The folds of Bolivia’s beauty – and its contradictions and struggles — defy a story line. It seems that every time we turn a corner, another piece of data in the form of an observation or conversation presents itself. Along the way, any pre-conceived notions that we might have had of Bolivia are further laid to waste, and the makings of a convenient narrative further deteriorated.
With this in mind, we share ten first impressions from our travels in Bolivia as we sort through our thoughts and fill in our own canvas.
1. Inspirational Landscapes
The diversity of Bolivia’s natural landscape is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Panoramas are expansive, the pockets of desolation spectacular; a spectrum of colors and hues cascade down the frame of every photo. And where else can you climb from 2,200 meters through high desert to a mountainous 4,000 meters and back down through lush greenery to the jungle – all in the course of 100 kilometers and 2.5 hours?
And of course, as altitudes change, so do attitudes. Styles of life and socio-economy roll with the change of the land.
At an altitude of 3650 meters, La Paz, the de facto capital city of Bolivia, qualifies as one of the most dramatic urban landscape settings we have ever taken in. Homes are sewn into the surrounding hills unabated until they top out across the cities precipices. A range of snow-covered mountains, crowned by 6,400 meter (21,000 foot) Illamani peak, loom over the city.
2. The Culture of Protest
History suggests that Bolivians enjoy the fine art of the protest. In fact, it’s a source of national pride. One Sunday in La Paz a group of flag-waving supporters of Evo Morales, the current president, marched in a political rally reminder of Bolivia’s upcoming national elections in December. Across town, the opposition (a ragtag bunch wrapped in yellow and red flags) were almost chased off the church steps by the police. This reminded us: when it comes to protests, cast a sharp eye as to who is funding the march.
Protest in the personal realm takes on an interesting appearance, too. Impatience turned to protest when a busload of angry passengers began shouting “Vamos!” (“Let´s go!”) to our bus driver as he sorted through official papers before departing the bus station. Individual shouts turned to orchestrated cries; even the children joined in. The voices became one: the battle cry of the Bolivian bus rider.
However, there seems a contradiction. When Bolivians discuss the broader injustices of their own society, they are often quick to dismiss them with, “Well, this is Bolivia. It´s what happens here.” This resignation finds its way from the insignificant – like the hotel’s reaction to having our phone stolen at the market – to the serious, including a woman’s reaction to the emblematic corruption of a local man paying off the police to look the other way when his taxi was found covered in a murdered man’s blood.
3. The Water Wars
No visit to Cochabamba would complete without at least one discussion of the infamous “water wars” that took place in early 2000. The prevailing narrative goes like this: Bechtel, an evil, extractive corporation once responsible for privatized water provision was driven out by a groundswell of grassroots protest (see #2). The Bolivian people took back their water – and the management thereof.
Many consider this particular example of people power a success. But at what price a Pyrrhic victory? If you speak to locals living in Cochabamba, approximately 50% of the residents in this city of 500,000 remain without access to water — now provisioned by a state-run company. Just goes to show that preemptive declarations of victory can be found at all edges of the political spectrum.
4. Coca and Cocaine
This is a gnarly one — so gnarly that we included it in the title and we’ll write a separate article about it next. Cultivation of coca leaves is a national tradition; chewing coca leaves is a national pastime. However, it is estimated that only 5-10% of coca leaf production is used for the relatively benign form of local consumption.
And the rest?
Although local cocaine consumption in Bolivia remains relatively low, the side-effects of cocaine production and its transport and export are numerous: polluted rivers, gasoline shortages, income inequality, corruption and crime. But a visit to Chapare, one of Bolivia’s heaviest coca production regions, helped us see first-hand the challenge of convincing local farmers to cultivate alternative crops.
5. “USAID Get Out of Bolivia”
There is apparently no love lost between the Bolivian people (or perhaps the current Bolivian government) and USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. From La Paz to Cochabamba, messages like the one above are frequent and clear: get out. Apparently, it worked in the Chapare region and USAID left in late 2008.
