The weather is warmer in Cochabamba, the skirts are shorter, and the sprawling Wednesday/Saturday market is more chaotic than in La Paz.

My humble home in Cochabamba.

My humble home in Cochabamba.

In my ten days there, I stayed in the cheapest place I could find, two long blocks from the bus station (against the advice of Lonely Planet travel guides and my mother – bless them both but I’m fine.) It was also where Bolivians stayed, and it was ALWAYS busy. I got to know the day and night shift front desk staff and the janitors on a first name basis, and even one of their novias who would come after work and sit on the couch in the common room to learn as much English as she could from me. This was a place that yet again proved that income has a reverse corrolation with friendliness. O sea (that is), poorer people tend to be predictably buena onda (good people.)

Tourists there are fewer and further between. Still, Bolivians treat gringos as just another person on the street, which is refreshing. I went there after an intensive but wonderful three weeks traveling as part of a Salmon River herd, and I was ready for the time and space to set my own agenda. That freedom turns out to be both liberating and limiting.

My first day there, being a bad daytime napper even after a restless night on the bus from La Paz, I set out for a supermarket on the far north side of town in search of peanut butter, granola and other gringo addictions. This was how I discovered that there are two Cochabambas: one with wide, clean streets, ciniplexes and financial investment firms, the other with raw sewage, emaciated dogs and lots of flies.

The sadly polluted Rocha River that passes through Cochabamba.

The sadly polluted Rocha River that passes through Cochabamba.

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The river I crossed that day (Río Rocha) showed almost every problem a water body can have, and it disgusted and saddened me, as I imagined it must every citizen of Cochabamba, regardless of class. It was entirely devoid of vegetation, turbid, excessively foamy, loaded with trash, aggraded, actively being bulldozed, and full of pipes dumping waste directly into the stream. If ever a river needed a keeper, this was it, I thought.

If only it were so easy. I quickly gathered from my conversations that the Morales government, much like the Obama government, has promoted extraction of natural resources for energy production at the expense of the environment and actively silenced or expelled dissenters on the left. While his administration has prioritized caring for poor, indigenous people, the rights of nature laws intended to protect the Pacha Mama  here have turned out to be mainly lip service covering up a legacy of mining, logging and road building projects much as we see marching ahead in North America also.

Does the path to economic development always have to be so environmentally destructive? I don’t think so, and apparently Bolivians don’t either. In the year 2000, regadores (rural irrigators) got organized and successfully fought efforts to privatize water and sell it at astronomical prices in the area. Jim Shultz, Director of the Democracy Center headquartered in Cochabamba and San Francisco, tells the story as engagingly as elders in Orleans recount the 1964 flood. That’s because, as the conflict and resolution unfolded, Jim was the one talking to the media and ensuring that the outside world heard about it, in all its injustice and, ultimately, justice. The Democracy Center has done a better job than many water protection groups of staying relevant, and is now focusing considerable energy on pushing the world to adapt to climate change by changing the ways we use water. Read more about what they’re up to here.

Jim suggested I talk to Marcela Olivera. She and her brother were both in the midst of the fight to retain public control of water for the people of Cochabamba. Marcela now works part-time for Food and Water Watch building public-public partnerships. Food and Water Watch’s work to combat water privatization using these partnerships as an alternative is described here.

Proposals to put dams in nearby rivers still lurk around the edges of the region, and rapidly vanishing groundwater supplies here need protection as badly as they do in California. Marcela tells a memorable story about how she and the rest of her family used to sit by a small hole in the ground where a trickle of water came slowly out of the ground. It took so long for the water to fill a cup that they took turns at it to get their domestic water supply. She told the story to illustrate her relationship with water – or lack of it – a far cry from the way I relate to water, coming from the Salmon River.

One day I reconnected with a guy who had worked at the campus ministry at Seattle University during my years as a student there, who has since moved to Cochabamba. He and his family have been there more than a decade, and he is full of insight on both church politics and Bolivian politics. Our conversations ranged from the health-industrial complex, to the latest Pope, gay marriage, abortion and unions. We talked for hours, and I came away with a greater respect for the lines progressive Christians like him walk, though ultimately still pretty skeptical about why people would put all of their faith in any one being or institution. Dan’s blog is full of fascinating insights and perspective on tough issues facing the Catholic church, Bolivia and the world, and is worth a read.

One day I worked my nerve up, called the Cochabamba Country Club, inquired about using the pool for a few days and caught a taxi over there. When I arrived, I quickly discovered that we had miscommunicated on the phone and I needed an invitation from an existing member to enter. I spent a few minutes using my limited Spanish searching for various solutions with the manager, then gave up and caught a taxi home, feeling flustered and silly. In retrospect, the cab fares were really compensation for three real-world Spanish lessons, and were not a waste.

