Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Out on the Town

So this past weekend I went out in Coch with my counterpart, Vivian, and a bunch of her friends. All in all, I had a really fun time and it was my first experience in going out with Bolivians instead of in a horde of volunteers. And a night it was indeed (I didn’t get back to the hostel until a little after 5 am when Pat was sound asleep in our room until I started creaking around on the wood floor). Highlights included my indulgence in street meat x 2 (as previously was my pattern in Rochester) and an ice cream bar…not to mention a few beers and random other beverages. And let me tell ya, it was a burger with all the fixings and a hot dog with all the fixings (which around here means corn and sauerkraut along with mayo, ketchup, etc.). We attended a birthday party of one of Vivian’s friends that sure was popular (he must have had a few hundred people at his house) followed by a bit of dancing and drinking at a local bar popular with ex-pats and tourists and then we proceeded to hang out on the Prado (the main strip with all the touristy restaurants and bars) with a few of her friends and their bottle of rum and 2L of Coke. We then returned to the house where the birthday party was to witness the most drunk people sitting around in their stupors and then danced a bit over there. One of the best moments had to be around 4 am when I was dancing with one of Vivian’s friends (of course in Bolivian line style) and was going to put my purse down on a chair and he was like, no no I’ll hold it. And that’s what he proceeded to do…wear my lovely mauve and brown purse over his shoulder while we danced. Who says chivalry is dead?

Come Travel With Me!

So I’ve heard from Kelley about her future visit in October to Bolivia and I know it’s also in the works for Mom and Helen…but here’s a few travel destinations that I’d be up for that are in South America if you come when I have enough days to get away from Bolivia so I can entice more visitors…

Brazil – Ouro Prêto (via Rio)

ColumbiaCartagena (and possibly Bogotá on the way)

Bolivia – Salar de Uyuni (and Potosí on the way to see another volunteer), Tupiza, Lake Titicaca / Isla del Sol / Copacabana (I believe this trip is claimed by my mom)

Peru – Cuzco/Machu Picchu (4 day Inca Trail hike) (most likely claimed by Helen)

ArgentinaBuenos Aires

Let me know what you’re up for so I can start planning…also, I’m always down for just hanging out in my site and Coch and the surrounding area if your main objective is just to spend some quality time with me and my homies in Tarata…

You Know You Need a Lock on Your Bathroom When…

You walk into the bathroom that has supposedly been designated as solely yours to find a strange unknown man peeing in it that neglected to close the door while he was using it. Yes, that happened to me today and I’m putting a lock on the outside of my door tomorrow. My host family occasionally has people over for parties or other gatherings and they recently cooked up a batch of chicha and turned the house into a chicharria (basically place where they serve the fermented alcoholic corn drink) yesterday to serve it up to the local population. This resulted in several tables been set up around the front of the house where the family lives and my bathroom is located as well…and the result is that the visitors (many inebriated) end up using my bathroom and making it all yucky and apparently even when you’re in someone else’s house it isn’t necessary custom around here to shut yourself in there to indicate the next person walking in should knock. So I just happened to wander in as I was running off to English class, to my surprise, with a guy in the middle of the action. Needless to say, I think I gave him a bit of the deer-in-headlights look before I realized I should probably be turning around and walking (correction: running) away. So I’m going to put a lock on my bathroom to avoid this along with the case of the dirty bathroom. Granted, my host family is pretty good about cleaning up after one of these events in my bathroom…but there’s always an icky feeling when you don’t know who used your bathroom and the fact that 1) they don’t supply toilet paper in there, 2) there is no soap to wash your hands either…so the whole place just has a contaminated feeling afterwards. Not to mention that Pat said she saw someone peeing in the shower (while the toilet was unoccupied) during one of those events as well…well wonders never cease. They did say I could put one of those padlocks right on the door frame so that’s what one of my goals is for tomorrow.

In other more pleasant news, after English class today I ended up stopping by Nelly’s house (the 24 year old girl that works at the pharmacy in the hospital here that I danced in San Severino with and is probably my best friend in town) and I hung out with her fam and played cards with her and her little brothers and browsed through her mom’s Avon catalog while enjoying a nice mug of arroz con leche and chatting with her father (half in English because he spent a few years in the U.S.) about all sorts of things. My favorite moment had to be when we were playing cards and it was her little bro Rudy’s turn and their mom, Catalina (who is awesome by the way), was teasing him with an insult “cerebro de pollo.” That means “brain of chicken” which I think is a pretty awesome insult. I’ll have to try using that the next time when I see someone doing something stupid. The insults during the card games reminded me of one of my happy places though. I think everyone has those “happy places” like in Happy Gilmore where you’re like…aww…at that moment in time everything is pretty much perfect. It reminded me of last Chinese New Year’s when I was in Taipei and at my dad’s childhood friends’ house and they were playing mahjong and my favoritest person EVER (Kenny’s mom – haha, you know you love her too Helen) was throwing the insults around in Mandarin like it was nobody’s business. Haha, she’s so charismatic and animated. Love it. I like hearing the slang though since you don’t normally learn it in language classes (other than “shang tu xia xie”…Steph – was that in the lesson where someone ate something bad and then went swimming and had some gastrointestinal distress?)…such as in mahjong…”xia che” can be literally translated as “getting off the car” but in mahjong it means when you’ve given up hope of winning so you just try to block (bloqueo! ah, Bolivia, side story that one time when I first got here I meant to say that you need to wear “bloqueador” or sunscreen but instead I used the word bloqueo which refers to the frequent demonstrations that they put on by blocking the roads in protest) the other people from winning. Then I recall other taunting about being on fire and this and that. Anyways, it was good times…my happy place! No fair, I don’t get to go to Taiwan and experience it again this year…but Helen, definitely if you get the chance to hang out with Dad and the Lu Gang childhood friends as they’re playing mahjong, go for it. And if you’re lucky you’ll get some AYBORTEH too! It’s America’s time. Haha. Sorry, completely irrelevant inside joke. You would laugh too if you say the word “ayborteh” on the back of someone’s jacket.

