Some general observations about Bolivia/ns:
1) They don’t really do shower curtains here. The water gets all over the floor and that’s just part of life I guess.
2) Clean shoes are a matter of pride. For rich and poor alike.
3) The sun is more scorching than anywhere I’ve been! and the weather is becoming continually more extreme as it is around the world. Triple or quadruple up on sunscreen, and even that might not be enough.
4) Bolivian police uniforms display both the Bolivian and Aymara flags on the sleeve. This is a direct reflection of changes made by the Morales administration. Male Bolivian police, like their counterparts in other South American countries, will whistle and catcall a woman walking down the street whom they consider attractive. This seems to be a direct reflection of a different cultural standard.
5) Public displays of affection are less than in Mexico, unless you go to the botanical garden! Traffic is saner too. There are street signs, and functioning traffic lights that drivers and pedestrians actually heed sometimes (particularly in Cochabamba). How civilized!
6) Spanish is slower than in Chile, with its own slur of sounds. In outlying villages, many peoples’ first language was Quechua or Aymara, with the other indigenous language coming second and Spanish a distant third.
7) What Bolivians call champagne is a yellow, sickly sweet, barely carbonated, barely alcoholic beverage that isn’t worth piss. Bolivian beer is only slightly better.
8) Salteñas are the best version of empanadas I’ve encountered yet in any South American country. Traditionally served with maracuya (passion fruit) or tumba ( a tarter relative of passion fruit) juice, they are supremely satisfying as a mid or late morning snack, and they can make an entire neighborhood smell mouth-wateringly good.
9) Altitude sickness happens to almost everyone, and coca leaves really do help.
10) Bolivians love their cereal, and peaches in every form. It makes me want to go where they grow the peaches. And the cereal.
11) The women who sell leg warmers rarely wear leg warmers.
12) Reuse and upcycling is a thing here. Not a trendy thing. A necessary thing. There are signs plastered to power poles offering to train people to repair laptops, and shops fix typewriters (remember those iPad generation?).
13) The women here rock! They wear bright colors and hats, tie their braids together so they don’t get in the way, carry gigantic, heavy loads, sell things on street corners from wheelbarrows, and wear their love handles with verve.
14) Watch out for what I call the South American Step, a sneaky elevation change in the floor. No more than a couple inches of difference but enough to catch your foot and make you trip, these cement lips are commonplace. A classic South American microcosm that tells you something about the macro. If something doesn’t quite fit, add a fraction and make it fit! I am happy to say that I’ve seen Bolivians trip up occasionally on the South American step too, so its not just me that is walking-challenged here. But, eventually, as a coping mechanism, you learn to loosen your legs and knees when you walk so that you can recover faster after catching the edge with your toes.
15) Bus yellers are such a good idea. Why don’t we have them in our country? I call them bus yellers because they do a lot of yelling out the windows and doors and office doors of public transport to inform people of the destination of the bus or van passing by. But they also serve other important functions, such as collecting fares (often well after a passenger has boarded) and dispensing change, as well as serving as liason between passengers and driver about where individuals will get off the bus. In such hectic traffic conditions, it makes total sense to have a pre-delegated role for the bus yeller so the driver is less distracted. Also, I just love the sound of their voices trumpeting, ” A La PAAAZ, A La PAAZ, A La PAAAAAAAZ,” or “Santa Crruz, Santa Cruzzz.” It’s one of those native sounds that starts to seem normal after a while on streets and in bus stations, like you’d miss it if it wasn’t there.
16) Especially in La Paz, it is common to find flame throwers, jugglers or people dressed in wonderfully goofy zebra suits in the crosswalks of major streets, blocking traffic to assist crossing pedestrians. The help is very welcome, since drivers there can act a bit entitled to the right of way, despite traffic signals.
Some observations about travel in general:
1) Some things are worth paying for. Some are not. I have come to conclude that we travelers should budget a line item for shit we think we need that we actually don’t, but won’t realize that until later. Of course by it’s nature, this line item is slippery and hard to slap a number on. Note, some things appear to fall in this category, but actually don’t. For example, a flight from Mexico City to Buenos Aires via Toronto (which enabled me to withdraw American dollars crucial to my subsistence in Argentina and especially Southern Chile), or two lousy, ill-informed cell phone purchases (which enabled me to connect with people I wanted to see in Cochabamba and La Paz.)
2) Seeking something usually leads to something good, but often not what you originally sought. Be flexible enough to recognize these accidental good things and let go of the rest. Also, if someone steals something of yours other than your passport, be grateful. One less thing to worry about.
