Living In O’Bolivian

The friends we are staying with were cleaning out their old emails and came across this one I had sent them a while back. Hatbox Louie and I were working on a medical project in tropical Bolivia. It struck me how radically different the chapters of one’s life can be. Staying with friends under the freezing suburban skies of Ohio–sweating bullets in the heavy, smoky air of lowland Bolivia. Blinding-white conventionality versus grinding-dark poverty. A world apart. Still searching, I am again at sea.

The email:

Hatbox Louie has informed me that it is my turn to write an
email so I will. It was a very odd week here in
Bolivia. It began on Sunday. We were setting out on
A 5 day boat trip down river–northeast towards Brazil
and the Amazon–to visit a number of remote villages.

Early that morning we met at the clinic to load meds
and materials into our truck and then drove down to
the river. We packed the boat–a 30 foot narrow
longboat with a tarp awning–with our big red bags
of meds, scores of liters of water, food, tents, a
stove. It was a very full boat and sat low in the water.
The stern held 2 huge barrels of fuel. There is no place to
refuel and the trip is long–particularly
the return–where we chug back against the current.

I noticed there were 3 life vests dangling from a
rafter. There would be 6 of us aboard. Now I don’t
claim to be a whiz with numbers but…I remarked to
Hatbox Louie that it was like one of those jokes: a priest,
A rabbi and two gringos get on a boat with 3
vests…At one point the two of us and Lola, our nurse,
were alone and I said to her on the sly-ok there are 3 of us and 3
of those, are we cool?

Antonio–boat guy, pharmacy guy, truck guy–pulled the rope
to start the motor and swung us out into the current. It was
very chilly and the Bolivians were all bundled. I
was in short sleeves hoping to hoard some of the
coolness for later use. As we motored downstream, the
dense-green mountains gave way to rolling hills and
the river widened. Antonio expertly maneuvered
around submerged logs and occasional small rapids. We sat
on the vests as a small comfort against the hard planks
and enjoyed the view and the air. Frieda–a Bolivian
doctor who is in charge of public health stuff and
training the health promoters from the villages
began to prepare breakfast. Hatbox Louie and I had eaten granola
before we left, so we politely declined. I was a bit hungry but
could not justify a beef sandwich as a post-breakfast
snack.

Suddenly the motor kicked off and Antonio restarted
it. Then again. This time he looked concerned and
asked if oil had been added to the gas. Como se dice
“oops”? He turned us around and we headed back with
the motor misfiring all the way upriver. After about
45 minutes, we landed the boat where we started. As it was,
our schedule downriver was tight, and we
began to speculate on how to work things out if we managed
to get back on our way. Within 2 minutes, Antonio had
comandeered a motorcycle and returned with a
barefoot mechanic. Together they lifted the motor off and
carried it away. The damage: some kind of blown ring.
A result of the improper gas mixture. The
replacement part: a short 20 hours away in La Paz.

We went home, had a meeting and decided to switch
weeks with a different trip we could make by truck. We thus
headed to Tigre– a community about 6 hrs away–3 hours
on the dirt highway to Ixiamas where we turn onto a
terrible little road for 2-3 brain-jangling hours
of rutted, washed-out driving paradise.

We were about an hour into this rough part when we
stopped to watch a family of monkeys twisting and
somersaulting in the high canopy. We pressed on,
fording little rivers and large arroyos. About 20
minutes away from our destination, we stopped in a
village to visit a doctor who was stationed there by
the ministry of health.

She sauntered out of her thatch house with a baby in her arms,
the two of them rather grimy. The doctor was only distinguishable
from the locals by her relatively fashionable hair cut. She
was there with no meds or real treatment materials!!??
Very useful. Like a chef in a kitchen without food
or pans or knives–he will come to your table and
discuss delicious dishes and the smells they would generate
in their cooking. Though he has none, he might suggest a wine
to compliment this sumptuous theoretical feast. Welcome to Bolivia.
She gets a difficult to attain salary, and some schmuck
in La Paz gets to claim he is providing health care in the region.

We continued on towards Tigre. Tigre is composed of
2 communities which formerly lived in Potosi in the
highlands way to the south of La Paz. The 2
communities had been fighting each other for years
over land issues. There were people killed on both
sides. About 7 years ago they were exiled from the
Andes. The government got fed up and stuck them all
together in the jungle by plane with 6 months-worth of food
and no real way out. Like a gettin’ to know you
cooperation game from summer camp. Pretty kooky.
They seem to be getting along ok though.

We finally got to within 300 yards of the place.
That is, we got totally stuck in the mud as we
approached. Why did this suck? Well this place is a
focus of leishmaniasis– a disease you get from the bite of a
sandfly. If you get it, a long, arduous course of
painful and toxic injections MAY cure you. If not, years later it
can attack your mucous membranes, and you basically lose face.
The fly is very active at sundown. As we were struggling to
get out of the mud, the sun began to set.

Hatbox Louie and I had our buzzoff shirts, pants tucked
into socks, permethrin-soaked bandanas around our necks,
and enough 100% deet covering whatever skin remained
exposed that it felt like we had just crawled out of
Love Canal. Antonio wore a tank top. We had to carry
all our stuff–meds, gear, everything–
into the village and put up our tents in the dark
knowing the sandflies were beginning to feed.

By the way, we were so late because that morning we
had to attend a meeting with regional health
authorities to answer allegations by some half-assed
Bolivian NGO that we were experimenting on villagers
with our strange and wicked-strong American drugs.
I joked that the allegations were patently false: it is not experimentation–there is
no data compiled or control subjects. It is simply
haphazard and evil overdosing.

We managed to get our tents up, and the next day had
a very busy clinic before turning back up the road.
Antonio had extricated the vehicle with about 15
guys from the village. Before we left, we had lunch in a
smokey thatch-and-board house with the wife of the health
promoter we were training. She had apparently
killed a chicken for us which is sad, though judging
by the texture, it had lived a long, long life prior to making
the ultimate sacrifice. Well, we made it back and now we are
preparing for our next trip. Hope all are well, and more soon.

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