Adventures in Bolivia

16 November 2007
1:45 PM

After traveling eastward through Peru, Roy and I felt a sense of calmness as we crossed back into Bolivia. Perhaps it was because we had been told there was a new $100 entrance fee for Americans and we didn’t have to pay a dime. It certainly wasn’t, however, because Bolivia is a tranquil place. To the contrary, Bolivia is home to a unique brand of craziness: Bolivian taxi drivers make New York cabbies look relaxed; you can buy llama fetuses at kiosks along the street; and there is a fusion of populism and political participation that sometimes gets explosive. But even after two years away from Bolivia, it is a comfortable craziness that we know and love.

I spent nearly four months living in Cochabamba when we studied Spanish here two years ago, and it was wonderful to return. In my absence I had forgotten how strangely different Bolivia is from America. In downtown Santiago, if you walk with headphones on, you just might think you’re in a major U.S. city. In Bolivia, you’d never make a similar mistake. Women in traditional dress flood the streets, wearing brightly colored skirts and bowlers hats, and with babies slung across their backs in garish guayo fabric. Skinned cows, chickens, and their respective innards are commonplace on counter tops where street vendors grill up popular grub. The prices are rock-bottom. One hostel cost us 50 Bs., or about $3 each. A filling dinner can be had for $2.25.

Even the language is different. Faced with the differences between the Bolivian and Chilean idiom, I realized how many Chilean expessions I had adopted. I had to drop my favored Chilean al tiro (“right away”) for the more universal en seguida. No more talk of pololos (“boy/girlfriend” in Chilean spanish), now there are just enamorados or novios. And I no longer know how to say that something sucks (fome in Chile) or rocks (bacán). What a blow to linguistic expression. Even foods are different: while ayacucho in Chile means shish kebab, in Bolivia it’s a special dish of cow’s heart—probably not a mistake you’d want to make.

Being in Bolivia is always an adventure, and this visit was no exception. We had a relatively relaxed itinerary. After arriving in La Paz, we would visit our host families in Cochabamba for a few days. Then we’d return to La Paz for a connecting flight home via Lima. A simple plan, but with some complications. We had only been in Bolivia for a matter of hours when we heard about an impending transportation strike. Road blockades and democratic demonstrations are ubiquitous in the country; they’re the only way that many people feel garner a reaction from local government. They can be hard to plan around because they’re generally only confirmed hours before they take effect. Our plan was to return to La Paz on Thursday; on Tuesday evening, a nationwide transportation strike was announced for Wednesday. The demonstration was done by Wednesday evening, so Roy and I proceeded with our return to La Paz on Thursday.

We left Cochabamba at 1:30pm. An hour outside the city our bus slowed to a halt. A group of demonstrators was unhappy with one of the mayor’s policies and had blockaded the highway. A 300-foot stretch of road was checkered with rocks and barricaded with thorny bushes, backed by angry protesters. At the behest of the driver, all the passengers got off the bus to negotiate with the crowd (always a surefire solution). As the two groups met, separated by the thorny bushes, a cacophony ensued. The two factions shouted at each other. One man on the other side of the blockade shouted continuously, Pongase en nuestra situación!—Put yourself in our shoes! It was hard to do, since my shoes were on the way home for the first time in years, and this demonstration was the one thing standing between me and my flight. When some kids set off firecrackers “negotiations” dissipated and the passengers made their way back towards the bus.

After some people pleaded with our reluctant driver, we made a U-turn and started looking for an alternate route. We turned onto a dusty side road and after a long hour, we made it back onto the highway beyond the blockage. As luck would have it, this was just about the time the police had been able to dismantle the road block. We were scheduled to arrive in La Paz at 8:00pm (although you must be careful using the word “scheduled” when it comes to buses in Bolivia, lest you start to believe that they run on a strict timetable), and we finally rolled into the station at 11:00pm. The delay was bothersome, but I was happy that we were positioned to make our flight to Peru on Saturday. Unless, of course, one of those pesky airline strikes pops up….

You might think that an experience like ours would turn us off to traveling in Bolivia. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but it hasn’t. The truth is that it’s just part of life here. For the most part, Bolivia is a beautiful and strangely different country from the U.S., with friendly people to boot, and our time here has been pleasant and relaxing (with the exception of our ascent of Chacaltaya, a mountain in La Paz with a summit of 17,785; it’s hard to be relaxed when merely breathing makes your heart race at 160 beats a minute). Want to see something really different? Come to Bolivia. Just make sure that your travel plans are flexible.