3) Traveling solo is wonderful, and, sometimes difficult. Some days you don’t feel like getting out of bed and facing the world. This happens at home, too. But in a foreign culture with complex layers of expectations from those you know, those you don’t, and your own id, it can be extra hard to cut yourself slack on this front. I think the key is to find a kind way to deflect all the ideas about what you should be doing or what your trip should be like. Pay attention to your own needs. If you need to sleep, sleep. If you need to eat buckets of peanut butter, do it. If you need to refrain from bad beer and bad neighborhoods at night, follow that instinct. If your body needs exercise, get it. It’s your trip dammit, and you got your ass out the door and made it happen, in spite of the obstacles. Tips and recommendations from fellow travelers not withstanding, anyone who thinks they know what you should be doing and how you should be doing it can go on their own trip! Thank you very much.
4) After that grouchy, defensive last bullet, let me say something nice about traveling which keeps ocurring to me in different ways. Being on the road, in other peoples’ places, highlights how we’re all just atoms bumping into eachother out there. It’s random, but every encounter results in something. It shows the way we can influence eachother’s worlds without even realizing it. And how cool that is. The guy guiding our raft down the serious whitewater section of the Futaleufu River said something offhandedly after narrowly missing a big raft-flipper of a hole in the hardest rapid on the run. I doubt he even remembers saying it. What he said stuck with me, and applies on this point: People think the guide does all the work and the paddlers don’t matter. As you know, that’s not true. You two paddlers gave us just enough momentum to bypass that hole without dropping into it.” Such is life, no? Full of holes, yet everything we do (and don’t do) matters.
5) Old guys the world over love coffee, cigarettes and gambling. If you’re where the old guys are smoking and gambling, you’ve often found the best coffee too.
Some observations about language:
My parents tell a story about when I was just a little squirt of about three years of age. I sat on our porch “reading” the Cat and the Hat to one of my older bother’s friends (Will, or Toz? I’m not sure.) At first, he was impressed, until he watched me “read” it to someone else, when he figured out correctly that I had heard the story read aloud so many times that I had memorized it. Thus, I was really reciting, not reading. I suppose that’s impressive enough in its own right, depending on relative expectations and standards.
I tell this story because I often feel with my Spanish that I have memorized or mastered certain conversational scripts and cues. For example, checking in or out of hostels, ordering in cafes and getting on and off buses are all familiar enough routines to me by now that I recognize key phrases in these contexts regularly, and I can usually respond without missing a beat. Sometimes I even find myself hearing each word pronounced by the Spanish (they say Castilllano here in Bolivia) speaker, and turning them over and over in my head like the word geek that I am. But veer off the beaten conversational track and I am lost, humbled, stumbling for growth again.
Imagine, if I’ve spent the 27 years of my life since memorizing the Cat and the Hat memorizing, using and turning over in my brain the many other parts of English there are to learn and know – imagine how far I have to go yet in Spanish! 27 years worth, at least! My friend Miranda, who is a language therapist by trade, explained to me in our earlier Bolivian travels that we are born with the ability to make and perceive more than 400 distinct sounds. If we are not exposed to multiple languages in our first few years, however, we lose our ability to hear, make or distinguish between all but about 50 of these sounds, she noted.
Here are some thoughts on Spanish and language:
1) Spanish speakers in South America often use the phrase “eso, y no más,” either on its own or tacked onto the end of a sentence. Translated, it means ” this, and no more.” It’s used in a variety of contexts, and can be a question or a statement. Conceptually, it’s interesting to me because it serves as sort of a verbal marker, the way a journalist would end her copy with ##. Similarly, you often hear a Spanish speaker say simply, yet emphatically “Eso,” to confirm what they meant.
2) My Spanish will be a weird amalgamation of words in the Spanish vocabularies of different countries, but I’ve decided certain words run through every culture that are worth learning in each place. “Corn,” “cool,” and “here” are among them.
3) I’m coming to accept the way the word “amiga” is used here, often in an effort to get you to buy something. I think it always has about the reverse of the intended effect on me, as I can’t help but feel put off by the presumptive and somewhat polluted use of the word for friend. However, I have by now been exposed to enough sales pitches in different countries that I’ve made it a mission of mine to be able to mimic them in all their regional distinctness.
4) When you thank someone here, you can be sure they will respond with “¿de que?” meaning “for what?” It’s the polite thing to say when someone says thank you, but coming from my English language construction and association, it always implies in my brain’s translation that the person is embarassed to be thanked, and didn’t do anything deserving of thanks. Thankfully, courtesy exists everywhere, only in different forms.