The next day, I was feeling braver, and caught a micro (mini van colectivo) to a local public pool I’d been told about as an alternative. Shortly after arriving, I was feeling proud about having successfully navigated public transport when I discovered that the 50 Boliviano admission fee had been stolen out of my zipped up pocket. I apologized and vowed to come back, but the old guy at the desk let me in anyway, to the curiosity and amusement of the locals at the pool. It turned out that there were two pools, both sizeable; neither set up for athletic swimming, but rather for recreating. I improvised, figuring the sustained aerobic exercise was more important than how many laps I clocked. Teenaged boys playing something like monkey-in-the-middle kept running into me, whether on purpose or on accident I couldn’t tell and didn’t much care. I did my best to ignore them. The women in the dressing room burst out in giggles when I stood on a bench in a stall with one of its glass panels missing from the door. It caused my head to stick out from above the stall and appear visibly in the outside mirror, while my feet could clearly be seen through the missing panel.  The important parts, however (sin embargo), were covered.


A few days later, I wandered through the botanical garden, which was full of enlightened signs marking different sections of the garden and reminding the public that trees and plants are the lungs of the earth, so when we take care of trees and plants, we are really performing an essential function of our own survival.

Another day, I walked to the University in town and sat on a park bench in the adjacent plaza, people watching. On the way home, I watched the Hobbit II on a whim. The nice young man selling me the ticket wanted to be sure I knew it would be in Spanish. I thanked him and said that would be fine, since my family and I have been reading the Tolkien books aloud on a four year cycle since I was a little girl. He nodded approvingly, even expressing some envy, and sent me into the correct theater, where I was duly disappointed in the film directors. Like all books converted to film, this remake didn’t do justice to the story from which it originated. But it was entertaining, and moderately helpful in improving my Spanish skills.

Later, I took a micro to the far side of town. I started climbing the winding staircase to get to the Cristo de La Concordia mirador (overlook). The Cristo is supposedly slightly larger than the famous one in Río de Jainero, and is a photo destination for Bolivians and non-Bolivians alike.  Whereas most wanted the Cristo in the background of their photos, I wanted the sweeping views of Cochabamba.

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I had been warned that the cable cars were the safer way up, and walkers had been subject to some theft, but it being the middle of the day I decided to try it. A gang of kids about ages 10-12 were also working their way up, and we would leapfrog past eachother, pausing periodically on a wider step to catch our breath. The girls were quicker than the boys, but the boys knew where the best shade spots were. At some point which I judged to be about midway in our climb, the girls ran up past me, then stopped to wait for their lagging counterparts. When I caught up with them I rested and offered them some of my water which they gratefully accepted. After that, we were undoubtedly friends, looking out for eachother on the way up.

Upon finally reaching the summit, I rested again in the shade of a broad, spindly tree I didn’t know the name of. A woman there called after her children, both toddlers as they searched for new and interesting risks to take. Once she had gotten them in arm’s reach and courteously instructed them to say “hola a la tía” (that’s me – the auntie), she struck up a conversation, explaining that she and her family had come on vacation from La Paz. Another middle aged, middle class looking Bolivian woman from Sucre sat down, and the three of us discussed climate changes, social climates and languages. The second woman and her husband had both recently recovered from serious health problems. We shared scary cancer stories. Then she started describing her job as a Quechua teacher, in the context of a recent law passed that requires that students in Bolivia learn a native language, Castillano (Spanish) and English. I asked if it was hard to find Quechua and Aymara teachers. Yes and no, she said, and I explained the difficulties of keeping native languages alive at home in California. She listened appreciatively. We must have spent close to an hour chatting happily under the tree.

A language school on the streets of Cochabamba offers courses in English, Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. It flies the Andean flag.

A language school on the streets of Cochabamba offers courses in English, Quechua, Aymara and Spanish. It flies the Andean flag.

Between these adventures, I learned coffee shops and neighborhoods in Cochabamba, plugging away on writing projects. Perhaps my guilty favorite was the Cafe Paris, which served Tiemps Moderns lattes spiked with Cointreau and delicious veggie omelettes and Florentine crepes.

I am certain that I missed a good number of adventures worth having further out of town, such as fossilized dinosaur footprints, villages, river canyons and tropical birds. However (sin embargo), with flooding devastating communities on the outskirts of town, I didn’t want to risk the muddy roads. What’s more, my good friend from college Cienna Madrid was expected to show up in La Paz the next week, and traveling with a buddy figured to make adventures such as these much more doable.