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

classic tourist picture: on top of tall chunk of rock with beautiful mountain backdrop. Bonus: there’s some ruins in the background!
Took advantage of my own room for the first time on the trip to wash all my clothes, because I’m not so cold hearted that I’ll make two+ people deal with 10 pairs of my moderately washed socks drying for 36 hours (hey, I had to wash in the shower, so gimme a break).

And then, it was really nice to be on my own after my entourage shipped off for Chile (if you know Chile-Bolivia relations, you’ll realize that’s a cruel play on words in Bolivia). It was good even though walking along the street changed noticeably. For the first week and a half, I marveled at how I wasn’t getting catcalled or that up-and-down as I walked down the street, only a couple of times in Copacabana, but it was definitely by Argentinians and Chileans, not Bolivians. And then Luis and Motoki left and I realized that it was because I’d been flanked by two guys, either of which could easily have been interpreted to be my boyfriend or something, for almost the entire time I’d been in the country. So much for beating out machismo, Bolivia. They’re still in the phase where, like El Salvador, campaigns to cut down on domestic violence against women are just starting to gain steam.

STOP domestic violence
El Salvador: In this house we want a life free of violence against women
On a related theme…. free choice Bolivia! (My body, my decision. Free choice.)

In Santa Cruz, my mom’s strategy of sit-in-a-plaza-don’t-do-much-and-wait-for-someone-to-approach yielded two people in about 5 minutes, the second of whom turned out to be an old rich creepy dude, but it was interesting to learn about how at least some rich people get rich in Bolivia. [Turns out this guy’s father sold rubber during WWII and made his wad when he realized that selling on the black market to the Nazis was more lucrative than on the normal market to the Americans. And the guy himself was setting up a bunch of flight simulators in an airplane hangar, the only such setup in Bolivia, where there’s currently a pretty high demand for pilots in order to get the copious amounts of cocaine that Bolivia produces out into the global market. He insisted that he was a good person, and to be trusted, showing that his business card matched his government ID and that he had a catholic shrine. I learned from this experience that, actually, such insistence was a pretty good indicator that he was both a bit of a shady guy and kind of a creepo. Anyways. No harm done.] And then for the rest of the day I lay in my bed in the hotel in minimal clothing and got over my heat exhaustion and residual tiredness from a night on the bus, accompanied only by a ceiling fan and 2 liters of water.

the main plaza

In La Paz, walking to the Brazilian embassy for my visa while the guys slept in, I ran across a group of survivors from the Bolivian military dictatorship that happened during Operation Condor around the same time that pretty much the same things were happening in Chile. In Chile, at least, many of the former detention centers are now memorials. Famous foreign journalists like Naomi Klein write about it. Not so in Bolivia. In Bolivia, they haven’t even released official documents. It’s like it never happened. Not even Evo Morales will release them, even though he had nothing to do with the dictatorship. So these survivors were on day 1024 (that’s 2^10 days, 34 months, almost 3 years) of a vigil in front of what I think was the supreme court building demanding that the government take the first step and release the documents so that people know what happened. That it happened. So justice can be served. The government, at no cost to itself, is pretty much ignoring them, waiting for them to die because the dictatorship is not a topic that younger generations, like students, have taken up and demanded attention for. So I experienced the displays they had set up, felt the knot in my stomach as I read about the torture during the dictatorship and lack of acknowledgment that it happened afterwards. I listened as the activists talked about their work, their disillusionment with a government and a president like Obama who were supposed to give so much hope and change so much for the better, their partnership with sister organizations in Chile, the inevitable nationally unifying resentment about Chile stealing their access to the Pacific. I slipped 20Bs, about $3 and enough for a solid meal, into their donation box and signed their petition and then took their photo and had to be on my way.

