April 22, 2014
Because there are no Jews in Sucre except for the Messianic ones, and because I want to celebrate Passover without praying to Jesus, my mother contacts the son of a man who was born, like she was, in Czernowitz (now in the Ukraine), and who now lives in Bolivia, and he kindly invites us to celebrate Passover with him and his family in Santa Cruz. The first seder is in a large outdoor space in the Circulo israelita, with about sixty Cruceña Jews and about a hundred Israeli tourists. The Israelis hijack the seder at points, but that’s a good thing, because they sing loudly, fast, and well. Near the end, though, a Bolivian sings a Sephardi version of “Jad Gadya” in Spanish that takes the cake.
We stay, along with, coincidentally, both Zannah (who’s on her way back to Sucre to visit Carlos) and one of the Jews we dine with, at a hostel called Los Trotamundos; to get there, one tells the taxi driver to go to Avenida Banzer (which is no longer its name—Banzer was a right-wing military dictator) near the fourth ring (Santa Cruz’s main streets are eight concentric rings surrounding the city center) and then turn between the Multicenter and the Kawasaki store. Santa Cruz is like Los Angeles—full of gated mansions and big-box stores and sidewalks that nobody uses. I take a long walk through neighborhoods near the hostel on Tuesday evening, and it’s quite clear that everyone has a car and probably a hired gardener too. The wealth in Santa Cruz is quite shocking compared to the poverty everywhere else in Bolivia. It sports Burger Kings and Radio Shacks and a bottle of Coke that’s only slightly taller than a nearby rooftop Statue of Liberty. The biggest city in the country (unless you count La Paz and the adjoining El Alto as one city), it hosts two airports, one an old military airport just south of the center, and the other a very modern one on the outskirts. The family we spend the holidays with moved to Santa Cruz from Cochabamba a half-dozen years ago—when we ask why we get the impression that it’s because there’s more money there.
Tuesday morning we visit Parque Güembe, an ecotourism resort just beyond the gated communities that surround that part of the city. It sports a butterfly house made of mesh in which one is overcome by huge blue butterflies; an enormous aviary in which a toucan tried to bite my shoe; an outdoor area in which live a hundred large turtles, all vying for the sun; three lagoons, in one of which is a monkey island; an evolution museum; an outdoor orchidarium; fifteen swimming pools; a good restaurant; and so on. The most expensive site we’ve visited, it’s very nicely done, a weekend haven for wealthy Cruceños, and just about the only tourist spot near the city.
The second seder is in the apartment of the 85-year-old man from Czernowitz, a charmer who tells us how, after hiding in Czernowitz during the war, he went to Bucharest in 1946, to Oruro a year later, and then to Cochabamba. He describes how wonderful it was to come to a country without war and with plenty to eat, a country that welcomed Jews. Unfortunately, his short-term memory is shot, and he keeps telling us the same stories and asking us the same questions. The food is remarkably authentic—I can’t remember when I last had homemade gefilte fish. Jacky sits at a table with five other kids—all boys—and by the end of the seder the whole tablecloth is Fanta orange. We are so grateful to be among fellow Jews, and everyone we meet has an interesting story to tell. The man who’s staying in Trotamundos, for example, tells us about his association with Che Guevara’s guerrillas after Che’s assassination, and that he later served in Banzer’s government for ten years. A staunch right-wing intellectual, he now wants to leave Bolivia and move to the US.
Back in Sucre, it’s Holy Week. Beginning Thursday night and continuing into Saturday, hundreds of pilgrims, few of them old, climb up Churuquella, praying at each of the thirteen stations of the cross, and many spend the night outdoors by the enormous statue of Jesus. Ryan has us over for dinner, and we light candles placed in dirt in paper bags positioned evenly along his wall. Typically, it’s a beautiful sight. The other Holy Week traditions here are equally strong and interesting. Karen and Thalia see a procession with a life-size wooden statue of a dead Jesus in a glass coffin and statues of Mary and St. John all dressed in black. On Good Friday it’s traditional to eat twelve different vegetarian dishes, to commemorate the Last Supper; the municipality sets up a tasting at La Recoleta, and the arbejada, a stew made of peas and yellow ají, is particularly delicious. On Holy Saturday the campesinos do some sort of ceremony involving the Pachamama—we can tell because outside La Recoleta they’re selling alcohol, cigarettes, and offerings to burn—but we’re not sure what. Late that night the cathedral is unlit; the archbishop has a fire lit in the courtyard, from which they light candles and take them inside, singing.
The Casa de la Libertad, the birthplace of South American independence and, earlier, a Jesuit mission, hosts a baroque music festival during Holy Week, and we attend several concerts in the Sala de Independencia, with its centuries-old carved wooden benches—a glorious place to hear sacred music. But the highlight is Saturday night, when we attend the second sold-out performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Teatro Gran Mariscal. The dancing, singing, and staging are all of a quality I didn’t expect.
We’re going back to the US in three months, and we’re all dreading returning to a land where the poor are unable to find jobs and often end up drug-addicted and malnourished; where there are almost as many guns as people; where the government is hostage to evil, rich corporations; where most people vie for status and snobbery is rife; where indigenous traditions have almost vanished; where competition is king; where health care is outrageous and dysfunctional; where it’s almost impossible for us to save any money; where more than half the year either the heat or the air-conditioning is on; and where we have to have cell phones and cars. OK, there are a few things we miss—high-speed Internet, big parks, bicycling, European cheese, left-wing Jews, books, our house and pets and friends, swimming, snow . . .