First impressions of Bolivia

By Published On: March 5, 2005Categories: Travel0 Comments on First impressions of Bolivia

I have always had a bit of a problem with borders. They tend to be about keeping people out (especially those who are poor or a different race), are often based on dubious colonial rationale (like the clever idea of using a ruler across vast parts of Africa to create countries), and are often peopled by petty officials who abuse the small power they have.

But I approached the border with Bolivia with a lot of excitement, wondering what waited across the border.

The border itself was completely unremarkable. A little pole across a road with a bored-looking guard and probably significantly a Coca Cola sign welcoming me to Bolivia.

But what a difference a border makes.

Within minutes, the paved road had turned to a red dusty track, we were picked up in a taxi held together with what looked like plastic wire, and were passing adobe-mud huts to arrive in a small village called San Matias with almost no facilities at all and having missed the only bus out of town for that day.  It was numbingly hot – about 40 degrees – and the town seemed to consist of shirtless men playing cards under the trees.

I had met up with a French girl, Ann Isabelle, on the way to the border, so luckily had someone to explore the tourist sites with – eight market stalls, two eating places, a all-in-one store which fortunately stocked Bolivian wine (which we used to celebrate our arrival), and a large hall with a pool table in it. We shade-hopped for a bit and then took a hot dusty walk to a spring outside town once it had cooled in the late afternoon.

I returned at night to watch pictures of bloqueos on TV – major demonstrations of people blocking streets outside La Paz in protest against the government. I had heard before about Bolivia having a lively political culture, which had attracted me to come here. So this seemed like a good sign for my life here.

So my first impressions are of red enveloping dust, heat that makes your shadow crackle, and poor towns with almost nothing to do. I can´t help comparing it with Brazil which seems like a world away. Whilst I saw poverty in Brazil (often in shocking contrast to great wealth), it was possible as a tourist to ignore it as you glided past in air-conditioned coaches on good roads, ate in good restuarants, headed to films in shopping malls in the evening. But you can´t ignore the poverty here. It´s in front of you in the dusty heat.


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