The things I see

24 October 2005
11:30 AM


Not many in the U.S. have the opportunity to live in another country; fewer still the opportunity to see the things I have seen here in Bolivia. For that reason, I feel a responsibility to send the sights here back to you, whether in pictures or words. I have waited for some time to give a better picture of the other side of life in Bolivia. A short anecdote from college explains why.

My sophomore year at Notre Dame I had to write a reaction paper after seeing “The Tempest” on campus. I wrote it quickly because I had other things to do. When my professor returned ours papers, I reread my terrible opening line: “Shakespeare’s plays are some of the most versatile ever written.” Next to it was my professor’s tongue-in-cheek comment: “How many plays have you seen? All of them?” I made the same mistake as many students learning to write. Most politely described, it is saying more than you are entitled to say. In my case, this was true; I don’t know much about plays—certainly not enough to identify “the most versatile,” whatever that means. Many times I have seen, in my papers and others’, the desire to sound better, more relevant, or more significant lead to such hollow sentences. At best, they waste readers’ time; at worst, they are dishonest.

Though you might doubt it after such a long introduction, I don’t want to waste readers’ time. For that reason, I thought it best to wait before describing some of the things here because they are difficult to describe without wanting to exaggerate or to make drastic comparisons with life at home. As I proceed, I will try to stick to what I’m entitled to say.

First the obvious: life here in Bolivia is different than in the U.S. The United States is among the wealthiest countries in the world; Bolivia wrestles with Peru for the title of the poorest in Latin America. As a result, you see things here that you won’t see in the U.S. At the very least, you’re unlikely to see them.

My first week here I saw a mother and her little boy digging through the dumpster. At the time the boy was smiling because he has just found a wand and solution to blow bubbles. Many people do their laundry in the streets with water from the canal on Jaime Mendoza because a large portion of the population doesn’t have running water. I’ve seen children in nothing but not-quite-long-enough shirts while mothers hang their clothes on fences. I’ve seen a grown man stand in the street wearing just his boxers, waiting for his clothes to dry.

When I leave Mass on Sunday, the exit is lined with mothers and children, hats extended, begging. Two weeks ago there were two five-year-olds playing miniature guitars for money. Apart from toy stores, there aren’t many children begging on the streets in the U.S. Last week when it rained, the sidewalks were lined with people sitting under the awnings in garbage-bag style ponchos, trying to stay warm and dry. Yesterday Emily and I ran into an older man so drunk that he couldn’t lift himself from the sidewalk. He staggered away after I picked him up; his pants had feces on them.

For many, life in Bolivia is unsafe and unkind. All houses have locked gates. They are surrounded by spikes, barbed wire, shards of broken glass, or some combination of the three. Dogs aren’t just pets; they’re protection. Children just a few years, months, even weeks old spend the night on the street. Alone. If they’re lucky, they are rescued—some literally from dumpsters—by orphanages where one person cares for twenty children. Many are not lucky. Packs of children live on the streets for years, sniffing glue to get high.

After a short time, it’s hard not to be struck by the monumental unfairness of it all. Saturday morning I went to an orphanage and played with the children for a few hours. The entire time I heard “Look at me! Play with me! Come with me!” No doubt it’s because children love attention, and it’s hard to get when there’s one “mom” for fifteen kids. Later that afternoon I went to a party thrown by one of my professors, Judith. Eight days earlier she became a grandmother. Proud parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins had gathered to celebrate. They totaled more than fifteen—the exact opposite ratio from the orphanage. As the newborn girl lie sleeping, I wondered if she knew that she won the birth lottery.

Though these descriptions may read like those of some grizzled veteran, they’re not. I have been here less than two months. I haven’t been searching for scenes to describe; they’re part of everyday life here. With a plane ticket, a pen, and a month, you could write this as well as I can.

What you see here, though, depends on how you look. If you look selectively, life here might appear just like that in the U.S. There are Toyota Corollas and Land Rovers on the streets. Downtown there are sometimes the telltale white headphones of iPods. On the weekends there are people dancing in nightclubs at 3am. If you look carefully, you’ll learn about luxuries we have that hardly seem luxurious. Almost anywhere in the U.S., you could drink the water from a toilet bowl reservoir without any problem. Here, you wouldn’t drink tap water without boiling it (if you have a tap, that it—more than half don’t). But if you look at all, you’ll see more than you want to see. And when that happens, you’ll need other people to see it too.


Ryan, Whoa. Good blog entry. You have turned out to be a very good writer. If you join the Jesuits, I´ll see you get a job at America magaine or maybe a publishing deal through Loyola Press. Good descriptions and account sof what a memorable place that town has been for me. Thx.

This entry reminded me a lot of my visit to Bangkok, Thailand in 2004. Like you, I was amazed at the poverty that some people face. I know that before seeing it first-hand, I, like many Americans I imagine, pictured poverty as a few homeless people sleeping on benches in parks. But in Thailand, I was confronted with a poverty I could never have imagined. People lived next to open sewers, and sometimes the sewer water was the cleanest they could get. Those who were lucky enough to have a “home” had little more than an old, gutted building with entire outside walls missing. And in Thailand, what struck me the most was not just that the poverty existed, but that just around the corner or just down the street, stood the Thai Imperial Palaces and Temples - some of the most lavish buildings you could possibly imagine. There, in a country where so many people are living in such horrible conditions, the government is spending its money on increasing the luxury of the already-rich. I’m glad there are people like you in the world that go to these places and do something about it. You are an inspiration.

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