Watching someone dig through a pile of trash, hunched over others’ waste on the side of the road, taking handfuls of rice and transferring them into a plastic bag for the taking, as I walk into a restaurant to indulge in a delicious – supposedly expensive – burger really puts things into perspective.
I had been in La Paz for less than a few hours and I was already witnessing the hard reality of this country, where 60.1 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line of $1.25 a day, according the World Bank.
As I sat in the only opened restaurant in the center of La Paz waiting for my meal on a cold night, I couldn’t get passed the image of the man rummaging trough garbage in search for his. I wondered how could it be possible that I was about to eat a burger and fries that cost 30 Bolivianos, or, around 4 dollars, yet there was someone just outside the door who cannot afford even that. That is to say, a four-dollar meal is almost a luxury for some Bolivians. Yet for me it was one of the cheapest meals so far on my trip. How could we have such different realities? I asked myself. But the inequality that exists in our world is far more latent than what we’d like to admit or even think about. So, this is nothing new.
The World Bank has determined that Bolivia is “the most unequal in Latin America” and La Paz is living evidence of this. I explored many neighborhoods in La Paz and I saw the contrast between the chaotic and poorer Centro with the wealthier and more sophisticated San Miguel, where the small upper class hangs out; an upper class that derives from colonial times and that still benefits from the exploitation of the rest of the country.
San Miguel --->
Bolivia has been poor ever since their pseudo-independence and will continue to be because the dynamic has changed very little, if at all, since the colony.
Bolivia was stripped of tons — literary — thousands of tons of silver and other resources during the colony. Nowadays, it is being robbed of the remaining resources in a more inconspicuous manner: by international corporations (benefiting only the already rich). It is being kept subjugated by the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and defenseless without proper access to education.
Children working are a common view. The United Nations refugee agency found in 2009 that 22 per cent of children ages 7-14 work, but the worst part is the conditions under they do so.
“Children in Bolivia are exploited in the worst forms of child labor, many of them in agriculture.” Says the 2010 document. “Other worst forms of child labor include street vending, shining shoes, and assisting transport operators, work in which children may be exposed to a variety of hazards, such as severe weather, accidents caused by proximity to vehicles, and vulnerability to criminal elements.”
You can read more about it here.
Women work at least 12 hours daily as vendors on the street. They unload heavy potato sacks that they carry on their backs, early in the morning, and they sit out all day, rain or shine, in the cold streets of La Paz until eight or nine at night when they pack up and head home, again carrying the heavy load. Men usually work far away in dangerous mines and children help however they can. Everyone working to “merely survive” as a Brazilian tourist put it during our conversation.
No wonder why life expectancy in Bolivia is 66.
The bit I learned about the way of life of the campesinas (peasant women) I learned from Asunta Silicuana, a woman selling potatoes and hats on the street with whom I hung out for part of the day. Her husband is a miner and she told me this is the most common work among men. She speaks Aymara and Quechua and her ancestors have lived in Bolivia for centuries, according to her.
If hard work were all it took to progress, Bolivia would be the most advanced in South America, let alone, the richest. Because they have enough resources and a work ethic that should allow them to thrive, yet they struggle to make it day by day.
Despite the hard conditions under which a lot of Bolivians live, it is still a very lively society. I was greeted kindly and with a smile everywhere I went. Indigenous traditions still play an important role, so as an outsider it was fun to enjoy the “witches’ market” and learn about their ceremonies to Pachamama (mother earth) and their ancient traditions and remedies (which are pretty handy when there is no access to healthcare).
Although most people work without rest for most of their lives, they manage to stay positive and live happily. Not once did I encounter someone complaining about their condition, or even their day, they accept their reality and face every day with a smile and a prayer.
“Gracias a dios se puede trabajar,” said Asunta, which translates to: “thank god it is possible to work.”
This kind of perspective is not uncommon in South America. People are happy for the opportunities they have rather than frustrated about what they lack. Many are poor but happy.
Asunta smiles and happily tells me about her five children and how she’s worked for as long as she can remember.
La Paz was an incredibly interesting place, the contrasts, the landscape (there is a snow peak that can be viewed from almost anywhere in the city which lays on a giant crevice in the Andes), the flavors and colors, the people, the history, the reality. All of this comes together forming a pulsating society that represents what has been the history of this continent.
If you ever get a chance, give La Paz one; it can change your view on life.