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Bolivia: A Different Continent & Another World


This month's article veers somewhat from the standard format in that it describes another Latin American country and makes some comparisons between it and Mexico. Sometimes one gets a better perspective of where one is by going someplace else.

No sooner did we get the Web Page started then we decided to hightail it out of Dodge. Like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, we went to hide out a while in Bolivia.

A good place for hiding in downtown Cochabamba (note boy's head behind statue)
Hiding out in good company

Much of my knowledge of this country stems from my husband's retelling of adventures and tales from his Peace Corps days. But hearing of his precipitous escape into the jungle after getting the warning of a friend and his later return to the spot to find the hammock he had been napping in earlier full of bullet holes tends to dissuade interest in tourism.

A subsequent reading of the Postcards Bolivia segment on the Lonely Planet Web Site made me even more nervous about going, especially when a similar search in the same area for Peru, Brasil and Mexico failed to conjure up such sensationalism.

Of course, one story of a New Year's celebration in the late 60's tended to mellow and counterbalance the negative impressions I had formed. The way I understand it, after suitably inaugurating the beginning of the New Year, a bleary-eyed group was contemplating breakfast when the silence of the late morning was broken by a horse galloping into the compound in a cloud of dust.

As the animal drew closer, those in the party recognized a friend who had been absent from the previous night's festivities. The only item on his person that he had not been born into was the huge gun that he shot off into the sky as he repeatedly circled the courtyard whopping and hollering.

With a final shouted ‘Happy New Year', he then galloped off into the distance and was not seen again for a week. The group was left to speculate just how the fellow had lost his clothes but gained a horse and a gun and to contemplate how the bareback and bare ass rider could pull off such horsemanship after spending a night surely more interesting then that enjoyed by most that New Year's Eve.

Over the years, Bolivia has appeared on the scene in much the same fashion, arriving in the news out of nowhere in a whirl of odd events and then disappearing, not to be heard of again for weeks, months or sometimes even years.

In elementary school, people of my generation learned to associate Bolivia with tin and then promptly learned they could safely forget about the country's existence.

A nation whose per capita yearly income is $900 (U.S.) as opposed to Mexico's purported $9000 (U.S.) is not likely to be considered a great economic player in today's world. Not that I believe particularly in statistics but they're fun to throw around once in a while.

Suffice it to say that Bolivia is and has been for years one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

Now we know people in Mexico who live on much less that $300 a month just as we know people in Italy who live on little more than $300 a month. Although harsh, this seems within the realm of possibility but we were going to a country where the $900 per capita yearly income averages out to $75 a month. What does a country look like where to get an average of $75 a month, this means half the population lives on less?

Pablo was interested in discovering how the country of his youth had changed and I wanted to see if I could find something of the Mexico that so fascinated me more than thirty years ago.

If ever a trip became a journey into the middle of a García Marquez novel, the three weeks in Bolivia classified. What I expected and what I know intellectually to be the tough and true reality was as illusive as the sheets floating off to heaven with, if I remember correctly, Remedios in Cien Años de Soledad.

A bit of a surrealistic view. Is one walking out of the doorway into a painting or outside into the back yard and what country is this anyhow?

Cochabamba. Tarija. San Lorenzo. Tarata. Santa Cruz. Ascensión de Guarayos.

Not an itinerary that could be considered an all-encompassing view and three weeks definitely not what one needs to delve insightfully into the country. But a lifetime of traveling teaches one to observe and Spanish fluency helps one to ask a lot of questions and even work ones way around the myriad accents and make a stab at understanding the answers.

This time span also involved the luxury of staying with a friend for almost two weeks of the trip, which definitely gives a different perspective than the one seen from a hotel window.

A land of extremes, we bounced from the homey comfort of our friend's rented apartment in Cochabamba to the brief luxury of a four-star hotel in Santa Cruz to basic digs in Tarija and Guarayos. We missed entirely the subsistence living on less than $75 a month that is the lot of statistically half the population. Nor did we see the other extreme where an apartment of an U.S. official runs $2800 monthly!

In three weeks our one touristy thing was to ride up the teleférico to the Cristo that watches over Cochabamba. That was cool.

The Cristo in Cochabamba. Or is it Río? Or is it the Cerro de Cubilete in Guanajuato?

After that we rather wandered about aimlessly, ate and talked with a lot of people. In Cochabamba much of my talking was done with my Italian teacher, a Quechua native speaker who had one of the most beautiful Italian accents I have ever heard which only goes to show that García Marquez, no matter how bizarre his novels, does more to describe the reality of Latin American than absolutely any one else on the scene. What appears fanciful to the extreme becomes the commonplace and one person's view of reality can quickly metamorphose into another's fantasy.