Speaking of Chinese…unfortunately for me, after hearing about the fact that there was a Chinese woman that lives in Tarata (I wanted to go wander around where she lives and stalk her so maybe if I saw her I could start conversation so I could practice my Mandarin), I started poking around and from what I’ve heard she doesn’t come out of her house…like ever…so I’m at a loss and probably will not just randomly run into her on the street.

And Mom, I need to let you know that I already promised Nelly’s family that you’ll cook them a Chinese meal (what does that mean nowadays anyways…some kind of stir fry with soy sauce?) when you come to visit. They’re waiting for you.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bug Update

In other news, I think the recent cold spell (raining everyday in the past week) has slowed down the flies that have been zipping around my house. I’ve pretty much extinguished the population, killing around 20 flies with my special fly-killing piece of cardboard in the past two days. I’m not sure in the U.S. if flies bleed, but they sure do here. I’m still in the bad habit of going around stomping on bugs and leaving them lying around on the floor for a couple of days until I get around to sweeping them up as well.

How Quickly We Forget…

Lots of things. This Saturday I will have been in Bolivia for 4 months exactly and sometimes it surprises me how quickly I just dropped pretty much everything of my former life when I set foot in Bolivia. I realized the other day that I still haven’t asked about my car yet…haven’t checked up on Mommy and Daddy to see if they’ve been taking care of my baby in its first Rochester winter and if they got around to changing the license plates on it (and I totally forgot to leave the address for them to send my CT plates back to the DMV there…I’ll be expecting a nice property tax bill next spring in the mail if that’s the case). Sometimes when I’m getting dressed in the morning I also think about random articles of clothing that are packed away somewhere in my room in Rochester…I left behind at least 90% of my clothing and I wonder when I get back if it will still fit me and if I’ll even want to wear it. I don’t run here at all either…maybe once every two weeks if I get motivated to do it and it doesn’t happen to be raining that day. I always tell myself I really should get back in the habit of exercising…but around here it just doesn’t seem to be a priority for me. I guess running wasn’t all that important to me (I think I did it more so I could eat whatever I wanted without feeling guilty rather than as something that was actually an addiction). Around here my measure of whether or not I need to exercise is if my clothes still fit (and they do, although I could be getting fatter and they would still fit because drip drying clothes allows them to expand enormously). Then there are other things that I know if I were in the U.S. I’d definitely be up to date on such as the current pop and hip hop songs that are overplayed on the radio (Z100 of course) and certain TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty…but around here I’ve almost forgotten about the importance of keeping up-to-date on American pop culture. Anyone want to give me an update? In Bolivia holidays don’t feel like holidays either…I attribute that to the difference in weather. Semi-cold right now but no snow…so that means no Christmas or New Year’s in my mind. Thanksgiving and most of December have passed in a blink of an eye and the fact that it’s less than a week until Christmas has caught me off guard. My counterpart was asking me about what I do in the U.S. for New Year’s…and I was thinking back to last year’s Christmas and New Year’s. I remember for Christmas being at home and getting my plane ticket to Taiwan in a box…and Dad opening up a box of chocolates and looking like a little kid. And then when I was remembering New Year’s, I remembered the amazing awesomeness (but what other people would consider lame-ness) of it…cooking dinner with Steph and Evie in my place…then watching Little Miss Sunshine and someone falling asleep…and waking up in time to turn on the radio (due to lack of television) to hear the countdown…and then at approximately 12:01 am, snuggling into bed with Evie while Steph hunkered down on the couch and then receiving two drunken phone calls…one that I didn’t answer, and one from Burt. And I remember wanting to open the bottle of champagne in the fridge for New Year’s but then I knew Evie and Steph wouldn’t be much help in drinking it so I resisted.

I wonder when I go back to the U.S. if it will be as easy to fall back into the routine of life there as it was to transition into life here. Not that it has been a piece of cake to adjust to Bolivia, but PC definitely lets you adjust in phases and you pretty much get accustomed to things before you realize you are used to them. It’s like how my landlord keeps on telling me they’re going to put in certain improvements on my house…most recently putting an outside light that I can turn on and off from inside my house (kind of like a porch light) and I realize that I’ve just gotten used to bringing my flashlight with me whenever I leave my house after dark or when I’m going to get back after dark. There are things I already think will be noticeably different when I get back to the U.S. These include the expectation to shower daily (or at least every other day), the overwhelming convenience of not having to go outside to get to the bathroom, running water in your house (my current dishwashing apparatus is two plastic bins and 2L Coke bottles filled with water…I got the system down), washer and dryer for laundry (?!), and having a sofa to sit on. I also sometimes get nervous that I’m going to forget certain skills that are important to remember…namely driving a car, the minimal Mandarin that I know, and using Excel (hey, you can’t get a job today without knowing how to use Excel). I would also say that I’m afraid of forgetting how to type and use a computer at the rapid speeds that I’m known for that I developed as a scheduler, but then again, I type enough blog entries to maintain that…as for operating several applications at once on your computer, I’ll definitely need to brush up on that at the end of these two years.

