The Whiskey Chronicles (in Buenos Aires)

The Whiskey Chronicles (in Buenos Aires)

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

There´s No Such Thing as a Segue...

The Worst Spanish in the World is spoken after classes at Escuela Runawasi, the small school I’ve been holed up in the past few weeks in Cochabamba. The students in the school are all young, mostly Swiss and all new to Spanish. During the breaks, the main language is Swiss-German, which I’ve since learned is a largely phonetic, unwritten cousin to German-German. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to listen to.

To escape the solitude of our homestays, a few of us get together every other night or so to down a beer and try, miserably, to speak to each other in what is inevitably our second or – in the case of the Swiss – our fourth language.

I started our group off on the wrong path when I arrived two weeks ago and introduced myself. “Hola,” I said, “Me llamo Bill, soy un escritorio.” Everyone nodded politely, because no one realized I had just said “Hi. I’m Bill and I’m a desk.” If I had just left the “–io” off I’d be a writer. Now we all laugh about mistakes like that, but we go right ahead making them.

Everyone’s favorite conversationalist in the evening beer group is Barbara H. I don’t know what the H really stands for, but I know what I call her. During her first week, I asked Barbara where in Switzerland she came from. She replied with the name of a small town that neither I nor any of the Swiss at the table had heard of.

“I am,” she said, in English, “how do you say…an ‘Egg of the Country.”

Since then, Barbara H. has been Barbara “Huevo”, the Spanish word for egg.

Our foursome is comfortable with each other, but because we’re often trying to find a way – any way – to contribute to a group conversation, the subject of our talks bounces around radically. There’s no such thing as a segue. You can be talking about your afternoon in the local markets when someone will earnestly ask what the word for “to vomit” is in Spanish and the conversation shifts smoothly to the new subject at hand.

This strange reality is incredibly liberating and frank. We can ask each other almost anything, as long as it’s in Spanish. No one will bat an eye if you ask something like “If I eat this fried sausage, do you think I will have very fast intestines?” Somehow it’s all part of the learning process. Last night, our conversation was more of the same:

“Hey Huevo, do you have any animals at your house in Switzerland?”

“We have some dogs, a cat, and a couple…quack, quack!”

“Ducks. Why does your family had…no, have, ducks?

“Because in our garden, the ducks it eats…they eat…the animals that carry their homes on their backs.”


“Sí, escargot. But sometimes the animals-that-look-like-dogs-and-live-in-the-country [ie. foxes] try to eat the ducks. And last month one of our ducks dies…will die?...died, because of an accident.”

“What accident?”

“My brother had a rock, and the rock arrived in the duck’s head.”

“Oh, what barbarity!”

At one point, after we suffered through an absolutely brutal description of how Huevo’s brother-in-law tried, but failed, to buy a house that Huevo now lives in, our German friend Lilo broke in to say she had gone into town that day.

If said quickly, the phrase “I have gone” (phonetically “ey hecho”) can sound – to our untrained ears – like the title of the famous opera “Aida.”

“Aida?” Huevo asked surprisingly.

“No, he hecho!” Lilo said and we all started laughing. But then Huevo raised an eyebrow and grinned back at us.

“You can laugh, but at least this Egg of the Country knows a famous opera by Verdi.”


Sunday, February 13, 2005

A little taste of Chernobyl

Just a quick update from a slow internet cafe:

For the next two weeks, I´m a de facto member of the de Rojas family. Vita and Rene de Rojas are a retired couple in the Juan XXIII suburb of Cochabamba. Juan XXIII is a working class neighborhood, made up largely of recent retirees who were able to pull themselves into Bolivia´s tiny middle class.

Rene, like most of his neighbors, spent his career in the tin and silver mines - mines that were closed when the government sold off many state industries. Even though he is now relatively well off, there is still a bitterness about the privatization process that left tens of thousands of miners unemployed. The government oversold the benefits of privatization, which did little to improve the lives of ordinary people, and there is a deeply held suspicion here that the only beneficiaries were multinational investors.

There´s a bad taste about the privatization program in the United States as well - with few formal jobs available, many of the laid off workers moved to the fertile valleys of Bolivia´s Yungas and Chapare regions, where they started growing much of the coca that fueled a surge in cocaine production in the 80s and 90s.

But we don´t get into politics over the dining table, where I join Rene and Vita for three meals a day. Nearly every lunch and dinner features some kind of potato (Bolivians grow dozens of varieties) with rice and a piece of meat and vegetables. We watch the news shows and talk about when Rene is finally going to bring me some chiche, an alcoholic drink popular in this part of the country. He wants me to try a variety of the drink called Chernobyl, after the nuclear plant. He and Vita say that a couple glasses of this brew is all I´ll need to become fluent in Spanish. "We´ll be singing and dancing all night long," they promise. We´ll see...