The Bolivia we saw was a strange mixture of modernity and life in Mexico in the early 70's.

Two sides of Bolivian life

Some comparisons that come to mind between the Bolivia we saw and the Mexico we know:

Street dogs look way better fed. As in small town Italy, they seem to stake out a block or two as their personal territory. Their bloated or squashed bodies do not line the roads and highways with the frequency of their counterparts in Mexico.

There may be a lot of truth in our friend's cautionary tale when she urged care in crossing streets in Cochabamba saying, ‘On the vehicular food chain, a healthy dog has a better chance in traffic than a pedestrian.'

Not that humans were lining the roadways but there are times I'd have to admit it wasn't for lack of trying in the case of some drivers.

In a country with the myriad social and economic problems of Bolivia, I am the first to admit that this observation is way down there in importance. But, especially coming from Mexico, it is one of the first things you notice. Another is the apparent lack of garbage.

In recent years NGO's have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain and one Italian group donated over 2000 of the large trash bins so common throughout Italy to Cochabamba. If ever a donation had lasting effect on a community, the garbage receptacles from Italy certainly fit that bill.

Downtown Cochabamba with garbage bin and sans garbage.

Despite the warnings we read and heard about taking anything other than a radio cab, we were soon standing out in the street with our arm at a 90 ° angle from our body to flag down one of the thousands of cabs roaming the city streets.

It seems all you have to do in Bolivia to be a taxi driver is buy a car, paint it the requisite color and plop a sticker with the word TAXI on the windshield. This perhaps explains why one out of about every two cars seems to have its windshield so adorned.

Cab fares are negotiable; at least that is before you step inside the vehicle. Small mini vans, trufis (fixed route taxis) and buses are definitely cheaper but because of crowding and difficulty getting on and off are best left to the young and limber. A visitor from New York or even Mexico really wouldn't find the taxi rides all that extreme, however. Outside of the official airport taxis, it's hard to go anyplace in the city for more than a buck. If there's just one person, it's half that or even less.

The variety and quality of produce parallels that found in Mexico and markets and small shops are similar to those here. The lack of variety and number of chiles (called ají ) is made up for by an equal number and variety of potatoes. For someone whose mother hailed from County Cork, this is an important consideration.

Typical Indian market outside of Cochabamba.
Pig feeders fashioned from discarded tires.
In the land of the potato, a fine selection of pasta.

Cochabamba is about the size of Morelia but sports only one commercial supermarket chain with, as far as I know, two outlets in the city. These mini Wall-Marts sans clothing, appliances, hardware, etc. stock what is found in smaller stores as well as the odd item not available elsewhere like, for instance, capers.

The city has little need for commercial centers when it hosts the largest market to be found anywhere in South America. The general consensus must be that if you can't find it in the labyrinth of blocks that makes up The Cancha, you probably don't need it. Certainly after fighting the crowds vainly for an hour or two, you are sure to decide you don't want it.

A small section of The Cancha (one part of the area featuring artesanía ), with and without crowds.

After offering to make an Italian meal for friends, I was shocked to find, after buying the most obscure items readily enough that the ground pork I wanted for meatballs is not easily found. You could buy pork ‘somewhere' in The Cancha (the meat is considered a staple only for special celebrations and certain holidays) and have it ground in another nebulous ‘somewhere' in another part of The Cancha . Mentally fighting the crowds, I proved my theory and changed the menu to chicken.

Ambulatory vendors spill out on all sides of The Cancha and other markets but that really is the only place you'll see them. The few that are located elsewhere sell fresh produce and street food.

The spill-off from one market area.

In all the places we went there were surprisingly few beggars. One would think a per capita income of $900 per year would generate the kind of desperation that would contribute to the growing ranks of those in this ‘profession' but it did not seem to be the case.

Rather people seemed to be employed in some fashion, albeit many in what could only be described as marginal work. It was hard to imagine just what the income from one of these enterprises could buy, however. It must be incredibly hard to be surrounded by so much merchandise with barely enough in your pocket to cover the most basic of foods.

It's one thing to live in an area away from the shop windows and profusion of goodies but quite another to be visually bombarded with this plethora of goods daily.

Display of hand-made alpaca sweaters in FOTRAMA, a collectively run enterprise with outlets in Cochabamba.

In the mid 60's in Pablo's Peace Corp town of Guarayos, one of the villagers estimated he needed about $75 a year to manage. This sum covered one pair of trousers for each of the males, a dress for each of the females, a new machete, sugar, salt and a few odds and ends. This added up to about half the $75 total leaving him free to spend the remainder on booze for fiestas . Everything else came from the ‘ chaco ' where the family's food was grown or was made with what was available locally.

