Cholitas, Pachamama, rock bands and protests… my first impressions of urban Bolivia

Swooping into Laz Paz from the Telerifico (cable car) is the best way to experience a city for the first time. The lives that are somehow built into the jagged rocks of the dramatic mountain face that frames the city spill out beneath you… the shanty areas of El Alto, the millions of rows of little houses stacked on top of each other, the winding streets, the larger, gleaming buildings, the little green plazas that are dotted around all over the place…

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The markets are where you really find the heart of life in the city. In the main market in the centre of the city, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables in every colour under the sun are stacked high, gleaming red, green, orange, purple…. . Tables of eggs, and cheese, and spices, are everywhere… and toys, and books, and rip-off dvds, and beauty products, bras… They don’t have supermarkets as we know them, because everyone comes here to buy from their cholita.

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Cholitas are the indigenous Aymaran and Quechan women that come to the market to sell their wares. Ever seen the typical postcard picture of a lady in a wide skirt, bulky knitwear, a small bowler hat perched on her head, and long thin plaits that end in pom-poms? She’s a Cholita, and yes that is how they dress day-to-day. Allegedly, the position of the hat signals their relationship status to passers by: straight on means married, no chance- on the side of the head? Single, potentially ready to mingle. Perched on the back of the head? In a relationship, but it’s complicated…

If you really want to buy everything you could ever need, you should head up the mountain to the El Alto Sunday market. It’s said that if you have your phone stolen you’re likely to be able to find it in this market. The biggest market in Bolivia, you can find everything from cheese graters to car parts.

The more touristy, and probably best known market, is the so called ‘Witches Market’. There aren’t really potions sold here anymore, though there is a powder that is supposed to cure the difficulty men sometimes have er… rising… in the high altitude, as well as a ‘love potion’. The main curiosity for most are the dehydrated llama foetuses that hang ominously from stands along the winding street. These are an offering to ‘Pachamama’, the goddess worshipped by the indigenous Andean communities, a fertility goddess or ‘mother earth’.

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At night, there is a thriving live music scene in La Paz. I was fortunate to meet with Monica, who works in the La Paz office of the charity I had been working for before my trip, who was an incredible host, showing me the coolest local places to go out, and how to party like a Bolivian. La Costilla de Adan is the height of hipster-cool, a speakeasy bar in the bohemian area of Sopocachi (where I was staying in a great hostel called The Greenhouse). There is no obvious entrance to get in, so you have to know where it is, or be lucky enough to have friends to pull you through the un-assuming door… into a bar which is an oasis of antiques and nick-nacks from all over Bolivia including dolls, books, record players, old signs… everything you could ever find in a flea market. They sell wicked-cheap cocktails, too.

From here we went to see a gig at Equinoccio by the local band ‘Atajo’, which Monica described as ‘a Bolivian fusion group against hegemony and domination, its lyrics are questioning everything all the time, with great rhythm, like cumbia/reggae/blues/rock’. Always down for resisting hegemony, I was well up for it. The energy in the place was insane, so although I wasn’t able to understand a lot of the lyrics (though Monica tried to translate in breaks) it was an incredible night out, the band supposedly in their last ever show returning for encore after encore as the audience screamed for more. We even got a sweaty hug with the lead after.

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Politics, and resistance to it, is a strong theme in the city of La Paz. The clock on the government building has time seemingly going anti-clockwise as a mark of resistance against the historical dominant influence of the northern hemisphere over their country…  because the clock has evolved from the sundial, and while sundials in the northern hemisphere show shadows going one way… in the south, they go the other. It is a mark of resistance, and independence, and about returning to its Southern roots. And I can’t help but respect that.

Another form of subverting global dominant powers is that Bolivia refuses to have any McDonald’s restaurants…. one of the few places in the world! It seems, locals would rather buy their fried snack-goods, like their groceries, from local traders. And for that they have a huge piece of my heart.

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Though there have been protests in the last few years, President Morales seems on the whole to be respected in Bolivia. He has made huge progress in increasing education and prosperity in the country, and it seems that people love him for that. However, he is not free from controversy. Apart from staying in office a term longer than is customary… with no sign of moving anywhere in the future, he has had some wacky ideas. He apparently warned against eating chicken, because the hormones might make you gay… and Coca Cola, because it makes you bald… and was spotted in the same week eating chicken with Coca Cola. Go figure.

