Bolivia is full of surprises. Whatever one’s perceptions before travelling here, chances are things will happen that you don’t expect. Being the most underdeveloped and predominantly Indigenous South American country I have visited so far, this has been even more the case for me. Here I have seen, heard, smelt, and felt things that have totally shocked me, and since it is also a place full of seeming contradictions and ironies, Bolivia is a challenging place to surmise in words.
I arrived in Sucre at 5am in the morning. After passing some time at the terminal, I went in search for accommodation. I shopped around as much as my sleep deprived brain could handle and then checked into a small hotel. After realising that they didn’t provide toilet paper and the showers were cold, I checked out again and moved to the local youth hostel.
Dying to start some proper Spanish lessons, I immediately set about finding a Spanish school. I had been reccommended Fox Language Academy by another traveller so tried there first, and was happy with the atmosphere and the price. I organised to start the following Monday for 3 hours of one-to-one classes every morning.
Sucre is a beautiful city. It is the original capital of Bolivia and is still the juridicial one. It has lovely white colonial architecture, beautiful historic streets and is surrounded by mountainous countryside. It is filled with charming flower-filled plazas where people gather to enjoy the delicious daily sunshine and mild winter nights. It has a fabulous central mercado, which sells a huge amount of fresh produce and has delicious almuerzos (2 course lunches) for around $1. It is not too big or too small, and its vibe is muy tranquilla. There are rarely traffic jams and everywhere is a short walk or a 50 cent cab fare away.
After a week in the hostel, I moved in with a local Bolivian woman, who was a friend of the receptionist at the language school. I liked Yuany instantly. Even before agreeing to stay with her, she picked me up in her funky red VW beetle from town and showed me her place, and invited me out for drinks with her friends. She was immediately warm and friendly and definitely the coolest dentist I have ever met. She lives in a comfortable house just outside of the city centre, which among other things allowed me to experience a different part of Sucre.
For the first week and a half, I had my own room and could come and go as I pleased. I can’t express how excited I was to be staying in an actual house where I could cook, watch TV, not have to line up for the shower, and have the whole place to myself for most of the day. Even before moving into her house, Yuany and I had become firends. We had been out salsa dancing and drinking, I had been to her Italian brother in law’s restaurant, we had been out to dinner with people from the school, and we had boogied our hearts out at one of the popular discotecs in town. So we totally hit it off living together.
Yuany invited me out to every social event she had planned and by god that was a lot. Unfortunately, days after moving in I fell ill and was out of action for a couple of days. I couldn’t think of anywhere better to be sick though. I had a comfy abode to relax in and a caring friend looking out for me. Yuany ended up taking me to see the Doctor at the clinic where she worked who saw me free of charge. As he predicted, I recovered within a few days.
Yuany and I quickly fell into a rhythm at home. She would come home for lunch around midday, the time I would generally be getting out of bed, and we would have lunch together at home. The she would go back to work and we’d meet up during the night to do something. We did a fair amount of salsa dancing, which was religiously followed by happy hour cocktails at Florin (the dutch pub there), and ususally some late night dancing or karaoke. We played raquetball with her work colleagues, attended BBQs together, went to see Toy Story III at the movies, and regulalry sat up in bed watchng movies and old Sex and the City episodes. We even had a dinner party at her house where we made gnocchi from scratch. I could not believe how sociable Yuany was. She was ready to party every night of the week and was still able to get up every morning for work (though she didn’t drink much which I am sure helped). But then I realised that her 6 year old daughter, Valeria, who I thought was living at Yuany’s mother’s house permanently, was only away on vacation and was coming back to stay with Yuany the following week. I then understood why Yuany was making so much of the time she had to go out with me when she could.
I was keen to meet Valeria and was delighted to have the opportunity to on my last day there. Valeria is an absolute cutie. She greeted me with a big unprompted hug and kiss upon being introduced to me and we were mates from then on.
I got to make other local friends in Sucre too, some were Yuany’s friends, others worked at the school and one was my Spanish teacher, Roberta. She was another highlight of Sucre for me. She was lovely company and our lessons together were very enjoyable. She had a delightful 2 year old son and a nice husband who I got to meet on a few occasions. In our classes, we found out all about each other’s lives and got to share some intimate secrets. We even cut classes short one day and snuck to the pub to watch Brazil play against Germany in the World Cup. I was glad she could make it round to Yuany’s for homemade gnocchi with her family as it was a nice way to end our time together.
As well as hanging out with locals, I eventually got around to doing most of the touristy things and seeing some of the surrounding villages and countryside. I went to Tarabuco, a village one and a half hours from Sucre famous for it’s traditional weavings and tapestries and it's big Sunday market. I also visited the Indigenous textiles museum and sat in wonder behind the women who were weaving tapestries live in the museum.
And though up to this point I have described a pretty typical experience of sight seeing and hanging out with locals, everyday I spent in Sucre was filled with witnessing something completely foreign and being shocked at least once. This is because life in Bolivia happens on the streets and is constantly occuring all around you. In the markets people sell ancient medicines and llama fetuses that the traditional people buy to offer to Pachamama. Women with long plaited hair and wide brimmed hats carry their babies on their backs wrapped in big pieces of brightly coloured fabric. Families slump beside their food stalls eating, relaxing and chatting. Small children carry packets of bubblegum on and off buses trying to help make a living. Campesinos ordained in traditional colourful honchos sell artesan’s works on the streets, while middle class Bolivians go about their business.
It is a mix of antique and modern, traditional and new, old and young – and therefore a melting pot of all types of things that often seem to stand in contradiction with each other. For instance, many women dress in traditional costumes involving pettycoated, pleated skirts with stockings, heeled shoes, blouses, and hats. This makes them appear elegant and feminine. Yet, many of these wopmen also pee publically in the streets, hitching up their skirts over a street drain.
Bolivians themselves are some of the friendliest and some of the rudest people I have ever met. Some shout at you for taking a photo of them or ignore you when you ask a question, but others will delight in your presence and offer you as much generosity and advice as they can. Bolivia is often dirty and unhygenic, yet in their own homes Bolivians are very clean people. And despite having wifi and all other modern amneties, many hostels don’t see it as necessary to supply toilet paper. Further, in one of the country’s most sophisticated cities, the post office only had a used pizza box to wrap my parcels in. It has city centres that are so aesthetically beautiful and historical that you forget where you are, yet only streets away lie unpaved dirt roads with chaotically positioned buildings and street vendors, and traffic going in all directions. And though it is now one of the poorest countries in the world, Bolivia was once one of the richest in terms of natural resources, supplying the world with the majority of its silver and gold.
It is these paradoxical differences which exist both within Bolivian culture itself, and between Bolivia and the West, that make it fascinating, constantly stimulating, and a complex culture to understand and describe. In some ways, Bolivia is like a well developed fictional character whose personality is so complex and multidimensional that it constantly surprises you. Once you think you understand it, it switches on you and reveals another side to it that goes against your original opinion. Or like a beautiful painting that you could stare at for hours continuoously seeing something new or different in it, depending on the distance or angle from which you view it from.
And this is the best I can do at describing Bolivia. It is a place that is both rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, friendly and reserved, exciting and boring, and which I both love and hate. And while I am still geting to know this complex place and people, one thing I am sure that it is not, is black and white!