My hair is growing out after 4 months of no haircut and, surprisingly, so far I like it. I haven’t had long hair since high school and I think this is my time to experiment with it. It makes me feel more feminine and although I’ve never been one to be vain or care about appearances too much (I am notorious for buying dressy clothes and high heels but stowing them away in my closet without wearing them once), around here I have enough free time that I enjoy general upkeep of appearances such as painting my nails or plucking my eyebrows. I haven’t gone as far as to wear dressy clothes yet (not that I really brought any with me) but that’s due to the fact that whatever I wear gets dusty or muddy the second I walk outside of my house so “no vale la pena” (it’s not worth it). I might be doing a little bit of clothes shopping while I’m here though since in my chats with my counterpart (who is a very stylish and trendy dresser) she has admitted that she has a tendency to spend all her disposable income on clothes. Plus I’m headed with her to the market where she’s showing me where you can buy makeup and accessories. Oy. Besides my changing physical appearance of longer hair, getting pleasantly plump (or fat and beautiful as Anna calls it), and losing any muscle I thought I may have come to Bolivia with, I sometimes wonder if I’ve changed in any other ways and I just don’t notice it. Every PC volunteer arrives with some crazy idealist notions (at least in their subconscious) about how they’re going to save the world (that’s the helping people part) and more personally find themselves and their path in life and become a better person and I can’t say I’m any different from that. But I don’t think I’ve detected any significant changes in my mentality since I’ve arrived here. Before you arrive in country, you send an “aspiration statement” that answers a few questions to the administration here and I was just reading what I wrote for one of the answers to the questions and thought I’d post it to remind myself of what the heck I was thinking…


E: How you think Peace Corps service will influence your personal and professional aspirations after your service ends.

The honest answer to this question is that I don’t know how it will influence me personally or professionally but I have some hopes for how it will change me. One of my key motivations for joining the Peace Corps is to learn more about myself and discover what my passions are in life, both personally and professionally. Prior to joining the Peace Corps, I worked for 3 years at an investment bank in various roles in operations dealing with energy and credit derivatives. Although I feel like I still have unrealized potential in the financial services industry, I also feel that I am missing out on the other 99.99% of the world and I wanted to explore what else was out there. Keeping that in mind, my goal throughout my service is to remain open to where my heart and mind want to go following my service. Although sometimes I question my reasoning for joining because of the valuable years that I am giving up in building my career within my established network, ultimately, I know my service will open new doors for me and either lead me in a new direction, or make me stronger in my conviction that my previous role is a long-term career path. As for new directions, in an ideal world I would go to graduate school following my service, either for my MBA or international relations, and find a way to reconcile my background in business and my service in the Peace Corps into a new and worthwhile career path in the non-profit or public sectors.

Beyond my professional aspirations, personally, I am excited to realize one of my dreams of learning a language fluently which will allow me opportunities to work internationally, to be a part of an organization that changes people lives for the better, to challenge myself in the many ways that only Peace Corps does, to meet others that are like-minded, to inspire people that I know in the U.S., and of course to make my family, especially my mother, proud of what I am doing for myself and others. I hope to fulfill my desire to become very familiar with a non-American culture because during the time I studied abroad, I did not get to spend much time in any one particular place and have never lived abroad for more than two months in a row during my lifetime. I’d like to learn more about the outdoors and nature and learn about things I would never learn in the U.S. (llamas and Quechua?) and live in a way that I would never live if I didn’t join the Peace Corps.

I know that my time in the Peace Corps will be the most challenging thing that I have encountered so far in my life, both professionally and personally, but I believe I am ready to take on that challenge because the richly unique experience I will gain far outweighs the difficulties I may face. Of all my personal and professional aspirations, my greatest is the hope that the experience will change me for the better, and my greatest fear is that it won’t change me at all.


I like the last sentence of that…because although some of the other rantings of what I’m going to do when all is said and done have fallen by the wayside, I still believe in that sentence that I want this experience to change the person that I am, but my fear (more than the nerves I had before I even set foot in Bolivia) is still that I’m going to finish this and say, now could someone explain to me what that was all for?

