Monthly Archives: December 2012

German Inefficiency

Germany’s a country of engineers according to the stereotype. Everyone works hard and makes it a point to get things done well and on time. Nice and orderly. Of all the national stereotypes to have, Germany has a pretty good one these days. Too bad real life gets in the way.

I had just spent more than a month tramping through Uganda with few problems. Everything wasn’t perfect, but it for the most part no major issues. I was still excited to get to Germany. The thing I looked forward to the most was the idea that things would just work. I’m an easily excitable person.

I landed in Frankfurt because it was cheap, and the next day I had a bus to take me to Berlin where I was visiting a friend. Pro tip, don’t go to Frankfurt. It sucks. The bus was going to be a five hour ride and I would arrive in Berlin in the evening after she got off work.

But what’s travel without a few hiccups right? About half way through the drive, the bus broke down. Long story short we were stuck on the side of the road for six hours. First the driver and conductor tried to fix the problem. That took an hour. Then they called the ADAC folk, they took about two hours to show up. They messed around for an hour and fixed nothing. Finally the company sent a new bus to pick us up. After six hours in the beating sun we were on our way.

Now if that was the end of the story it would be pretty boring, but I’m just getting started.

I was in contact with the friend I was staying with in Berlin over Facebook. I had her phone number stored in my messages on my iPhone that the Facebook app automatically saves. Except for the first and only time since, the app decided to delete all the messages on my phone. Strike one against Facebook. I don’t know why, but that mean I had no phone number to contact my friend and tell her I’d be late.

I’m stuck in a strange country with no means of communication with my only contact, no way to start looking for a hostel, and I’m going to arrive at my destination after 11 PM. Not the most conducive time to figuring things out.

After we finally got moving I found myself sitting next to a cute German girl a Lonely Planet about Eastern Europe. Having a little experience in the region I struck up a conversation and we chatted most of the ride. I told her my problem with Facebook and she told me it shouldn’t be too hard to find wifi in Berlin to re-download all my messages. That relieved me some.

We finally got to Berlin around midnight and the bus parked in some way out of the way metro stop so there was no internet available. The cute German girl had a brilliant idea. Why don’t I just call her friend she was staying with, she can log in as me, check my messages, and get the number. Then we call my friend. Awesome, this should work. We call her friend and I give my log in information, but then Facebook’s security scheme made her identify pictures of my friends. Impossible of course. Strike two against Facebook.

Now I’m kind of frustrated, especially because Germany is supposed to be organized. So far it was a much bigger hassle than Africa was. The cute German girl invited me to her friend’s house so I could get on Facebook and dig up my messages.

Eventually I got on Facebook and was able to call my host. She met me at the metro stop near her house seven hours after I told her I would be in town. We got a couple of falafels and beer and spent another hour in her apartment catching up before conking off to sleep. I was relieved to finally arrived but pretty unhappy with my first few days in Germany.

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Rural Cepelinai

While I was visiting my friend Toma in Klaipeda, she made plans for us to go see her family out in the country. She wanted to introduce me to her parents and siblings and show me where she grew up. Never one to turn a chance like this down I immediately agreed.

Her mother and father met us at the train station in the afternoon. During the ride Toma was excited to inform me that her mother had ordered cepelinai for dinner. There’s a restaurant in her village that’s famous for it’s cepelinai, she told me. They’re delicious, huge, and cheap.

Her parents met us at the train station to give us a ride back to their house. I was getting pretty amped for lunch. We stopped at the house just long enough to drop our bags off then set out to the restaurant to bring the food back.

Two mouth watering cepelinai.

Two mouth watering cepelinai.

It was finally time to eat, Toma’s mother had set the table and served out everything. It was heavenly. A cepelinai is basically nothing more than a huge egg made of meat and potatoes. Hidden inside is a delicious core of ground meat seasoned just perfectly surrounded by a shell of mashed potatoes. I’ve eaten a lot of food while traveling and cepelinai is one of the best I’ve ever tried.

I enjoy cooking so I asked Toma’s mother if she knew how to make the cepelinai. Toma translated for us because her mother didn’t speak English and I can speak Martian better than Lithuanian. Of course she knew how to make them. All Lithuanian women do. Cepelinai are a special dish, very time consuming and difficult to make so they only come out for special occasions. Like visiting Americans I guess. She described the process to me and I thought that was the end of that.

