Expat escapism

By Published On: March 19, 2005Categories: Living in Bolivia1 Comment on Expat escapism

"It is focking stupid that on our biggest day we celebrate a welsh geezer who came to Ireland to fock us over." Somehow, I didn’t quite anticipate that I would be up at 3am on 18th March in Bolivia eating green vodkha jelly shots and creamy cakes emblazoned with green clover-icing talking about St Patrick with Kevin from Derry.

Nor did I expect to wake-up with a hangover in a flat owned by  a lovely Belgian couple who have invited me to stay, given me keys to their flat and made me feel like I have known them all my life.

Yes, sadly I have entered the world of expat escape. And only a few days after trying to become ‘totally immersed’ in Bolivian life. What’s happened?

It was all a bit rushed and slightly fuzzy in memory now, but I think it may have started with a smile at a ‘gringo’ in a political bookshop/information centre in Cochabamba.

We soon got chatting in spanish (my french seems to have completely vanished – somewhere in Peru I think). He, Tomas, invited me for dinner, and the next thing I was off with him to a St Patrick’s party in a pub full of trendy young Bolivians, and Irish expats.

The sad truth is it is far too easy to strike up a conversation with expats. Getting to know people invariably starts with firing off various conversational gambits aimed at discovering things in common. Throwing out nets to entrap a common experience, story or interest.

As two gringos, you immediately have a visual head-start: skin colour with all its possible signals. White usually means that you are both westerners, both away from home, both living in a culture different from your own. For a white person, you are unusually a minority in a place that is not your own.

But it also turned out that we had other things in common too. Nearly all the gringos there were involved in social programmes. Tomas and Cecile (Belgian hospitality couple extraordinaire) both work for an NGO treating people who have been tortured or subject to police violence. Kevin from Derry ("I am not a focking hippy. I am a rocker, me.") has worked with the more than 700 kids who live on the streets in Cochabamba.

Tomas and Cecile have been here for 8 months now. They are a very open and friendly couple as you can guess by their willingness to host me after knowing me for about 2 hours. They love Bolivia and love the warmth of people that they meet at work, in markets and socially. However they said it has been very difficult to get close Bolivian friends. "When it comes to developing friendships beyond the superficial level, there remains a big cultural gap that is hard to cross," says Tomas.

I hope my experience is different. I am determined to develop friendships with Bolivians.

I think I better finish this pasta and tomato sauce, turn off Travis on the CD-player, put on my suncream and head into town.


One Comment

  1. Nina March 20, 2005 at 5:19 am - Reply

    That sounds familiar. I lost my French too, in Manila. And I deliberately avoided Europeans to avoid becoming an ‘ex-pat’. I went through phases of asserting my Englishness, subverting it and forgetting it altogether (not in that particular order, and on occassions going through those phases several times in one day). I was fortunate that many of my Filipino activist friends were well travelled and culturally there were not so many boundaries. But in other circumastances, where there were boundaries, I just opened, listened and offered myself as another human being. Don’t worry. Be Nick, the rest will flow…

Leave A Comment