I took to the welcoming city of Cochabamba almost immediately. With friendly and unperturbed locals, an even-tempered climate (it is lower than La Paz, resting at a comfortable 2,825 m / 9,268 ft) and far less congestion with its tree-lined thoroughfares and ample gardens, I felt more at ease here.
Cochabamba, nicknamed the “Garden City” and the “City of Eternal Spring”, decidedly lives up to its reputation.
After the first couple of days I was already in the swing of things of this culturally active and socially progressive city.
Landing at the La Paz International Airport in El Alto leaves one breathless; the thin air is immediately manifest. At nearly 13,000 feet (4000 m), La Paz is the highest capital city in the world. The lower-altitude Sucre remains the official capital, but La Paz is the de facto power center in the country housing both the executive and legislative branches of government.
La Paz is blessed with a magnificent setting: the austere altiplano perched far above the dense construction of central La Paz, the surrounding snow-studded Andean peaks of the Cordillera Real that tower to the east, the crowning and iconic Mount Illimani (meaning “golden eagle” in the indigenous Aymara language) which soars to over 22,000 feet (6465 m).
In La Paz, nothing is level. Everything either streams downhill or slogs uphill. There is no horizontal here and consequently nothing stands still. Everything is a whirl of motion, upwards and downwards.
So flows the relative prosperity of the La Pazians, or paceños as they are known here. Affluence increases as altitude decreases, dropping from the ever-expanding shantytowns of El Alto on the high altiplano rim and down through the dangling Aymara neighborhoods perched precariously on the steep slopes.
Below is El Centro also called la hoyada (the hole), the crowded heart of the city and home to the national government and the scant colonial remnants that survived the decades of rapid change resulting from mass migration from the countryside.
The city descends further to the upscale neighborhoods of Miraflores and Sopocachi, home of expensive apartments, a bounty of chic bars, Japanese and French restaurants, and jazz cafes.
Finally, La Paz comes to rest in the newly-minted Zona Sur neighborhood where most of the expats, diplomats and rich paceños live in gated communities. This is where the wealth of La Paz finally settles.
A Million Luminous Lives: Todos Somos Iguales (We Are All Equal)
Standing in the bowl of La Paz at the city center at sunset, lights shine from the buildings and homes of residents and sprawl in every direction. At night the city glimmers with all the energy of a modern metropolis, illuminating with equal intensity above and below.
This is a city of rich and poor, rural and urban, from many different indigenous backgrounds, and from all regions of Bolivia. Heterogeneous La Paz is home to Amerindians, Mestizos, Europeans, Asians and Africans. The Bolivian Constitution officially recognizes 37 languages. Bolivia, officially known as the Plurinational State of Bolivia, is indeed a multiethnic haven.
And to affirm this great diversity, La Paz recently issued an anti-discrimination ordinance and requires businesses to prominently display the following: Todos somos iguales ante la ley (“We are all equal before the law”).
But, economically speaking, this is not so. Some paceños must work much harder than others just to scrape by. One of the poorest countries in South America, Bolivia remains a classic case of economic disparity. The most recent poverty data for Bolivia show that:
60% live in poverty
38% live in extreme poverty
80% have no access to electricity
86% have no access to running water
50% have no sewage system connections
Recent emphasis on poverty reduction by President Evo Morales is likely to improve the situation for millions here. Yet it will take many years through a dramatic transformation of Bolivian society and greater economic equality.
La Paz is where I begin my life in the field as a Kiva Fellow. It is among these people that I will go about my daily business, put names to faces and to lives, and learn and share as much as I can in this strikingly beautiful and imbalanced world.
My Kiva Mission Número Uno: Borrower Verification
One of my main objectives as a Kiva Fellow is to complete the borrower verification process for two of Kiva’s microfinance partners in Bolivia. This process essentially validates that the information about borrowers and loans on the Kiva website is accurate.
With a random sample of 10 loans for each microfinance partner, I go on field visits to the loan offices and the Kiva borrowers’ homes and businesses, review loan documentation, discuss issues and status with loan officers, and conduct interviews with the borrowers themselves.
This is an important exercise for Kiva. These borrower verification reports are crucial in helping everyone at Kiva understand what is going on at ground level with the microfinance partners. It’s a singular opportunity to assess the partner’s understanding and execution of Kiva’s policies, helps find good faith errors in data or processes, and can determine areas of improvement to build a stronger relationship between Kiva and the partner.