Working Hard (on PC goals 2 and 3)

Yeah, those are the goals about the cultural exchange…sharing American culture with your host country and learning about Bolivian culture and sharing it with the Americans (my mode of communication is through this blog). Anyways, Pat and I have been having some busy social schedules lately although we haven’t accomplished too much in work. Yesterday I went into work to chat with my counterpart Vivian (unfortunately we didn’t accomplish the task we had planned on doing but we did some gossiping and planned on when I would go out in the city with her and her friends - *note my counterpart is a 25 year old very stylish fun-loving Bolivian woman)…afterwards I headed over to a children’s birthday party. Nicole was turning 7 years old (she’s one of the grandkids in the family) and Pat and I were invited. Not to mention that this past Monday we also went to a 2 year old’s birthday party (Emilio’s daughter – he’s one of our English students) and Pat’s birthday was on Thursday so I cooked her dinner and baked a cake that we shared with the family at my house and in her English class. Ahhh! Too many birthdays! Then today Pat and I went with Maria (one of our new friends that lives down the street from Pat that actually just came back from the U.S. about a month ago after living and working there for 3 years) to a mass for one of her old colleague’s (when she used to work in the school here in Tarata) father that had passed away last year. Let me tell ya, it is not just a mass, it is a social event. We went to the church here, followed by paying our respects at the cemetery, followed by a social gathering outside of the cemetery (chicha, empanadas, and wine included), and in a grand finale went over to the woman’s house for dinner (massive massive plates of noodles, chicken, chuños, veggies, potatoes, sauce, oh man). But no, the day is not complete without coming back to your own house to attend a matrimonial party…apparently the family I am living with has a good setup for parties so they apparently rented out the place for a matrimonial party complete with thumping band (my tin roof is vibrating from the bass as I type) and numerous guests (some which find it appropriate to pee randomly in the yard that separates my house from the main house where the party is being held). So Pat and I have definitely gotten into the swing of things and filled up our social calendars…graduations, birthday parties galore, and matrimonial parties. Good thing it’s acceptable in Bolivia to bring along random people (aka Pat and I) that clearly don’t look like they belong there. Pat, Maria and I were chatting about the reaction you would get in the U.S. if you brought along a random friend to a mass for your dead father. Haha, probably not so acceptable in the U.S…more like, who are you and why are you here rather than willing acceptance, kisses on the cheeks and offerings of chicha.

I’m quite surprised I don’t weigh 300 lbs yet and my teeth haven’t fallen out yet from my ridiculous sugar consumption. Sometimes you’re like, what…is…going…on. They definitely show that they care around here with food…and we’re not talking celery sticks and wheatgrass juice. The regular birthday party fare includes large slices of cake, served with plastic cups of jello (I’m thinking the ice cream substitute around here), and of course the beverage of choice is Pepsi…always. Then yesterday we followed up the cake and jello by beer combined with Pepsi…and a full dinner of roasted chicken with potatoes, corn on the cob, vegetables and rice. Heavy…pesado…really. I have to laugh sometimes like yesterday because I was making a HUGE effort to finish the food (it was really tasty but there’s only so much a person can eat)…and the funny part is that Pat has a tiny appetite compared to me so when I am having difficulty finishing the food I know she’s pretty much screwed (she should bring her plastic bag to shove leftovers in with her all the time…that’s what you’re supposed to do around here…like put it in a random plastic bag and say, I’m saving it for later). Then today I went for a walk with Nicole while the matrimonial party was going on and ate a popsicle! I can’t remember the last time I ate a popsicle…maybe after a soccer game in my childhood. Weird. Then I chewed a piece of bubble gum (REAL bubble gum) which I haven’t had in forever either. And then…of course I came into the house and was offered a full glass of…guess what…Pepsi…that I chugged down. At UBS I used to like to have a mid-afternoon Coke…but I think Bolivia will drive the love of soda out of me. It is difficult to think of a day that goes by where I don’t drink Pepsi or some other overly sweetened beverage in mass quantities. And forget about diet soda…people just don’t drink that crap around here. I bought a 2 liter of Coke Zero today at the tienda…figured would be nice on those hot days to have in my fridge and was chatting with Doña Sandra (my buddy that owns the store) about if people actually buy the stuff and she told me very infrequently. Actually I personally prefer regular Coke over diet or zero, but in the quantities that I already drink sugared soda in, I figured I might as well watch my svelte figure and throw some zero calorie beverages in there when I can. And as a side note, I drink whole milk here as well. Just don’t make fun of me when I come back to the U.S. a fat cow. Please.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Graduation Ceremony!

I recently attended a graduation ceremony for the alternative school run by a local NGO (kids that are over 18 that have to work so they can’t attend regular high school) with Pat at the invitation of one of our English students that was graduating. The ceremony was quite interesting and enjoyable since we got to observe Bolivian traditions in the process (such as having a parent or sibling escort you up to the stage when you get your name announced…Pat said it was like wedding/graduation ceremony in one, throwing white confetti on everyone’s head in celebration – including stuffing some into peoples’ mouths if you can get it in, and the celebratory toast with wine for the graduates on the stage).

There was some humorous moments of course…one being when one of the students in my English class got an honorary diploma and I wanted to take a picture with her and her daughter (who is also in my English class) and I poked a random guy and asked him if he could take a picture for us and he flat out refused. I just stood there with my mouth hanging open a bit at the outright rejection…then was afraid to ask anyone else lest I would be snubbed twice. But of course there’s always the random celebrity moment to make you feel a bit better about yourself and have some reassurance that not everyone hates you…as Pat and I were leaving, one of the recent graduates (who I didn’t know at all) asked to have his picture taken with me which I of course granted. At least I made someone’s day.

