The Story Behind Plant Teacher by Caroline Alethia

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.

The Story Behind Plant Teacher

By Caroline Alethia

2007 to 2008 were “interesting times” in the South American country of Bolivia. Democratically elected President Evo Morales decided he wanted a firmer grasp on power. In an armed encampment, surrounded by protestors, he illegally amended the national Constitution to extend his term limit. While this assault against democracy was taking place, three protestors outside were shot and killed.

I lived in Bolivia from 2007 to 2008. I read the national newspapers and watched the television coverage of riots and protests and arrests. At night, I saw demonstrators walking through the streets with banners and torches, shouting slogans and setting off firecrackers that sounded like gunshots. During the day, I wound through encampments of hunger strikers in the main city plaza of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. These brave citizens rested in hammocks and sipped nothing but water for days while television reporters meandered through the crowds and ambulances waited on street corners.

And what did I do? Because I was neither a Bolivian citizen nor a member of the press, I slipped into my favorite café and sipped frothy fruit smoothies. I set up my laptop and read the news online, and I watched dozens of other customers enjoy pastries and teas and coffees as if nothing remarkable was going on outside.

In the evenings, I would socialize with other visitors in the sheltered patio of my guest house. Travelers from all over the country considered whether or not there would be a civil war. We drank soft drinks mixed with beer and took evening dips in the pool. We had parties. We played the guitar and sang. We barbecued. In the day, vendors sold their wares at the outdoor markets and office workers found their ways to their jobs.

Bolivia from 2007 to 2008 was a study in just how deeply the human spirit craves normalcy. Revolution and civil war may threaten, but people will still pay their bills and do their laundry and pick up their groceries in the evening. When certain possibilities are too difficult to assimilate, we human beings move ahead as if… as if life is normal.

I wrote Plant Teacher, set it in Bolivia from 2007 to 2008, and filled it with characters who were preoccupied with the daily routines and personal dramas of their lives. While a coup takes place around them, the characters in Plant Teacher fall in and out of love, read books and write poetry, sip cappuccinos and take dips in the pool. For as long as they can pretend their lives are normal, they will do so: So do the characters in Plant Teacher; so do everyday human beings. This paradox alone, I found to be a worthy setting for a novel. I hope my readers agree.

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. You can visit her website at


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