Bolivia is different. The ubiquitous rural settlements are more common than cities and remind me of rural Africa, minus the violent crime and paranoia. The Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Burger Kings and giant supermarkets of Chile are conspicuously absent, at least in the places I’ve visited so far. Everything is dirt cheap. Evo hasn’t been successful in banning Coca-Cola products, as I read somewhere that he wanted to do, and you can’t drink the water. I’ve been boiling mine or buying two litres a day (the R12 goes to Coca-Cola, of course), which has had the positive side-effect of making me actually drink two litres of water per day – a huge change from the coffee I used to quaff down by the bucketload.
Everyone seems to be eating ice cream, all the time. Almost everyone seems to find employment selling their cheap food (salteñas are better than empanadas, I declare it so), their ice cream, crackers and Coke, coca leaves, vegetables, eggs, cheese, hamburguesas, nuts … Child labour laws are resisted by the children themselves, so you’ll often see kids punting wares, or working in a bus alongside the conductor, or begging, or helping an old lady squeeze out fresh orange juice in a trolley rolling through a plaza. Fresh fruit and vegetable juice is big here. As are donuts. Let’s just say it’s beginning to show how affordable eating has been …
Prices are not fixed. It’s better to ask how many apples you can get for 5 Bolivianas, for instance, than to ask for five apples – you’ll almost always end up paying less per unit. And as a rule you do get overcharged as a tourist, which is why I don’t feel bad at all for bargaining almost every time I spend money. Hostels average around Bs30 (around R45) per night for a private room – ridiculous. In Sucre alone I saved a total of Bs400 (ZAR600) on souvenirs and a bus ticket without even having to try. A moment’s hesitation can elicit a significant drop in price.
Women from older generations walk around in the traditional colourful shin-length pleated skirts, lace-trimmed blouses and bowler hats – an unflattering ensemble only they can pull off gracefully. The younger generations sport modern outfits, are plugged into huge colourful headphones while thumbing through the content on smartphones – predominantly Samsung.
Transport is unbelievably cheap. Journeys eight, 10 hours long cost between Bs30 and Bs60 (R45 to R90) – just once I paid more, for an 18-hour journey, and that’s because driving that road (Trinidad to Rurrenabaque, through the belly of the Amazon basin) is an accomplishment and a half that required a fair share of manual labour from the conductor’s under-aged assistant as well as a remarkably slow and haphazard yet impressive ferry ride … but more about that in another post.
At bus terminals, women and men form a weird competitive choir as they shout out the names of the destinations. “Su-creeeee … Potos-eeeeee … La Paaaaaaz.” Their singing, chant-like, sometimes harmonises in the minor key. It’s loud and noisy but so specific.
I remembered too late that Marcela from Spanish in Rosario warned me against the bus ride from Uyuni to Tupiza. Her eyes were wide with terror when she recounted her journey, which took place at night in the rain on a gravel road (I have been on more dirt roads than tarred ones). Thunder evoked hellish thoughts as they stuttered and shook their way over narrow mountain passes, every few seconds lightning revealed the abysses that bottomed out on the side of the road; the rest of the time was spent in cold, pitch-black fear.
Cora, a USAmerican girl I met during the Salar de Uyuni tour, and I were already on the old, dishevelled bus, wrapped up in everything we owned, cold and shivering in the dark at five in the morning, when I remembered Marcela’s story. The first stretch to Atocha was not that bad, actually – that is, I managed to sleep once I overcame the debilitating itch that covered my whole body as the bus shook on the gravel road. Is there some kind of medical explanation for this itch? It was unholy.
We waited in Atocha for 90 minutes to change buses. It’s dry in this part of Bolivia, the southwest, really dry. The houses, built all the way up the hills, are the same colour as the rocks – brown. Only the hardiest and smallest of plants show their infrequent faces. Pigs and piglets eat and drink who knows what out of little, waning streams – the same streams that the locals urinate into in plain sight.
The litter situation is bad. The only colour comes from plastic bags flapping in the wind, there are cans and plastic bottles everywhere. I thought Argentina and Chile were bad, but this is on another level. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the trauma of having a perfectly surreal, moon-like landscape interrupted by a dash of white or bright red plastic, or of seeing people – women, men, children, babies – regardless of socioeconomic status throw trash on the ground or out of the window as soon as they are done with it, no second thought given.