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Carnival Time

First, CBS ran a story on Bolivia's Madidi National Park last night, where a new species of monkey was recently discovered. We haven't been to Madidi yet, but it's high on our list. You can see the story at:

Second, it's Carnival time in South America. In Brazil you go to Rio or Salvador; in Bolivia you go to Oruro. That's where we'll be this weekend, and we've somehow managed to get invited by the city's mayor to sit in his box. We were a little nervous about this invitation, so Dana asked one of her Bolivian colleagues if there was anything special we should do. "Just give a polite 'golf' clap and say 'Que lindo! Que lindo!' over and over again.

For some reason, Carnival is also a time for everyone under the age of 18 to run around tossing water balloons or spraying people with foam. I've avoided being part of the crossfire so far, but I'm sure my time is coming. The country's government is crumbling, but the front page of La Prensa, one of the main La Paz papers, featured a diagram showing just how fast a water balloon is traveling when thrown from a moving vehicle or from the top of a building. The paper also listed "rules" for water balloon fights, emphasizing that balloons filled with ice probably shouldn't be thrown.

At one point yesterday I watched a father holding a huge bag of balloons for his five-year-old son. Every time the boy saw a public bus coming down the road, he grabbed a balloon, took careful aim, and chucked it at the bus. I'm hoping our seats in the mayors box at Carnival offers us some immunity from all this...

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Break them rocks, boy!

By any measure, the city of El Alto - where La Paz's international airport is located - doesn't need another house. As you fly into Bolivia - assuming you can pull your eyes away from the towering peaks of the Cordillera Real - the sprawling mud and red brick homes of El Alto are the first signs of civilization that you see.

El Alto doesn't even appear on many world maps, but it should. Not only is the city the country's third largest - after not even existing a generation ago - but it contains the largest indigenous population of any city in the Americas AND is the fastest growing city in all of Latin America.

Perhaps not surpringly, El Alto is also extremely poor. A large percentage of the population is underemployed, with little access to clean water, electricity, or much else. But poor doesn't mean powerless. When the alteños, as they are known, got riled up in October 2003 they brought down the country's president, and they continue to exert a powerful influence on the government. A few limp effigies still hang from lamposts as a reminder of those heady days.

All of this was on our minds as we drove up to El Alto last weekend to take part in a weekly Habitat for Humanity project sponsored by the Embassy. As everyone knows, Habitat is in the business of building homes. And while I may have a few bold relatives who cleared land in the middle of the Sierras and built their dream home while hunting local wildlife, I consider it a success if I can hang a photo on the wall correctly. In short, I have few real skills when it comes to manual (ie. useful) labor.

Fortunately, the Bolivian architect for Habitat saw my value for what it was and I was put to work making the mortar that would keep the brick home together. In the U.S., this would probably be done by machine. In Bolivia, making the mortar, or mezcla, is a process that the Incas would still recognize.

After shoveling and then wheel-barrowing an enormous pile of dirt into the house compound, a 110-pound bag of cement powder was poured on top of it. To mix the cement and dirt, we shoveled the entire pile from its current location to a spot about two feet away. We then repeated the process so that the dirt/cement pile had effectively never moved. When we finally added water to the pile and tried to blend it all together with our shovels, the muddy amalgamation turned into the densest, most back-breaking substance I've ever encountered.

While this is all going on, four Bolivian builders are waiting around with empty buckets, impatiently yelling "Mezcla! Mezcla!" When we finally finish, the liquified pile of mezcla disappears into the nooks and crannies of the home disturbingly fast. So the process starts over and your back groans in protest. At one point, while wheel-barrowing my fifth hillside of dirt into the compound, I realized that the only difference between me and an Alabama felon was an orange jumpsuit. I half expected to run out of dirt and to be sent in the direction of a pile of rocks. "Break them rocks, boy, and make us some more dirt!", the architect would holler at me.

By the end of the day, half of a three-bedroom, 700-square foot house stood before us. The future occupants, Lúcia, Martín and their two children, had been on hand all day and were visibly excited. This family of four currently lives in a single bedroom in Lúcia's sister's home. Lúcia commutes nearly three hours a day to work in La Paz as a maid for a couple of embassy employees. Martín is unemployed. He had been working in Argentina, where jobs are more plentiful, but returned because he couldn't stand being away from his children. When Lúcia was hit by a mini-bus late last year the family's entire income was at risk, but she has recovered and the family has commited to making monthly payments to Habitat for the next few years.

Despite their difficulties, Lúcia brought a huge lunch of grilled chicken, rice and potatoes to stuff us with at lunch. And we'll be invited back to the home's opening later next month, after plumbing, electricity and a roof are installed. But as newcomers in this country, we're already looking forward to our next flight into La Paz, when we can turn away from the mountain vistas, look down on El Alto, and know that at least one of those red brick homes was built - in part - by us.