The deaf club in Las Paz (and #Tshirt-gate)

It’s Thursday evening and I’ve just had a nap after trying to watch a Netflix film that was just so boring (can’t even remember its name). We (the Goytia family and I) had a really enormous buffet for lunch, a personal treat to say thanks to them all for hosting me.

You know you have had enough to eat but you then eat more and then step-Mother tells you to have some of her chorizo, and then the brother starts eating his girlfriend’s portion and before you know it, psychologically you are just well too full-up!

I actually walked all the way back to their home from the restaurant, a steep climb in Las Paz given its altitude and the roads that go all the way up the mountainous hills. Most people get the fabulous Teleferico (cable car system) or one of these thousands of collectivos (a shared minibus) that you just hail and climb in and pay 20p per journey. Each of these collectivos have a number of name signs that sit at the front screen. There is some magic ability to know where you are going, I haven’t worked it out yet other than to actually talk to your Bolivian co-passenger and ask if the minibus is going wherever you want to go. The Bolivian person is most helpful, they will even stand with you until the correct minibus comes your way!

Anyway back to post-nap time, I join the family and a couple friends at the dining table for some herbal tea. Whilst they are content to have some bread with goat cheese, I simply cannot eat a thing. My stomach feels ready to burst!!!

We then talk about this evening, whether to go to Las Paz deaf club where there will be lots of deaf people and quite a nice way for me to end my stay in Las Paz. A few of us are feeling tired etc, and I wonder about it for a while and then change my attitude, saying we should go! The family agree, and we get ready.

When I say we get ready I should say it means Mum puts lipstick and then everyone waits for Isabel, my sweet step-sister, to get ready (she takes a while!) We then walk all the way down the hilly road, pass the Teleferico and then wait ages for the right minibus to arrive, all 6 of us hopping in at 20p each. The road is bumpy, the view of the journey outside the minibus window is like a film really, you see thousands of people going in different directions, several minibuses driving into each other’s pathways. Adherence to road safety is awful really. No-one is wearing seat belts, I am constantly alarmed.

We finally arrive our destination, walking about a few minutes after going through a few roads, to this big steel gateway. Its dark, there are beggars on the road and you do somewhat feel that you’ve arrived at the wrong place. The family all walk through the gate and I naturally follow them through.

The path leads to the main doors into this huge gym-like room which looks rather bare amidst a few pictures here and there, mostly of Clergymen. There’s a huge “31 anos” on one of the walls, my stepdad explains to me that the deaf club is 31years old, and that he cannot believe how long its been going on for. My mind quickly thinks “…and I cannot believe its not been updated!” But I quickly scold myself, this is a developing country and their passion and commitment to the club is nothing compared to the UK. Yes, it’s a pretty bare gym like hall way with several chairs. There’s no café, and I don’t think I’ve seen a toilet. The lightning is very poor, and its pretty cold. Everyone is wearing their coats. A few very worn out sofas are situated at the edge of the hallway and Isabel crashes out to lie on one, looking so relaxed.

A few coda children (hearing children of deaf adults) are running round the hall, round and round, screaming with delight. Isabel hugs one of them, they have known each other for ages. I find myself sat on a kind of broken ex-office chair, just taking it all in.

A while later this guy arrives with 2 big plastic bags. The sudden reaction of the 50, 60 members is astonishing, they all gather around the man. I incorrectly had thought it was food brought in. No, it was a whole pile of t-shirts of various sizes. Each one depicting the name Las Paz deaf club with its iconic logo. They were being sold at 10 Bolivianos each; about a pound. The frantic busy manner of everyone to purchase a t-shirt astonished me. I just haven’t seen such a community keen to have identical t shirts, and how passionate they were about having one. This activity lasts about 40minutes, I see several people clutching their t shirts with pride and a few who have also bought for their family and children.

I can’t imagine the same happening at (unnamed on purpose) club in the UK. I can imagine asking people to buy the t-shirts for 7.99 each and getting that constant “what for?” And that attitude of “what’s in it for me?” It feels like I have gone back 60years in Las Paz deaf club with such strong community feel.

The frenzy of t-shirt buying reduces and then the club President, who has been hovering to and fro the wooden stage, uses the light switch to get everyone’s attention. People immediately sit down and pay attention, apart from the screaming coda kids who run round and round the hall way continually. The President goes into some announcements and starts reporting from a recent national council meeting in Santa Cruz, a city about an hour’s flight away. Before she can even finish, members of the audience raise hands and ask questions. Its all in Bolivian sign language, Spanish, and Isabel tries to tell me what’s going on every now and then. I realise quickly that the questions so far are all about the t-shirts. There is confusion. There is anxiety. But its about the flipping t-shirts!!!

…..Mr Joe Bloggs wants to know whether there are plans for hoodies and track suit bottoms with the logo. Mrs Cilla Smith wants to know why the club has decided to go with this blue colour and whether there can be other colours. Freda wants to know why only 10 medium sized tops were ordered. Billy Flynn wants to see more colours in the future and for everyone to be wearing these t shirts at the next month’s meeting for good photos. Senorita Angelica wants to understand why blue was picked. Senor Alfredo wants to know if the t shirts will be standard policy for future club attendance…..

A good half hour later it seems we are about to move to a new subject finally!
I despair at times, wondering what is all this fuss about t shirts?! I mean…. And then I remind myself this is a different culture, one that is a developing country with huge economic issues. I try to think back to when the UK had its strong deaf grass roots culture in deaf clubs across the UK and how things have changed due to technology but also how society changes too.

The President resumes her report about the national event, and receives questions from audience members. Some of these questions are points of clarity. Others are a real dig, for example after being told that the National Council has approved of a new set of constitution rules but without sharing the information amongst members. It goes on, you can just identify who the key people are in the audience, those that are willing to put their hands up and walk all the way up those wooden steps to the wooden stage. This is deaf culture in my view, and I’ve seen it in umpteen places – where the famous steps to a stage takes huge prominence and later the coda kids run up and down them.

There is then a long discussion about who is going to organise Halloween party in a few weeks and whether alcohol should be part of the party. People constantly getting up and down the stage making points, appealing for support from members. Its the same everywhere eh!

The president then suddenly invites me up the stage to introduce myself, and with my basic Bolivian sign language I try my best! They laugh as I attempt to say Buenos Noches badly! I explain how fascinated I am with the Teleferico and I describe how beautiful Las Paz is to me.

Later on the formalities have gone and everyone has suddenly run to register their names on a new kind of list that is being created to give Las Paz deaf club greater standing. It is unbelievable but the level of enthusiasm is there, all of them so eager to register their names. I later learn that by giving their names they also get entitled to some freebie food/drinks, I’m not exactly sure how it works but it is evident that in a country with poverty and disability, incentives will always work.

Everyone chats away and whilst we were initially saying bye bye at 9pm, its 10pm and we are still hovering the main exit doors. My step family are forever being interrupted and distracted. They are popular for sure but it seems impossible to move and go home!

We finally get a shared taxi back home and laugh about some parts of the evening. I share with them honestly my observations about the deaf club experience and how it felt like going back 30years in the UK. I also point out that it would be so hard to sell t-shirts if we did it today. The family understand but smile in seeing my appreciation of culture.

I go to bed with a huge grin, via mobile texts I share some of the insights with close friends of mine who just get it, they know what I mean when I refer to wooden steps, wooden stage, members asking questions precisely, members asking questions off the point. It’s a global thing!

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