Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Wrapping Up

Two potential renters came to look at our apartment yesterday, meaning that there was a big cleaning and clearing push on Sunday. Seeing the place nearly as empty as when we moved in makes it clear that yes, we are soon moving on.
Tomorrow is Zeke’s last day of school, and Friday will be Anna’s. It has come very suddenly, and I am trying to soak up the 4 or 6 times a day walk on Calle Max Paredes as much as possible. I have the desire to tell all the vendors that we greet most days that we won’t be by any more, and thanks for your friendly smiles and greetings. At school we have had this conversation several times:
“Now that school is ending, are you going home?”
“No, we are headed to Argentina, where my in-laws live, and where there are an aunt and uncle and cousins.”
“And after that, you are headed home?”
“No, then we are headed to Peru.”
And if the conversation goes on, I explain that we can’t stay in Bolivia longer. My work visa expires in a few weeks, and Leticia, Anna, and Zeke’s have already expired. There will be a substantial fine when we leave, but that fine is only a bit more than the cost of all the documentation and application for a visa extension, with the extra expense worth it for the hours not spent in the immigration office. And we can’t really go home, for we have rented our house out until the end of June.
It is psychologically interesting to think about breaking up a year this way. In many ways it feels like we are just settling in. Thanks in part to recent school projects in Zeke’s class, it feels like we have made friends among other parents, and some of them have expressed sadness that we won’t be back in March for the new school year. At the university I mostly feel like I have figured out how things are done and I have a rapport with my colleagues and students. And so we are leaving friends and connections behind, but not heading home to other friends and connections, but instead heading off to Peru, where we are (mostly) starting over.
Thus it is nice to be heading first to La Falda, where we have family, and where we spent a year in 2007-2008. This will be our third time back since then, and in addition to reconnecting with people, it is enjoyable to walk the streets where Zeke learned to walk, where we pushed a stroller filled with Zeke and groceries and occasionally laundry, where we walked Anna to preschool as the sun came up on cold winter mornings, and where Leticia tried to walk every street in town.
At work a standard conversation starter is “where do you live?” and when I say “Alto Sopocachi”, they say “Oh, so you have water.” So I ask where they live, and if they have water. Bolivia has been in an extended dry period, and when we arrived in July the news was of loss of crops in the lower central part of the country, around Cochabamba. November begins the rainy season, but the rains have been slow to come, and now the reservoirs that supply the city with water are below 10%; many are below 1%, and there are photos in the paper of dry reservoir bottoms.
Three weeks ago water shortages hit La Paz, but as different neighborhoods are served by different reservoirs, not all neighborhoods have been affected. We have not been affected at all (and I tell myself we only need to hold out for 16 days more). There is an official schedule of when different neighborhoods will have water, but people complain that it is not followed at all, and some places have been without water for weeks. Ironically, the Zona Sur, the lower, wealthier part of town that feels to us like southern California, has been hit hard, while El Alto and the upper neighborhoods, which are largely poorer and more indigenous (here more money buys you lower land with more oxygen), still have water. There are exceptions, of course, and there are poorer neighborhoods across the valley without water. The newspaper enjoys publishing photos of demonstrations in the streets and long lines of people with buckets to collect water. (In the midst of this, we had a 4-day garbage strike, and so there were also pictures of mountains of garbage blocking one lane or more of streets.)
It is refreshing that the public discourse doesn’t contain the strong strain of climate-change denial that infects the U.S. With warming temperatures, the glaciers around La Paz are receding, reducing the water supply, and with changing weather patterns, the rains are regularly coming later. The opinion in the editorials is that this is what the future will look like, and that we need to make adjustments to live with it as well as possible. Even though the large economies of the world are largely to blame, there are still things that can be done here, like reducing burning of grasslands for agriculture.
But time marches on. The rainy season is coming; most days there is thunder, often lightning and/or hail. Given how much thunder and cloud cover there has been, though, not much actual rain has fallen. My grades are due in 13 days, and I have a pile of exams and homework to grade, a few more lectures and five exams to write, and then more grading and calculating. At the same time, there will be packing to do, and there are all these things that we’d like to do at least one more time, because we don’t know when we will be back. For me it is reminiscent of the last few weeks of my senior year of college – schoolwork to finish, an apartment to clean and pack, and friends to spend time with, all with a clear deadline. It is a little sad, but if the alternative is never leaving a place and never moving on, then I’ll take this in an instant.

