February 23 2007
-Where were you born?
I was born in Whittier, California, a suburb southeast of Los Angeles that is noteworthy for two reasons. The first is that it looks like an 1800s vintage mid-western town moved as a whole to Southern California – which it essentially is – a Quaker settlement named for an abolitionist poet. The second is that Whittier is the hometown of Richard M. Nixon, who was reportedly President of the US sometime in the early 1970s.
-In which country and city are you living now?
I live in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the country’s third largest city (600,000), a valley 8,000 feet high in the Andes that has the climate of Southern California.
-Are you living alone or with your family?
There are five of us – my three children (20, 19, and 4 years old), my wife Lynn and myself. If you include the dogs and the cat (who certainly deserve mention) we are eight.
-How long have you been living in Bolivia?
In October 2007 we will mark nine years living here. Plus another year we lived here in 1991-92, that makes a decade.
-What is your age?
49, but I rarely act it.
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Bolivia?
We came to Bolivia, my wife and I, as newlyweds living out of backpacks in 1991 to serve as volunteers in an orphanage for a year. We left in 1992 as slightly less newlyweds, still living out of backpacks but with a five-year-old daughter, one of our students in the orphanage school we started. She would be the first of three Bolivian children we would adopt. In 1998 I had a grant to write a book, The Democracy Owners’ Manual (Rutgers University Press), and we decided to leave San Francisco (our US home, to the extent we still have one after all this time) for Bolivia once again, for a year’s writing sabbatical. We never left.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
No, it can be done.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
We have a reasonably priced policy with a local clinic (Clinica Belga) that covers us for basically everything and provides very solid care. We have yet to find a reasonably priced policy that allows for us to go back to the US for care should that become warranted.
-How do you make your living in Bolivia? Do you have any type of income generated?
We were fortunate; we brought our employment with us. I serve as the executive director of The Democracy Center (www.democracyctr.org), the same group I founded and ran in California since 1992. We work globally to advance human rights through a combination of investigation and publishing, teaching citizens the art of public advocacy, and leading global citizen campaigns. My wife works, via the Internet, as a writer and analyst for the same homelessness policy organization that she worked for in California.
-Do you speak Spanish and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
We speak Spanish fluently, though not more than a few phrases of the local indigenous languages (Quechua and Aymara). I have no idea how or why someone would live in a culture and not speak its dominant language. Bolivia is a country rich in local custom and culture and we love engaging in every aspect of it – from munching on coca leaves to seeing our eldest daughter dance in the vast Urkupina festival.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
Things I miss about the US: Our family and our friends; black people and out gay people; Thai food and good Mexican food.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
I travel outside Bolivia for work 4 to 5 times each year, to the US, Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. My next trip, as soon as I finish editing our newest book (Dignity and Defiance, Stories from Bolivia’s Challenge to Globalization, University of California Press), will be to the Balkans to do some citizen training in advocacy.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
Bolivia has a very unique housing option known as “anticretico.” Owners offer homes for rent for a lump sum payment, which is refunded without any interest after the contract (1 year, 2, or longer) is ended. During that time the people living in the house pay no rent other than the lost interest on the lump sum. For example, we live in a fairly large 4 bedroom house, paying a deposit of $19,000, all of which we will get back when we leave, paying no rent all this time.
-What is the cost of living in Bolivia?
Bolivia is an inexpensive place to live, by most standards, though the vast majority of people here live in significant poverty. Bolivia is both the most impoverished nation in South America and the most indigenous in all of the Americas.
-What do you think about the Bolivians?
Bolivians are warm and welcoming people, though there is increasing resentment (with cause) against the US and US-related policies that have effected the country in negative ways – such as the US War on Drugs, World Bank and IMF economic pressures, etc.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Bolivia?
Positive: A rich and diverse culture that never lets one forget they are living in a foreign land; a dignified humility among its people; a stunning geography that ranges from 14,000 high plains to untouched rainforests.
Negative: The lack of an ocean and activities to do with children (though my 4-year-old likes the scary mummies in the local museum).
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Bolivia?
For more than 15 years I have watched a host of foreigners fall in love with Bolivia, and for good reason. If you are thinking of visiting or moving here, I encourage it. Though don’t come to be a missionary or a political activist, there are already too many of both.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Bolivia?
The most well read Blog site on Bolivia is ours at The Democracy Center, the Blog from Bolivia, read by about 3,000 people daily. It has a good mix of news, analysis, and culture, from a mix of ex-pat and local voices.