For many people, hand washing clothes, riding on buses full of garbage and chickens, taking a several day trip on a crowded riverboat, and witnessing crisis and civil unrest are not exactly what comes to mind when thinking about going abroad for vacation or to study. However, for Chesa Boudin these elements, and thus experiencing life as many people in the region live, are what make the trip worthwhile.
For nearly 10 years Chesa criss-crossed Latin America (and really the world) and learned priceless lessons about the people he encountered. The place that captured his heart, however, was Latin America.
He documents that voyage in his book Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America from his first encounters at a language school in the jungles of Guatemala, through his study abroad in Chile (where he spent September 11, 2001) where students remembered their own 9-11, to working in the presidential palace in Caracas Venezuela, the jungles of Colombia, and the mines of Bolivia.
Perhaps one his most profound accounts comes from his time in Colombia where he joins in solidarity with a Non-governmental organization and learns about the plight of Colombia's internally displaced people. He tells the story of Marino Lopez, a man who was brutally murdered by Colombian paramilitaries, an even which forced thousands of people off their land, which was eventually claimed by the paramilitaries and corporations for cash crop farming. He writes:
I had never before heard of African palm but I now learned that they grow as high as sixty feet an can produce up to one hundred pounds of fruit per harvest. Once mature, the trees are harvested every five months or so, and the fruit's seeds produce an oil that can be used for everything from cooking to ethanol. The palm nut meal serves as livestock feed. Just one acre of palms can produce over five hundred gallons of ethanol a year, or more of lower grade oils, making for a lucrative investment. Cash crops like banana and African palm are excellent for laundering drug money or other illicit funds--- something Colombian paramilitaries constantly need. For example, a paramilitary group generates millions of dollars in illegal cash profits from drug trafficking. The cash is then used to buy tools, seeds, fertilizers, and to pay laborer to plant, tend harvest, process, and ship African palm. When the palm products are sold, the money generated is "clean". This type of cultivation of African palm leads to desertification of the soil, so, after a few years of palm oil harvests, it is not possible to reforest the lands or to go back to sustenance multi-crop farming. Enrique was dismayed that a crop being promoted as a so called green alternative to oil was the cause of so much bloodshed, violence, and environmental damage in the community.
Equally unnerving were his accounts of the hellacious conditions of Bolvians working in mines, desperate for the scraps that the Spanish conquistadores left behind:
These miners, and how many thousands more like them, were working under conditions that couldn't have improved much since the Spanish colonial era. There were no bathrooms, no drinking water, no food. And at the shaft opening where they dumped tons of mineral slag every day for sorting, I had seen plenty of young boys hard at work-- age is difficult to estimate when in a different country but they were prepubescent, of that I was sure. My own physical discomfort began to seem paltry in comparison with their daily trauma. I was appalled. Sitting in the mine shaft that day I couldn't undestand how manyone could subject themselves, much less their young sons to this suicidal work. And for what? A starvation wage? The dream of finding a few ounces of silver the Spanish left behind? I began to regret going to the mines at all. Maybe my being there only added to the workers' humiliation. They had generously invited me into their hellish world, deep inside the earth. All I could offer them in exchange was a cheap present of a few sticks of dynamite.
According to Chesa's guide down into the mines, many of the men who work in the mines eventually succumb to Silicosis, resulting from the dust that destroys the lungs. Men who do the drilling succumb to it the fastest. They may keep there job for three to four years, and they're lucky if they live to 40.
The book is two stories, really, one of personal growth and achievement, and one of a region undergoing deep and radical changes. The book is at times funny, informative, and disturbing. If you've ever travelled outside Latin Americas beaches and resort towns, you're likely to see yourself reflected in Chesa's story. If you've never had such an opportunity, this book will serve as an excellent window into a region of great importance.