El asesor es mi copiloto: Learning to Love the Loan Officers
The loan officers I’ve worked with are remarkably companionable. Part sales people, part coaches, part financial advisers, part collection officers, part advocates – they wear different hats. In La Paz and El Alto, they spend a lot of time pounding the pavement, visiting clients to see how things are going, catching up with former loan recipients, and prospecting for new loans.
They write the borrower profiles on the Kiva website that we all read as Kiva lenders. They are the eyes and ears of the partner organization, and the ones who work most closely with clients. They work to keep the Kiva loan repayment rate at well over 99% for Emprender.
And they are my trusty companions who accompany me on verification visits to Kiva borrowers.
First Stop: The Microfinance Institution Loan Office
After breakfast at my small hotel in La Paz, I begin the energetic climb upwards to the Emprender office in the Villa Nuevo Potosí neighborhood. I’m glad to escape the morning chaos of central La Paz, which is teeming with people, traffic congestion, and bustling street commerce that makes the downtown sidewalks difficult to navigate.
Up here in the neighborhoods that rise steeply above the city center I find cleaner air, quiet streets, quaint homes, and pleasant corner kiosks. Locals greet me from open windows. The views of the surrounding mountains are marvelous.
I meet with Simón, the loan officer who works with the client I will be visiting. I wait patiently as he attends to an early rush of clients and examine the loan paperwork: loan disbursement, repayment schedule, the actual payments, client waiver, etc.
Everything is in order. I take time to review the other documents Emprender collects to approve the loan: financial evaluation, past loan review, collateral, personal references, bank statements, and so on.
The client folder is exhaustively detailed and meticulously maintained. I am learning a great deal about finance in this part of the world: utility costs, housing prices, small-business accounting records, bank interest rates, even the value of household personal items such as televisions, refrigerators and furniture.
After a quick desayuno, a daily ritual in which the entire office takes tea/coffee and bread in the break room, we set out on foot to visit the client. This is often the fastest way around the neighborhood since the meandering streets are normally jammed with traffic.
I enjoy this “commute” time with the loan officers, we talk about their daily work and their families and about my life in the United States and my work here in Bolivia. We get to know each other, and I appreciate their approachability and willingness to spend time with me despite their often full schedules.
Finally, I Meet the Kiva Borrower…
Señora Celestina, the Kiva borrower, welcomes Simón and me in her home where she runs an adjacent bakery. There are racks of freshly rolled dough ready for the oven, baskets of tasty cookies and meringues ready for packaging, and piles of eggs and bags of sugar which she purchased with the help of the Kiva loan. I am happy to discuss her business and her life in such a warm and aromatic setting!
With the help of the loan officer, I explain the purpose of our visit and some more about Kiva. As we go through the verification process, Celestina readily answers all my questions and brings out the loan paperwork she has. I check that the dates and figures match and that she understands the Kiva client waiver which authorizes her information to be posted on the Kiva website. I document everything since it will be reviewed back at Kiva headquarters.
After the formal verification is complete, I chat casually with the borrower. This is usually my favorite part of the visit, the borrowers open up a bit more, we can joke about things, and I learn more about their lives and families and ambitions. On this trip, Celestina proves to be especially talkative and shares generously.
She tells me more about the success of her baking business: how she produces fairly large quantities and types of cookies for special fairs and holidays in the La Paz area. More recently she is sending these baked goods further afield and even into Peru (Cuzco and Juliaca) where festival demand is great for these delicacies.
On this particular day, Celestina is working hard for the upcoming Todos Santos (All Saints Day) celebrations in early November. Given the thousands of eggs stacked in her bakery, I know the coming weeks will keep her busy. She willingly offers me plentiful samples of her cookies, some right out of the oven, all of which are delicious and beautifully prepared.
Celestina shows me her bakery, the ovens, and the piles of flour, sugar and eggs that they purchased with the loan funds. She introduces me to her ebullient husband, welcoming son and amused granddaughter. They all help her with her baking, especially during the crunch times when large festivals are fast approaching.
She is a cheerful and warm person and I greatly enjoy my time with her, but she is busy and the loan officer has other tasks ahead of him today. As we depart, Celestina speaks highly of Emprender and especially Simón, her loan officer.
We share some final laughs when she tells me (jokingly) that they all will come to the United States to start a baking company with me, naming it “Bolivian Baked Goods Company of America.” I assure them that their splendid cookies would be a hit and they thank me for my vote of confidence with handshakes, hugs and smiles.