More seriously, though, in an effort to increase the low population of Bolivia, he suggested introducing a tax on condoms, to make them unaffordable to the average person. Needless to say the health minister stepped in highlighting why this would be a potentially catastrophic idea… thankfully it is still possible to buy condoms in Bolivia (though the brand name Masculan makes me chuckle).  I also heard tell on the street that Morales put forward a proposal to tax childless women, who weren’t pregnant, in order to try to solve the same problem. Women, naturally wanting to be treated as people, rather than reproductive machines, took to the streets to protest until he was forced to retreat on the issue.  However, Monica disputes these allegations, and says that the system now is rather to give tax breaks and benefits to women with children, in order to encourage motherhood.

One protest that can’t be disputed, however, was a huge uprising in support of our favourite yellow family, The Simspons. When The Simpsons was taken off the air in Bolivia and replaced with a reality TV show, thousands marched in the streets, some even dressed as the Simpsons themselves,  and as bottles of  Duff beer, to demand they returned to the television! And you know what- they were successful. Now The Simpsons shows in Bolivia three times a day. So who says political protest doesn’t work?

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It was an incredible, vibrant and varied first week in a new continent. In my next blog I will share my experience of the other side of Bolivia-  the wilds!

‘Dangerous migrants’- a portrait of the real former inhabitants of the Dunkirk refugee camp

How many more can we take? The ‘swarm’ on our streets! We must stop the migrant invasion!

These are real headlines from the Daily Mail concerning the refugees that have fled to our shores in increasing numbers in the last couple of years as a result of growing instability in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There have always been global wars, violence, and instability, but there is no doubt in the last years the world seems to have got darker. Civil war, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and further catastrophic bombing by intervening foreign powers, have forced more people than ever to flee their homes, lives, families, and friends, in search of safety in Europe.

In the mean-time the flux of new arrivals has made many people in the UK and the rest of Europe very afraid. It is understandable. Though I am proud to live in a multi-cultural country, and believe it is an inevitable result of our history of colonialism, followed by globalisation, and modern technology enabling easier freedom of movement, there is no doubt that the landscape of Britain has changed rapidly in recent decades. People have had to adapt to people from different countries, and cultures they struggle to understand, arriving in their neighbourhoods. There is a human instinct to be protective of your territory, and family. This fear is liable to be greater if you are already struggling, and people living in severe austerity as a result of the inequality within our own country are naturally more inclined to be concerned over competition for jobs, local resources, etc. Evidence has shown that refugees granted asylum in the UK are also most likely to be placed in the most impoverished areas, that are least able to cope with the growing demand. And in this environment, the media has capitalised on this anxiety to spread fear, suspicion, and hatred towards refugees. There has been a deliberate language choice to favour the term ‘migrants’; implying that these people have travelled for endless months, largely on foot and unsafely hidden in lorries, because they fancy a change of air, rather than because they are fleeing persecution and death in their own home countries.

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Having returned from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp on the day it burned to the ground, I wanted to share the stories of some of the people that I met, to put some faces to this seemingly faceless threat, and show that these people are humans with lives and fears, and families, and hopes like all of us. No doubt, there were some very dangerous people on the camp; I have been honest in my previous blog about how afraid I felt of the tension within the camp, and the influence of criminal gangs. The majority, however, were normal people that have been victims of a tragic series of circumstances we can barely imagine having to live through. They include women. They include children. They include teenage boys. Good men trying to get by and keep their head down to avoid the violence in order to protect their families. Old men. All desperately looking for a safe home and to protect their loved ones.

I have changed names where I have known them in order to protect people’s identities.

Ariya is a young mother. She has a gentle, soft demeanour, and speaks English well. She has been married for two years and has a six month old baby; the cutest and most sweet natured thing you have ever seen, with big, questioning eyes, and long, soft lashes. She was forced to flee Iran with her husband shortly after her marriage. After months of travelling, she fell pregnant. Love will out in any circumstances. She carried her baby to term while living in the Calais Jungle. When she went in to labour, she was brought to a nearby French hospital to deliver the baby. After four days, mother and newborn infant were returned to the camp, in spite of the inhumane and unsanitary conditions. After Calais was closed, she was forced to go on the move again, carrying her baby, and ended up in the Dunkirk refugee camp. She always had a positive attitude considering everything, even though she worried for her baby, who cried at night and sometimes became ill in the cold conditions of their shelter (no more than a small and dark shed).

