I don’t know what it was, but I felt almost immediately that Bolivia just wasn’t my type of place. Admittedly, it was the first place in South America to which I’d traveled solo, having lived in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay as a temporary immigrant as opposed to a wandering tourist.
Perhaps it was my fault that things didn’t get off to the brightest of starts. Traveling non-stop from Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital, to La Paz, Bolivia’s, by bus wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. The border region between the two countries, known as El Chaco, over which many wars have been fought, was one of the bumpiest bus routes I’d ever been on, akin to being on a bucking bronco for 7 hours.
Once over the border to Bolivia, I was certainly impressed by the lush green mountains through which most main roads snake. And intrigued by the famous Death Road, which hardly fits two lanes of vehicles. Needless to say, as we were traveling by night, I didn’t really get that much sleep due to the mega velocity at which the bus was sailing around the curves of such a precarious route.
Until Santa Cruz, about the halfway point of the journey, things were OK. The Paraguayan bus wasn’t that bad (though nothing on the majestic semi-camas encountered in Argentina) and I got a few minutes to stretch my legs and quickly eat something before having to board the connection to La Paz.
And then came what was probably the worst bus journey of my life. I was given a seat next to the window, deathly under any circumstances for a tall guy like myself. Added to that, the chair in front of me was broken and thus permanently reclined and crushing my legs and I couldn’t lower my own chair because an old lady had a wooden box of chickens on her lap obstructing any movement backwards. It goes without saying that the next 19 hours passed brutally slowly, and a flowing conversation with a young Bolivian lady next to me did little to appease my full-body cramp.
As if that weren’t enough, the toilet was rendered out of use because someone had decided to stack their boxes in there and the driver must have been on a time-related bonus, as he seemed extremely reluctant to make any stop. He only did so because basically everyone on the bus starting shouting and banging on his cabin door for him to let them pee.
All passengers dashed off the bus to take a leak and women didn’t even seek privacy before lowering their knickers and letting rivers of pee stream down from their polleras (long skirts typical of the region). Something to chuckle at before we eventually arrived in La Paz, the terminal of which was rather rundown and disorganised, but nowhere near as disgusting as that of Braga, Portugal.
La Paz is a city set high in the Andes at over 6000ft so it was no surprise to feel a little bit of a chill upon getting off the bus. I must admit that my first impression of the city, in terms of its architecture, was that of a big favela (shantytown) with huge slopes in all directions. Yet the snow- capped peaks on the horizon were definitely something to admire.
I got a taxi to the hostel where I was to meet a friend and former colleague in Buenos Aires. It turned out to be one of those party hostels, which I’m totally loathing towards. Not that I’m anti-social and boring, but I ask myself why people travel thousands of miles in order to just go and get battered every day, and slum it in restaurants with English or European food. And then there are those completely Anglophone hostels where Americans and Irish people work, which to any language learner such as myself, is certainly something to be avoided.
I decided I’d put up with it for one day, given that I was extremely tired and my friend was already there. They told me I’d have to wait to move my stuff into one of the dorms, but kindly let me have a shower in the meantime. It was refreshing to get freshened up, but equally as scary to see how much the altitude had dried my skin out, especially in the armpit and groin areas.
Anyway, the receptionist continued to have no clue whether there’d be any space for me later, so instead of waiting, I took off and luckily found another more chilled-out hotel to stay at just a few doors away. I managed to meet my friend eventually and we made plans to go Lake Titicaca the following day. Before then, we explored the streets of the centre and saw that it was more touristy than anticipated. There were a huge amount of hostels, foreign-looking bars and restaurants and blonde haired and blue-eyed tourists.
I also learned what the effects of altitude were. Clearly considering myself an extremely fit young man in his early twenties, I didn’t want to be outpaced by middle-aged chubby ladies laden with massive bags, so I ignored the advice I’d been given to walk slowly. The result was an unprecedented feeling of head, chest and throat simultaneously beating and a difficulty in catching one’s breath. I now understood that altitude may indeed have been a factor in Argentina’s 6-1 humiliation in the Bolivian capital just a few month previous.
