therefore less likely to be pulled over and harassed at random, as is their wont. Last night, however, my car got smashed in a hit and run, and I was forced to go make a police report this morning in order to claim my insurance. So off I pedalled on my little bike to the nearest police station.

The building I found myself in felt like set of a bad 70s cop movie. I sniffed the air – no tobacco smell, of course, this is the year 2007. Yet it looked so nicotine stained – the grey and beige colours, the tired out furniture, the slightly grimy touch to the counter, the battered clock on the wall that helpfully explained the 24 hour system, the faded posters with their 1980s typeface, the dusty memorial photos to officers dead for 30 years… . A scathingly pedantic officer took my details, using monosyllabic grunts and the kind of belligerent more-than-my-jobs-worth sarcasm that makes the immigration bureaucrats at the border look like angels. When we had eventually managed to fill the form in, he sat his huge mass of fat down at a keyboard to single-finger type out the report, within the time frame it usually takes a small mammal to evolve. I got plenty of time to look around and take in my surroundings. Gradually I realised I had walked not into a real police station, surely not, but in fact into a surreal movie set, a self-parody of reality that could not possibly have existed outside of the banal imagination of a paper-back writer.

A door behind me opened and an officer walked in. The young man was tall and beautiful in his neatly ironed uniform, and looked for all the world like a young Italian farmhand who ought to be tumbling wenches in the hay on a hillside far far away. The innocence radiating from his face could not have been played better by Tom Cruise himself. A middle-aged fat guy leaning back in his desk chair glared at him over the rim of a coffee. This second dude was one of several killing time on their side of the counter, shirts squeezed over copious girths, the occasional scrubby white moustache setting off pasty dough-like faces. He watched with a look of contempt as the young newbie awkwardly made his way into the room. Eventually he spun his gut round in his chair to face the desk, and threw a question over his shoulder. “Which division did you say your father worked for again?” The newbie quickly stepped forward to answer. The precise division he replied with was lost on me, as I was trying not to giggle.

I turned to watch the action on the other side of the room instead. What had to have been ‘the genius’ – the only guy who knew how to use a computer properly – was sitting at a desk talking to the secretary. You could tell he was the socially awkward one in the plot line, by the fact he wore glasses and had badly died orange hair, receding over an already egg shaped forehead. Remember, this is a 70s cop-movie – the computer guy is always a distinctive and central character. No doubt later he will consult databases or something, provide an essential piece of info to give to the tough-guy heroes who will then dramatically solve the case. The secretary, however, never changes. A muscular bleach-blond, crumpled white shirt hanging over tight blue jeans, leaning on the desk and bitching about her day. That kind of lip-sneering bitching, one arm on her hip and the other tapping red nails over the desk she’s leaning on. At one point they were interrupted by a Asian officer who walked hurriedly through – we are now into 90s cop movie territory, where the token ethnic guy proves that its not just fat middle aged white guys who can beat up minorities. A discussion breaks out about where so-and-so is: he’s in looking after someone else’s prisoner, in a cell somewhere. On cue, so-and-so makes his appearance, bursting in from a tiled corridor outback, dressed in baseball cap and a sports team sweatshirt. The comic-relief, the cute all-American dude. He cracks a few jokes and leaves.

Just when I’m getting to grips with the fact this is now a 90s plot line (despite the obvious mislocation of the Italian hero – we’re in Chicago, not New York. Shouldn’t he be Greek?) in comes the classic 1970s cop. The grizzled old dude in the proper wide police hat (the kind you buy in cops and robbers costumes as a kid), big bushy white 70s moustache and a huge pair of black sunglasses, striding in and chucking his gun down on the desk. He surveys the scene with a self-satisfied smile on his face, taking in the pasty white dough-men, the lost young newbie, the bitching secretary…. All is right in the world.

There was just one thing I thought I would be disappointed by, in my experience of the parody of life and art. Sure, everyone was chugging down cheap coffee, but where were the doughnuts? I consoled myself with the fact that the coffee cups were all from Dunkin Doughnuts, and that therefore there must have been the real thing at some point, only I missed it.
Eventually, the fat fool filling in my paper work managed to get off the phone and drag his arse out the chair to give me my report with one last surly sneer. I made my way out to my bike, past the leering eyes of the baseball hat wearing officers in the corridor, the Hispanic guy trying to explain in broken English that he just wanted to see his kids, past the black kids hanging around looking miserable, and the women trying with no luck to elicit sympathy and help for the theft of her car. I unlocked my bike as a car drew up beside me. Another fat white guy got out accompanied by a tired looking female officer. They slowly rolled over to the door way, glaring at me on the way. In his hand – a bag of Dunkin Doughnuts.