Thoughts on Food…

Pat’s birthday is coming up this week so I decided to consult my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook for a cake recipe that I could whip up and I found myself getting lost in the pages of colorful illustrations while I salivated over certain foods that I no longer eat on a regular basis or have access to. It’s interesting how foods are so closely connected to memories that you have and you can remember certain dishes that you used to eat or make that remind you of a certain time in your life. Some things I haven’t cooked for myself since I’ve been down here such as steak (only at it once in a restaurant), salads with lettuce due to the fear of brainworm (except in reputable restaurants and then it’s not even a real salad…more like large leaves of lettuce as decoration), and then there’s the products that you couldn’t get your hands on even if you wanted to (oddly, mushrooms basically don’t exist down here in any form…except maybe canned and then they’re ridiculously expensive). I think about proscuitto and how I would wrap it around asparagus for a dinner party, cook up filet mignon as an everyday dinner, and purchase broccoli regularly (I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve eaten broccoli since I’ve been here). I sometimes drift into thinking about foods of my childhood and wonder about it…like how my mom used to make orange roughy and would broil it, leaving the oven door open a crack and squeezing lemon juice on it, how we would have “cheap chicken” one of my favorite dishes which was basically boneless leg quarters (a “cheap” cut of meat) with bbq or hoisin sauce baked in the oven, and there was also Monday’s after dance class when we would get KFC and Buckmann’s doughnuts as a treat. This of course not to be overshadowed on the occasional fresh whole lobster that Mom would bring home that we would each make a mess of our plates with (my favorite part being the claws rather than the tail…oh and those puke yellow innards are pretty tasty too…). When I think about these foods of my childhood I realize just how old I am. When did I get to be 25 years old? Time sneaks up on you pretty quickly and surprises you. You try to think in the way that you thought when you were a kid, in high school…assuming that it wasn’t all that long ago, but you have to remind yourself that you graduated more than seven years ago! After high school I think the time flies and you change but the changes aren’t obvious and you don’t recognize them readily. I can’t tell you where I thought I was going to be in seven years the day I graduated high school but it probably wasn’t Bolivia. I never was very good at the “tell me where you think you’ll be in 10 years” game anyways…one year or two years ahead is all my little brain can handle. I think these days stability in your life is underrated. In our parents days I think they would have said something like…10 years after graduating college I hope to be in a steady job, married with a few kids, and a homeowner. I will be taking the kids on trips to Disney World on their summer breaks and spending my free time on my hobbies such as fly fishing and basketweaving. I doubt many graduating college kids aspire to that nowadays…not to say that it’s not what we want, but these days there’s about 1000 things we’re supposed to do before we get to that phase. Everyone (well almost everyone) wants to travel and see the world (and in many cases, live abroad), climb up the corporate ladder (most everyone has either changed companies or jobs 3 years out or at least looked with the serious intention of jumping ship), and enjoy life as a young person living in a big city, such as New York. Is this the correct order of things? I wonder if the people that are well-established now in starting their families and settling down will travel the world and satisfy their need for adventure and freedom later on when they’re retired with an empty nest. Is a better time to join the Peace Corps when you’re retired and have the freedom to really enjoy the experience as a two year vacation from your previous life, without having to worry about what the next step is afterwards or how it will look on your resume if you decide it’s not the thing for you at this point in your life? I’m not the kind of person that looks backwards very frequently, but maybe it’s because it’s kind of scary when you do, I have a bad memory and was just thinking the other day about someone I used to work with (just 3.5 months ago) and couldn’t even remember their last name (was trying desperately to conjure up what their chat id was on MindAlign) and then even things in Bolivia…I haven’t been to the grocery store in about 3 weeks and couldn’t remember what the name of it was. Ai ya! Sometimes I think it might be because I’m not exercising my brain enough down here…but trust me, I read plenty of books and try desperately to remember Spanish words when I’m speaking with people. Ahhh…quick, take the GMAT and GRE before your brain completely fails you!

Life is Good…Current Top 10 Reasons

1. Helen sent me a package of Clif Bars and trail mix that I picked up from the office
2. My fridge broke…but super-PCVL Mike diagnosed the short circuited/burnt out plug and outlet and I went and bought a new plug and rewired and fixed it myself!
3. It’s mango season around here…real mangoes, the big juicy sweet ones with lots of fruit on them and small pits, for 2 bs each
4. Pat’s back from IST conference which means I won’t be lonely!
5. Pat bought a portable DVD player which means we’re going to be buying plenty of bootleg DVDs and entertaining ourselves
6. Barry showed me how to text message to the U.S.!
7. PC library actually is stocked with a bunch of ESL workbooks and other useful material for my English class
8. School’s out around here for the long Christmas/New Year/Carnaval break so it’s time for vacation…woohoo, or at least people will have more time to hang out with me…
9. I picked up some new books to read at the PC volunteer lounge library…trying to reread classics such as A Tale of Two Cities and hoarding anything that says “The New York Times Bestseller” on it
10. Picked up a GMAT study book at the PC library so I’m getting myself in gear to study and take the exam in the next year

Now if I could just start exercising regularly and get motivated to study Spanish…

Friday, December 7, 2007


Halloween, end of pre-service training, Festival de San Severino, my house, and my La Paz trip (and some oldies but goodies that I liked)! Enjoy!

Sorry...lacking on the comments...had to get back into my site for English class so didn't have time...will update later!