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Running in La Paz


Running in La Paz is like trail running, on steep trails with lots of roots and rocks. I have found some routes – like higher up on Av. Buenos Aires, or the descent on Kantutani below the Puentes Trillizos toward the Zona Sur – that are mostly smooth pavement. Ever since I started teaching three classes, I have been looking for ways to squeeze in the runs. The most common is at 8am after dropping Zeke off at school. Instead of the half-hour 1.4 mile walk, I take a half-hour 3.5 mile run, either using Av. Buenos Aires (but not making it to the calm upper part) or crossing the Prado into Miraflores, turning right at the stadium, coming across the Puente America and then up through Sopocachi.

Both of these runs start in the market district, which is bustling at 8am. There are plenty of other runners out, but they are parents and children rushing to school or men in suits or women in skirts and heels on their way to work. The sidewalks are partially and sometimes completely blocked by stands selling everything from – well, everything – and people pausing to look at stuff block even more. So the walkers and the hurrying runners weave out into the streets, where the traffic is often moving slow or stopped with taxis and vans loading and unloading passengers and goods. There are old men with huge bundles on their backs or with hand trucks, sometimes running downhill half out of control. The parents holding children´s hands are a particular challenge, as they are wider and you can´t always see the kids in the jumble of foot traffic. A few weeks ago I passed a mother and daughter just as they jumped up on the sidewalk after running across the street in front of a bus. The daughter, maybe five years old, tripped on the curb and I caught her by the armpits, propped her up, and we all kept going in opposite directions. At times this all seems like an elaborately choreographed dance, and it is enjoyable to try to weave through it (and fit into it) while moving at double speed. In addition the streets are often cobblestoned and slippery when even a little wet, and there is the usual dodging of dog poop and smashed fruit from the day before. The edges of the sidewalks have slanted bits for cars to drive into garages, and these can be slippery too. In short, I feel I can go days without ever really opening up my stride into full speed. With the hills, a 4 mile run can have miles ranging from 8 to 11 minutes. But it isn´t boring.

At the end of October I ran the La Paz 3600 (referring to the altitude, in meters) 10K, a huge race that somehow manages to avoid many torturous uphills. I got a ride in a taxi with my friend Diego from the math department which managed to drop us fairly near the start in Miraflores. We seemed reasonably close to the front, but that notion faded away when the gun went off and we stood still for almost a minute. Just as at large races in the United States, there were tons of people who started way too close to the front for their ability, and I spent the first mile and a half passing people who were moving much slower – some already walking. The race started downhill on the Avenida Busch, with one direction reserved for the runners. Like many, though, I went over the grassy median into the other lanes to pass the hundreds of slower runners ahead of me, a strategy that ended when the road closure abruptly ended and we found ourselves facing oncoming traffic. I started my watch when I crossed the start line, and the all-downhill first mile went by in 7:29, probably a minute slower than it could have been without traffic, but still one of the fastest miles I had run in La Paz. We passed the stadium, where people were waiting to buy tickets for that day´s Bolivar – Strongest game, and there were many competing chants. I continued to pass people, some with backpacks of various sizes, a few with clipboards with papers attached, some with packs of kleenex or bags of water.

By mile 2 (passed in 7:13) we had passed the Parque Urbano Central and taken two left turns onto the Prado, where for the first time the race felt open. As in every moderately hard run I´ve done in La Paz, my lungs were feeling the effort – that slight burning feeling like when you sprint for long – but my legs felt no fatigue at all. We passed a rock band playing at the Plaza de Estudiante, turned right on Aspiazu, and mile 3 went by in 7:01. On Av. Ecuador I passed the family, and Anna and Zeke came out and ran with me for a few blocks before I asked them to turn around to be sure they reunited with Leticia. I had asked them to count places for me, and they said I was in about 300th place, so I made a game of counting how many people I passed after that. Around this time I began noticing runners leaving or joining the race course, and some people I passed were moving so slowly that they couldn´t have gotten that far that fast without cutting the course somewhere. Mile 4 came in 7:14, with some uphill to Plaza España and then downhill to Plaza Avaroa, another place where runners were re-joining the course.