We spent most of the next day working in their fields harvesting potatoes for the winter. It was a bit chilly out but the work kept us warm. The mother left a bit early and when the rest of us returned to the house she called me over. I walked into the kitchen and it was ready for some serious use. There were pots and pans and ingredients strewn all over the place. With a whole bunch of hand gestures and three or four words of English she indicated her and I were going to make cepelinai.

The process was very time consuming. Together we made enough to feed six people and it took close to four hours. It’s surprisingly easy to get past a language barrier with someone as talkative and outgoing as my friend’s mother. We held a number of good conversations ranging from my family back home to where me and Toma met to their family history complete with photo albums and other trinkets.

To make cepelinai you need potatoes. Boil, chop, then mash them up like you’d do for regular mash potatoes. After that you want to take around three quarters of the mashed potatoes and squeeze the liquid out with a cheese cloth. Pour off the excess water and the white liquid you collect is potato starch you need to save. This step takes the longest, it helps to have an extra set of hands. Put a little of the starch to the side. Mix all the potatoes in with the starch. Now it’s time to start making the cepelinai. Take a bit of the potatoes and flatten it in your hand. Then add a bit of the ground meat mixture you made ahead of time. Since this is such a long process many people make the meat earlier in the day, maybe the night before. You add the meat in the middle of the flatten potatoes then wrap the sides around to make a football shape. Or zeppelin shape, where the name comes from. Dip your finger in the starch set aside, brush the whole thing to help it stick together. Boil them in a large pot of water, it might help to add more starch here to prevent them from galling apart. When they float they’re ready to eat.

Cepelinai are often served with a white gravy. Just chop up some onions and bacon and fry them up. Add sour cream (this is heavy peasant food) to the pan with some black pepper and allow it to heat up.

Dinner with the family.

Dinner with the family.

13 Hours in Germany

First, if you’re ever in Europe, don’t take the trains. A complete waste of money. Buses are the way to go these days. It might take a little longer but you’ll pay about a third of the price. That being said, I was in Germany and I decided I had to do the train thing once because ‘Hey I’m in Europe.’

I wanted to go from Berlin to Munich. My first plan was to take a bus, but the bus company I knew wasn’t running Berlin to Munich for another two days, so I’d have to find a hostel for two nights. I looked up some info on the train using the ticket machines in the train station and it wanted 120 Euro! Real greedy SOBs right?

I was almost resigned to paying out the nose but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to mess around a little bit with the times. Maybe it would be cheaper if I left at a less reasonable hour. So I started my search around 8 PM and it was still pricey, just over night sleeper cars.

But then I saw something that caught my eye. SPECIAL. 40 Euro. Nice. The price was right. I checked it out. And it was 40 Euro, no hidden fees. The problem was the route sucked. It left at 11 PM and to go the 500 kilometers the route was going to take 13 hours. Instead of an intercity express train, it hooked me up with a string of regional trains.

I would ride a train for an hour and hop off at some station. I’d wait there for another hour for a train. Then two hours on the train, another couple hours in a new station, all night long. There was one station where I sat outside near the tracks for two hours because nothing was open. That was kind of expected since it was 4 AM.

Eventually I did make it to Munich a bit after noon. I checked into my hostel, took a cold shower to wake up, grabbed a cup of coffee and started my time in the city.

On one hand it was pretty nice getting such a good deal on the tickets. And I saved money on a hostel. But it wasn’t an easy trip. The constant transfers made it impossible to doze off because if I missed the right station it could have made things difficult for me. Part of me was so amped when I got to Munich that I wasn’t really tired. Kind of a big ‘F you’ to Deustche Bahn because I beat the system.

I’d probably do it again given the chance.

The Unfriendly Skies

This is the fourth part of the Peace Corps vs Bolivia saga.  You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.  There’s one more chapter I need to write sometime during this holiday season.

It was a normal day. I went to work at the school, did my trainings with the teachers, and was eating dinner watching the telenovela with some friends. Unexpectedly our regional director popped into the restaurant/guesthouse I lived in. He told me I had an hour to get my stuff together, we were going to be consolidating in Tarija. It was strange that he was there in person, but not strange we were consolidating. We’d do this just about ever other week because of security scares. Normally it came over the phone though.

