Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Zebra for a Day - Ali and Sean from the Zebra Team

Being a Cebra for a day.

Having worked with the Cebras for 5 weeks now, we have witnessed the astonishing character of the young people under the cebra skin as well as the immense popularity that they maintain throughout La Paz. The thought of dressing up in a cebra ‘suit’ under the vicious Pacenian sun while breathing its dry, thin air was a daunting enough prospect. The task in hand, patrolling the main streets of the city amidst its swarms of vehicles and their busy drivers with virtually no peripheral vision would be bonkers if it wasn’t for the professionalism of our cebra mentors. Yet we wish to share our own perspectives on how being a cebra for the day was a crucial aspect of our time in Bolivia. 

The Cebras as a project and as people are bizarre. The thought that many of the most complex societal issues such as public health, happiness and youth unemployment could be tackled by hiring amazing young people to dress up as zebras is completely foreign to me and no doubt many other grumpy brits. It seems even more farfetched since many Pacenians didn’t even know that zebras existed before their appearance on their streets.

Yet the cebra project is magical, and more importantly it works.

So after meeting and working with the cebras we were finally going to don the sacred ‘black and white kit’ and hit the streets with the aim of educating the public about road safety. I was excited disregarding the knowledge that I am totally lacking any kind of cheery disposition or theatrical nous.

We started the day with some warm up exercises, which were successfully designed to get everyone in a jolly mood. The suits themselves are difficult to work in. They are made in a way that ensures that the inner ecosystem resembles that of a rainforest, humid, stifling and dark. This gave me great admiration for the cebras who somehow do their extremely active work in with only a hole the size of a teacup to see and breath through. 

And still, I loved every minute. My tiny mentor Carmen had the requisite cebra ability to spread joy wherever she goes and she did so perfectly. Even the most grimacing of pedestrians were quickly losing their battle against grinning as we waved and clumsily rehearsed our short improvised theatrical routines. The hour on the street was fleeting and the British volunteers did their earnest to dance and embrace the impossibly happy melodrama. We threw some pretty dire shapes but luckily Pacenians still smiled and waved as we beckoned them so we couldn’t have been that bad.


If there's one thing that can turn you into a miserable vomiting wreck - it's food poisoning. All week I had been looking forward to action Friday, finalising zebra skin sizes for the all the volunteers, crafting makeshift jaw-like pieces of metal wire and electrical tape in order to hold the zebra heads open since your peripheral vision whilst wearing the skin is reduced considerably - and given the nature of the zebras job - anything to mitigate the chances of being struck by one of the many minibuses, motorbikes or imported Japanese saloon cars was something of a priority.

So anyway, the night before Zebra For a Day I ate some pizza. The pizza itself was okay, nothing special. Perhaps it was my indifference to the pizza that made it want to leap back out of my mouth and force some kind of second opinion. either way I spent 2 hours in the early morning clutching the toilet, with Zebra For a Day cresting the horizon.

Morning broke, the sun rose with practiced bravado - and I woke with FP's clammy grip around my innards, a sort of invasive nausea still pulsing inside my stomach. By the time I got to Mercado Camacho every little lurid yellow dustbin in sight seemed like a good place to be sick. At this point donning the zebra skin and sweating in the brilliantly strong Bolivian morning sunlight, directing traffic and waving endlessly at children filled me with a degree of cognitive dissonance - on one hand I wanted nothing more than to go home and curl up with some coca tea and a Wes Anderson film, and on the other I really desired to experience what it was to wear the skin and put myself through what these young people do every rush hour, more or less every day. I had to gain some insight into what it means to be a Zebra of La Paz to better understand them.

My fellow volunteers and I swarmed onto the streets, waving and 'dancing' as we did, making our way to our posts. I think it was after the third child in five minutes ran up and hugged my leg I started to feel perceptibly better, by the time I reached the intersection I was to work on I was fully ready to embrace the theatricality of it all, my nausea suppressed by waves of positivity that radiated from every zebra and child on the way.

By the end of the hour or so (I lost track of time, ironic as a lot of it I spent watching the traffic timers, seemingly working in 45 second increments) I was exhausted, a good amount of hair stuck haphazardly to my forehead. As the zebra skin came off back at Camacho the nausea returned which put a dampener on the day somewhat, but not enough. As hard as it was it was so incredibly - here it comes - rewarding. I feel using a clichéd platitude to describe Zebra For a Day is cheap but that's what it felt like. (Note: not cheap, rewarding.) I guess clichés exist for a reason - because sometimes words fail so now I'll stick to a hurried cliché, as other words will fall short of fully elucidating what it is to be a Zebra.

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