We have finally found routine in daily life. We have been in our apartment two weeks now, but somehow it seems like much more. Similarly, while it has been 40 days since we left the United States, that feels like long ago.
Monthly Archives: August 2016
A few of our contacts in La Paz said they were looking out for apartments for us, but after two weeks without anything showing up, we decided to try to figure it out ourselves. We had heard lots of scary stories about people renting (or selling) homes that were not actually their own, and other swindles that left renters out a few months of rent. There are also some online listings, and travellers kept mentioning airbnb. All those are geared to foreigners and are hence very expensive over the course of five months. So I bought a newspaper, circled things, and started making calls. I should say here that I do not like the phone to start with, and doing this in Spanish with the time delay that seems to come with Bolivian cell phones is even worse. But the first place we saw (larger than our house, great views, affordable, but totally empty) made us think we could find something. The second place was owned by an old lady who wanted nothing to do with us when she found we had three children (and shown by two immaculately made-up, well-dressed real estate agents who told us we couldnt find what we were looking for for the price we wanted, suggesting we look in a different neighborhood. The third place had three bedrooms, lots and lots of windows, wood floors, a big kitchen and living room, and two bathrooms. Even better, it is on a tranquil dead-end street (a ´´pasaje´´). The views are great, the owner friendly, the price OK, the location a 30-40 minute walk from school. We moved in Monday, 24 days after landing in La Paz. For now, just one photo.
If week one was spent just getting our bearings, week two was when we began to figure out a bit more about regular life. I (Paul) had my first two classes at the university. I was told to expect 5 to 10 students for this advanced course, but on the first day there were 20 and on the second day about 30. I have also been told that many are just listening in; it isn’t til the second week that I will really know how many are actually signed up (and how many will turn in homework is another mystery).
The folks at the Unidad Educativa Evangelica Los Amigos (or just the friends school, if you prefer) have been very friendly. We visited for second time on Tuesday to talk to the director; he was very open to the idea of Anna (Zeke is in the primary school with a different director) attending as a listener, meaning she participates in everything but doesn’t get official grades at the end of the year. That same day we bought uniforms for Anna and Zeke, and Anna started Wednesday afternoon. We got the OK from the morning director on Wednesday, and Zeke started Thursday morning.
August 6 is the Bolivian national independence day, and on Friday the 5th the schools of that part of town marched through the streets as part of the parade. Thus Anna and Zeke’s first days of school were spend partly on marching practice. Next week will bring the regular schedule. Zeke goes from 8:30 to 12:30, Anna from 1:45 to 6:10 (morning and afternoon turnos are common in South America, as it lets a school have more students with less infrastructure), and it takes about 35-50 minutes walking and anywhere from 25 to 55 minutes on the bus, depending on traffic. Thus it feels like our weekdays are framed by the comings and goings of Anna and Zeke, who don’t see each other at all between 7:45am and 6:45pm. We have hopes of finding an apartment a little closer to school, but quite close will be hard, as the neighborhood around the school is mostly businesses. Now that school is figured out, finding a place to live is our main job in week three.
The idea was to get out of the city for a few days; all of us were needing to see a little green. We thought about Copacabana, along Lake Titicaca, but hotels were expensive. The folks at the Bolivian Quaker Education office in La Paz had mentioned that there would be a celebration in Sorata this weekend for the tenth anniversary of the internado, basically a dorm for high school students who live too far from town to go to high school (I talked to one kid who walks 7 hours to get home every Friday). So at the last minute we changed gears and headed for Sorata.
Getting to Sorata means taking a taxi or bus to the place from which the busses leave. There’s no station, just a block where the minivans wait until they’re full. As is usual in Bolivia, about 17 people fit in a minivan, with any large baggage tied on top. The road winds up and out of La Paz, with great views over the city, and then into the suburb of El Alto, which has many roads and bridge under construction, so that you’re always bumping through a grid of dusty roads and walled-in lots with half-built houses (and the occasional very new-looking house) and messages like “autos sospechados seran quemados” (suspicious autos will be burned) or “ladrones pillados seran linchados” (thieves caught will be lynched). This finally gives way to paved roads and views of Lake Titicaca and the mountains of the Cordillera Real.
The last 20 miles into Sorata are the classic Andean toboggan ride, down windy roads that you wish the driver would take a little slower. We have been on narrower roads with larger dropoffs, but this was enough to bring those roads to mind. Sorata itself seems thankfully tranquilo after a week in La Paz. Our hostel was mellow and made us a lovely breakfast including crepes and eggs. The celebration at the internado was sweet, and we were made very welcome. I’m not sure how it will fit in with school schedules, but we’d love to spend more time there.
And the hiking is good too. It sounds like Sorata had hoped to be more of a tourist place than it now is, as there are many multi-day treks that can be taken from Sorata. Instead most of its income comes from mining, lately mostly gold. There are signs of wealth – kids in the park watching movies on an iphone, for instance – but the town mostly feels sleepy and remote.
Our first week in La Paz has had its ups and downs. We arrived a day late due to airline problems, but we did get nights in hotels in Miami and Santiago (and meals). Once here, as predicted, we were all hit by the altitude (we are somewhere between 11,000 and 12,000 feet). We drank lots of coca tea, walked slowly, and sat around a bit.
There were the ¨What are we doing here?¨ moments, leavened by the ¨Wow, I´m so glad we´re here¨ moments. We are small town folks, and the city can be overstimulating. Trying to figure out which bus (if any) to take, then trying to flag said bus, then trying to squeeze all five of us on and off the bus – it isn´t anything we´re used to. Sidewalks full of people, traffic that is nearly gridlocked, and all the chaos of markets and vendors that fill up the sidewalks and spill into the streets make it stressful to manage a group of five when you aren´t exactly sure where you´re going or how to get there.
There were partial days of sickness, some homesickness, days of trying to figure out where we would get food we could eat. One thing that has been uniformly positive has been my connections at the university. They are very happy I´m here. It turns out the course I´m teaching – an undergraduate analytic number theory course – hasn´t been taught in years, as the guy who taught it retired a few years back. This makes it clear that I´m not taking anyone´s class away.
On Thursday we had a disappointing meeting with the school we were hoping to have Anna and Zeke attend. They say government control is tight, and they can´t do it. Then in the afternoon a meeting with another school that was much more positive. We still need to speak with the director tomorrow, but this school has had much more exchange with North American Quakers and seems to be more open to the idea. Looking for a house or apartment has been on hold until we figure out where the kids will be in school, but we have a few folks looking out for furnished places for us. Our current hostel is nice, but the five of us are sleeping on bunk beds in one room smaller than most bedrooms in the U.S. With a year´s worth of stuff all around us, it is cramped, and paying by the night is a lot more expensive than paying by the month. The hostel does have a computer and wi-fi, though it is often down or slowed incredibly by other travelers on their phones. The laptop we brought seems to have lost its ability to hold a charge, and only works when plugged in. For a few days, the computer´s fan made a noise like a blender; now it only says ¨Fan error¨ and shuts off. So there are things to be figured out.
What are the upsides? Views of Illimani (the snow-capped mountain that looms over La Paz), wandering streets so steep that you can´t believe someone decided to build a city here, finding fruit that we can´t get at home or an incredibly good bowl of soup for less than a dollar, conversing and connecting with people from many stations in life. As we left La Paz on Friday for a weekend in Sorata, I was imagining life in Bloomsburg right now, and this felt so much more exciting.