The city appeared to be much more prosperous than my recollection from 45 years ago, with modern buildings, lots of traffic, and nicely landscaped parks and boulevards.
One of my first stops was the open market called La Concha. Forty years ago, many of the women who sold vegetables and meat enjoyed flirting with me as a young green-eyed gringo. I could always get a laugh by throwing in a few Quechua words with my Spanish.
This spring, the number of products and the quality of produce were much improved. There was an entire section devoted to women’s cosmetics. Another stall sold pet products, including Purina dog food. And they were still selling coca leaves, though I imagine the number of Quechua Indians who still chew the leaves has diminished.
I also visited the Hotel Colon, once an inexpensive place to spend the night when Peace Corps volunteers were in town from their villages. A Bosnian couple who had fled with their families after World War II owned the hotel. The husband had died, but Yasna, the owner, and I spent some time reminiscing. Amazingly, the hotel had not changed an iota.
The Plaza Colon, in front of the hotel, is the starting point of a half-mile parkway known as El Prado. It is still lined with cafes with outdoor seating. The parkway itself is much better maintained and landscaped than I remembered it. I told my wife about my fond memories of sitting outside with my friends drinking beer, eating french fries, and playing a Bolivian dice game called cacha. On Sundays, boys would buzz around the mile loop on their motorbikes. Young girls would stroll arm in arm around the parkway, in the opposite direction, wearing their Sunday best after Mass. It reminded me of a Guilded Age impressionist painting of Paris. It was a simple pleasure.
Another was the ice cream in Cochabamba. I thought my memories of ice cream must have been colored by the relative deprivation I experienced as a volunteer. There was a small shop, off the beaten path, that I would frequent when I was in town. It is no longer there. An elderly German man ran it then. I sometimes wondered if perhaps he was an escaped Nazi hiding out in Bolivia, like Josef Mengele in Paraguay. On the other hand, he made a great banana split.
The plaza in the center of town was largely unchanged but occupied by many political groups vying for attention. One group had set up a banner celebrating the life of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had died the week before. Another display demanded the return of Bolivia’s seashore, taken by Chile in the 19th century. My thought — unexpressed — was “Get over it.” A third group had formed a circle to discuss the meaning of “revolution.” Finally, some women with a microphone were talking to other women about the importance of International Women’s Day.
I was somewhat reassured by what I saw. This is, after all, what you would like to see in a healthy republic.
Cochabamba, after four decades, is still a charming place, and much as I remembered it.
Photos of many of the sites above can be seen at http://elmick.zenfolio.com/
• Mickey McGuire is a retired high school social studies teacher. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.