Everything in Moderation…

I like lentils. I like them in lentil soup and cooked up with a bit of meat or veggies in a stew to go over rice or pasta. But word to the wise, eat them in moderation. I had an overly large portion of them today for lunch (and they were quite tasty…) and that in combination with about half a bag of dried apricots was probably too much fiber for my stomach to handle. Not only have I been incredibly gassy for the past half day, but even with the gas I still feel so bloated that my stomach is going to explode with random stomach pangs. Trust me, not a pleasant feeling.

Seen in Tarata today: Cholita complete with velvety wrap skirt and woolen legwarmers and flip flops playing soccer against a young boy that was eating an ice cream bar and holding a bag of pipoca (popcorn) in his hand. Well wonders never cease. I think I should start a list of things “Seen in Bolivia” to compliment the email I received from Steph several years ago documenting pictures of “Things Seen Only in China” (yes, that goes beyond my eyelids following “shuang yen pi”)

The Gringo Price: Right or Wrong?

So I’ve been wrestling with the whole idea of the exorbitant prices that gringos or foreigners get charged in any country where they’re visiting as a tourist, sometimes successfully, other times unsuccessfully. I forget what it’s called in marketing when they price the same thing at different points…point pricing? Or something like that when they psychologically analyze the customer and price accordingly. Nobody likes getting ripped off, but is it “right” when the person that you’re giving the extra money to could put it to better use than you could?

I’ve seen several instances of this in my time here in Bolivia so far…from the time the person charged me 8 bs for a papaya that costs 5 bs, to the time that the taxi driver tried to charge Tammy twice the fare for each of us going from Marquina to Quillacollo but she indignantly refused since we knew the fare was only 1 bs, not 2 bs. When you think about it, the whole idea is kind of silly…1 boliviano is equal to $0.13 as of now…when I was in the U.S. did I care if anything cost $0.13 more? I’ve seen other instances where the grievance was a bit more significant though, from when Pat got ripped off on a shoeshine when the little kid wouldn’t stop harassing her (she paid 20 bs…it’s supposed to cost 1 or 2 bs)…although this instance we still laugh about to this day and probably always will. Then I got ripped off on a taxi in La Paz where I paid 7 bs not really thinking about it…then realizing after I got out that it only should have cost 5 bs max. Sure, $0.13 isn’t much, but it adds up when you can take a whole other trufi ride with it or buy some bread or eggs. Especially since we’re living in Bolivia…on a Bolivian salary as a volunteer. And then Pat and my rent…I’m kind of annoyed with the whole situation right now paying 350 bs a month when I’ve heard from several other volunteers that I should be paying 200 bs max, no matter how nice the place is (which my place clearly isn’t that posh with it’s aluminum roof and bug problems…newest enemy is the moth, there were like 20 in my house last night for some reason until I duct taped a gap near the window). The difference in USD is about $15. My rent right now is equivalent to $45/month. Now in the U.S. that’s just a drop in the bucket…I was shelling out big money to live in Stamford in my last place…$15 was just another dinner out on the town in Stamford, not to be cared about and not to be obsessed over. But now $15 is a 5% of my monthly salary. Money I could be saving up for a trip, for food, for something so I don’t have to dip into my U.S. bank account to cover it, after all, I’m supposed to be able to live on my PC stipend.

This topic also comes up in what’s happening in auto dealerships in the U.S. now…some dealers are trying to move towards fixed pricing because they’re finding in research that people (especially women who comprise over 50% of car purchases nowadays and influence much more than that) prefer fixed prices. For example, Scion already does fixed pricing and most of their customers just go in knowing exactly what car with what features they want and how much it’s going to cost. Apparently dealers are hesitant to move to fixed pricing if their competitors are still negotiating prices because fixed prices are higher and can’t compete…but then again the argument is that fixed pricing saves dealerships money because they don’t need to staff so many managers at all times that can approve prices to sell the cars at. And the research shows that although at fixed prices a dealership will currently sell fewer cars, it also shows that the people buying at fixed prices are much more likely to be repeat customers (for services such as oil changes along with future car purchases). People like knowing what they’re going to get and they appreciate knowing that they’re being treated the same as the next person to walk into the door. Fair play is underrated…anyways, I digress.

I hate getting ripped off (it’s part of the anal retentive part of my personality), but I’m struggling with the fact that I also tend to use the utilitarian argument that a dollar here for someone that doesn’t have a backup bank account means a lot more to them than it does to me. Is it fair to be ripping me off just because I feel the impact less and the money helps them more? The utilitarian argument is one of my reasons for being here…as a volunteer I should be able to do more good in this world in my two years than two years spent toiling away and punching buttons as an operations analyst. But if that’s my train of thought, I shouldn’t have a problem with paying a little more for every single thing than a Bolivian that has fewer resources at their disposal right? This brings me back to the philosophy of Peter Singer, crazed minimalist vegan philanthropist philosopher to the extreme, where he basically lives at the lowest level possible to do his part in equalizing the playing field and putting each of his dollars to the best use possible in this world. After reading a few of his books, he makes sense a lot of the time…and that’s the scary part. If you think it makes sense, why aren’t you living like that as well? I guess I’m not ready to sacrifice to that degree…yes, I am materialistic and like my sushi dinners and pillowtop mattresses and sure, I feel guilty, but when will it be enough to act fully on it?

