Thursday, September 6, 2012

In which I go to Bolivia and discover I can make rain

I flew to Santa Cruz from Asunción. There is no land route (well, paved land route) from Paraguay to Bolivia, although they have a border in common. You can take a bus from Asunción to Santa Cruz through the Chaco, but the trip can take up to 45 hours. On dirt road. (I read that this is a popular route for smugglers and that you have to take all your own water and food as there are no settlements and hence no stores.)

You can go up through Brazil by highway for a while, then switch to a train that takes at least 24 hours and has been dubbed “The Death Train.” Or you can go back through northern Argentina and then up to southern Bolivia. This option would have required I repeat my 27-hour Veloz del Norte experience. I decided my comfort was more important than my money and bought a plane ticket.

I arrived in Santa Cruz to find it enveloped in a haze. Farmers were burning off sugarcane fields. From the air, I could hardly see the lights of the city, but I could see the moon, which hung full and low and orange-red over the horizon. I went outside the airport to find a bus to town. No bus, but several taxi drivers approached me.

“How much?” I asked.

“Ten dollars,” one told me.

“You’re kidding!” I laughed. “I’ll wait for the bus.”

“The bus won’t be here for a half hour yet!” he warned me.

“Well, I have a lot more time than money,” I answered. “I can wait.”

It was in Santa Cruz that I learned of my special ability to bring rain -- and lots of it -- to dry places. By the end of my trip, I had broken droughts in three cities and brought unseasonable rains to two others. There was talk of dedicating statues in my honor.

Santa Cruz was hot and muggy despite a five-month long drought. The wind blew dust that filtered through the tall palm trees and stuck to my sweaty, sunblocked body. During the day, I walked slowly through town, stopping frequently at cafés for drinks. In the evening, I stood fully-clothed under the cold-water-only shower and let the water flow over me until my clothes and I were soaked and my body temperature dropped. When the water first hit my head, it was cold, but by the time it rolled off my body, it was warm. It took a good few minutes for me to cool off.

My room was slightly larger than the cell where Jeff and I had stayed in Salta but without the great ventilation. Only one little window led outside. No wind blew and not a breath stirred. For two days, I sweltered in the oppressive stillness, ate crackers, and plotted my escape. The second night, I lay sweating in my bed when I heard a rustling outside. A few minutes later, shots cracked in the night. Great, I thought, the Bolivian peasants are finally revolting and I’m going to be stuck in the middle. But the bullets came faster and faster and then the air started to cool and I realized it was raining. It poured all night.

I couldn’t find that much to do in Santa Cruz during the day. My main activity was trying to reach my friend Suzy in Chile. We were planning to meet in Cochabamba and travel together for a few weeks. She had given me the phone number of her friend Christine in Cochabamba. When I couldn’t reach Suzy -- who did not have a phone -- I called Christine. She had no idea who I was. Suzy had not told her when she would be arriving nor that I would be staying with Suzy at Christine’s house. But she was gracious and told me she had plenty of room and to call her when I arrived.

According to our plan, Suzy wasn’t due to arrive in Cochabamba for several more days yet. I didn’t want to impose on Christine without Suzy, so decided I would make Santa Cruz a tourist-friendly place. I went to the zoo and almost died from the heat, then I spent an hour wandering blissfully through the giant air-conditioned supermarket that stocked almost anything you could find in a grocery store in the U.S. That left me the rest of the afternoon. I returned downtown and traded some books at the U.S. consulate, where the consul maintained a paperback library. Then I sat at a café and drank a bottle of water that was ice-cold when the waiter brought it but was warm and beaded with sweat within three minutes.

The cathedral across the street looked promising, so I killed a half an hour in there, but had to dodge beggars as I walked out. I decided to investigate a store run by a women’s cooperative called Artecampo. I’d been hesitant to go because it was a good eight blocks from downtown and I just didn’t want to walk that far in the heat, but the thought of returning to my hostel was even more off-putting.

I was interested in seeing the store because I had been working with a women’s artisan cooperative in Chile. We’d never quite reached that enviable stage of profitability, mostly, I suspect, because the organization was funded by a grant and my co-workers got paid whether we made money or not. We also had problems with oversupply, poor quality, and resistance to innovation. I has assumed that these problems were not unique to my organization and wasn’t expecting much of Artecampo.

I was wrong. The products -- appliqué wall hangings of typical Bolivia Oriente scenes, pottery, hats, and mobiles of brightly-colored cloth tropical birds -- were beautifully displayed against clean white walls. Each item had a tag with the name and a brief description of the artisan and on the walls were photographs and signs of the craft processes. I walked into the back and found a young woman poring over a set of ledger books. I explained that I had been working at a similar organization in Chile and asked her if they had problems with artisans not wanting to make the products to certain quality standards.

“At Casa de la Mujer Mapuche,” I told her, “when I tried to tell a woman once that the rug she’d woven wasn’t good enough and we couldn’t put it into the store, she started to cry. My counterpart decided to take the rug anyhow because the woman was so upset, even though I tried to explain that putting items of poor quality in our store would only hurt our reputation and eat up capital.”

“Oh, no, we don’t have that problem,” she said. “Every item has the woman’s name on it. We will only take them if they are good. Our members are very proud of this store and they criticize each other’s work.”

She went on to tell that they also made money. Basically, she had accomplished everything I had wanted to do in Chile: improve quality, set up an attractive, informative, interesting retail center, instill pride and team spirit in the artisans, and be profitable. I bought a wall hanging and left, feeling like a failure. She’d been able to with almost nothing what I’d been unable to do with an MBA from a top twenty school. I decided I’d ask the University of Texas for a refund.