Already being something of traveling veterans by then, instead of paying the 300 Bolivianos being asked for by various tour agencies and the hostel itself to get to Titicaca, we managed to pay a third of that price by just finding out where to catch the relevant bus from.
Upon arriving at the island where tourists stay, I won’t deny that the views, white glaciers sitting on the horizon of a vast blue lake, were spectacular. As soon as we were off the boat (the second leg of the journey), we were harangued by hordes of children no more than 8 years old attempting to convince us to stay in their (or their families’) accommodation. Looking back, I regret asking which of the kids would give me the best price, as to barter over small amounts of money in such contexts is being a little too thrifty. And can’t be justified by the argument that it balances itself out because on many occasions local workers don’t hesitate to fleece tourists.
All was going well until I got sick. I don’t know whether to blame it on some meat I’d eaten, the high altitude or the subsequent coca-tea that I’d drunk to remedy the initial symptoms of an upset stomach. Either way, I suffered a sudden loss of appetite and an unerring need to vomit. I barfed more than I can ever remember and was thankful for the presence of my friend as she placed a comforting hand on my back as I emptied my stomach. Anyone who’s suffered from food poisoning will know that the human body has various exits, and imagine my dismay upon seeing that the bathroom of the restaurant we happened to be in at the time employed a shitty rag instead of toilet paper. Later that evening I ejected a rainbow of vomit, no joke. I saw yellows, greens, reds, blacks and any colour you can imagine coming out of me. Just recalling that day makes me queasy.
I suffered from altitude sickness all the way back to La Paz and consequently interned myself in a Pensión, a kind of house converted into a cheap hotel, for the next few days, reading being my only comfort meanwhile. By this point my friend had left and perhaps my solitude leads me to look back on subsequent events bitterly.
I learned that Bolivian people were very rude and it was the first time that I’d felt like a proper gringo tourist, standing out amongst the short, golden-brown-skinned, indigenous inhabitants of the city.
In Brazil and Argentina, I’d felt welcomed and accepted, even integrated, yet I found being in Bolivia a stark contrast to this. People would look and point at me in the street and approach me begging with outstretched hands or tugs on my sleeves. Walking through the streets, street vendors would whistle at me, waving their jugs of fruit juices or pastries at me, as if my only purpose in their country was to empty my pockets and buy everything they sold. At the post office, I politely asked where amongst 5 different postal boxes I should put an international postcard, and was promptly met with a grunt and pointing finger. Clearly, I don’t expect a red carpet to be rolled out for me because I’m a visitor, but I hoped for just an ounce of respect or humanity.
I understand that Bolivia is poor and also one of the few South American countries which really retains its indigenous culture. Perhaps they view outsiders as people impinging upon their lives, a necessary evil to help them line their pockets. Maybe westerners’ presence irked them a little, given that the white man rules economically on the continent and indeed in some parts of Bolivia. Either way, I wasn’t liking the experience.
In previous countries I’d been in, I’d talked to people I didn’t know, whether they be just shop workers, waiters or salespersons. Here, any such desires were absent. I wanted to get out of there and back to Paraguay as soon as possible. Yet mystifyingly, I decided I’d check out another Bolivian city, Cochabamba, on the way, so as to break up the bus journey a little.
People there were even ruder than in La Paz. The hotel worker where I stayed seemed annoyed by my decision to stay in her hotel. I then went to an internet café, where the internet didn’t work at all. As I was leaving, the owner had the audacity to demand that I paid him for the time that I’d supposedly spent online. I refused to, and was met with some under-breath comments.
I know these aren’t major incidents which warrant me getting in a fuzz, but the accumulation of feeling out of place and disdained had all built up.
I hopped on the bus back to Asuncion, and can’t even remember how that journey went, such was my haste in which to leave the country. I remember posting on my Facebook at the time that Bolivia was the arse of the earth.
Exaggerated, unfortunate, ignorant I might be, but it was the only time when I haven’t enjoyed traveling.