He left and headed south to pick up some other volunteers, he would grab me on the way back. My friends asked me what was going on. I lied to them. I told them that there was a conference in Tarija I had to be at for the next three or four days. They never asked me why the regional officer came down at eight PM instead of calling; probably chalked it up to the crazy gringos.

I put my important things together, passport, computer, toothbrush, and a change of clothes and waited to leave. There was a nagging sensation in the back of my head that something was wrong this time, but we’d done this so many times before I thought they were just being nice and giving us a free ride. I told my coworkers I’d be back in a few days and we’d go over the plans for the new garden. That didn’t happen. I never saw them again.

Peace Corps stashed us in the guesthouse we would always use in Tarija. They told us not to leave, but forget that. This was our city and we weren’t scared of anything. We took it as a holiday. All the volunteers were together for the first time ever and that was cause to celebrate. So for three days we slummed around Tarija; buying things we couldn’t find in the villages, using the internet, going to restaurants and bars and clubs, the normal things we would do.

Finally a message came down from our main office in Cochabamba. We were to relocate to Bermejo, a town about four hours south, right on the Argentine border. Was this getting more serious? Should we be concerned? Will they try to slip us out to Argentina since we’re so close? Lots of questions needed to be answered.

But of course there was a problem. Another round of bloqueos was planned for the day so we had to leave at o’dark thirty in the morning to make it through before the protesters came and shut the roads down. The dozen of us pile into cabs we scambled to find and paid out the nose for. We were getting reimbursed so money really wasn’t an object to us. PCVs are notoriously cheap unless the company is paying the tab.

We arrived in Bermejo and checked ourselves into the hotel that the bosses had reserved for us. Again another four days of nothing. Eating and drinking, what else could we do? Another message from Cochabamba, conference call time for us. Living in the far south of Bolivia we were the most remote of the volunteers. Unknown to us, by this time all the rest of the volunteers in the country had been moved to Cochabamba. So there we were, an island of American foreign policy just drinking beer in the sunshine.

The country director gets on the conference call. She tells us that a plane is coming for us to bring the whole lot of us to Cochabamba. Wait a second, since when did this backwater border town have an airport? And why can’t we just go to Argentina? Most of us were hoping for the nice government per diem to take a proper vacation. I still sigh that we missed the opportunity to enjoy delicious wine and butter-tender steaks courtesy of the US taxpayer.

Well Bermejo did have an airport of sorts. The next day after the conference call we gathered our baggage and piled into cabs again. At least the drivers knew where were going. We pulled up to a tiny airstrip. There’s a single man waiting there with a set of keys. He unlocks a padlock, we dip through the chain link fence, and then he pulls out a bottle of wine and waits for us to leave so he can go home. We’re sitting and waiting for an hour or so thinking about this nonsense when there’s this loud drone. Our eyes follow our ears and what do we see? A C-130 making a landing approach. No one’s in the control tower, there’s nothing at all that makes this look like a working airfield. The runway looks like the length of a football field.

Somehow the pilots stick the landing. No sense in turning of the engines, the ramp is let down, we pile on with our stuff and we’re moving even before everything’s sealed up again. For the twenty or so of us, there was a lot of room. Most folks decided it was nap time and made themselves comfortable. One person asked the crew where we were going. Peru they said. What? Aren’t we just going to Cochabamba to be with the rest of the volunteers? These pilots are idiots.

We begin our descent into Cochabamba. No problems landing, we hop on out into the terminal. Who greets us? All the other volunteers. It was like being a millionaire rock star coming off a private jet to adoring fans. By fans we mean people we hadn’t seen since we finished training, for some that was almost two years.

But there’s nobody else in the airport. I know Cochabamba isn’t exactly an Atlanta style hub, but still it’s a ghost town. Then it clicks with us, the pipeline bombing. There’s no fuel for the planes. So the whole air system in Bolivia is shut down. PC called in a whole bunch of favors and scored a military plane from outside the country and got in touch with the right people to open up the Cochabamba airport just for us.