This conjures up a vision of self-sufficiency difficult to visualize in these times where so many are selling so much. It does make one wonder how it can possibly all be bought.

Despite the glum financial prospects of many, there was a surprisingly positive excitement and strangely optimistic view of the future in most of the people we talked to. It was like the Wild Wild West with everyone full of dreams they felt could be realized. It seemed that even those rather pessimistic about the future had an exhuberance about their own personal lives.

Flashing smiles at the huge Somos Bolivia demonstration in Santa Cruz. People joked that La Paz featured dynamite, tear gas and rubber bullets in its demonstrations but Santa Cruz had music, folk dances, food and a fiesta atmosphere.

If we had ventured north up into the Altiplano or into the mining areas, I'm sure we would have seen a much different side to Bolivia.

Such a positive attitude could be considered laudatory or delusional or short lived considering the life span of the country's resources, the inequality in economic situations, the prevalence of crime, especially robbery, the high level of environmental contamination, the abuses of civil rights, the abysmal level of corruption in government.

Maybe these considerations are the cause of the fact that smiles are not seen as readily as in Mexico, although it can be said that Mexico suffers from the same problems.

In Mexico a smile will get you a return greeting generally from all, even the grumpiest old lady balancing on her cane and squinting up at you from her humpbacked frame.

Not so in Bolivia. For the most part, you work for that return smile. I usually try to limit flashing the not so pearly whites at women and kids. The children answered my overture with wide, serious, wondering eyes, their moms looked away and the dowagers fixed my face in their gaze, transmitting visual daggers in my direction and managed to deepen their already formidable scowl.

Maybe that's why the tiny town of Tarata remains so pleasantly fixed in my memory. As my Italian teacher and I walked up and down the streets, our presence was greeted with the wide eyes so common in children in Bolivian postcards but below those beautiful wide eyes shone equally wide smiles. A number even talked very willingly to us, words tumbling over themselves like the tiny pebbles in a rain stick.

Bolivia must be a country very difficult to crack as a single visitor or resident as it is a pretty closed society, rather wary of foreigners. And perhaps with good reason. As a civilization, it's hard to deny that they did pretty well for themselves for thousands of years without outside intervention.

Change is of course impossible to contain and in the 21st century, it happens fast. Bring in a couple of good roads and bang, the nature of an area changes radically, quickly and irrevocably. Realistically one has to admit that not all the ramifications of this modernization can be truthfully labeled as progress.

Three façades of a multifaceted country.

From the tourist perspective, modernization has brought more comfortable, even luxurious accommodations to some parts of the country but my take is that travel is still generally for the stalwart.

Although the infamous ‘electrocutioner's switch' is still in place on the wall in the shower of many basic lodgings, it is often fixed permanently in the ON position. This sounds rather scary but is really a very good thing.

The arrangement allows the current to flow through the wild array of wires above the shower. Turning on the one knob brings the water through the device attached to the showerhead and adjusts the pressure. The water is heated (more or less) electrically as it passes through the showerhead attachment.

The bather then simply turns off the water when the shower is over and is thus saved the task of turning off the wall switch as well with all that live current flowing while he or she stands naked in a pool of water.

Actually people who have inadvertently touched some live metal on the switch report only a less than life-threatening shock but like putting my tongue on the frozen pump handle, it's not something I'm curious enough to try.

The hardest part of the traveling for me was controlling my urge to pee during a couple of five-hour bus rides. If I really, really had to go, I'm sure I could have convinced the driver to stop for me but the prospect of a rather large audience for my performance helped me manage.

Your basic public bathroom in the market with its separate flush system.

The larger cities have big fancy restaurants, short on tourists but filled with well-off locals. Salteñas the special Bolivian answer to the South American empanada are good enough alone to justify a trip to the country.

Many small hole-in-the-walls offer economical four course almuerzos (the hearty lunch served between 12:00 to 1:30). For about a dollar one gets salad, soup, a main course and a dessert.

A common sight in some outdoor restaurants in Cochabamba is a woman with children who circulates with a small metal pail to ask for any leftovers. You can often see the family sitting nearby and immediately digging in which makes the custom certainly more preferable than asking for a ‘doggie bag.'

Ice cream from places like Dumbos and Globos is another justification for a trip south but my most memorable meal was at a large restaurant that featured a wide variety of foods at various stations. The most popular was the seafood prepared to order by a flamboyant chef who juggled four skillets at once, some of which contained flaming sauces.

My Italian eye and County Cork genes however led me to the largely ignored pasta station. There, nestled in a corner of the array of possible selections, I detected purple potato gnocchi. These combined with a porcini mushroom and garlic sauce warranted repeated trips until I basically single-handedly managed to polish off the available gnocchi for the evening and allowed me to enter briefly my own personal Nirvana.

