On my second day in La Paz, I braved the high altitude and made my way to Calle Sagarnaga, the main tourist shopping street. As I trudged up the slippery cobbled street, a skinny middle-aged man carrying a folder easily kept pace beside me and urged me to take a look at his paintings. Since I only needed an excuse to stop climbing, I stopped, and the man started sifting through painting after painting of indigenous women wearing a myriad of hats and shawls and pointing out the corresponding figures on the street. I soon learned that his name was Jorge and he wanted to give me an introductory course on indigenous Bolivian dress. “See that woman there?” He asked excitedly, “She’s single. You can tell by the color of her shawl. She’s also originally from Cochabamba, not La Paz. ” In a span of five minutes, the vendor had given me a proud summary of the dress and customs of some indigenous groups of three different Bolivian cities.
Then came the question that I dreaded: “Where are you from?” Ever since I arrived in La Paz, I have been inundated by anti-American rhetoric, like the highway barriers that read “Yankees Go Home; El Alto Se Respeta [expletive]” (El Alto respects itself) repeatedly over the several kilometer stretch of road that passes right in front of the AgroCapital office, in the suburb of El Alto. The American ambassador in Bolivia was kicked out just last fall. In addition, I fully expected the price of his paintings to miraculously increase three-fold as soon as I answered that question. But taken in by this man’s sincere interest, I answered quietly, “Los Estados Unidos.”
Then came: “Are you just travelling or are you here for social work?”
“Social work,” I answered.
Jorge flashed me a toothless grin and looked me in the eye. “Gracias.”
It touched me that a stranger to whom I had nothing to offer was grateful for my work. In turn, I asked him about his work. He has painted his entire life. “Lo hago por cariño,” he explained—I do it out of love. Love for his people, his culture, and his country. His intense appreciation of the beauty of his heritage carries him through day after day of hard work and absolute economic uncertainty.
I decide to buy a small, colorful painting, and he charges me 15 bolivianos, or slightly more than two dollars. After assuring me that he has change, I hand him a 100 boliviano bill (14 dollars), or more than even the average-income Bolivian makes in an entire day of work. Before I realize what is happening, he tells me to wait one moment with his folder, and he has disappeared down the steep, crowded street to go get change.
I mentally kick myself. I only blame myself for letting him run away with my bill. My logical mind tells me not to waste my time and to give those fourteen dollars up for lost. But something keeps me rooted to my spot. He told me to watch his paintings. I have a responsibility to wait for him and make sure nothing happens to his work.
I wait. Three minutes, five minutes. I feel like an idiot; a lost-looking foreigner just standing on the side of a crowded street. By the time ten minutes pass, I am ready to shed my idealism and leave.
Jorge, in his bright red shirt, comes striding up the hill, pushing through tourists and vendors, eighty-five bolivianos in hand. He happily scurries up and hands me enough money to pay for eighty-five bus rides within the city of La Paz.
It’s the pride he takes in his work that inspires and energizes me. It’s the respect for other human beings (and their money) that this pride demands of him. This is not an isolated incident; I’ve seen this deep pride in many vendors and Kiva entrepreneurs in Bolivia. It’s rare for anyone to change her prices much in La Paz—the product is worth what it’s worth. Similarly, the value of her work is non-negotiable.
I feel safer and more comfortable here than I have in any other developing country, and it’s because, as a loan officer explained to me once, “Bolivians think you’re the same as them.”