Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday Post -- 26/01/13

Jessica Jordan at Trinidad airport. She's becoming
awfully familiar with its departure lounge.

Signing off on last week’s veritable deluge of information, I alluded to the big event of the weekend, a regional by-election which, like all elections, caused public meetings, and thus, church, to be cancelled on polling-day. The election provides an intriguing insight into Bolivian politics and perceptions of the Beni region within Bolivia.

Four years ago, as the country geared up for its next round of gubernatorial elections in April 2010, Bolivia’s ruling party, MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo – translation required? Thought not.) found itself in an increasingly frustrating position. The party had swept to power under former coca-leaf grower Evo Morales in late 2005 in unprecedented circumstances (the first single party, indeed, to win an overall majority in Bolivia’s history) with the promise of more representative government – in other words, greater recognition at state level of the interests of the country’s indigenous majority, mostly based in the country’s high-altitude western regions.

As you can no doubt imagine, those who live in the country’s more plain-like, eastern territories (namely Pando, Santa Cruz and the Beni), and who come from a very different range of people-groups, were none too enamoured by such talk. The Beni, in particular, had hardly been a land of milk and honey pre-Evo anyway; despite being Bolivia’s second-largest municipality, covering an area just shy of Great Britain’s land-mass, this sparsely-populated region has nevertheless traditionally been very much the runt of the litter when it comes to state support. Widespread civil unrest took hold just a year after Morales’ inauguration, with greater political powers sought by the eastern regions and separation even mooted.

In 2009, then, Morales had just been convincingly returned to power, but with nary a dent in the Beni. Indeed, the support for MAS stood at a mere 4% in the region. Something drastic had to be done to ensure the Benianos get with the programme. Enter Miss Bolivia.

Now, before proceeding, a little cultural context is important here. Back in the UK we tend to regard beauty pageants with a touch of remorse. Sexist, objectifying, degrading to women; like Cumbernauld, Kappa trackies and Anthea Turner, it was fine while it lasted, but we’ve moved on now, thank-you-very-much. Not so in Bolivia – nor, indeed, in much of Latin America. Actually, these women hold nothing short of icon status in the eyes of both men and, particularly, women; their every breath pored over by hordes of green-eyed, yet wide-eyed, female followers, whose diet of Miss-trivia is happily resourced by the national media.

All too aware of this, MAS recruited the 2005 victor, Jessica Jordan, as their candidate for an altogether different contest. Intriguingly, Jordan claims not only Bolivian but, through her father, English descent (many’s the time I’ve jokingly complained to a local that I came here to escape English rule, not be subject to it once again).

Now, no doubt one could argue that the selection of such a candidate was populist, cynical and an utter insult to the intelligence of the Benianos – but far be it from me to posit such an opinion in such a public forum (who knows, after all, who could be reading this?). But it didn’t half work. MAS didn’t get the victory they sought, but their share of the vote skyrocketed to 40%.

(I’ve often wondered what the protocol would have been in the event of Jordan winning the ballot. Does the title of ‘governor’ outrank that of ‘Miss’, not least when one has competed internationally under the moniker? Would her acolytes reply to her every demand with “Yes, Miss” and “No, Miss”?)

Miss Jordan’s conqueror, to the delight of MAS, found himself booted out of office in mid-2011 on corruption charges; your enemy’s enemy is by no means your friend here. An interim governor was installed until they finally got round to announcing a by-election for January 2013. And, in classic if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mode, no prizes for guessing who MAS selected as their candidate.

Jordan’s victory seemed like a formality from the word ‘go’. She was backed up by a monstrous campaign budget, while MAS had, in reality, fired the starting-gun some months previous when they launched a series of La Paz-funded construction projects, playing the populist string in one case with a major new sports complex under construction just up the road from where we live.

And yet, their considerable efforts were, to the surprise of many, thwarted once again. Several of the smaller opposition groups shelved their candidacy and united under the umbrella of the main challenger, Carmelo Lens, a lawyer, scholar and local councillor. There was genuine shock – dare I say, relief? – last Sunday evening as the results came through giving him a 52% share of the vote to Miss Jessica’s 44% tally. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t buy the Beni.

Alas for Jessica – and, indeed, for her good friend, Evo – the noise coming out of the Beni remains a more subdued, but ever-discernible “No, Miss.”

  • For final preparations for the new youth group year, which begins next Saturday.
  • For the church music ministry. Craig will be returning to the fold this week after a short break over January. With our furlough year in 2014 on the horizon, this is a key year in terms of training up the band to be better equipped to manage by themselves (the current members have only the most tenuous grasp of musical theory at the moment, for example). Pray for this work.
  • Please remember our friend Porfidia Prado in your prayers. She is a primary school teacher of real calibre and is desperate to get involved in the Community class ministry this year -- she would be a great asset. In order to do this, she needs to find other work (the Community classes meet in the afternoons so she's looking for a morning teaching position). The new school year is a week away and, unfortunately, nothing has come up yet. 
  • Continue to remember our permanent-residency visa application in your prayers.
  • For the safe arrival of volunteer Deborah Holmes from Croydon, south London. In fact, she's been in the country for about a month, staying with friends in Cochabamba, but our friends the Holts picked her up on the way back from a family holiday and she arrived last Saturday. She's here till May -- pray that her time here would be one of blessing and growth.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday Post -- 19/01/13

Amanda (left) conducts the children's choir at the Christmas service, a long
time ago in a holiday far, far away.
Feliz año nuevo! Like January football fixtures, the NHL season, and Prime Ministerial keynote addresses on Europe, our return from a self-imposed sojourn into the blogging wilderness is a little delayed but hopefully worth the long, dark hours of three consecutive weekends without our company, which no doubt all of our readers to a man have endured over the last month.

