The end of my practicum experience felt like it appeared out of nowhere. Friday, March 30 was my last full day and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just arrived only a few days before. Four weeks absolutely flew by and it was bittersweet when my flight left La Paz on 3/31.
I expected some sort of adjustment period or reverse culture shock, but aside from the spring-disguised-as-winter weather, I’ve had no issues adjusting to being back home. I was fortunate to stay in a very nice apartment with excellent water pressure, so I didn’t have issues adjusting to rustic-then-luxury accommodations. And we’ve got bad drivers, sudden weather changes, and a lack of respect for personal space in Chicago, too.
I do, however, miss La Paz’s personality and quirks. Where else can I find things like:
The weirdly aggressive (and judgmental?) store mannequins. US mannequin dressers are lacking some serious imagination. I’d be willing to buy something just to make these mannequins stop staring at me.
The llama-fication of everything! I don’t have a special affinity for the actual animal, but everything is a little more fun when it’s dressed like a llama.
Mixed public health messages. The sign on the left very bluntly states “Trash Kills” and announces fines for littering. The picture on the right was taken one block from this sign. This cluster of power lines remained low like this for an entire week before it was finally repaired. This is what it looks like to live and work in a resource-limited setting: public health gains and losses exist side by side, without complaint, because everyone knows the city will fix it when they can fix it.
The traffic zebras and donkeys! Thanks to John Oliver, I was aware of the traffic zebras – they encourage safe driving and pedestrian behaviors – and they were really fun to see in person. But I didn’t know that there are also traffic donkeys! They aren’t out as often as the zebras and they aren’t playful. They tend to scold people for unsafe driving and pedestrian behaviors. It’s surprisingly effective – it does feel a little shameful to be teased by a walking plush animal.
Syncretism (sincretismo): the fusion or mixture of Catholicism or Christianity and indigenous religious beliefs. Bolivia is a predominantly Catholic country, but many people also observe indigenous religious traditions.
In the Mercado de la Brujas (witches’ market), you can find all the supplies you’d need to make an offering to Pachamama, the Mother Earth goddess. Offerings include sugar candy (because Pachamama loves sweets), small candy plaques decorated to represent a special hope or wish (better job, a new child, etc), and dried llama fetuses, which represent a meaningful financial sacrifice. At night, the offerings are placed in a fire and left to burn overnight. If there is nothing but ashes left in the morning, then Pachamama has accepted your offering and will grant your wish. If the offering didn’t fully burn, Pachamama did not like your offering, and you have to make another, bigger offering. It is not unusual for people to attend mass and then burn an offering to Pachamama later that same week.
In the picture below, the statue on the left is Ekeko, the god of abundance. The statue is decorated with items that represent cultural, financial, and person abundance, such as a pan flute, money, flowers, foods, and various farming implements. Every day, the store owner puts a fresh cigar in his mouth – if it burns all the way down, Ekeko will grant your wish. If it doesn’t, you just have to hope that Ekeko will be in a better mood tomorrow. (Side note for the single ladies – Ekeko is needy and demanding of attention. Single women are “prohibited” from buying Ekeko icons because it is believe that Ekeko, out of jealousy, won’t bring them a husband.)
The market also sells spell potions and soaps – in the picture below, the Sabonete is meant to ward off domestic violence. There other potions and powders can help you find love, find a job, treat minor ailments, etc.
Vibrant street art, including sculpture, murals and graffiti. I didn’t get an opportunity to take a lot of pictures of the graffiti, but in general, it is very political in nature, and the messages change across city neighborhoods. Where I lived, most of the graffiti was very anti-Evo Morales – a lot of “Evo es dictador” (Evo is a dictator). In the older parts of the city, and in areas predominantly populated by indigenous persons, the graffiti was very pro-Evo – a lot of “Evo sí” (yes to Evo) and “Si no es Evo, quien?” (if it’s not Evo, then who?).
The most common message in all parts of the city was “Mi voto vale”, meaning my vote matters. The US has struggled with electoral apathy for a very long time. It was refreshing to be in a country where people are very engaged in politics and believe in voting.
(Some background info – Evo Morales cannot run again because of term limits. He held a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run an unlimited number of times, and the Bolivians strongly voted No. However, Evo does not want to leave office, and while Bolivians like and appreciate his reforms, they believe he needs to honor their constitution and their vote.)
The traffic light countdowns! We really, really need these in the US. When the light is red, the clock that will count down the seconds until the light changes. Once the red countdown is finished, the yellow light will come on and a green clock will count the seconds until the light turns green. This builds in a few seconds between light changes to allow the intersections to completely clear. When the light turns green, a green clock will count down the seconds until the light turns red. Did i mention that we really could benefit from these in the US?
The very entertaining television shows that seem to be a mix of talent show and telenovela. They go all in on the costumes.
Mostly, though, I will miss my co-workers and friends, who showed me an enormous amount of generosity, courtesy, and affection during my time in La Paz.