But why the animosity?
One might imagine that coca farmers (Evo Morales, the president, was once a coca-grower himself) perceived that USAID projects were a de facto extension of the U.S. sponsored war on drugs and its companion coca eradication programs. The DEA (United States Drug Enforcement Agency) was kicked out of the region, too.
The great irony here: the police station we visited in nearby Cochabamba (in order to unsuccessfully report our stolen cell phone) was funded by – yep, you guessed it – USAID. Spiffy USAID stickers were plastered on the back of every chair and piece of equipment. Unfortunately, our Sunday visit showed us a police station that was relatively unattended, foreboding, derelict, and just plain falling apart.
6. Community Development and Microfinance
We’ve seen microfinance at work throughout Central and South America, but a visit with CIDRE, a Bolivian microfinance organization, illustrated how individual microloans can be used cooperatively for larger-scale community projects.
When a group of 28 dairy farmers needed a storage tank to control the temperature and quality of their milk, each took out an individual loan and pooled a portion of it for the purchase of the tank. Similarly, a community of over 20 farmers pooled their loans to purchase a pump and irrigation system for their fields. Prior to the system's installation, the community could plant only once a year, depending on the rain. Today, the community manages three yields per year while carefully rotating crops to avoid stripping the land of its nutrients. A $6,000 loan changed the lives of at least twenty families.
7. A Little More Than “Camera Shy”
We have encountered some very kind interactions, particularly upon our entry into Bolivia and in and around Lake Titicaca. But to say that Bolivians are camera shy is an understatement. In a way, we were prepared for this. A Kiva Fellow working in the region shared with us the unmatched difficulties she encountered while trying to take photos of the organization's Bolivian clients.
The suspicion of both cameras and outsiders often makes Bolivian people difficult to approach and to convey photographically. There are many historical and cultural explanations for Bolivians – particularly those from the indigenous community – to dislike cameras, but it saddens us to think we may not be able to share as much from this country’s wealth of human beauty as we have from others.
Oh, how we wish we could wax lyrically about the beauty of Bolivian food. But alas, we cannot. Perhaps this is why sandwiches, hamburgers and pizzas seem to have become national dishes. However, there are some redeeming bites amidst the meat and potatoes and murky browns and grays. Take for instance the artistically presented, visually appealing salteña, a dough pocket stuffed with meat, potatoes and a stew-like broth.
9. The Only Americans
“Are there any Americans on this bus?” the driver shouted down the aisle.
From Puno, Peru, our bus was scheduled to skirt the edge of Lake Titicaca and over the border to Copacabana, Bolivia. The bus was full of tourists, but we were the only two passengers to raise our hands.
Why single out the Americans? The bus driver just wanted to avoid delays at the border, for America has the distinction of being one of the very few western countries from which visitors are required to purchase a tourist visa to Bolivia.
Aside from a handful of Americans working and doing research in Bolivia, all the other travelers we've seen have been from everywhere but the U.S. We're not exactly sure the reason. Perhaps it’s the rather stiff $135 price tag that drives so many Americans away.
10. Monkeys – Hugging, Licking, Grooming
At the edge of the Bolivian jungle, we popped in on Inti Wara Yassi, an animal sanctuary whose focus is rescuing and rehabilitating animal victims of the illegal pet trade. Although a puma, jaguar and spectacled Andean bear skulk around (all are usually leashed and require daily walks), monkeys rule the roost. A purported 1,500 of them amble and swing about the premises.
We made particularly good friends with the capuchin pictured here (yes, the one on the left). He even brought fruits and nuts from the brush for us to help crack. He placed the fruit in our hands and squeezed our fingers around it. Startlingly intelligent — and dare we say almost human-like.
Our early days in Bolivia were replete with discussions of politics and socioeconomy, particularly in and around Cochabamba. Perhaps as we head south and west to other parts of Bolivia, our intellectual and emotional loads will lighten. We also expect other regional personalities will evince themselves. Stay tuned for Bolivia Part 2, Lasting Impressions.