mural ourside their exhibition / vigil house
1024 days
survivors fight on

In the end, I talked to relatively few people in Bolivia, but for those I talked to, it was a real conversation. And I felt decently about the way I had traveled. It was as I was leaving, though, that I realized just how much I was still missing to give myself a mental portrait of the country that I could feel good about sharing with other people, a portrait that was in some way representative, a portrait that included enough voices that it could at least partially counteract the one-sided narrative trickling into the US from abroad, you know, the one where you hear all about the poverty and the crime and the filth and the rich first worlders coming in with their wonderful inventions to fix things. On the bus from Oruro to Iquique, I met a electrical engineering student going to Chile to visit his sister and hang out on the beach. He was your fairly typical privileged college student. He was very in favor of Evo Morales, talking about programs for the poor he had implemented and factories that were getting built to stimulate Bolivian clothing production, pointing out the road to the village the president grew up in as we passed, sad he’d always been out of the country when voting happened. His narrative went completely against what one of the vendors in the Cochabamba artisan market had said, that anyone who knew what was up was against him, contrary to what the vigiling victims of the dictatorship said about him, against the opinion of my host dad that Morales might have started out good, but he was bordering on power grabbing when justifying his latest term (which normally would be illegal because of term limits) because he’d made a new constitution and changed Bolivia’s name, so it was a new country and he could start from scratch with the term limit thing. The problem is, I hadn’t really talked to any poor Bolivians about politics, the types of people who are supposed to be benefitting from his programs. In part, it was because most of the Bolivians I’d come across worked in the tourism industry, and they were all too exhausted by the constant need to interact with tourists, always reaching out a hand or a voice for the sell, that it was hard to start a conversation.

so much relatively cheap, mass-produced, hand-made stuff, often with cloth woven in a way that it’s not done anymore sold by people who have to defend themselves from rich and haggling tourists all day long

And then I asked this electrical engineering student, as we jolted our way to the Bolivian border, what he wished the rest of the world knew about Bolivia that it didn’t already. “Well, Evo’s put us on the map,” he said, referencing Dakar, the huge car race that they hosted on the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia for the first time. For a while, he couldn’t think of anything that the rest of the world needed to know, but then he started talking about all of these amazing places in Bolivia that no one goes to. Like the lake that is green in the morning and red in the afternoon. Like the dinosaur footprint park above Sucre. Like the huge mennonite community outside of Santa Cruz (I’d been wondering about all those women in 1800’s-style dresses and men in overalls with the same white faces that stared so fixedly at my tan white face, the only other white face in town). And I started to think back to the way that I had either rushed or glossed a bit over Bolivia. I hadn’t spent enough time without a plan or a place to be, a bus to catch, friends to meet for lunch. Percentage-wise, I spent a colossal amount of the trip in a bus. And then when I did give myself the time to be present, I was too shy to strike up a conversation, shyness I couched in tiredness, dehydration or some other excuse. And there were definitely times I could have reached out. When I watched an enormous caterpillar poke along a tree trunk with a woman and her gorgeous little boy in the central plaza of Santa Cruz. The woman at reception in my hotel there who gladly would have talked for hours. The lady on the bus to Sucre who calmed my poor haggard and nervous gringa self during our marathon bus ride (is there time to go to the bathroom? why isn’t the bus working? where are we?).

the mother of all caparpillars
our faces upon seeing Copacabana….. but it was just that, seeing, most of the time

Al fin y al cabo, in the end, I think that traveling in Bolivia, as well as similar experiences in the southern part of Chile, have taught me how to travel. Time, I think, is the key. Open-ended, relatively unstructured, well-rested, free from computer time. It helps to have ideas of good places to go, of course, but too many ideas and I start to inadvertently build a mental itinerary. And I like the challenge of traveling with no money. Like how I almost ran out of cash at the end of my time in Bolivia and ate like one meal a day and didn’t buy things and ran out completely when I got to Chile and couldn’t make my ATM card work, so had to survive my last 30 hours on enough coins for one pit stop, the kindness of strangers and 3 skimpy meals provided by the bus company. I have learned to pack light, and that any presents I buy should be rather more compact than the current median. To travel with people when possible and then go solo when possible afterwards, because part of meeting interesting people when traveling is meeting people in the boonies with different perspectives on life, and part is meeting other people who also want to meet the people in the boonies. Folks, I think we may just have arrived at a post-grad plan right here: (1) make money, (2) decide upon and find locomotion to boonies, preferably relatively cheap boonies, (3) convince self that I am not copycatting my mother, that this is my own path that I have chosen independently, (4) buy a plane ticket with no return date, (5) wahoooo!


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