So, what's been happening since we last posted? Too much to detail here (indeed, our web-hosts may not permit us the space) but I'll have a stab at an extended highlights reel.

In the style of an end-of-season cliffhanger, we left you all in a state of unbridled suspense as our last post detailed the forthcoming church Christmas service. Well, you'll be pleased to know that it was a great success, with a whole host of family and friends of the participants turning up to enjoy it. More details are in our latest newsletter, sent out yesterday (send us an email at if you'd like a copy).

As usual, Christmas Day itself was a pretty relaxed affair with our missionary friends, tempered by the fact that we had to go back to work the next day. But by then our thoughts were already turning  what was effectively our Christmas present to each other, the upcoming week's break in Santa Cruz, which straddled the end of last year and the beginning of this.

Those who have visited Santa Cruz will know that it's one of the more aesthetically-challenged places in the world, definitely the Glasgow to La Paz's Edinburgh. Indeed, 'sprawl' is a more appropriate monicker than 'city'. Nevertheless, it has, for us, become something of a haven over the last few years as Hollywood blockbusters are caught up on, clothes stocked up on, and good food feasted on; and all in a context of something which comes at a premium in little Trinidad: urbanonymity.

That said, we stepped out of our Santa Cruz comfort zone this time and made contact with acquaintances from our last visit. In August, when Joanne was visiting, we were browsing in a tourist shop in the city. I was doubtless staring at my hundred-and-first set of llama coasters when I heard a familiar brogue. I approached the gentleman and asked where he came from. Sure enough, I'd met my first Ayrshireman in Bolivia. We proceeded to enjoy some hot beverages with Steve Paterson and his wife, Dilys (from Durham), with the invitation extended to get in touch any time we were in town.

Well, we did just that on our second day in the city, partaking of a curry in what an Indian restaurant we would never have found ourselves (Steve has been posted by a British company to Santa Cruz and he and his wife have had plenty of time to sniff out the better eateries). We were then invited to join them, along with some friends of theirs, for a late-night dinner and drinks at their home the following day: December 31st. Technically, Steve and I were the only Scots there, but it was easily the closest that Bolivian Año Nuevo has come to Hogmanay in our time here.

In the two weeks since our return we've been reacquainting ourselves with that strange period of limbo we call January. Here in Bolivia, with the schools still off, and with most people having half an eye on February's upcoming Carnaval festivities, this is a strangely muted time of year. It does, however, provide important opportunities if you know where to find them.

For example, we were not long back when I received a call from one of my English students alerting me to a national convention for English teachers, taking place this year in Trinidad. So on Thursday, Friday and Saturday of last week (hence the lack of the promised blog-post) I attended said convention. The seminars on English teaching were generally pretty basic -- nothing there that will cause me to make sweeping changes to the courses I teach here -- but I did pick up on a few things which will hopefully complement my teaching, not least on the technological side. Among other things, I learnt to design my own class webpage, where I have now posted all of my Powerpoint lessons, hopefully saving precious classroom time which is otherwise devoted to putting files on the flash-drives of the previous week's absentees. In the spirit of 1980s Glasgow Evening Times television commercials, my response to such requests shall henceforth be: 'Get your own!'

More than anything, January is the month to take advantage of the spare time and get ready for the coming year. For example, I've spent much of the past week making purchases for educational needs this year. A similar approach applies to church, where things are quieter in the absence of youth ministry over the school holidays. The members of the youth fellowship leadership, including Amanda and me, have been meeting on Saturday afternoons to draw up a proper, all-singing, all-dancing, year-plan for 2013, including social events, trips and fundraising events (for the end-of-year camp, when our youth always need a little assistance in covering the cost). With a couple more such sessions remaining, including this afternoon, we're excited about how things are already coming together.

Finally, the January weirdness continues this weekend, with a key gubernatorial election in the Beni region tomorrow, meaning all public meetings are cancelled, meaning no church. Politically, that's a fascinating situation, which I was planning to go into here, but I reckon that's quite enough for one day. We do, of course, have all year to talk about it.

  • For the Lord's continued guidance in our planning for the year both in the Foundation (Craig planning for Education year; Amanda working with her fellow board members) and in the church.
  • For our visa situation. It feels like only yesterday that I was last writing about it, but our two-year visas expire in March. This means that we now qualify, at last, for the permanent residency visa (which allows, among other things, for extended periods of travel outside of the country). We have started to get the necessary documentation in order for this year's application. Mercifully, the process seems to have simplified greatly since 2011, but prayers are appreciated nonetheless.
  • For the many new faces present at the church during Christmas.
  • For a restful week away from Trinidad for us as a couple.
¡Que Dios les bendiga!

Craig & Amanda