The Bolivian Peace Corps staff herd us back onto the plane. They’re staying behind in case things cool down. There’s lots of work that needs to keep on keeping on. And they’re getting paid for it. We’re just a bunch of shmuck volunteers, it looks real bad if something happens to us.

We take off once again. What used to be a cavernous hold is now packed to the brim with dirty, sweaty, stinking bodies. It was like sauna crossed with eau de toilette if that meant literal toilet bowl water. And flying over the Andes can get pretty bumpy. More than one person got sick. Overall, I’d give the flight a D-. The only reason they scored that high is we didn’t crash.

We landed in Lima to be greeted by the American ambassador in Peru and the Peace Corps Bolivia country director. What happened next is another story.

I Never Felt Unsafe

But maybe that’s because I’m dumb and I just have an underdeveloped sense of self preservation.  This is the third piece about the Peace Corps and Bolivia relationship that fell apart.  Read parts one here and two here.

The first sign that Bolivia was going to be an interesting country to live in came two weeks after we landed in the country and were doing our Peace Corps training. Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez came out and claimed that American Peace Corps Volunteers were actually spies sent by the CIA. This wasn’t some paranoid fantasy, there was a bit of truth to it. What happened was that a Fullbright scholar reported for a briefing at the US embassy in La Paz. There an embassy worker told the Fullbrighter to report any Venezuelan or Cuban aid workers in Bolivia. Venezuela is working to improve their standing in South America by sending aid with their oil money and Cuba has a long tradition of sending doctors to areas in the region. The Fullbright scholar was understandably upset and he went to Bolivian authorities. They did some digging and found this same embassy worker gave a group of Peace Corps Volunteers the same assignment. This was immediately overruled by Peace Corps bosses. As a federal agency PC is notoriously independent and makes it a point to be apolitical.

During a tour of our training city of Cochabamba we were shown where the local DEA mission was. We were only shown that so we as volunteers could be told that any interaction with the DEA people or operations could result in our immediate separation from the program. Again, trying to stay apolitical.

There was a running joke among Peace Corps Bolivia, you weren’t a real volunteer until you got robbed. I was on a minibus leaving the city getting back to my house a bit outside of town. A woman and child were running to catch up so I hollered at the driver to stop. The bus was already overcrowded when they hopped on, everyone pressing against each other. About five minutes later the woman and boy jumped off. I got pick-pocketed. No good deed goes unpunished.

There was a time for about a week or so that the local police in the city of Tarija where I was eventually stationed went on strike. Why? The story was that some local Tarija cops were about to dig up some corruption on some federal police officers. The federales and were not happy with that, so they executed the local police. Their fellow cops went on strike after the corrupt cops walked free.

Bloqueos were a daily occurrence. Whenever Bolivians are upset about something they’ll grab a bunch of rocks and just set them across the road. Since there normally is only one road connecting cities, this is pretty effective. Then the people will just sit in the road; eating, chanting, and drinking. Minibuses and taxis just drive up to the bloqueo and we would get out, walk across the lines, and get into another car. The protesters never bothered anyway, sometimes I would be invited to join them to hear their complaints.

There was a protest in Tarija once. Well there were many protest in Tarija, this is just one that sticks in my mind.  People were upset that Hugo Chavez was going to visit the area. They were part of the Media Luna and the anti-government factions. We were stuck in our hotel unable to leave because the protest focused on the single federal building in the city which happened to be right across the street. The protesters kept lighting bits of cardboard on fire and throwing them through the windows they had broken.  We stood on the roof watching the drama unfold until people started throwing rocks at us calling us Venezuelan spies.

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Crummy picture of part of the gathering by our hotel.

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Equally crummy picture of the burning tire left behind as the protest moved on.

One female Peace Corps Volunteer would get raped a year in Bolivia. That was a fact of life and one of the first things we were told. It’s a credit to all the females that served not allowing the fear of assault scare them away.

A volunteer by the name of Walter Poirier is known in the Peace Corps world as to be the only volunteer to have gone completely missing. One story is that he was taking his bike home one night in the rain and the road through the mountains was washed away. Another is that he was murdered. His body was never discovered.

A couple of volunteers have suffered violent deaths in Bolivia. One woman was murdered, one died in a motor accident, and one in a plane crash. Again it’s a credit to all the volunteers after hearing about these possibilities that no one gave up. We knew the risks.