Sometimes it gets me really mad that I am getting ripped off and I’m like, wtf (seriously wtf!) but then the next moment I’ll tell myself to calm down that it’s just part of life and you deal with it and move on. I guess it helps that I don’t hold grudges for a long time and have a short memory…just like my mom who was going to kill me when I ran off to watch WWF in high school (hey man, I had a Joy Dog 3:16 sign! Yeah Stone Cold) and grounded me for life…but then the next day (I believe) I was out and at it again. And maybe I should approach these things with a sense of humor like how I laugh with my mom about how she totally got pressured into buying a ridiculously overpriced vacuum cleaner. And with that I think I just need to give it up and think: 10 years from now I won’t care if I paid $15 more for rent each month when I lived in Bolivia…thankfully I have a tendency to remember the good and forget the bad…forgive and forget, life is way too short to be obsessing about monetary matters when you have a roof to live under, clothes on your back and food to eat…easier said than done of course though. I’m working on it though…

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is like Being Bipolar…

So during my La Paz trip in terms of work I had some definite emotional ups and downs, anything ranging from being super excited and hopeful to being depressed and discouraged and confused. Sonia and I had really high expectations for sales at the fair based on what other people had told us…going to the embassy and especially being before Christmas we thought people would be out buying products for gifts. Unfortunately the most popular products seemed to be little crafts that were Christmas decorations that some of the people were selling. We ended up selling only 2 shawls, 4 scarves and a blanket…whereas we had brought with us 70 shawls and 40 scarves and lugged them around in a suitcase from Cochabamba to La Paz. I have to tell you, it was quite depressing sitting there at the fair after about an hour and a half not having sold one thing at all…and I think for all of the purchases except for the blanket, I guilt-tripped and chatted people up into buying the products by playing the “hi, I’m a PC volunteer” card. The employees there ranged from Foreign Service Officers working in all areas to people working for USAID. One guy that bought a few items from Sonia actually was a volunteer himself in Costa Rica several years ago and then while he was purchasing I used my selling skills (which are actually pretty pathetic if you ask me) to get a couple who were his friends to buy a few things as well. You would have thought after learning to make random small-talk during sorority recruiting and campus recruiting later on that I would be good at selling something…anything. Well I have to say that I still need to work on it. The discouraging thing about the whole fair was the realization that in order for me to help her business be more successful (with sustainability, one of the top goals of our work here in PC), that it is going to be a tough road in these next two years. I think I had my first taste of failure or expectations that weren’t met at the fair. They say that 90% of the projects that you try in the PC fail…and you just have to try and try again, so I guess here’s to keeping on trying. If nothing else the trip was a good experience to bond with Sonia but I just hope she doesn’t hate my guts for making her think she was going to have huge sales at the fair (which I believed myself). The competition for alpaca shawls in La Paz is just ridiculous though and it was a big wake up call that even if you have a good and unique product in terms of quality and design (she probably has some of the best quality that I’ve seen and also does designs that are a lot more colorful that other stuff in the stores we went to) it doesn’t guarantee success or marketability. Besides, every woman in La Paz that you’re trying to sell a shawl to probably has at least 10 of them hanging up in her closet.

After the fair we went and did some “market research” at artisan’s alley…which is this amazing street of shopping for souvenirs…if nothing else, La Paz has amazing shopping…all sorts of knit products, jewelry, accessories, pretty much a shopper’s paradise that’s very affordable as well. Basically this research involved us going into all these stores where I played the foreigner card touching everything and asking about prices of products similar to hers, asking if they were handmade, what they were made of etc…while Sonia tailed me around, gave me some insight into what she thought was handmade or not, and then told me that she thought that the store owners were getting annoyed with me because I kept on touching everything and taking it out and looking at it but not buying anything. Haha, I guess that’s what you gotta do though. The initial idea was to potentially find some markets for her products in some stores…but that went out the window because we realized that the products being sold as souvenirs were all much cheaper (like half the cost of hers) and lower quality…and then the more expensive stuff in stores was all branded (L.A.M. apparently has like 6 or 7 stores within a 3 block radius). It was good to see what was out there and it gave me a little hope…then I convinced Sonia to come to this Middle Eastern restaurant with me (where she tried several types of food for the first time…several which she didn’t like, others which she did)…and we had all sorts of stuff, wrapped grape leaves, hummus, tabouleh, shish kababs…I didn’t notice until she mentioned it to me but I guess in Bolivia they don’t eat a lot of garlic (although they put onions in everything) so a lot of the garlicky flavors were way too strong for her liking. The one success that made me happy is that she did leave 10 shawls and 10 scarves in different designs for a storeowner who is also the sister of one of the women that works in the PC office…so hopefully she’ll have some success with that, if nothing else to lighten her load.

