Bolivia: Reflections from Inside a Socialist Country

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.

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6 thoughts on “Bolivia: Reflections from Inside a Socialist Country

  1. Thanks for the updates from Bolivia, Tom! I lived there for five months in 2006 in Santa Cruz and your posts remind me a lot of my time there, though Santa Cruz is quite different from the rest of the country. I know a lot of folks there who would balk at the notion of Bolivia as a socialist country and many did not think much of President Morales and his policies then much less now (which was quite a shock to me). It is a country of deep inequalities and people wealthy according to Bolivian standards can afford great luxuries while that same amount might have them scraping by in the U.S.

    You’ll be surprised to find (as I was) that we can buy coca products here in the U.S. as tea leaves that have been decocanized. You’ll find you’ll need the real deal when you go to La Paz, especially if you visit El Alto, the highest neighborhood where the poorest people live. Just a cup of coca tea can really help with altitude sickness–which is very real for those not accustomed to such high altitude, no matter how healthy or fit you are.

    When I crossed the border into Brazil, I spotted a fire hydrant and realized that in all my time in Bolivia I hadn’t seen one there–I may have missed them in Cochabamba and La Paz as I was only there on short visits, so if you see them, let me know! The movie prices are about the same though–$8 is still cheaper than $13 here! Enjoy your time there!

  2. Christine – thanks for your comments and insight! No, actually now that I think about it, I have yet to see a fire hydrant. I will keep my eyes open for them. I think the regular movie prices are $5, but it was $8 because of the 3D. Thankfully I haven’t had any issues with altitude sickness here in Cochabamba, which is just over 8,000 ft above sea level. I lived in Colorado for 5 years, which I think helps.

    Yes, one could debate whether or not Bolivia is a socialist country. I was thinking primarily of the current ruling regime and their efforts to restructure the country’s policies.

  3. $8 for 3D?!?! That’s a steal. lulz. I wish I could go back soon myself. My friend worked at the cinema so I was there often, though Santa Cruz is a whole other world compared to the rest of Bolivia. If you can make there, I recommend it, though I think the major attraction would be the Jesuit Missions further into the department. They are lovely.

    Since you’re from Colorado, I’m curious to know how you fare if you make it to El Alto (it’s where the airport in La Paz is located)–it’s 13,600 feet above sea level. Cochabamba did not even register for me as a place to get altitude sickness. All I know is that I tried to run up a short flight of stairs while staying in El Alto and I got winded halfway up. After a cup of coca tea–no problem. And then after a few days, my body adjusted, but I still drank the coca tea just to be sure. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t experienced it. You can see how the indigenous from the Andes adapted over the millennia to be so barrel-chested to deal with the altitude. La Paz is one of the few cities (if not the only city) in the world where the wealthy live at lower altitudes than the poor because of the altitude sickness–you will see all the wealthy suburbs as you make your way down from the airport.

    Oh, and when you go to Lake Titicaca, try to ask for a room with a view of the sunset. My friend and I paid 8 bolivianos ($4) total at some place whose name I can’t remember but it was on the top floor and had a balcony with the most amazing sunset view. Also, and I don’t know what your time and funding is like, but if you can go to Machu Picchu, do it. You will get sticker shock when you get to the actual site as they charge U.S.-type prices for the Perurail (the train that takes you from the base to the town above, and from there there’s another charge for a bus to the ruins), but you’re only a bus ride away and the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca doesn’t offer much as an experience typical of Peru. Have so much fun!

  4. Bill – I’m glad you liked it and thanks for the feedback!
    Dad – 2-1/2 more weeks!
    Christine – Unfortunately, I won’t make it to Santa Cruz or Machu Picchu this time. But I will be in La Paz in 2 weeks. I was at the La Paz airport for a few hours and didn’t notice any altitude sickness by I’ll find out for sure when I get there. I hope to make it to Lake Titicaca, even if just for a couple days. Thanks for the tip and I’ll be sure to ask for a room with a view! I’ll post about it after the trip. Next week I’m off to Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats, which are at 12,000 ft and supposedly very cold at this time of year.

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