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August 15, 2006

I wrote this entry last week when Paul and I were out of Internet range…

Our last night in Bolivia was heartbreaking–not because of what we
never got to do, rather because of what we never would have been able
to do even if we had stayed for the remainder of our honeymoon.

Since we were back in Santa Cruz to fly out of Viru Viru International
Airport on Saturday night, we decided to call our friend Maximo–our
guide from Refugio Los Volcanes–to drive us to the airport for our
flight.  We knew Maximo was punctual, trustworthy, and in need of
the money we could pay him to bring us the 15 miles north to Viru Viru.

Sure enough, Maximo was waiting outside of our hotel for us when we
trudged down the foyer stairs with our luggage at 8:45 p.m. on Saturday
evening, physically, if not mentally, ready to head back to the United
States.  After loading our luggage into the trunk of his rattly
station wagon, we headed to Viru Viru, about to learn some upsetting
facts of life that Maximo would share with us along the way.

When we had first gotten into the car with Maximo, explaining that we
were heading home early due to Paul’s illness, Maximo shared that he,
too, had been experiencing pain for the past several days: three of his
molars had been bothering him and, according to his dentist, needed to
be removed.  At that moment, he hadn’t mentioned to us that he
didn’t have the money to pay the US$60 it would cost to remove them–we
didn’t learn that until later in the ride, after I pointed to a YPFB
gas station and asked whether Bolivia’s natural resources had, indeed,
been nationalized as we had read in the newspapers back home.  He
answered enthusiastically that they had, adding that he had once worked
for YPFB when it was a Bolivian-owned company prior to the
privatization schemes that President “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada had
initiated at the behest of Washington, D.C., and the World Bank in the
1990s.  When that happened, he lamented, he–along with hundreds of
thousands of Bolivian workers–lost his job, his pension, and his health
insurance, leaving him unable to pay for the simple operation that he
now needed in order to ease the pain in his mouth.  

Hearing about Maximo’s precarious situation left Paul and I
heartbroken.  During our short time in Bolivia, we had gotten a
glimpse of the humanity in this man who was serving as our
chauffer.  We had seen him laugh, sigh, splash in waterfalls with
us, and smile serenely and adoringly at the gorgeous landscape
surrounding us on our hike in Los Volcanes.  I had spoken to his
wife on the phone, whom I had called on more than one occasion to
arrange for our transportation with Maximo.  His wife had a sweet,
friendly voice that always assured me Maximo would be there to drive us
even if we needed a ride really early in the morning or really late at
night; what she didn’t tell me was that although she was thankful that
Maximo was finding extra work, she was equally as disappointed that she
would have to spend yet another evening home alone, without her
husband, without someone to keep her company as she crawled into their
decades-old bed covered with layers of wool blankets to ward off the
chilly night air.  

As I sit here now in Pennsylvania, overlooking the beauty and serenity
of Mt. Lake, where Paul and I are finishing out our honeymoon, I can’t
help but think back to Maximo and his family, to the country that they
live in so far away in distance and in dollars from my own.  Why
must they suffer so much, struggle so much simply to make it through
each day?  And why are there people in my home country, the
wealthiest in the world, who want to prevent honest, hard-working
people such as Maximo from sharing in the wealth we have managed to
create for ourselves, largely off of the earth and effort of people in
other places?  Maximo is tired of fighting; he and his countrymen
fought for decades to win human and civil rights that were only rolled
back in the face of the structural reform that their government
implemented at the insistence of foreign money-lending
institutions.  There is only so much that a people can do and take
before they simply must leave, before they must look for work and a
better life elsewhere.  

I wish anti-immigrant activists in the United States could have looked
into Maximo’s eyes for the brief instant before he and Paul and I
parted ways at Viru Viru International Airport.  Before turning
around to walk inside, Paul and I offered Maximo the remainder of our
Bolivianos–over 100 of them–as a tip that would help him pay for the
dental operation he needed.  So as not to make him feel as if we
were pitying him, I explained as I handed the bills to him that since
it was our last hour in Bolivia, we had no more use for them–and indeed
we didn’t compared to the use that Maximo could make of them.  As
he accepted our gift, he offered a quick but solid handshake to each of
us, glancing only briefly into our eyes as tears welled in his
own.  I didn’t cry at the time, but I am weeping now as I think
back to the kind man for whom we couldn’t do more, whose situation we
couldn’t change even if we could have spent months more in
Bolivia.  Bolivia, as well as Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, Colombia,
and hundreds of other nations around the world, need decades worth of
repair; it is not fair for us in the United States to insist that their
populations stick it out for another 50 or 100 years when they have
already been suffering for centuries.


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