As I've said before, when you're walking down the leafy streets of Cochabamba, it's very easy to forget where you really are. With rolling, verdant hills and large, ornate (and when I say ornate, I really mean mafia-style...you know what I mean) homes, Cadillacs and Mercedes Benzes, you might as well be in Staten Island. (Seriously!) There is a lot of money that comes through Cochabamba, one, because of the intense legal commerce (electronics, clothing) that goes on--and we know money always makes money--and two, unfortunately, because of the illicit commerse that goes on. Ever seen Scarface? Alejandro Sosa counts the city as his provenance.
Quillacollo is an hour bus ride outside the city limits and is known for its devout Catholicism and various religious festivals that occur throughout the year. We didn't visit the area with hopes of attending a festival or a party; we visited to bring water, clothes, and any supplies we could muster on very short notice. This season has been particularly rainy for the province and many homes could not withstand the immense inundations that result. Over 3,000 families have been left homeless or with homes that are virtually inhabitable. (This being said, most families are comprised of 5-7 people.) These people, who already have very little, have been left with nothing. And although there exists a sort of Bolivian red-cross and a FEMA-like agency, the government was only able to provide a handful of tents and very few bottles of water to the population. Most of the Quillacollans are hanging on by a thread, dehydrated and packed like sardines in government-issued, temporary lodging.
A home destroyed by flooding in Quillacollo
So, we went, brought our tools, and tried to make the best of a dire situation. Some came armed with liters of water; some, pajamas; some, baby shoes, and one girl, from Japan and who is probably still mourning the drama in her own country, brought paper. Paper? These people need clothing and food and liquids and she brings paper? Let me tell you that this wasn't any paper, this wasn't generic lined looseleaf or bright white computer paper, the paper that belonged to the Japanese girl was small, square, and multi-colored. I once heard a story about a psychologist who treated victims of the Cambodian genocide and was bracing herself to talk endlessly about the pain and suffering that the people underwent. After meeting the survivors, however, she was completely surprised that they barely wanted to talk about the aches of war, but rather their personal drama, seemingly petty things--like, who went out with so and so's boyfriend and who is gaining too much weight. Gossip. Fun. Chit-chat. Here we are, a group of seemingly wealthy foreigners (or at least wealthy enough to pay for an extended trip to a third world country) preoccupied with supplies and practical items. And here is the Japanese girl, a girl who cannot return to her country because of radioactivity, bringing paper for what reason? To teach the children origami.
Suddenly, a crowd of several hundred desolate faces burst into smiles. These brightly colored little papers began to take the form of lotus flowers, cranes, and pinwheels, all while the Japanese girl sat quietly on the curb, folding and folding, as the kids shouted, "My turn! Make me one!" and chased each other around, laughing, and playing. We all became origami experts out of necessity. The demand superceded supply. The paper airplane you learned to make in second grade? There are five boys over there that want one. Fold, fold! The paper box you learned to make during recess at age 10, make twenty. Keep folding! The smiles grew, the laughter continued, and our hands got tired.
We stayed at Quillacollo until our paper ran out and still, the children (and adults) asked when we would return. Puzzled faces and broken hearts, we realized we had to do something, and arranged a community clean-up every Tuesday and Thursday evening until our supplies (and ourselves) are exhausted.
It is very difficult to think about the consequences if all is lost. You always make a mental list of the things you would take out of your house if there was a fire--the important things, passports, money, photographs. But being prepared and being saved often times transcend the "important" things, because what is truly important is being able to smile and maintain a personal normalcy through stressful tribulations.