One thing that moved me was the way in which people still looked out for others, even though their own conditions were so bleak. Roza is a large, middle aged Kurdish lady, with a cheeky gleam in her eye and a wicked smile, in spite of her only having three remaining teeth. One day she grabbed my arm in her large hand, seemingly very concerned, and insistent to drag me off with her into the camp. Her husband joined us on the way to the shelter and with slightly more English, explained ‘not able work man, not good’. They took me to a disabled man who had become ill because he was so cold at night. Through signing they requested blankets to keep him warm at night, and we went back to the centre to find some. Roza was insistent that he must have the best of the ones we had.

A young couple. They sat on the high bank at the edge of the refugee camp looking down to the swampy, filthy water below that separated the camp from the motorway. There was fighting around them, children crying, the smoke from people’s cooking blowing everywhere. They held each other, and rubbed noses, and kissed.

Belen is a very young woman, a few years younger than me, who ties her hair each day into a tidy plait and studies very hard to learn English. Belen is one of those people who is beautiful because their personality and warmth shines out of their face; she has a constant, gentle smile, in spite of everything she has been through. She attended English classes every day, turning up with her pencil and notebook, learned quickly and remembered things instantly, and asked for extra homework to complete herself in her shelter in the afternoons.

A pregnant lady. She was asked if she thought it was a girl or a boy. She said, a boy. She hoped for a boy. She had a boy before, and he was eight. He was shot three times. The third bullet hit his heart and killed him. An eight year old boy.

The children that did make it as far as Dunkirk were very obviously struggling to cope with the trauma they had been through, severely damaging to anyone, let alone at such a young age.

The very small ones were so traumatised that some of them were unable to communicate. A boy of no more than two or three, whose eyes are depths of sadness, and who just stares , silently, or cries. He is unable to interact in any way, no matter how you try to talk to, play with, or comfort him.

The middle aged ones (between about 6 and 11) are sometimes like normal children. They play, and squabble, and are boisterous, and would run around having water fights. But they are also angry. They are frustrated where they are, and apart from the volunteer-run children’s centre, had no outlet for their emotions and energy. They have also not had the chance to go to school or have an education. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, at the level of aggression they displayed when we were not able to meet their demands. But really, it’s not surprising they would demonstrate these behaviours, because violence,  warfare, fear, and a fight for survival, is all they have known.

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© Jamie Wiseman

The older children (11-16) are heroes. They have a much better understanding of the situation and the difficulties the adults around them are facing, and have undertaken huge responsibilities in caring for their younger siblings, or other children around them. They have maturity far beyond their years and a calm, measured approach to assessing their situation.

I met two brothers. The older, who was 16, told me he was looking after his brother, 14. They wanted to talk to me to improve their English as they were desperate to get to the UK. He asked if he would be able to go to school there. I said I thought he would and would be in around year 11. He then intimated, through motions and broken English, that he would have to start at the beginning, because he could not read or write. I asked, did you go to school even when you were very small? And he said he had started, but then the Taliban came. Motions shooting. Then, schools close. Many of his friends killed. He said he had travelled with his brother for 11 months to get as far as France. They had come with their cousin but had lost him in Serbia. He was going to try to come to the UK soon, maybe by boat, or by lorry. I begged him not to try to come by boat. Tried to motion he might drown.

These are the people trying to reach the UK. They are people who deserve love, and compassion. The media are constantly telling us that people want to come here to change our culture, to bring violence, and take benefits from our hard-earned taxes. Everyone I met wanted to learn English. They wanted to work again, as they had at home, and regain their sense of dignity by providing for themselves. They wanted education, and to contribute to the country they had idealised in their minds as a safe haven. They just wanted a life of safety and dignity, which is the right of us all.

Because people only run the length of the earth, carrying their crying children in their arms, if the alternative is more violent and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. They only leave the homes they love, and the only life they have known, to run with a few possessions on their back into squalid refugee camps for shelter if the alternative is to be killed. See your friends killed. To see your children murdered right in front of you. Wouldn’t any of us do the same in those circumstances?

Love and peace,

Helen