Dispatches from the Field: An Imperialist in Bolivia


Plaza Murillo

Today we bring you the latest in our Dispatches from the Field series, a regular feature where we ask Flavorwire friends and family who are living abroad to share thoughts and images from their travels. What follows is a report from Jonathan Levin, a journalist living in La Paz, Bolivia, who happens to be friends with our very own Lee Frank. View the slideshow (courtesy of photographer Galen Mook) that goes along with his piece here.

“I’m an American journalist working in Bolivia, a country whose leader Evo Morales refers to the United States of America as the ‘North American Empire’ and aligns himself politically with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Things could be friendlier.

“Still, I’ve always felt welcome here in La Paz, the Bolivian capital set two-miles high in the Andes mountains. Even the approximately 56 percent of Bolivians who rally around the President’s stormy rhetoric seem to know the difference between me and my country, the superpower Morales accuses of sowing evil (read: capitalism) everywhere it goes. Heck, even Morales himself is nice to me when my strong gringo accent slips out while asking a question at news conference.

“Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. Farm hands earn about $100 a month and college-educated office workers consider themselves lucky to make four our five times that amount. Nevertheless, my Bolivian friends are quick to point out that happiness isn’t measured by gross domestic product. A bottle of coke is about 14 cents U.S. in Bolivia, and a nicely furnished apartment in the city can be had for about $150 per month. Bolivians, who get two-hour lunch breaks, have the time to stay connected to friends and family, and they enjoy rich traditions of music and dance passed down from a three thousand-year-old indigenous culture.

“Government heads have their fans and enemies, but you have to admire the clever ways they deal with budget restrictions. For instance, some cities faced with traffic safety concerns might install lights to tell pedestrians when they should cross the street. In La Paz, the government pays people to dress up in zebra costumes — yes, zebra costumes — and stand at busy intersections directing walkers. (The logic of the outfit: zebras have stripes, and stripes look like crosswalks.) The zebra costumes are equipped with long zebra snouts, and whenever two zebra-cum-crossing guards face each other and try to have a conversation, it totally looks like they’re making out.

“What’s more, the country has a centuries-old tradition of political activism, which expanded and gathered strength during decades of brutally oppressive military dictatorships that ended in 1982. When Bolivians disagree with a political decision or conditions at work, they revolt. Groups of protesters march on government buildings in the capital several times a week, sometimes several times a day.

“I’ll admit, sometimes I miss the comforts of home. An apartment with heat, for instance, for those cold Andean nights; a week without a protest or a traffic jam, so I could get to a morning press conferences on time; a better selection of American television shows. And don’t get me started over the lack of American football, as opposed to futbol, games on the airwaves. Who shows speedboat racing when there’s an NFL championship game on? Ridiculous.

“All that not withstanding, it’s easy to forget the game when you live in a city as hectic and weird and beautiful as La Paz, surrounded by the snowcapped Andes mountains. Frankly, I still wish I had heat in my apartment. But on cold nights when I slide underneath my three layers of blankets, this crazy city actually feels like home.”

– Jonathan Levin