My brief time in Bolivia has left me with a sense of awe, inspired by the diversity of beautiful landscapes, the cultural kaleidoscope of native people, the familial embrace of outsiders, and the gastronomical delights. In cabbing through the cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz, I have been delighted to find drivers that are eager to share the history, culture, struggles, and beauty of the Country and its people. As the highest administrative capital at 3600 meters above sea level, La Paz is a wonder – built in a crater in the Andes and up the steep slopes to El Alto, a city largely constructed over the past two decades with a population exceeding that of historic La Paz, to heights of 4100 meters.
A unique physical and cultural landscape has presented some comparably unique challenges. For example, in La Paz, the historic structure of the city and function as an administrative capital means a high population density, and in turn intense traffic congestion and degraded air quality. Busses and cabs must be small to navigate the narrow winding streets, and are thus plentiful to perform in their public transportation function. The incline makes San Francisco look like the Canadian Prairies, and when coupled with a series of over 100 underground rivers transporting water from the tops of the mountains, the feasibility of sustainable western forms of transit, train, streetcar, or subway, is pretty much non-existent. Recently a new form of public transit has been implemented in response, the Teleferico, a cable car system only existing in a handful of places around the world, which allows its riders to experience unparalleled views of the city as they leisurely ascend or descend to their destination.
The flight between the cities revealed further the environmental anomaly that is Bolivia – moving from rocky snow topped mountains peaking through a blanket of clouds, suddenly dropping off to the lusciously vegetated biological wonder that is the Amazon River Basin just outside bustling Santa Cruz. Responsible for over 40% of the country’s GDP, the productive power of the place is evident when one hits the markets (you would be hard pressed to find a food or clothing product absent of a reference to an SC facility or office). The colonially influenced city center is host to a spattering of grand plazas and monuments.
Though only 2 weeks into my placement, settling into our new home in Santa Cruz’s city center has happened quickly. My place of employment, UniArte, which I obtained through Cuso International, is an organization of artisans of various indigenous groups from the Santa Cruz area who have welcomed me with open arms. In travelling to the country side to learn the ins and outs of the organization, I was invited graciously into the artisan’s homes to share meals, to meet their families, to see their work and their communities, and experience a sense of community beyond anything I had known prior. Neighbors are like close family, a person’s joys or sorrows are borne by the collective, a condition which lessens the blow of difficult times and elevates ones sense of well being when things are good. The art produced represents an embodiment of the Bolivian spirit – colorful, lively, diverse and unique, – sharing the stories, struggles, and pleasures of its stewards. Most of my 9-7 work day takes place in an office at the back of the store out of which the artisanal products are sold. I have been working as entrepreneurship advisor to develop a business plan and work toward sales increases and to promote the association’s self-sustainability. I have found it essential to be self-driven and able to pave your own way by being receptive to the needs and desires of those I am working for.
Of course, no discussion of Bolivia would be complete without making note of the food. My 2.5 hour lunch break allows me to soak in all things dining and siesta and enjoy the many flavors this city can offer my pallet. As a result of the country’s range of altitudinal conditions, weather patterns, Amazonian jungle, and proximity to the ocean, there are few factors limiting what can end up on your plate. The parilla are a rarity by no means, and for a good reason – these wood and cole burning grills produce some of the most incredible beef, chicken, chorizo (you name it), you have ever set your chops into. Their traditional soup, “sopa de mani”, blew me away – with its base made from fresh ground peanuts and meat bones, a flavorful creamy aromatic broth. Restaurant menus posted at storefronts boast duck, alligator, turtle – a dream come true for the adventurous foody.
So far, I must say that I have grown a lot in this short time. It has been a huge adjustment for my family (who has travelled with me) and for me as well. It has been challenging, but it has also been extremely rewarding – nothing shy of an adventure. I have profound respect for the communities I am working for and hope that my efforts here do nothing but help to further empower an already thriving and strong community that has managed to pool ideas, perspectives and energies to create a mutually beneficial enterprise endeavor. You can check out their facebook page at www.facebook.com/uniartesantacruz
Thanks for reading!
Ana Senatore-Smith is a part of Cohort 4 of the Master’s of Development Practice program at the University of Waterloo. Ana’s background is in Global Studies and Spanish. Her current research interests include sustainable cities, green energy initiatives, local economic development, heritage preservation, food security and sustainability, urban and rural planning, ecology, and refugee rights.