FOREWORD: The following story was originally part of ‘Update: Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia,’ but—much like the city name—the post was too long, tried to squeeze too much into a small space, so I’ve dedicated a separate article to Fred and Nena, a couple who invited me to stay on their ranch. After much hospitality from Bolivia’s indigenous and poor families, I experienced a night with one of Bolivia’s rich and white. It was interesting to see how different the rich and poor perceive themselves but how similar they are on a human level.
Nena had strong opinions against the indigenous from the Altiplano. Since meeting Nena I’ve seen similar prejudice in Santa Cruz, but never against me since I’m the pinnacle of privilege in Latin America, a white U.S. citizen. A friend’s friend was denied access to a club because she had ‘Indian’ features. When I tried to use my foreign whiteness to remedy the situation with the doorman I was told, “I understand she is your friend, sir, but we don’t allow bad people in here. Please understand I’m just following orders.” Also, a Canadian-Pakistani-Indian friend has told me many stories about how difficult life can be with dark skin, both in Bolivia and abroad.
It has all boiled down to a life lesson and fortune cookie advice: put yourself in others’ shoes. At least try. I’m assuming many of my readers to be like me—white, middle-class, formally educated. (The fact you’re online means you’re richer than the majority of the world). Everyone’s perspective is unique as their own eyes, but perhaps the world presented to us is frosted in privilege. Maybe we’re living a skewed reality. I’ll never feel what it’s like to be denied entrance based on my skin color. The way my friend’s friend views the world that discriminates against her daily is different than I view it. Despite my desire to understand her world, I’ll never know it, not truly, not fully. Try to put yourself in others’ shoes.
(Buena Vista, Bolivia) The plaza was a landscaped city block with shade trees and quiet corners angled with benches. Green was the dominant color, followed by shade. A Spanish-style fountain in the middle where the pathways met was a monument of town pride around which all activity circled—you could see this in the eyes of the old men who strolled triumphantly, without destination, or perhaps fulfilled their doctors’ orders of a brisk walk daily. The park’s outer edges were lined with bakeries and sidewalk cafes, vegetable stands and juice vendors. I asked permission to park Bob & Surly near a table where a youthful elderly couple sat conversing. A yes was followed by an enthusiastic invitation to join them. We introduced ourselves.
Fred was an American retiree who left the country for the first time this trip. He is 70 years-old, with thick silver hair, a muscular frame he wears like a jersey, child eyes that could not find rhyme or reason in how the locals drive, and a Midwestern gentleness that was as obvious as his Texan accent. Later I would learn that he was former president George W. Bush’s cattle advisor (they used to dove hunt often), owned a patent on a construction management technique used to build houses in less than half the normal time, had played professional ball for the Red Sox, was a respected member of the American Angus Association, and lost his wife to cancer.
Nena, 68, was a Bolivian who inherited her husband’s ranch when he also died of cancer. It was obvious she had lived a very different life than most of the Bolivian women I had met: she has another ranch in Texas, has traveled extensively, speaks English perfectly, and lives in Santa Cruz but employs hands to watch over her country property.
The recent couple had met on the online dating site Match.com, which I thought wonderful. In the past two widowers may have simply awaited their end days, lost in the past, lonely, in the unnecessary purgatory of a cramped apartment or empty home. Fred and Nena however found new life, and were surprisingly child-like in everything they did. Age really is a state of mind.
Not only did Nena insist I order a piece of chocolate cake to accompany my second coffee, she then paid the bill and would not take no for an answer: I was to stay with them on her hacienda that night. Since I had already been given permission to pitch my tent at the municipality building, I returned to office that had been so kind to me only an hour before, told the same eager English learner I had tutored during our brief conversation that I had made other arrangements (“Arreglos?” Arrangements.), then loaded Bob & Surly into Nena’s truck bed before driving twenty minutes down a black road with unusually bright oncoming headlights until we arrived to her estate, a gated ranch-style home surrounded by cattle fields. We drank wine under a thatched-roof bungalow complete with hammocks, talked about life over dinner, discussed politics over desert.
Bolivia’s Eastern lowland area is wealthier than the rest of the country. The expansive fields of grade-A cattle and commercial agriculture is a very real contrast against the Altiplano’s scattered llamas and subsistence farming. The skin tone is whiter, the climate warmer. People drive more, the cars fancier and more plentiful. Cheeks do not bulge with coca leaves. Billboards promoting shampoos and motorcycle dealerships line the roadside instead of mud-brick homes with tin roofs. Nena’s country get-away was also the nicest home into which I had been invited in Bolivia. It all felt as if I had wandered into an alternate universe, a country within a country, but it wasn’t until Nena spoke about her Bolivia that I realized I was in the twilight zone.
“I was in hunting clothes with my rifle loaded ready to kill any one of them that entered my property,” she recounted of a past incident in which indigenous people marched East after having been promised lands by the government. Not far from her hacienda a few large plots had been occupied by hundreds of indigenous farmers who wanted to work the land. “The government wanted to pass a law in which any house with unoccupied rooms would have to be opened to migrant workers,” she said wine glass in hand, her rage a strange shade that contrasted with her make-up. “If those people come here, I’ll open my doors, usher them in, ‘Yes welcome, welcome,’ then lock the doors and burn the house down. This is my property. My husband and I worked hard for it. I’m old, I got nothing to lose, I’ll have my plane ticket ready.” She was feisty; she meant every word.
I could not agree. My past experiences with the gentle, honest, hardworking indigenous families that did open their doors to me, just like Nena, did not match her perspective. It was disheartening to have experienced so much love from, as Nena put it, “those people,” then from Nena herself, and know that I’m like a neutral puppy who can walk that line thanks to my foreignness, my whiteness, my privilege. The prejudices from both sides shot through me; it made me feel dirty. Though I thought her hate a character flaw, I understood her reasoning: society crumbles if property rights are not respected. It was her home, afterall.
Fred and I were out of our element. We didn’t know what to say other than it all seemed too unreal, maybe even a little exaggerated. These types of have- and have-not issues are not small scale wars in the United States, or at least are not fought in such an obvious way. It was a fleeting glimpse into Bolivia’s race situation—the rest of the night was just people getting to know people. The next morning was more kindness, a big breakfast and photos to commemorate our time together before pushing off into a strong headwind that blew from Santa Cruz.