One pleasant surprise was finding Bolivian papers much easier to read than their Mexican conterparts. The prose is more direct and to the point than the 'journalise 'so common in most newspapers here. While very elegant to read, I find ariticles in Mexican papers often leave me confused as to the what, why where, when and who.

Music, although a tremendously important part of the culture, is not heard the same as in Mexico where often inter-lapping tunes played at full volume vie for your auditory attention.

June might not be a top tourist month although it is a pleasant time to travel weather-wise. However, we did not see many tourists in any of the places we visited and almost all of those were Europeans.

Crime exists in Bolivia as anywhere. People talked incessantly of the insecurity to be found on a day to day basis in the larger cities. On a midnight drive into town from the airport to our friend's apartment we saw nary a vehicle parked outside except for the few in front of a still operating street stand.

Police and military officials could well perpetrate much of the crime against their own countrymen. A good chunk of this problem has been blamed on Law 1008. This U.S. backed law was passed in 1988 in an attempt to cut down on the drug business. It makes possession of any amount of a controlled substance illegal and mandates jail time for anyone so charged. In the interim before trial occurs, you are kept in jail. This wait, according to the Andean Information Network, generally amounts to an average of three years and is not counted against the sentence pronounced.

Although beatings, torture and forced confessions are common, Law 1008 has not been successful in tracking down and incarcerating the large drug producers. It has, however, managed to pack the jails with very much the small fry in the drug trade and the innocent who simply got caught in the shuffle.

As we headed off to Guarayos on a night bus, I couldn't help but speculate on a possible scenario as two guys jumped on at the last moment. Every seat in the bus was taken and tickets had been assiduously checked. Nonetheless, the two guys jammed into an area behind our seats that might have been used for luggage storage.

Now if the bus had been stopped and searched, everyone would have had to get off giving ample opportunity for the two to escape if they had been transporting dope or other suspicious substances. Whatever was left behind would have to have an owner and that owner would have to be someone on the bus since all the seats were taken and there would be no record of the two dudes.

One wonders if being a foreigner in such a situation would be to ones benefit or disadvantage as we would be the likely candidates as owners of any illegal substance left behind our seats.

As is the case in any such operation anyplace, it would be mandatory to hook up a warm body to the infraction. Since being charged with possession, according to Law 1008, assumes your guilt, a pleasant trip could well have turned rapidly into a nightmare.

Anyone in such a situation could only hope to be able to buy off the arresting parties. Otherwise the prospects for the future could well go beyond the most gruesome Lonely Planet Postcard scenarios. Sound far-fetched? Definitely. But when little regard is paid to human rights and civil liberties, the scene is well within the limits of the possible.

One begins to understand somewhat the absence of smiles.

Would I go to Bolivia again? In a shot. Would I live there? I'd sure be willing to give it a try. It would be hard to reajust to life in a country that doesn't surround itself with its past as is so common in Mexico and Italy. It could be that history is not as hidden as I thought and could well be discovered with a bit more exploring. Traveling can be rough, especially with the bloqueos or famous roadblocks so common throughout the country, but the terrain is certainly spectacular.

The enthusiasm and sense of being on the edge of a beginning is contagious. Would I be able to adjust these somewhat pampered bones to a life not always so pampered? I'd like to think so since this pampering came rather late in life. But as one approaches 60 one realizes that adjustment could well be difficult.

When I left I felt I certainly knew more about Bolivia than I learned in my fifth grade geography class but I was less certain of what that knowledge meant than I was about the facts of tin production in the mid 50's.

There is a strange nebulous ethereal quality in finding oneself in the middle of a Marquez novel without understanding the beginning or knowing the end.

The work to the left and the one below is by Aymara artist Mamani Mamani.

Some interestintg and informative web sites you might want to check out:

The Andean Information Network is an NGO that examines the effects of the US and international 'War on Drugs'; its chief concern at this time is the violation of human rights by forces supported by US funds.

News coming out of Bolivia, when it surfaces, can be alarming. If you want a glimpse of how life is lived on a daily basis, click on and look to the articles to the right.

Cochabamba, Bolivia The Place Where I Live is an engaging portrayal of everyday life.

100,000 People At Dawn is a great description of one of Bolivia's largest celebrations.

Both these articles by Jim Shultz are accompanied by a photo gallery of wonderful snapshots.


On a more serious note, the first article Bechtel Corp. vs. Bolivia's Poor is a comprehensive overview of the battle over water rights in Bolivia, a truly fascinating struggle.

Next month, we'll be back in Mexico.

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