Guest Blogger: Exploring the Morales Dictatorship in Plant Teacher by Caroline Alethia

Caroline Alethia is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, on radio and in web outlets. Her words have reached audiences on six continents. She lived in Bolivia and was a witness to many of the events described in Plant Teacher. Plant TeacherYou can visit her website at Website | Twitter | Facebook | Amazon | Amazon Kindle Store | Official Tour Page


Hailed by Huffington Post contributor Joel Hirst as a compelling and powerful story, Plant Teacher begins in 1972 when a hippie in Oakland, California flushes a syringe of LSD down a toilet. Thirty-five years later, the wayward drug paraphernalia has found its final resting place in Los Yungas, Bolivia, the umbilical cord between the Andes and Amazonia. Enter into this picture two young Americans, Cheryl Lewis, trying to forge her future in La Paz and Martin Banzer, trying to come to terms with his past in the same city. The two form an unlikely friendship against the backdrop of a country teetering at the brink of dictatorship and revolution. Bolivia sparks the taste for adventure in both young people and Martin finds himself experimenting with indigenous hallucinogenic plants while Cheryl flits from one personal relationship to another. Meanwhile, the syringe buried in the silt in a marsh in Los Yungas will shape their destinies more than either could anticipate or desire. Plant Teacher takes its readers on a fast-paced tour from the hippie excesses of Oakland, to the great streams of the Pacific Ocean and to the countryside, cities, natural wonders and ancient ruins of Bolivia. It reveals­ the mundane and the magical, and, along the way, readers glimpse the lives of everyday Bolivians struggling to establish equanimity or merely eke out a living during drastic political crisis.

Exploring the Morales Dictatorship in Plant Teacher

By Caroline Alethia


I happened to be in Bolivia from 2007 to 2008. If you haven’t kept up with your modern Bolivian history, this time period was when President Evo Morales exerted his first heavy thrusts toward consolidating power. Within an armed encampment, and underwritten by only his supporters, Morales amended the national Constitution to extend his term limit. Thousands of people marched the streets in protest. Three of these protesters were shot and killed. City centers were crippled for weeks by hunger strikes. A governor spoke out against a disingenuous plan to federalize the government and was promptly arrested.


In the meantime, the North American media continued to report on Morales as a popular and populist leader. Brief months before the U.S. ambassador was expelled from the country, I buttoned up my educational project and returned to the United States, knowing that I needed to write about Bolivia.


The novel that followed, Plant Teacher, explores the lives of an expatriate community living in Bolivia during this troubled time. In my early forays into writing the novel, and as I fleshed out the different characters, my initial impulse was to write the story in the first person, told from the viewpoint of a young American of Bolivian descent, Martin Banzer, who travels to La Paz to explore his roots.


It soon became clear to me that there was much about Bolivia that could not be exposed through Martin’s limited impressions. To begin with, there was the country’s rich history with its indigenous and its colonial roots which Martin would have known very little about. I wanted to color Plant Teacher with native folklore and traditional narratives: the Inca creation legend; the Amerindian trichotomy of inner Earth, outer Earth, and the celestial realm.


Deciding to switch to third person in order to bring in these traditional and historic elements immediately also freed me to develop a pantheon of characters, each seeing the upheaval in Bolivia through his or her own perspective prism. I was able to delve into the fears and confusion of an orphan overwhelmed by the loss of his mother, and into the banal and very realistic life of a cleaning lady concerned mostly about staying healthy and, thus, being able to keep her job. The mestiza waitress at the tony coffee shop was able to feel roused by the president’s weekly radio address while the omnipresent cholitas—Bolivia’s bowler-capped Amerindian women—could worry about their loss of sales and the disappearance of tourists.


Additional expatriate characters also came to life with the freedom of the third person. Initially intended as the main character, Martin soon had to share the stage with two other Americans. Cheryl, a young woman drawn to Bolivia for the adventure, grew into a full-fledged main character with her own peculiarities (agnostic on religion but with a religious fervor for Austrian depth psychiatrist, Alfred Adler). Her sparring partner became Gus, an older missionary with more of an interest in economic development projects than in saving souls.


While I planned for these characters to tell the story of a Bolivia in upheaval, I found, as I progressed in my writing, that something very different happened. Like the real people I came to know during my time in this South American country, the characters in Plant Teacher come to develop an almost schizophrenic approach to life. While marchers and hunger strikers and rioters occupy the streets, Martin and Cheryl and Gus drink cappuccinos, go fishing, and write poetry. Humans, I have come to understand, need normalcy, and they will create it even—perhaps especially—under the most trying of conditions. The third person narrative allows Plant Teacher to explore individuals, communities, politics, history and culture. And, in so doing, it allows the book to tell a story that is unusual, if not unique, but also deeply real and deeply human.

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