People always ask me if I have found it hard to live in Bolivia given that I am from a "developed" country and spent all my adult life in big cities. As I have also been questioned about whether there are pizza restaurants in Bolivia (eh?), it is clear that a lot of people believe Bolivia to be a rural backwater where the whole population lives relatively untouched by technology and new-fangled ideas such as women's rights. There are people in Bolivia like that but let's not forget that there are people living this way in parts of Europe and North America too.
A sizeable part of the population of Bolivia lives in large cities where at least on the surface life is not that different to how you, dear readers, live. There are supermarkets, gyms and smart restaurants. People drive (often very nice) cars and live in (often very nice) houses made of brick or stone.
I expected to come up against far more traditional ways and beliefs than I have. But every so often it hits me that some of the things that make me "me" just aren't understood here.
For example I consider myself a very "practical" person and capable at DIY and gardening. I've spent many a happy hour moving logs and mowing the grass. Urban-dwelling men here, let alone urban-dwelling women, would not generally carry out these tasks for pleasure. A few months back, we offered to help my father-in-law with washing out several hundred dirty plastic containers. The face (and words) of an uncle expressed disbelief, though I remain unsure whether he couldn't believe I even attempted it, or couldn't believe I was actually capable.
People here in Santa Cruz don't walk for pleasure. It isn't a function of the heat (or the cold). It's just not done. If you have the money, you pay for a taxi. If you can't afford a taxi you get a micro or in more rural areas get a ride with a pick-up truck. A year ago I was in Samaipata with a friend and we decided to walk the 20-odd kilometres from a set of waterfalls back to the village. We reasoned that it is a very pretty part of the world, regarded as very safe for tourists, and most importantly would be good exercise. The next day one of the taxi drivers in the square recognised us (he'd clearly driven past us a few times) and told us we had been the talk of the taxi drivers the previous day. I think the rough translation would be "you crazy people, you could clearly afford the US$3 each for a taxi". They just didn't get it.
Cruceños are famously sociable people and for them, the ideal location for a weekend lunch would be a busy, loud restaurant where they may see people they know. Back in the UK, there would need to be a very good reason to go to a place packed to the rafters, but here in Santa Cruz that is all part of the fun. I don't think a suggestion of a picnic in a quiet rural spot would go down too well.
Women here are expected to run the home and my refusal to iron my other half's shirt earned him derision from older male relatives ("you live with your woman but you turn up in a wrinkled shirt??")! I'm standing firm on this one at the moment. I don't see why I should cook and wash up a meal and I won't do (much) more than my share of the cleaning. It is a credit to my other half (and his mother) that he actually has some domestic skills.
But just because I might be expected to run the home does not mean that I am expected to actually do the work myself. People who can afford it will normally have someone to come in and clean and iron, if not cook as well. I think it's related to the other issues - why would you make life hard for yourself (eg by walking) if you don't have to?
We've had a lady over to clean and iron a few times but I am not keen on making this a regular thing. My logic is that I need to be here to let her in (domestic staff are not normally given keys here), but when she is here I can't concentrate on what I am supposed to be doing and end up hiding in the bedroom as I don't know the correct cleaner/ householder etiquette. So really I could have done the cleaning myself (but that doesn't solve the problem of who will do the ironing).
Yes, I know I would be creating a job if we had a maid and I am genuinely concerned about this. However domestic labour is not rewarding in any sense of the word and in the case of a younger lady I may be taking her away from her children by employing her.
I think the real root of this is that I fundamentally believe in cleaning up your own mess but I do actually grapple with this issue on a moral level and if anyone has any comments I would be very interested to hear them.
David Boldt has written a gem of a piece for BoliviaBella.com called Warming Winter's Chill in Santa Cruz
, about the clothing styles of the Cruceña ladies in the winter. All year round their style is very "body conscious". More is, well, more. There does not seem to be an upper age limit to this style of dressing - if you've got it, flaunt it.
I'll never get the hang of this style (in truth I am not sure I want to, it takes an incredible amount of effort) though it will continue to give me away as an outsider. Santa Cruz is a racially "mixed" city for South America and here it probably won't be your skin colour but your style of dress that gives you away as a foreigner.
I think I've really made an effort so far to learn the language and to make acquaintances, if not friends, in the local community. I am conscious that I am in another country and do not expect things to be the way I was used to. I certainly don't expect other people to change their ways for me. But I can't change some aspects of who I am. These run deep and are a result of how I was brought up. Soy inglesa, no?Alison Donald is the editor of our free monthly E-zine Bella News
If you accessed this article from our August 2011 issue of Bella News, return to reading the issue here