{25.1.15} On Travel and Time in Bolivia (part 1/2)

Before going, I thought of Bolivia in very vague terms. I had some images in my head of Lake Titicaca and shepherds spinning wool thread in the ‘80s from my mother’s travels. I knew they had just reelected their first president that, instead of being a member of the white oligarchy, is an indigenous man who grew up dirt poor. I knew that Bolivians wore bright-colored clothes. And I knew that everything was pretty cheap. That’s about it.
I think I thought it would be something like this.
With women all dressed like this.
Probably herding sheep or spinning wool at the same time.
Disclaimer: these are real pictures from Bolivia, but it’s not the whole story.
One of the things that makes me most thankful about my ability to travel is that travel is really the only way I’ve found to repopulate the usually racist and often one-sided portrayals of foreign countries we get in the US, especially countries lower on the GDP scale, with a more nuanced understanding of what it means to live there. I’m not even sure, at this point, how exactly I imagined Chile before arriving, but I think it mostly had to do with government dysfunction made manifest in killer queues, poverty and lack of technology and pick pockets oh my, and Tierra del Fuego. And here was someone who had lived in Chile before! I consider it progress, actually, that I’ve forgotten what my mental representation pre-arrival was, because it means I’ve found new ways to think about Chile. Yes, you do have to wait in lots of lines for things because there’s not enough people working and everyone works kind of slowly. But then, on the other hand, they have a national healthcare system, and the legislative branch is actively passing important laws about education reform and stuff. Yes, there’s poverty, but now I know that there are a plurality of poverties, and it is important to understand how they are different. Sometimes, poverty is 50-year-old Don Raul who sleeps on the street, relying on spare change and a job sweeping floors in a supermarket to feed his alcoholism, traveling soup kitchens to feed his belly and conversations with aid workers to fill some space in a hungry soul. Sometimes, poverty is a woman selling underwear or belts or cheap headphones or bandaids one by one in the street, baby latched onto a breast. Sometimes poverty is a choice, like the hippies hawking handicrafts in the plazas, selling just enough for the next meal, the next hit, the next ball of string to go make more. Sometimes, poverty is knowing you’ll have to work until your completely physically incapable, always getting paid under the table, depending on the caprices of unpredictably needy, neglectful and nice employers. Yes, it’s much less common to see a mac, and personal computers and internet and printers are expensive enough that internet cafe and print shop combos are everywhere, but so are iPhones. It’s not just me, either. A friend in the US sent me a birthday note super early on Facebook because she didn’t know when I’d have internet. I almost laughed because actually, the internet in my apartment here is often better than Wellesley’s and Wisconsin’s combined. Yes, there are pickpockets, but as far as I know I’ve never had anything stolen, and at least Chile doesn’t have the highest incarceration rate in the world, unlike a certain country I know. Yes, Tierra del Fuego is supposed to be great, but I’ve never gone, and there are plenty of equally breathtaking and less well-known places to go in this long skinny strip of a country.
So with Chile, not only did I find out more about what it means to live in Chile, but also about how bad I am at judging a place from the outside. Heck, after the next semester, I’ll probably look back at this post and groan about my own insensitivities and misconceptions at the time. I’ve also learned how important it is to get to know the people in order to know the place. So I went to Bolivia with many good intentions, which mostly didn’t get realized, but I still learned things, learned how to get to know by making mistakes, mostly, but they say thoughtful failure gets you further than thoughtless success, so it could be worse! On the plane right now to Brazil, I’m hoping to use what I’ve learned so far there. If I did one of those word association games with Brazil right now, off the top of my head I’d come up with World Cup, beaches and bikinis, my friend Leticia and Portuguese, which, by the way, I find to be a beautiful language and am going to learn here. I’m hoping that by the end of my month in Limeira, I’ll be able to give you a more fleshed-out glimpse of Brazil than I am about to give you of Bolivia.
exhausted on the bus on the way to Brazil
I spent most of my time in Bolivia with two friends, one Chilean and the other Japanese. We knew each other through a web of religious studies connections and by happenstance and mutual interest decided to travel together. As a result, because it was easier I guess, we mostly got to know each other better instead of Bolivians as we bopped from place to place, eating ridiculous amounts of fried street food, taking copious numbers of selfies, hitting up myriad artisan markets, doing the gambit of typical spendy and/or touristy things, bashing through, and perhaps lacking a bit in the cultural sensitivity I had been hoping for. In La Paz, while I spent hours in the Brazilian embassy getting my visa, the guys, theology students, toured the catholic churches (typical thing) and we went in the teleferico to the gimungous market above the city as well as the artisan market (money things). In Copacabana, we went to Isla del Sol and laid our hands on the sacred rock (tourist thing) and rented motorcycles to zoom around on the coast (money thing). In Cochabamba, we wandered aimlessly around, lacking a typical non-monetary tourist thing, and bought musical instruments (typical tourist money thing). We stayed in nice hostals, one of which offered a free beer a night, all of which had bathrooms with toilet seats, hot water, clean sheets and mostly smelled ok, luxuries in Bolivia. 
Us three in Iquique before making the trek
Motoki and Luis went back to Chile after Cochabamba for various reasons, and since I still had time, I continued on to Santa Cruz, Sucre and through Oruro before heading back. I realized, ultimately, that it was actually really good to have the time traveling together as well as the time traveling apart. Together, we became really good friends, learned to navigate artisan markets, choose the street vendor whose fried chicken was least likely to make us sick, pay the bus terminal usage tax before boarding the bus, make sure the bus has a bathroom and the bathroom actually works. We spent almost all of our time together, sleeping in hostal dorms or hotel triples, going on outings, scrounging for an internet connection, entertaining ourselves through interminable bus rides. We were good complements to each other as travelers, too. Luis really good at starting conversations with random people and asking about the best things to do in each place. Motoki honestly enjoying the inevitable internet hostal search so we’d have some place to stay the next night. Motoki and I processed together what it meant to be monied foreigners in a money poor country, to see 6-year-old kids doing handstands on the path on Isla del Sol for a couple of Bolivianos as they herded their sheep. Luis and I watched chilean soap operas on YouTube for hours on end when too exhausted for anything else, or had long arguments … ahem, discussions… on teaching about foreign cultures or what constitutes machista treatment of women.
excited in the bus to Copacabana
watching dem soaps with treasured WIFI
I saw a different facet of Bolivia, though, on my own. It wasn’t as pretty, necessarily, and I can’t call it even partially complete, but I’m glad to have gotten what I did. And you’ll get some of the highlights in part 2 of this post!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Soren Hauge says:

    Glad to hear that your friends were good travel companions, each with their own contributions to the journey while exploring such a new place. One thing I’m curious about is whether you noticed any significant differences of Bolivian culture from Chilean, including or apart from things related to their different average levels of poverty or affluence. I don’t know how much it’s the common Spanish colonial heritage and recent global influences that predominate, or if much survives that is fairly unique. And whether the highland society differs much from the lowlands around Santa Cruz, etc.


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