I have now been in Bolivia for a month and have experienced numerous ups-and-downs that have stretched my comfort zone. But before I go any further, I must give a disclaimer that I’ve only been to Cochabamba so far, the third largest city in Bolivia. In 2 weeks I’ll be off to La Paz for a week and am planning 2 additional trips: one to Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian-Peruvian border and another to Salar de Uyuni, which is the largest salt flat in the world and resting at 12,000 feet above sea level. It is on the Bolivian-Chilean border. Until then, know that my perceptions of the country are limited and I have yet to experience the countryside, where the majority of the population lives and is the most impoverished.
Before arriving, I purposely researched and planned very little for my trip to Bolivia. Perhaps I’m a bit strange like that, but I find spontaneity to be more rewarding than pre-conceived notions that I obtained on the internet. I originally arrived to La Paz, before grabbing a connecting flight to Cochabamba, at 5:30 in the morning and saw a seemingly excessive police force at one of the smallest airports I’ve ever been to. There were regular police, airport police, customs agents, and guys dressed in SWAT gear carrying sub-machine guns and riding double on dirt bikes around the airport. My first thoughts were wow, this place is way more militant than expected for such a presumably peaceful country. Time for a couple espressos.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised at some of the modernization measures in the county: a western-style movie theater with stadium seating and a huge screen. This is where Saturday night I watched “Guerra Mundial Z”, or World War Z in 3D. I was surprised that a ticket cost $8, as I thought it would’ve been cheaper. It was an experience as I found out that theater etiquette is near nonexistent in Bolivia. From the theater being hot to them turning on the lights just before the movie ended (really?) to the woman behind me constantly kicking my chair to people talking on their cell phones and conversing with one another in a regular tone of voice made following the movie a bit of a challenge. I’ve been caught off guard by some of the vehicles being driven here. I’ve seen everything from hummers to Harleys to Jeep Grand Cherokees. Some Bolivians drive nicer vehicles than I ever have in the U.S., despite the average income of $5k per year.
It’s a fairly tranquil country and has a drastically slower pace of life. There is an abundance of colorful birds and sounds of chirping I’ve never heard before. However, Bolivia does come with an array of noisy cars, motorcycles, scooters and dogs. Sometimes I feel as if the Bumpus family and their raucous dogs live across from me (if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘A Christmas Story’, you know what I’m talking about). Stray dogs are abundant, yet many don’t seem vile as a few even tried to make friends with me on Friday night. You often have to watch your step while walking down the street, not only because cars have the right of way, but because there are endless holes, cracks, extremely narrow, and dilapidated sidewalks everywhere. Driving is circus act as there are no stop signs on side streets, cars and motorcycles often drive through red lights, and you have to check with the cab driver how much it will cost to get wherever you’re going. On the other hand, however, you can taxi just about anywhere around town for $4 or less. I’ve only once experience anti-American sentiment from a guy running gym who told my friends and I to go back to our country because we complained that he turned the gym lights off 15 minutes early during our wallyball session. I have heard from other foreigners here that there are some spots in the countryside where “gringos” aren’t welcome. Some places don’t mind tourists, but have noted they have no interest in foreigners living in their town.
Several things I don’t understand so far, including why so many cars and taxis, with their impotent 4-cylinder engines, put spoilers and racing decals on their vehicles as if we were living in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie; and why there is no heating or hot water from the faucets in many houses I’ve been to, including my own; why many Bolivians eat the same meal for breakfast and dinner; and why the citizenry tolerate prevalent corruption throughout the government, universities, and medical systems. Some of the Bolivian food is quite bland and other foods are delicious. Last week I tried some tasty grilled cow heart fillets smothered in peanut sauce. Also, you can easily head over to the local market and pick up some coca leaves, which are chewed on by many Bolivians for an energy shot. It doesn’t interest me per se, but I find it intriguing to see what’s illegal in the U.S. is freely sold in large sacks by indigenous women for pennies on the dollar.
What I can summarily say is, I’m delighted to have met many warm and caring Bolivians who always have a question to ask, correct grammatical errors when conversing in Spanish, and who have shown a curiosity about my American life. I’m almost finished with my Spanish classes and will soon be focusing on my research project. Today is reading time for several academic articles and Tuesday I’ve been invited to a conference on educational policy in Bolivia.