I feel wistful leaving Celestina and the elevated Villa Nuevo Potosí neighborhood, yet I am beaming inside and my feet barely touch the pavement as I descend towards downtown La Paz. It is a special privilege for me to be a part of all this, passing through doorways of private homes as welcoming locals so graciously let me into their lives for even a few moments.
Happily, I have many more clients to visit in my remaining weeks and months as a Kiva Fellow. I eagerly await my next encounters with Kiva faces and hear the extraordinary stories that shine all around me from on high in big Bolivia.
Peter Soley is a Kiva Fellow (Class 19) serving in Bolivia (La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz) with Emprender. Become a member of Emprender’s lending team, lend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow!
This is great, Peter. Sounds like you’re having a wonderful time! Submitted by Holly Sarkissian on Tue, 10/16/2012 – 08:43
Thanks, Holly… off to a fun start here in Bolivia, I am just loving this so far. Now in sweaty Santa Cruz, I’ll spend the next few days on the back of a motorcycle heading into the countryside, looking forward to some Easy Rider time… Submitted by Peter Soley on Wed, 10/17/2012 – 13:59
Great post, Peter! Makes me want to visit La Paz…and find Celestina’s bakery! Submitted by Rose on Wed, 10/17/2012 – 18:38
Hey Rose, thanks for the encouraging words, I really enjoy reading what you’re up to in Colombia, this is really such a fantastic experience, for all of us so different and it’s great we can share via the Fellows Blog! Abrazos de Bolivia mi amiga!!! Submitted by Peter Soley on Sun, 11/11/2012 – 05:27
You paint such a great (and honest) picture of La Paz Peter! All the best on your Bolivian adventure amigo. Submitted by Gareth Leonard on Thu, 10/18/2012 – 11:23
hey que onda Gareth, thanks for the comment & you certainly have a unique perspective having lived here. hope all is well in guate, sounds like you’re loving life there, hard to believe we’re already a month into this great adventure, cómo vuela el tiempo Submitted by Peter Soley on Sat, 10/20/2012 – 06:52
What a great walk through the day in the life of a Kiva Fellow. I swear I could smell the aroma of those sweet cookies baking away. What a delightful and stellar example of how your work is helping the world:) Miss you~ Submitted by Amy Richards on Sat, 11/03/2012 – 09:19
Hey Amy! Your baking would be a huge hit here in Bolivia, especially those pecan sandies! I miss you all as well, I think of you all the time & it’s a great feeling knowing I have family and friends behind me back home sending me love and support. xoxo Submitted by Peter Soley on Sun, 11/11/2012 – 05:26
Hey Peter. Is Celestina hiring? I’ll be in the Peru area and can hike over for an interview. I love your real-life story of this entrepreneurial woman and her success. Thank you. Mom Submitted by Susan on Sat, 11/03/2012 – 09:34
Hey mumsie, thanks for checking this out! I’d be happy to ask Sra. Celestina, she’s be a hoot to work with, very spirited. Tough work, though, long hours this time of the year with all the holidays… seems to me you’re enjoying the retired life far too much to go back to work! Can’t wait to see you in January, it will be awesome to celebrate your 70th birthday at Machu Picchu!!! xoxo Submitted by Peter Soley on Sat, 11/03/2012 – 15:47
Right on Peter. .Beautiful stories, heartfelt love and compassion. You are truely a hero. any room for me at the bakery? xo stace- rowdy really misses you. Submitted by stacey on Wed, 11/07/2012 – 15:36
Hey Stacey! Great to hear from you, I’m glad you can see a slice of my new world! So different from my life in Maine, but rich & rewarding in every way. I miss you too and Rowdy would love it down here, lots of friends for him to hang with in the streets! Hi to Bart! Submitted by Peter Soley on Sun, 11/11/2012 – 05:23
Here’s a 3.5 minute video of our eight-hour journey through the Bolivian mountains from La Paz to Cochabamba. We saw all sorts of inclement weather, beautiful terrain and unfortunate accidents during the trip. Thankfully we arrived unscathed.
After a chokingly long week in congested La Paz, Paul arrived and at our first chance we were off in search of cleaner air, a less-harried town, and some water in land-locked Bolivia. I had finished my first week with Kiva, happily making friends at the Emprender loan offices and completing a couple borrower visits. It was time to celebrate my recent success with Paul!
So off we went to Copacabana on the shores of the magisterial Lago Titicaca. Standing at 3,812 m (12,507 ft), the lake is the highest navigable body of water in the world. The Copacabana region, or kota kawana in Aymara (which means “view of the lake”), was considered by both the Tiwanaku and Incan empires strategically, economically and spiritually important. Consequently Copacabana was settled long before the Spanish arrived.