Other research I did by myself when I went to Zona Sur (super ritzy area of La Paz where a lot of the embassies are located…think massive houses behind walls and gates, kind of rich area of California feel with a Greenwich, CT foofy-ness about it) and walked around in a shopping area there. I went armed with a few of her pamphlets and business cards along with samples of her product thinking there might be markets there…but after walking into a few stores where they were clearly established brands in international markets instead of just little boutiques with several different brands being sold…I had that “oh s**t, I’m in way over my head, no way we’re ready to supply these people or compete with them” feeling so I just went in and once again pretended to be interested in the products…going around getting prices of alpaca shawls and went into this store where they make everything out of alpaca ($400 alpaca dress anyone?) that I was thinking if I were on vacation I might actually buy something from here as a treat to myself…then thinking that if I actually was making the money to buy something like that it might also help…oh well. You live and you learn. I’m still hopeful overall when it comes to working with her because I know she has a great product that isn’t like anything I’ve seen yet (although I can see where people could easily copy it) and there are definitely projects that I can work with her on to make her product more marketable.

I guess that’s what it comes down to…I’m an optimist and in this line of work you have to be or else you’d sit around and cry yourself to sleep over your failures or more likely you’d just be going back to the U.S. The glass is half full my friends!

And of course…when you’re feeling down and in La Paz…you can always buy yourself a nice fried chicken dinner and go on a shopping spree (which includes American peanut butter at $5 a jar, the Mariah Carey Christmas CD, and lots of chocolate bars).

The Good, The Bad, and La Paz

So I spent a good 3.5 days in La Paz for both work and play last week. I was really excited to finally get out of Cochabamba since I was one of the few volunteers in my group to not have left the department yet since my site was so close to where we were for two months during training. Even better that I got to go there for work then (and wander around a bit while I was there taking in the tourist attractions so I know what’s worth going to when you guys come and visit!)…overall it was a good trip, but one with lots of ups and downs and realizations about work and then a little of that fun feeling of just being a tourist again.

Sonia (the artisan woman I work with that weaves stuff out of alpaca) and I left on Thursday to catch a bus to La Paz…or so we thought…so we could be at a Christmas fair at the U.S. embassy to sell her products on Friday. So we’re going along on the bus…then about 4 hours into our trip we turn off at a point and she turns to the man sitting next to us and is like…is this bus going to Oruro? Turns out…we got on the wrong bus and were headed to Oruro instead of La Paz. She started freaking out a bit about her luggage since she had like 70 shawls and 40 scarves in there…on a different bus on it’s way to La Paz…but I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. I mean, it could have been a lot worse…Oruro is pretty much in the same direction as La Paz but turns off at this one place (we ended up wasting about 2 hours stopping in Oruro and getting on a different bus to get to La Paz) and I had to text my friend Sarah who’s a volunteer in a town right outside of La Paz. Oruro’s a pretty interesting place…I know now why they say it has a “stark beauty”…it was interesting to finally be in a non-hilly place (they call it the altiplano) where you can see far far into the distance. So once we got to Oruro, bought another ticket from Oruro to La Paz, and hopped on another bus…we were on the right track again. We got to La Paz and wandered around to find some food, taking in the incredible steepness of the hills, the cold, and big city. My first impression of the city was “wow” because it’s this huge sprawling city in a little valley (El Alto, another city where the airport is actually located is above it) and has altogether probably about 2 million people…it’s hillier than San Francisco and then at night reminds me of a big city in Asia like Shanghai or Taipei where there’s night markets, along with a big European city feel as well…definitely a place worth visiting.

I visited a few of the attractions while I was there…including Tiahuanaco, Valle de la Luna, and Chacaltaya with a tour group and had some interesting observations about tourism there. In my tour groups I had people that spoke all different languages and came from all different places (notably I think the Swiss and Germans win out on knowing the most languages)…we had Germans (some that were living in Peru), Australians, Swiss, Bolivians, Fins (Finlandians? Haha, what do you call people from Finland? He was actually living in Cuba though going to school), Brazilians (that were living in Peru), French, and Japanese…and me as the lone American. It seems like La Paz is a really popular place for tourists (the city is swarming with over 100 tour agencies) but very few Americans. Hearing all the languages that these people spoke made me want to learn more languages…after English (of course), Spanish, and Chinese…I’m thinking picking up a little Quechua and Taiwanese might be useful…but then next up would probably be French, Japanese, then German for me. Haha, ambitious goals I say…but it really amazed me how these people were speaking three languages fluently. I just like the way French and German sound…and then Portuguese might not be too difficult to learn…I was speaking with a Brazilian man and he told me that they’re pretty similar…anyways, overall I would recommend Valle de la Luna and Chacaltaya (the highest skiing in the world…but we just went there for the view…which we really couldn’t see because of the fog…and when you go there you can just hike a few hundred meters up to reach the pinnacle at 5300 m…trust me, it would be quite difficult to hike anymore than that at that altitude). I also would recommend La Paz for the yummy food (I found this woman that sells banana bread on the street…amazing, way better than anything I ever baked) and the proliferation of fried chicken restaurants…10x better than KFC (haha, I know a bunch of you out there are fans of the KFC…Evie, Lau…you know who you are). Also, I treated myself to this serious swanky Japanese restaurant on the last night I was there…sashimi dinner complete with (real!) rice, miso soup, a few other appetizers and a nice glass of white wine. Overall the dinner set me back around $12…most expensive meal yet in Bolivia for me, but was well worth it since I was majorly craving some sushi…I’ve been deprived for over 3 months and it was about time to take care of that. The sushi wasn’t bad either…quite fresh although there really wasn’t much of a selection…only trout that I saw on the menu (no salmon, yellowtail, etc.) but I did get a few pieces of octopus as well.