Powerless in Bolivia ~ 1991

Elizabeth Levine in Bolivia

Elizabeth Levine in Bolivia

In the following post Elizabeth Levine gives an honest personal account as she faced feelings of powerlessness on arriving in La Paz to work. This is Chapter 10 of her memoir (work in progress):

“From the moment I landed in the altitude of La Paz, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. The geography changed but I did not. The slow, sluggish line of impatient passengers waiting to clear customs unraveled.  The oppressive stale air below the tin roof left us short of breath.  Nobody moved forward.  We waited without protest lethargic. Too passive for anger. Suddenly, misgivings about my job as a Public Health Intern for Catholic Charities overwhelmed me. I was landlocked. When I gave the Immigration official my American passport, my hands trembled. My instincts warned me to turn back before it was too late.

Although my new colleagues met me at the airport, I could not shake the sensation that I was unwelcome.  My co-workers clearly resented the obligation of greeting my flight. My boss, Catherine, annoyed at having to shake my hand, escorted me to my hotel. Her obvious displeasure and indifference to my ten hour flight seemed like a bad omen. Everything about my arrival irritated her. As we began our descent along the only paved road into the city, Catherine ignored me and chatted with a younger colleague who accompanied her to the airport. I listened to them because it was required.

Hand carved, wooden, white crosses dotted the road’s edge like paper narcissus, marking death. These primitive tombstones intensified my foreboding, an unsettling reminder of fatality. I peered down the ravine and didn’t see any bottom, that’s how steep the plunge over the edge would be. The dismal, uninhabited perimeter of La Paz encroached me in fog, like doom. The earthen, copper color of dirt slipped through the car windows leaving me caked with dust. This mud clung to my clothes, staying put. I felt stained.

Children stood along the highway like stalks of corn, swaying in unison. Ten year old boys with thick, uncombed hair swarmed our cars hawking coca leaves in green plastic bags. Farmers chewed these leaves to ward off starvation. As we drove past dead acres of untilled soil, I wondered what crops survived in this harsh climate; I learned that only frozen, black potatoes shaped like lumps of coal grew in the ground.

No matter where I looked, I saw suffering.  Bolivians wore the face of poverty. Empty expressions revealed endless misery. Even their skin wrinkled in defeat, withered, and brittle as a lizard’s scales scorched from the desert. They slouched rather than stand, shorter than American adults, but looked older from disrepair. They didn’t live long or grow tall, inches of height stolen from malnutrition. Their rare smiles revealed a railroad of rotting tracks of teeth.

Bolivia was classified as a hardship post. Life here looked cruel and unsympathetic. Stalls of produce decayed in the open-air markets, offering vegetables that no one wanted to buy.

Indian women carried sick, feverish infants on their backs, wrapped only in bundles of despair. These mothers with ravenous, greedy claws begged for money, feral from hunger . Their children bent them in half. Their babies’ noses leaked continuously without the hope of tissues. Their mucous solidified into a line of snot, hardening into the shape of a birthmark. Newborns died before their first bath, so keeping them clean seemed pointless. The Andean topology of volcanoes and mountains trapped Bolivia in an impasse.  We arrived then, in this place of sorrow.

As we pulled up to my hotel, my new boss reminded me to come to work tomorrow and suggested I wait for her in the lobby. She didn’t even say goodbye, eager to deposit me like luggage on the sidewalk. I looked down at the sidewalks where curbs should be. Sewage ran over the soles of my shoes. My first step was in shit. It was everywhere.

My job was to improve people’s health status and extend their life expectancy. After this drive from the airport, I knew I would fail.  I didn’t even know where to begin. Most adults were illiterate and women died in childbirth as often as they survived. Rural men worked as miners in Oruro, toiling underground for just a few dollars a week. Life had little value in this country, the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

Americans who worked in Bolivia, were, by default, wealthy, earning more in one month than most families in a year. That disparity kept me permanently apologetic, guilty of the privilege that money bestows. After a two-week stay in my comfortable, albeit sterile four star hotel, I rented an astonishing, gracious apartment in a residential neighborhood that lead to the wealthy outskirts of town. It had three enormous rooms, with a circular balcony that wrapped around the front of the building. Each room provided wide, solid windows over the street, but there was nothing to look at. Even the scenery looked impoverished; there was nothing to look at, no people to watch, no place to go. The streets remained empty from morning until night.. I spent the evening hours in my living room lighting a fire in the white brick fireplace, building warmth.

The floor plan allowed ample room for loneliness; somehow it found me in every room. My constant loneliness started when I moved in and never left.  I couldn’t escape isolation, or prevent solitude.

Determined to make the best of my unhappy situation, I enthusiastically joined running clubs, aerobics classes, studied Portuguese, attended temple, played soccer, accepted invitations, hosted dinners: anything to fill the vast, infinite plain of my own company.”

I must say that my impression of La Paz a few years ago as a tourist was less traumatic. It was, to me, a city of extremes where ancient and modern rubbed shoulders in juxtaposition, but I thank Elizabeth for being so frank about working in such an unfamiliar and challenging environment. She faced lonliness and helplessness and yet Elizabeth sees the message of this piece as one of hope and resilience……she survived to tell the tale and to learn from it.

You can connect with Elizabeth on her Facebook page ‘Why we Write’


About Diana Jackson

Author of 'The Healing Paths of Fife', Historical Romantic fiction ~ The Riduna Series set in 19th and early 20th Century a murder mystery ~ 'Murder, Now and Then' and two memoir. What links my books ~ history! Website:www.dianamaryjackson.co.uk Blog:www.dianamj.wordpress.com Riduna on Twitter and on Facebook too!
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