Frank O'Hara in Bolivia
Mid-November to December 2005

Frank & Guards
Frank helps the guards

Click here to see a 22 minute video of some of my experiences in Bolivia
A high-speed connection is recommended.

Bolivia is a fascinating country.

Here are a few examples: It is the highest capital city in the world, has the highest navigable lake, and possibly the friendliest people. Over 65% of the population is indigenous. Most noticeable on the streets are the Indian women in their exotic garb. Apparently, the bowler hats are the result of a merchant a couple of hundred years ago who found himself with a large surplus of such hats. He convinced the wives of the local gentry these hats were all the rage in Europe (no Internet in those days!). The women took up the fashion and subsequently were emulated by the native women. Indian womenThe natives also copied the style of dress, many crinolines and dresses to the floor. Well, they did adapt the dress somewhat to local field conditions; the dresses end about 12" from the ground to facilitate manual labour.women working The Indians also made some other innovations. The hat is worn straight across the top of the head if the woman is married and cocked to one side if she is "available". Also the skirts have a pattern that runs either vertically or horizontally, also to indicate marital status, just in case a man doesn't get the picture with the hat. I have no idea why the hats must be several sizes too small or how they keep them on. I saw no sign of bobby pins.

La Paz has different climate environments according to each zone's altitude. view from hotel

While the centre of town is at 3,650 meters above sea level, the zone of Aranjuez (the suburb where my hotel was located) is at 3,300 m. El Alto (where the international airport is located) is at 4,082 m. The average temperature in winter is 15C (59F) and 22C (72F) in summer. In the summer, rain falls on most afternoons. In the winter (opposite to North America's), the days are slightly cooler, but the sky is mostly clear and sunny.

This was the view from my hotel window. Note the mountains surrounding the city.

This was not a hardship posting. I stayed in a very modern hotel, with good high speed Internet connections; so I was able to listen to CBC Toronto on my computer. I had a small living room with an enormous TV where I could get the usual BBC World, CNN & German (English) news as well as lots of Spanish stations. There was also a smaller TV in a separate bedroom. The staff was extremely helpful and pleasant.

The air at 3,650 meters above sea level is rarefied, to say the least. I heard there is about 15% less oxygen available. This affects not only people but also cars. They struggle just as human newcomers to this climate do, although people gradually adjust to it. I carried an umbrella as a talisman against the sudden rainfalls. It really worked. The only time I was caught in a downpour was when I neglected to bring along my umbrella. Bolivia, of course, is in the tropics, and the sun in the Andes burns even more readily than at lower elevations.

Office sceneI came to La Paz to help with the promotion of a website designed to help artisans market their products worldwide via e-commerce and without the cost of one or more middlemen. I found they had not actually developed the site, so I had to do it. There were a number of problems because Bolivians do not have the secure Internet facilities we take for granted. So, I got in touch with my Toronto ISP to handle the transactions. Locally, there were some quite knowledgeable people who can design the database and complete the website I did, including making it bilingual English/Spanish. When I got back to Toronto, I started organizing the secure payment element. The website has taken them longer to finish than I thought it would.

Lake Titicaca at nightfall

One weekend I visited Lake Titicaca. It is not only renowned for being up in the clouds, about 500 m higher than La Paz, but also because it is very beautiful. Here are a few pictures.

 Dancing  Shaman ritual

LegislatureThis is the national legislature. The old part of the city of La Paz has a number of attractive plazas like this one.

Bolivia is a country made poverty-stricken by political corruption and mismanagement. For many years, it has had an average of a president a year. One was shot, one hanged, one imprisoned for 30 years, and one is resisting extradition from the U.S.A. The election on December 18, 2005, brought radical change. Because there was a fear of insurrection - certainly not novel in Bolivia - tourists were avoiding the country and the small merchants suffered as a consequence. It's the weak who pay! And yet, Bolivia could be a very rich country. There is every climate from tropical to desert to high Andean. The country is resource rich (many minerals, oil and natural gas, and hydro electricity). Why are Bolivians so poor? Kleptomaniac leaders!

This is a country for shopaholics. Too bad it is so difficult to reach. (Our plan is for the new website to alleviate this by enabling people around the world to shop from home for unusual gifts at terrific prices.) There are about 8 bolivianos to the U.S. dollar. For example, I had a shoe shine boy tend to my shoes. The cost: 4 bolivianos. Being a big-time tipper, I gave him five. (Later I found that the normal price for a shoe-shine is only one boliviano.) Some of the shoe shine boys wear face masks, something like what skiers in Canada wear on very cold days. They are ashamed to be supporting their families this way.

Speaking of shame, there is no shame here in being involved in the coca business. Coca is legal. Coca tea is served in all restaurants. The tea is not habit-forming and helps alleviate the effects of oxygen deprivation - a bit of a lift like a cup of coffee. The local Indians chew coca leaves to help stave off hunger. Of course, there is also a large coca exporting business and that isn't legal. The new president, the first aboriginal and a coca farmer, is regarded as a leftist. It is too early to know what influence he will have. It is a safe bet, though, that he has at heart the interests of the 65% of the population who are Indian. Interestingly, there are quite a few Europeans living in La Paz in addition to those of Spanish extraction. Germans, Croats, and Lebanese are particularly evident and all quite prosperous, it seems.

The public school system is poorly supported. People with money send their children to private schools for about $70 per month each - a fortune for the average person. There are "American" and "German" and "French" private schools. So, there are lots of people, children of the wealthy, who speak foreign languages.

TouristsOn the left and right is one of the strange mountainous areas surrounding La Paz. Tourists were scrambling around and then their guide took their pictures; he's holding a camera for each one.Guide

CESO had a very substantial operation here for about 7 years, but closed it at the end of 2005. Too bad. There is still lots to be done. There were about 12 - 15 CESO volunteers in the La Paz area while I was there - finishing off the balance of the budget, I guess. It is pleasant meeting people from all across Canada - experts in many fields, all wanting to do something to help people in downtrodden parts of the world and hoping to make a difference. Canada has a very positive image here, as I have experienced throughout the world. It is humbling to see how happy people are to receive a little Canadian flag pin.


Some of the CESO volunteers - representing Canada coast to coast and the NWT.CESO VAs

It was strange returning to Toronto's blustery weather, but I sure appreciated the level of oxygen.

Hasta Mañana

Frank O'Hara