So many travellers have told me how much they love this country, so my expectations are high. I can honestly say I am not disappointed over the next few weeks. My journey to Bolivia is crazy; I wake up at 6am on Tuesday 29 October 2009 on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos and then (not in this particular order) take a 2 boats, 2 buses, 2 taxis, and 3 planes. 19 hours later I arrive in La Paz, Bolivia’s Capital. Bolivia is South America’s poorest country and has had quite a turbulent past and numerous problems with its neighbouring countries over the years. Shaky politics and a weak economy have left the population (over 60% of indigenous heritage) struggling with unemployment, poverty and disenfranchisement. Protest and marches are an every occurrence here. However it is a land most beautiful, and not on everyone’s radar so good for us travellers who are lucky enough to see some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes and nature in the world that are not over run by tourists, well not yet anyway.
I’ve been reading about Eva Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president. Morales was a coca grower and left wing anti-privatization activist, who made his mark by nationalised the country’s gas reserves in 2006. He has given hope to many people from the coca community with his socialist views but for many he has arrived on the scene too late, so like all leaders has his critics. On my 3rd flight of the day I chat to two middle-class Bolivian women sitting next to me. They are accountants and on their way home to Santa Cruz in Bolivia following a business trip in Lima. I am pleased that my Spanish has come a long way as they speak no English at all, but we manage to converse for the entire journey. They do not like Morales, and believe his leadership has brought only more corruption and false promises and hope for their people. They don’t really have faith in the system but for them life is good as they are not at the bottom of the tree, so to speak.
‘Bolivia is not a poor country. It is a country that has been impoverished’ (Viva South America! A Journey Through A Restless Continent, Oliver Balch) says Balch, my travel companion on this trip giving me an excellent insight into the underbelly of South American culture and society off the tourist track (thanks for the book Sanjida!). It can be argued that capitalism is to blame for the country’s foreign debt problem, failure to industrialise and for the marginalisation of its indigenous people. In the 70s Bolivian coca farmers accounted for more than a third of world production of coca, most of it ending up in the USA. By the mid 80s cocaine exports were worth over twice the country’s legal exports put together. However a US banker alleged that coca caused mental slowness and poverty in Andean countries so world leaders banned the coca leaf along with other Class-A drugs putting an end to the party. While the US spent billions on fighting the narcotics trade Bolivia authorities targeted Chapare’s coca growers (former home to Morales) with a ‘zero coca policy’ so a war on drugs leading to dozens of deaths. Apparently Bolivians have been using unprocessed coca for centuries as a stimulant, anaesthetic, a hunger suppressant and a cure for stomach ulcers and all manner of every day ills. As a narcotic? Some farmers may suggest that’s only for coke-sniffing gringos.Privatization of water for example has increased debt for the country, with corrupt government officials collaborating with American utility companies bumping up prices with these few getting richer, and as usual the poor getting poorer. Bolivia is in need of foreign investment that is fair, where they won’t get ripped off, in order to grow from within for a healthier and more prosperous future. Well the world isn’t always fair is it? Thinking about this angers me, I need to take a break and come back to this.
La Paz is 3660m above sea level, so I’ve gone from Galapagos to this; you can imagine how I feel. Today I’m starting a tour where I’ll meet about 10 other people and travel with a group leader. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone, and decided to throw a tour into my itinerary to give me a break from all the planning of hostels and travel arrangements for a while, and to spend some time with the same people for more than a few days. I meet my room-mate and we explore the city walking around many markets, (I buy another hat) I photograph lots of buses that I fall in love with, and have saltenas for lunch (like pasties filled with meat and potato or cheese). The altitude is making me feel so out of breath and I struggle walking up the horrible steep road back to Hotel Sagarnaga. I meet the group and we go for dinner together, and wait for 90 minutes for our food to arrive. I don’t realise at the time that this is dining out in Bolivia, you can be waiting for 1-2 hours for your meal so its best to go to a restaurant when you are not hungry as by the time you eat you will be!
The next day I tell my tour leader Sebastian of my terrible ordeal where I was mugged in Ecuador and no longer have my ipod. He tells me to buy a new one but I complain I will have no music. ‘In South America anything is possible’ he tells me. In the afternoon we get a taxi to a street selling electrical goods and he helps me buy an mp3 player for about £10. Then we go from shop to shop and eventually find someone who can put some music onto the player for a few pounds. Result. 30 minutes later I walk away with my new mp3 player to learn later that the music I was promised would be on there is not, and within a day the battery dies and the charger does no work. I am not a happy lady! I like La Paz a lot, seeing the local women dressed in skirts and little hats with long plaits hanging down their backs, socks pulled up to their knees. Reminds me of Ecuador, oh how I love this continent! The Andean bags, clothes and jewellery are so colourful and warm, not to mention cheap! The city is bustling with people all day long, schools out and young people fill the streets in their uniforms, I buy some freshly squeeze orange juice from a man on the corner and continue meandering on my own in the sunshine.