The Puente America seems like a mild uphill when you walk it, but when you run it in the 5th mile of a 10K, it seems like going up a cliff. Still, I was passing runners, and counting. By now I had passed 50 or 60 people, though I wasn´t counting people who it didn´t seem could legitimately be in front of me. Soon off the bridge we turned right and barreled downhill, and my count, almost at 100, went backwards for a little while. Soon enough, though, we were on the final uphill to the Puentes Trillizos, and I was passing people again. At the top and the right turn onto the bridge, a crowd of volunteers was chanting NO FALTA MUCHO! NO FALTA MUCHO! (not much left) and I tried to pick up the pace while getting my breath back. With 200 meters to go I managed to kick past two chubby grandmothers in sweatsuits, and the finish came quickly. There was no visible official clock, but I stopped the watch at 44:24, faster than I had imagined I could run at this altitude. That hard 5th mile had been a 7:50, with the last 1.2 in 7:36 (actually it was 1.1 by my watch. I had passed 128 ¨official¨ runners, meaning I estimate I was around 200th of a reported 8000 runners and walkers (and course-cutters). All told, it was a delight and a great way to tour the city, seeing a few parts I didn´t know well. Having been at altitude for three months, I´ve clearly acclimated a lot, but if the course had used more hills – for instance, the one I walk every day to get home from the university – it would have been a lot rougher.

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Time, and How it Flies

(An indication of how the time is flying by is this post, which I wrote 19 days ago but have not had time to post. Also in this time, a camera died, and we bought another. And the computer at home seems to want to erase the files of any drive you put into it. So we are not putting anything into it. I am including some photos from a September trip to the Senda Verde animal refuge near Corioco, in the Yungas, about 8000 feet lower than La Paz, and an October trip to Chulumani, a less touristed town also in the Yungas.)


Capybaras are fantastic.

Time, it goes fast. By now we have been in La Paz for 12 weeks; today I will go to the bank to pay the rent, marking the halfway point of our four months in this apartment. Leon and Louisa came to visit from Argentina, stayed for two and a half weeks, and are now back in Argentina. On Monday night I took Tenaja to the airport to fly to her grandmother’s wedding in Pennsylvania; she’ll come back in a week and a half. Walking into the airport in El Alto, I could not even remember being there; when we arrived in July, we were all in a blur of short sleep, entry visa logistics, and lack of oxygen. After walking the airport a bit and coming around a corner as we did on arrival I remembered being there. But it does all seem like so long ago.


This was perhaps Tenaja’s most memorable moment of the weekend. You’re not supposed to pet the animals, but they don’t always give you the choice.

One thing about time spent in Bolivia – and travel in general – is that it often seems like much more living is crammed into the days than it is at home. We have had a pattern of trying to get out of the city at least one weekend a month, so there have been weekend trips to Coroico and Chulumani in the Yungas (only 60 miles away, but 7000 feet lower) and a day trip to Tiwanaku, an archeological site west of the city. I spent three days in Cochabamba at the annual congress of the Bolivian Mathematical Society, where I gave a talk and was one of the honored foreign guests. All the other foreign guests were older and more distinguished, whereas I feel like a random guy who just happened to be in Bolivia at the time. Nonetheless, in the official photos, there I am in the front row with the distinguished guests. At the university, I have taken over two courses for a professor that had to go to the United States for health reasons, so now I am teaching two master’s level courses – Theory of Rings and Fields and Seminar in Algebra – as well as my advanced undergrad course in analytic number theory. Next week I will give a talk to the Bolivian Computer Science annual congress, talking about the number-theoretic roots of cryptography. Every Thursday the math students and a few professors play futsal (indoor soccer, on a wood floor), and I have done that twice now. I am signed up for a 10K run at the end of October, and I’m trying to run a few times a week to prepare. There are a few guys I meet with weekly to converse with (mostly in English, but we often lapse into Spanish) to help one of them prepare for the TOEFL so he can study music in the States. And there is the daily walking of Zeke and Anna back and forth to school, meaning that I walk somewhere between 5 and 8 miles daily. So I am busy, happily busy.


And monkeys come to watch us eat, too.


A and Z with Pablo of Senda Verde.


This road was dodgy for hours on end. The strangest part is how normal it all started to seem.


A classic Andean road experience, the hour long delay as a road crew clears the road after a small landslide.


A view of where the landslide had been from across the valley.


A walk above Chulumani.


At the cross above Chulumani. Thanks to Leon for these!

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