The very first sight that greeted us in Bolivia.

The very first sight that greeted us in Bolivia.

Add to this illnesses and hospital visits and Bolivia seems like a pretty rough place. Malaria was a pretty common problem.  The cholorquine medication they gave us to prevent the disease worked, but many volunteers (myself included) didn’t take it.  The nightmares that were a common side effect simply were not worth the prevention.  I watched I am Legend one night after taking my weekly dosage and laid terrified in my bed for hours until the sun rose.

But Bolivia wasn’t bad. I’m not alone when I say I never really felt unsafe or victimize. Almost all the volunteers thought the same way. I haven’t heard a single person regret their work there, even the ones that were victims of assaults and violent crime. Many of them refused to leave.  Other volunteers in the South America region called us crazy for dealing with Bolivia. Maybe we were.

The First Cracks

This is the second part of the dissolution of the Peace Corps mission in Bolivia.  The first part about coca is here.

Coca is a sticking point in US – Bolivian relations, but it is not the only one. The current Bolivian president Evo Morales is an unapologetic leftist leading his Movimiento al Socialismo political party and the Cocalero union representing coca growers of Bolivia. He’s also the first indigenous president of Bolivia and a loud critic of many of Washington’s policies in South America, especially the war on drugs. He grew up dirt poor, not even finishing his schooling. A bit informal, he still acts like a campesino and prefers to go by Evo than anything else.. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela and another critic of Washington gained stature in Latin America due to investing Venezuelan oil wealth into social projects throughout the continent. Together Evo and Chavez try to act as an alternative to US leadership in Latin America, having success with some other leaders in the area.

A bombastic leader, Evo was also forced to deal with tensions within Bolivia Directly tying into the end of the Peace Corps/Bolivia relationship was a series of protests and referendums in 2008 spearheaded by the Media Luna, an informal name grouping the eastern, lowland provinces together. The center of the conflict involved the distribution of profits from natural gas extracted in those areas. Strikes and protests broke out throughout the region that eventually led up to a bombing of a vital gas pipeline and a clash between pro and anti government supporters that left twenty killed.

As disruptive as the protests and riots were for the country, Peace Corps volunteers were left basically unaffected. The large scale violence happened in cities, not in the tiny villages the volunteers were stationed in. Peace Corps Bolivia’s security officer was good at getting the information out to volunteers keeping us in our sites where we were safer since we had relationships in the community. But on a higher level there were some changes. For one, Evo accused the US ambassador at the time of being involved with the civil unrest trying to undermine the government and declared the ambassador a persona non grata, kicking him out of the country. Washington responded in kind expelling the Bolivian ambassador. This was the beginning of the end for Peace Corps Bolivia.

Malbork Castle

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, Malbork Castle is one of the preeminent attractions in Poland. It was built by the Teutonic Order to be the seat of their power in the region. It is enormous, the largest castle in the world. After years of warfare and sieges the Teutonic Order finally gave Malbork over to the Polish kings who used it as their residence for a time. During the partitions of Poland, the castle changed hands multiple times and it wasn’t until after WWII the area was returned to Poland. Of course like much of Europe Malbork was a pile of smoking rubble after the war. The pictures you can see of the restoration are amazing. My first reaction when I saw the damage in the photos was, ‘Why didn’t they just bulldoze the whole thing and chalk it up as a loss?’ But if I guess they did that half of Europe would be a parking lot today.

Malbork is located about an hour south of Gdansk by train and very easy to visit as you’ll see.

I was in Poland and my friend lives in Warsaw. My original plan was to stay with her a few nights but she had just accepted a job offer in Bucharest and was busy packing and getting ready to move. She told me that it would be easier if I didn’t stay with her because moving sucks. She didn’t want to be frustrated or angry with me being in the way. So I decided to visit Malbork. I was traveling onwards after my CELTA course in Wroclaw but I had three nights in between the end of my course and my flight from Warsaw. So I did the only rational thing I could and turned Malbork into a two night trek.

