About six years ago, I made a new year’s resolution to find unrequited love. My friends, especially my female ones, were aghast. "How on earth can you want unrequited love?! It’s the most horrible thing in the world!"
Maybe it was unthinking ignorance or perhaps manly bravado, but I think it was also a desire to have something take over, to feel intensely, to have heart rule over reason. Fortunately, as it happened it wasn’t the only new year resolution I broke that year.
Well, this week I fell in love with Bolivia, even though I have been here such a short time. But is it requited?
Falling in love coincided with the arrival of two great friends and former housemates from London, Caia and Ruth. I last saw them in December at dinner at my brother’s house on Brixton Hill. Meeting them last Saturday as they emerged smiling and flight-dazed at El Alto airport (a hill of 4000 metres) felt both extraordinary and very ordinary as we chatted about mutual friends, art exhibitions, films and Brixton life.
Over the week, we wandered La Paz’s breathless streets, stumbling across impromptu street parties and in Caia and Ruth’s case buying up the entire textile industry. We strolled and boated along the shoreline of the highest navigable lake in the world at Lake Titicaca, eating shoals of trout and playing cards. And we ended the week in the alpine-like meadows of Sorata, adopting stray dogs and watching tranquil village life.
Having two close friends here, who I could share observations with, tell stories and share impressions with, made me realise what I love about Bolivia.
As early as our car trip from the airport which sweeps down a motorway with La Paz spread out beneath our feet, I was pointing out the staggering scenery, the bustling street life where almost anything can be bought off street stalls, the political graffiti engraved on walls (One near the airport says pointedly: "While the poor don’t have, the rich won’t have peace"), Bolivian women wearing bowler hats with babies strapped tightly to their backs in vividly stripey cloth.
We ended up in the evening arriving at a street party commemorating a local saint where men and women danced energetically wearing fantastical painted masks, emblems of a pride in an indigenous culture that has a long history. We returned to our hotels buzzing from the atmosphere that infected the whole street.
As we moved from the city to the Altiplano and then onto the expansive ocean-like waterscapes of Lake Titicaca and the velvety-green moist landscapes of Sorata, time slowed down.
We had time to appreciate the gentle warmth of villagers as we wandered through scattered settlements meeting people through cheery hellos and short conversations with fishermen, farmers and children.
We saw a slower, more peaceful daily life unfold as we sat in village squares and watched people meet-up, buy food from street stalls, play football or dance impromptu as the town brass band noisily performed their weekly practice.
And every evening, the amazing landscapes would seep further into your bones, as its colours were temporarily illuminated in golden light before being washed out as the light faded into a silvery shadowy world of black lakes lapping against the shore, silent dominating dark ridges lit dimly by a sky pierced with stars.
Perhaps falling in love was helped by my first experience of drawing since I was 13 years old. It is something that Caia and Ruth do on many of their holidays, producing beautiful watercolours that they exhibit on occasions – most recently just a week before flying out.
Nervously holding three pencils as I gazed out across dawn breaking on Lake Titicaca, I realised it was less about skill and more about looking closely, looking beyond first impressions, tracing out tones, light and shadows. My drawing was technically terrible, but surprisingly I felt caught something of the early morning landscape.
But the experience of drawing also made me realise I am still only an observer here. I have yet to really get beneath the surface. That will only come when I start living here, enter the world of practicalities of flat-sharing, paying bills, buying food, starting the long process of making friends that I can share things with like I shared with Caia and Ruth. Developing relationships that are requited.
Caia and Ruth’s departure felt like a symbolic but also daunting time. I had had a wonderful week but it was now time to move from travelling and observing to living and getting involved. This week, I start my first bit of work with a local NGO reporting on events linked to the Global Week of Trade Justice, next week I move in with a Bolivian family in Cochabamba as I start an intensive 6 week spanish course.
It’s time to move from unrequited to requited love.