I have eaten more in the past six days than in my previous five weeks in Bolivia. Cochabambinos pride themselves on living in the eating capital of Bolivia, and the third question people ask you after “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” is usually “How do you like the food?” The local specialty is pique, a big pile of beef, chicken, sausage, hot dogs, tripe, chicharrones, hard-boiled eggs and udder (udder!) stacked 8-12 inches high on a bed of french fries. Ronny and Paola, AgroCapital’s Credit Manager and Kiva Coordinator, were good enough to take me out for a culinary introduction to Cochabamba soon after my arrival. Thanks to the pique, my planned envigorating evening jog turned into severe food coma and falling asleep at 7pm with all of my clothes on. This microfinance thing is exhausting.
I’m lucky enough to get a tour of Bolivia along with my Kiva fellowship, since I’m spending time at three different AgroCapital branch offices: a month in El Alto, a month in Cochabamba and a month in Santa Cruz. There’s a lot of tension between different regions in Bolivia, namely between the eastern, resource-rich “half-moon” regions that want autonomy and the western highlands, which are poorer, mostly indigenous Aymara, and back the Evo Morales government and its socialist agenda. El Alto is almost 100% behind Morales, Cochabamba is somewhat divided, and Santa Cruz is mostly against Morales. It’s painful to see how much time and effort is spent on regional bickering and political posturing in a country where there’s so much to be done in terms of infrastructure and development. And as far as I can tell there’s no easy solution in sight–though more than 60% of the country backs Morales, accoring to the August 10th referendum, the other 40% controls most of the country’s wealth and natural resources and doesn’t plan on ceding them any time soon. This rich-poor, east-west dichotomy goes way back, as does a tradition of corrupt politicians and dictators who serve the wealthy elite. Bolivia has seen 193 presidential coups in its history as an independent nation (an average of one every 10 months, according to Wikipedia), so many that the presidential palace is known as the Palacio Quemado (“burned palace”). I asked one of the loan officers what he thought of the current government and he responded, “Well, it sure has lasted a long time.” This made me smile–my government sure has lasted a long time too, but that’s not exactly on its list of merits for me .
Bolivia is a beautiful country, making all of the hard times it’s fallen on even more tragic. Weekend excursions have taken me on a glacier climb, hiking and eating trout on beautiful Lake Titicaca–this weekend looks like a climb up the world’s tallest statue of Jesus and a trip to the Tunari national park. And probably a few generous portions of meat and potatoes.