The road’s frightful deterioration began as we left Atocha, which is also when the scenery started getting really beautiful. The landscape is surreal. The imposing brown mountains on each side of us began showing off their famous rainbow colours – purple, pink, green and blue rocks – as we drove up what seemed to be, yes, a river, before veering onto a path that was no less makeshift. Every time the driver applied his brakes (rarely, for the going was slow) a blaring, screeching wail would emanate from the wheels – ears may have bled – and it did little to calm down Cora to my right, who was having a bad time and being vocal about it. Me, I took comfort from the other tire tracks on the road, and the knowledge that this driver has done this a thousand times, and that there is a bus full of people with us on this journey. Breathe and enjoy the view – you’ll never see anything like this again in your life.
Going around the hairpin bends on the ever-rising passes felt to me like being on a curve of a rollercoaster, just before it takes the plunge. My belly felt empty on those bends, dangerously close to nausea, and it was as tense and un-fun as only a rollercoaster ride can be. But I would not be writing this if this story ended badly, if anything life just continues its precious upward trajectory, and being alive is a daily thrill.
Tupiza is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid territory, for real. I don’t know much about the story, but this is where their legend ends.
Cora and Laura, whom we met at the hostel in Tupiza, went for a horse-ride the next day while I opted for a hike to El Cañon – and opted out of trying to climb El Cañon. The brochure said “It is possible to walk through the canyon blah blah blah don’t do this alone” and, halfway up the finger-like structures, I chickened out, feeling that one near-death experience per week was plenty. I am resolved to do some climbing in the future, though – I really wanted to see what was on the other side of that canyon.
A short hike with Laura up to the mirador (lookout point) that evening delivered one of those unexpected fun moments, when two pairs of dancers changed into their finest and proceeded to be filmed for a video of some kind.
It also delivered a sunset like no other.
Potosí is a trip. At 4 060m above sea level, it is the highest city in the world. You very quickly unlearn fast walking and take up the locals’ languid pace. The one-way streets are narrow but the colonial architecture is intact, making for an entirely unexpected juxtaposition of elegant and rowdy. At noon every day, the school kids get their break, and the streets become so crowded that you are often pushed into the street, into the cars and buses and other people. The streets heave with chatter and faces and arms and legs and juice sellers and donut sellers. There are loads and loads of ornate cathedrals, and their spires poke out above the din and the buildings around every corner.
Potosí is built into a valley, much like La Paz, and again the houses – many unfinished, especially down towards the bottom – blend into the mountains and it’s hard to make out where city ends and raw earth begins. I stayed for two nights, just drinking in the chaos and looking for new shoes, for my old ones had bitten the dust:
I was swindled out of a bit of money in Potosí, but that’s hardly a thorn in the side now. First, the taxi took me to the wrong terminal and was already long gone when I realised I was in the wrong place. Then, 10 minutes before departing, I decided to look at the ticket I’d bought the day before. They had sold me a ticket for the previous day, and I had not only missed that bus but also didn’t have a ticket for the ride leaving in 10. The loss was only about Bs25 in all, and they did give me a Bs2 discount on the new ticket’s fare, and by the time I got to Sucre all was forgiven and forgotten.
Things started changing on the way to Sucre. Actual trees – trees! – started appearing in the hard brown ground. Things were getting green. Then, approaching the town, a river fed rows and rows of plantations, big trees throwing big shade, more humidity and a cool, fresh breeze lifting some of the oppressive dryness of the previous days.
Sucre is the cool respite of an oasis personified. It was a taste of things to come. It is a gorgeous city, a student town, with two or three beautiful green plazas, fantastic architecture, music in the streets every night, fabulously walkable with a massive central market and great shopping opportunities – I let my hair down for the first time on this trip and actually bought stuff! Now it is the small matter of whether or not to carry it around for four months, or risk sending it home …
Bolivia has not been easy, nor comfortable, nor without its curveballs. I am debating whether or not to relay in detail the tale of the travel journal that was forgotten on the bus, of the dreadful 3am devastation in Samaipata when the forgetting was discovered, the half an hour of processing the consequences and crying in the street, trying to fend off a drunk guy, yearning for my mother and father’s voices but not having the coins to call home – the book would never happen, my investment of time and money this year would amount to nothing, I would never be a writer, I would return to some desk, destined to live another 40 years of loveless disappointment – and then the out-of-nowhere, balls-to-the-wall pursuit of that journal all the way to Santa Cruz (a shit hole), and the momentary lapse of atheism, and the finding of the book, and the incredulous tears of relief and the week in paradise that followed.
Bolivia has been really, really tough, but I guess now I know the true nature of a love/hate relationship – it’s when everything goes wrong but you keep getting lucky. Bolivia has taught me to never give up.