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I left Warsaw after having dinner with my friend on a train heading to Gdansk at 11:00 PM. It was an over night train that would get into Gdansk at 7:00 AM. I pulled into the station and went over to the automated ticket machine to get my ride to Malbork. There was a train leaving in twenty minutes, but I passed on that. I wanted to get to Malbork at around 10:00 AM when it actually opened. It was too cold to be standing and waiting. The tickets from Gdansk to Malbork are quite cheap and the ride isn’t bad. It takes a little under an hour so if you’re already visiting the lovely city of Gdansk, Malbork is an easy day trip by train.

Getting closer to the station I caught my first glimpse of the castle. It was pretty awe inspiring. We pulled into Malbork and the first thing I noticed was an awful smell in the air. I looked around and noticed that quite close to the train station is a large factory belching out fumes. Luckily I had seen the castle from the train so I knew the general direction to head in from the station. It’s about a kilometer and a half, maybe two kilometer walk to the castle. I’m pretty sure I saw a bus that ran the route but I felt like seeing if the town of Malbork had anything else interesting to offer. It doesn’t.

To enter castle you need to purchase a ticket. If I’m being honest it was kind of expensive. More than I would like to pay normally, but I bit the bullet. It was definitely worth the money though. You can get in cheaper if you arrive later in the day, but since the tour takes about three hours you might miss much of it. Make sure to bring your passport with you. Normally I leave my passport somewhere safe when I make day trips, but this time I just had a gut feeling I should have it on me. I’m glad I did. If you have your passport they’ll let you borrow an audioguide for a self tour. The audioguide is in five or six different languages that you can choose from when you receive it. Physically it’s a small iPod touch in a case with some headphones and a custom app made for it. That’s why you need your passport, they don’t want their nice gadgets walking off. Not getting the audioguide isn’t much of an option because you won’t find a whole lot of signs explaining the different rooms in the castle.

You’ll get the chance to tour the knights quarters, mess halls, privies, chapels, an armory, even a really nice museum dedicated to amber. There are some beautiful pieces of jewelry and decoration that can take your breath away. All in all, the castle feels like something right out of Dungeons and Dragons.

After I finished my tour I headed back to Gdansk. I was leaving Gdansk on another over night train to Warsaw leaving at 11:30 PM so I had plenty of time to waste. I spent some time wandering the streets, I was quite surprised there was no Christmas market. Gdansk is a beautiful city so I was happy to spend time. I got some dinner and then headed back to the train station to wait. I had my Kindle with me so it wasn’t too bad. Also the train station has free wifi so I pulled out my iPhone and chatted with people on Facebook. I don’t like waiting but it wasn’t too terrible.

We boarded the train and my plan was to go straight to sleep. Unfortunately that wasn’t going to happen. Two other travelers in my car kept talking to each other with the lights on. Whenever there was a break in the conversation I would doze off for about twenty minutes then a conductor would come through asking to see our tickets. This would kick off their conversation for another hour easily. They weren’t going all the way to Warsaw and when they got off I was alone in the car. I immediately hopped up and turned the lights off, a sign to anyone else coming into the car that it was going to be quite. A few other travelers boarded and they didn’t make any noise, everyone just tried to get comfortable in their seats for the ride.

I arrived in Warsaw around 5:30 and felt like a zombie. In the last 48 hours I had spent seven hours on a bus from Wroclaw to Warsaw, 16 hours on trains from Warsaw to Gdansk and back, and two hours on trains from Gdansk to Malbork. And that didn’t include any of the time I spent walking around in Malbork exploring the place.

As a whole the experience wasn’t the most pleasant.  The obscene amount of travelling in such a short time really took a mental toll on me.  But it was worth it to see Malkbork.  The castle was awesome, one of the best things I’ve ever seen.  But from now on I’m going to try and avoid multiple nights of overnight travel.

Coca

This is the first entry in a long saga about how the Peace Corps ended their relationship in Bolivia.  You can read more about the political situation here.

What is coca? At the most basic it’s a plant. But there’s much more than that. If you ask the United States government they’ll tell you it’s a security threat that needs to be wiped off the map through prodigious use of herbacides and fire. If you ask many people in South America they’ll tell you coca is a miracle cure. Harvested for over eight thousand years, coca has helped the Andean people fight altitude sickness, fix hangovers and stomach problems, relieve pain, even combat malaria. Where’s the disconnect?

