What comes to mind when thinking about Bolivia? President Evo Morales’s improbably dark hair (for a 57 year old) and immovable centre parting? Bolivian marching powder? Pan pipes?
Admittedly, the imagery summoned says more about the shallowness of my mind than yours. While I’d followed developments in Bolivia over the last couple of decades: the major industrial battles (physical) around the mines; the water wars pitting a community coalition in Cochabamba against a multi-national over the privatisation of the city’s supply; the rise of the leftist Morales and the country’s involvement in the Bolivarian Alliance (founded initially by Cuba and Venezuela to promote regional economic integration based in a vision of social welfare); I can’t say I’ve ever read much beyond the headlines.
Up to a month ago, I couldn’t have told you exactly what Bolivia was. I knew it was created when the national liberation movements of the 19th century were doing their thing. I knew it was named after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan credited with unshackling much of Latin America from the imperialist yoke of Spain (not too hard to get that one), but I didn’t know that the conquistadors regarded this terrain as ‘Upper Peru’.
One might think that liberation from old Europe would be the end of the matter but, of course, that’s not the case. Put plainly, territorial tensions between the ruling classes of Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, and Chile (mostly about access to mineral resources) have existed for many years. They remain. And, looking at the shifting boundaries over time, it is easy to deduce that Bolivia hasn’t done very well out of the conflicts.
Despite rich natural resources, Bolivia is economically poor. Twice the size of Spain but with only 10.5 million people, 60% defining themselves as belonging to one of the indigenous groups rather than as mestizo (mixed indigenous and Spanish). It is no surprise that Bolivia’s been doing a nice line in oligarchy for most of the country’s history, with power concentrated in the hands of the minority (economically and ethnically). Indeed, Morales is the first indigenous person ever to be elected President of ANY country.
Now, what about our time there, from the dry and dusty Altiplano to the verdant cloud mountains?
Ishbel, Neamh, and Ruaridh, wrote about our crossing from Chile to Bolivia via a 3-day trip encompassing the desert and Salar de Uyuni in High plain drifters. Arriving in Uyuni, you knew you were in a town on the frontier line, fashioned more by the massive natural salt plain than a cartographers’ line. Rusting locomotives and carriages from a bygone age, unceremoniously dumped on the outskirts of town, paid testament to time previous when the town played a part as a transport hub for resources to Antofagasta (at one time a Bolivian city, now counted as Chile) on the Pacific coast.
The altitude was telling. Not in a serious way; for the children mostly cracked lips and skin but the effect was significant enough on my breathing to be uncomfortable.We descended the next day on an overnight bus to Sucre – a city of historical and ongoing significance for Bolivians. We spent a week aimlessly traipsing streets bordered by sugar-white-walled buildings. Dinosaur foot prints, like children’s on a newly-laid pavement, were found at a local concrete quarry, so we went to see them. Time spent with their peer-group in a magnificent municipal play park, themed on said dinosaurs, made for happy children. A trip to the weekly market in a village called Tarabucu, about an hour and half a way in the hills gave a glimpse of the life of campesinos. All was going really well until I let my guard slip one morning and ended-up in an indigenous art museum, surrounded by rugs.
Although La Paz is the seat of government, Sucre is where Bolivian independence was declared in 1825 by General Sucre and is the constitutional capital of the nation. Its role as the heart of the nation was recognised in the 2009 constitution championed by Morales, which, more importantly, increased communal and indigenous rights and sought to “protect native and ancestral coca as cultural patrimony”.
While Sucre might be the heart of the nation, Coroico, a small hill town perched on a ledge in the Yungas range became the centre of our Bolivian experience. We stayed a little out of town, in cabins that looked out on hills and mountains, layered like stage scenery. These highlands, nestling between the Altiplano and the Amazonian jungle, have wildlife abound. From teeny biting things that would give the Scottish midgies a run for their money, to humming birds, wings purring as they shared nectar with lightning-blue butterflies the size of a saucer.
Long walks down country roads and up hills were not universally welcomed by the children, but swims in pools fed by waterfalls produced primeval joy. Ishbel, Neamh, and Ruaridh struck up a friendship with three children of similar ages. Ishbel mused that when she returns to Scotland, she wants to live somewhere out of a town, like Coroico. Neamh spent her time playing football and wrote a poem. Ruaridh cried as we left. I didn’t tell him to ‘man-up’.
Our final base in Bolivia was on the shores of Lago Titicaca. At 3,800 metres above sea-level, the water in the highest navigable freshwater lake in the world, sparkled in unfettered light. This is a place of Inca myth; in legend the point of their genesis. The passage of their sun god tracked using ancient stones as an observatory. The surrounding hills were ledged with ancient agricultural terraces and the lake shore was our venue for a sunset fire, toasting marshmallows.
We stayed at Copacabana; a name that infected me with a painful Barry Manilow ear-worm. The cathedral’s Madonna was unusual in that she was black but the notion of progressive attitudes were rapidly dashed when I saw the pictorial story-board showing how the natives had been converted to the one true church.
A two-hour boat trip took us to the magical Isla del Sol, where we got dropped-off at the north and hiked south, using an ancient Inca road to traverse hills that ran the length of the island.
Only an idiot would think that spending a month in a country would give one any real insight. My impressions range from frustration at horrendous levels of rubbish dumping, seemingly unplanned housing, and pretty obvious levels of corruption (rather than the façade of order we are used to in the north) to feelings of inner peace brought about by the country’s great natural beauty and admiration at the lack of reverence for gringo tourists.
This might sound daft, but Bolivia felt like it danced to an older tune.
It also felt in trouble. It was meant to be the rainy season and there wasn’t a lot of rain. People were struggling to pay for enough water to meet the demands of daily life.
Returning from the Isla del Sol we waited in a café, luxuriously drinking water bottled by the Coca-cola corporation. I banged my head repeatedly against the table as a diversion from the pain induced by hearing ‘Hotel California’ played on the pan pipes. It was time to leave.
3 December 2016
Main picture: Donkey Express, Tarabuco