Today it is a quaint town of 6,000 residents and a tourist hub for both backpackers and Andinos alike. The Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, a hallowed shrine dating back to the 16th century, is home to the patron saint of Bolivia. This so-called “Dark Virgin” purportedly has magical healing powers. Her reputation is so great that pilgrims flock to the cathedral all year long. Revered far and wide, the Virgin even inspired the naming of a now-famous beach in Rio de Janeiro.
Paul and I instantly bonded with Copacabana. Laid-back, friendly and geographically and culturally interesting, we both relaxed within minutes of getting off the bus from La Paz. On the ride there, I couldn’t remember if I passed through this town back in 1999 when I made my first Andean circuit with my brother Erik. At the time, I recall, I was quite ill from the flu and my recollection was fuzzy at best. But as soon as I saw the distinctive Basilica, fashioned in the mudéjar style of Islamic Spain, I instantly remembered being here.
One tidbit I do remember from my first visit was changing $100 USD at a local bank since Copacabana was my first stop in Bolivia, having just arrived from Peru. There were no ATM’s in the town then and the bank teller patiently counted out a pile of small-denomination Boliviano notes. I made my way back to my hotel with a stack of bills as thick as a brick, what a feeling!
The first afternoon Paul and I just wandered idly around town, poking about the markets, climbing the Cerro Calvario which has great views of the town and the lake. We enjoyed a cold beer as the sun sank on the western shores of Lake Titicaca and delivered an almighty sunset. The vote was unanimous — Lake Titicaca was a perfect place to be for a few days.
I just happened to notice an interesting leaflet on a telephone pole…
Soon after my arrival in La Paz I chanced upon a notice posted on a telephone pole on tourist-central Calle Sagárnaga advertising a weekend hands-on course in eco-friendly construction techniques. The course was offered by Arquitectos Sin Fronteras (Architects Without Borders) in Navarra, Spain. They are sponsoring a 6-month program in rural Achocalla (about an hour outside of La Paz) to build sustainable superadobe homes for villagers.
I contacted the project leader, Yoanna from Spain, who warmly welcomed me and gave me all the details. So early Saturday morning, I hopped on a trufi to Zona Sur where I met the other course members in Plaza Humboldt.
There were 13 of us for the first day, mostly Spaniards and a few Bolivians. Many of the Spaniards were travelers passing through who heard about the project through friends, but a good number of them either live here — doing research, working for the Spanish foreign office, or studying or teaching.
With an unemployment rate of nearly 50% in Spain for the under-30 crowd, all of the younger Spaniards I met were happy to be living or traveling in South America for the time being. Infinitely better than being at home right now where the economic situation is dire.
We car-pooled to the construction site in Alto Cañuma near Achocalla in the hills outside of La Paz, stunningly situated with beautiful views of the Andean Cordillera Real mountains and the white-capped Mount Illumani off in the distance. I was exhilarated to spend the weekend in such an awesome setting.
My first week in La Paz has left me breathless. Quite literally. At nearly 12,000 feet (3600 m), La Paz is the highest capital in the world. The lower-altitude Sucre remains the official capital, but La Paz is the de facto power center in the country housing both the executive and legislative branches of government.
The magnificence of the setting is striking: the towering Andean peaks of the Cordillera Real to the east, crowned by Mount Illimani which soars to over 22,000 feet (6465 m). The dense city center flows downwards through the canon along the mostly covered Choqueyapu River.
The wealth of the residents increases as altitude decreases, from the ever-expanding shantytowns of El Alto on the high altiplano rim and down through the dangling Aymara neighborhoods perched precariously on the steep slopes.
Below is El Centro a.k.a. la hoyada (the hole), the crowded heart of the city and home to the government buildings and the scant colonial architecture that remains after decades of rapid change resulting from mass migration from rural areas.
The city sinks further to the upscale neighborhoods of Miraflores and Sopocachi, home to expensive apartments and a wealth of chic bars and restaurants.
Finally, La Paz comes to rest in the newly-minted Zona Sur neighborhood where most of the expats, diplomats and rich paceños live in gated communities.
Standing in the bowl of La Paz at the city center at sunset, millions of lights from the buildings and homes sprawl in every direction. At night the city glimmers and shines with all the energy of a modern metropolis.
This is my new home for the moment and in my first week I started to settle into the rhythms of my new world.