Coca can be refined into cocaine. This makes coca a premier target for US law enforcement. A key tenet of the war on drugs in South America, is the eradication of coca. Aerial fumigation and bulldozing of coca fields happen on a regular basis. This doesn’t stop the peasants from growing coca, there’s just not enough money to be made elsewhere. Study after study has shown that to effectively reduce the amount of coca being grown to reduce the amount of cocaine coming into America development projects aimed at helping the cocaleros transfer from growing coca to other crops need to be ramped up with money and personnel. Unfortunately this isn’t happening quick enough so the status quo remains. It’s a Catch-22. When coca is destroyed, prices go up. When prices go up more people plant it. The unfortunate result is that cocaine is still easy to find in America.

Daniel Ritiere

On the other side, coca is an integral part of traditional Andean culture. Along with the medicinal uses, some people believe that coca leaves can be used in divination. It also plays a heavy role in traditional religions. This connection to the past should be no surprise in the Andes where many people still speak Quecha, the language of the Incas. My host grandmother I lived with only spoke Quecha, her daughter had to translate the Quecha into Spanish so we would be able to communicate. With coca being so important to their culture, the coca eradication program has fanned anti-US sentiment in the region. A common refrain I heard through conversations, ‘If cocaine is such a problem in America, why aren’t they fixing the problem in America?’ There are those who claim that the war on drugs is nothing more than an attempt to finish the job the Spanish tried and crush out all indigenous culture. US law enforcement officials are no more than neo-conquistadors in their eyes.

Coca is legal in Bolivia and the Bolivian government does cooperate with US authorities to destroy illegal coca fields. Evo Morales does have many issues with the United States, but he agrees that cocaine manufacturers are a security risk and need to be dealt with. He has worked to extend protection to legal growers and tried to reduce the eradication program from the US with varying degrees of success.

Legal coca leaves are sold in bags by weight, ranging from a few ounces for a day’s supply up to hundreds of pounds to resell in local markets. It is often chewed giving off a slight tingling and numbing sensation. You can also find mate de coca which is a tea made of coca leaves. This is more common throughout the whole country, the chewing intake is normally limited to the more indigenous parts of the country.

As a foreigner there are some risks involved with coca. Outside of South America, most countries don’t differentiate between cocaine and coca. In America coca is considered a Schedule II drug, just like cocaine. So bringing any back to the states is a big no-no. Customs may let you slide on an ignorance plea, especially since the amount of coca needed to refine cocaine is outrageous, but in this day of constant security risks in airports it’s not worth it.

Gnomes of Wroclaw

During the Soviet times, the USSR was understandably not too popular (see Katyn) in Poland. People would often paint anti-Soviet graffiti all over the place.  The militia would be called in and paint right over it.  They couldn’t let those hurtful words be seen by the toiling proletariat could they?   Eventually a couple of artists calling themselves the ‘Orange Alternative’ movement decided that instead of wasting everyone’s time with new graffiti that would be painted over within hours they would paint gnomes out of Polish folklore because folklore is awesome.  Fight oppression with absurdity.

This went on for a while and even after the collapse of the Soviet Union Wroclaw sort of adopted the gnome as their town symbol.  All around the city, not just the tourist sections, there are these gnome statues about a foot high. You’ll find them everywhere. On sidewalks near schools and businesses. Next to curbs for absolutely no reason. By government buildings because it’s entertaining. Many local businesses have caught the gnome fever and commission artists to make one specially for them, a tiny little advertising man.  One of the gnomes is even special just for the Christmas Market; they bring him out on his pedestal and if you rub his hat you’re supposed to get what you want for the holidays.

I’ve read there are something like 200 of them around, I was only able to find about 40 during my time there.  That wasn’t for lack of effort, I tried multiple times a week to get out and just walk around.  I know I could have looked up the locations online, but that’s sort of like cheating.

It’s surprisingly entertaining, like a city wide scavenger hunt.  It forced me to take so many side streets that I would normally ignore.  Sometimes I would find a gnome secreted away in a hidden corner, sometimes I wouldn’t.  But the thought that maybe there was something to be found made exploring Wroclaw far more entertaining than it could have been.  I think more cities should introduce city-wide art work ideas.

Here’s some more info and pictures to look at