Water worries and Sick Backpacker Face

Yesterday morning, my shower was cold. We’re in an upmarket hostel in downtown Cochabamba, and this was the first time the hot water had failed. We knew hot water didn’t come as standard in Bolivia, and that we’d be taking a few cold showers in our time here. As it turns out, that isn’t even the half of it.

Leafing through the classifieds in the local paper, I found plenty of flat adverts that included “agua” alongside bedrooms, garages, etc. I wondered what that meant. Perhaps it meant that there was hot water? Or drinking water?

I took an intensive Spanish course this week, and we soon broached the subject of water.

“Do you like it when it rains?” my teacher asked.

“Sometimes,” I said.

“I don’t like it, really, but Cochabamba is having a drought at the moment,” she said. “I should get water three times a week, but I only get it once a week at the moment. A thin stream, for about four hours.”

Ah. I see.

It’s not only hot water that doesn’t come as standard. Water in general doesn’t come as standard. Even people who, by British standards, would be middle-class – university educated, a graduate job – don’t necessarily have water more than once a week.

The piping that exists is apparently old, narrow and in places slightly broken, allowing contaminants into the water.

In some of the poorer southern areas of town, I’m told people don’t have running water at all, instead relying on wells.

Dotted along the roads are signs saying “Mas inversiones para mi agua” – more investment in my water. Apparently, there has been a plan to build a large dam for about thirty years (locals tell me this, I haven’t checked my facts yet). The dam would provide water for the entire town, but the project seems to be dead in the water (ha, ha).

For now, if you can’t afford one of the houses with 24/7 water, it’s a question of turning on the tap at your area’s allotted time and filling up buckets, tubs and containers, then scrimping and saving in the hope that it lasts until this time next week.


Sick Backpacker Face

In two weeks in this hostel, I have seen four backpackers wiped out with stomach gripes. The first was our Danish room-mate. One night, I woke up to the sound of her talking to God on the porcelain telephone, and for the next four days, she was prostrated on her bed, making occasional dashes for the communal bathroom. There have been three more like her since. You start to recognise the sick people: the ones who aren’t up at breakfast, who are in bed all day looking fed up. They have Sick Backpacker Face.

Bolivia is notorious among backpackers for food poisoning. Do you think you have an iron stomach? Shut up. I don’t care how long you’ve been backpacking. You don’t. Don’t buy that street food. No, it isn’t like that pop-up Venezuelan arepa concept in Shoreditch. Just don’t.

The common wisdom seems to be: don’t eat street food, don’t eat salad, wash any fresh produce from the market, and don’t drink the tap water without boiling it. Bolivians tell me they also get sick, although not as often, and are careful about street food.

Another sick room-mate explained yesterday that she’d been to the doctor after a week of diarrhoea, who’d told her that it was parasites, and that in serious cases, they could spread to other organs. Judging by her comments and the Rough Guide Bolivia health page – one of those things you read through a grimace while wishing you weren’t reading it – she has amoebic dysentery. As Andy said, at least she won’t get lonely while she’s recuperating.

The router in this hostel appears to be dodgy. It cuts out constantly. But lately, I’ve noticed that it intervenes just at the right time: when I’m starting to think about an ex, when I should really be in bed, when I’ve spent too much time online… Maybe the router has a soul. At least someone is looking out for me here.

To end on a high note: we’ve found a room to rent! It’s in a house with a Bolivian family. The mother loves lace crochet, they have a very big scary dog and a very little happy dog, and our wall has a giant picture of Captain America on it. We’re moving on Sunday. This whole emigration thing is starting to feel pretty real.

Diary: Monday 26 October, 10:00

We left home two weeks today. You could easily say that things have gone pear-shaped. My planned volunteering fell through. After spending nearly a day on another application, they said they “won’t be taking anybody for the foreseeable future”. Andy’s phone got stolen on day four, and after three visits to the police station to get a certificate, his insurance company told him phones weren’t covered. After contacting them once saying it was a phone.

Probably the single greatest setback is our discovery that we won’t be able to re-enter the country in January without a special visa. The letter of the law is that tourists can stay for 90 days per calendar year. Great, we thought. We’re going in October, so we get our 90 days in 2015, followed by our 90 days in 2016. On Saturday, we found out that they define “calendar year” as “365 days from the date you entered”. Some say we would have a good chance of just blagging at the border, but we’re not convinced.

This means we both need some kind of solid volunteering or work lined up within the next two months, and that we have a mountain of paperwork to look forward to.

But things haven’t gone pear-shaped. I’m learning more Spanish every single day. My contact book – well, the contacts list on my Bolivian Pay As You Go Nokia – is growing. We spent two days in Torotoro National Park, where the earth is blue and red and condors glide. And we’re checking out intensive language courses and volunteering positions with Sustainable Bolivia.

Torotoro is remote. From Cochabamba, we had to get a minibus for four hours. Paved roads soon turned into cobbles, which gave way to dirt tracks. Our co-passengers were two Quechua families. A lively three-year-old kept playing peek-a-boo with me and Andy, while a baby just put its face against the headrest and stared at us. It had a very round face, and its cheeks wobbled like jelly every time we went over a bumpy bit.

When people say things are “breathtaking”, they usually mean it figuratively. They mean that a place is stunningly beautiful. Torotoro was breathtaking in the more literal sense that hiking at 3,700 metres puffs you out, like that dream where you’re trying to run but every step is like wading through treacle.

Torotoro National Park Bolivia

We hiked through caves, over ruddy domed rocks on mountain tops, and through a cleft leading to a waterfall. We saw cactuses in bloom, rabbits with tails (did it have a fling with a squirrel? What?) and condors. That was a really special moment.

Viscacha rabbit with tail Toro

We also went on a caving expedition that was so hair-raising that I’ve pitched it to a large magazine. With any luck I’ll be linking you to it there.

Andy’s blog, with a longer entry and more photos, is here: http://captainsamericalog.blogspot.com/

Yesterday, we went back to the market for the first time since Andy’s phone was nicked. We bought quinoa and fresh vegetables, and cooked them into a lovely, healthy lunch with a German hostel-mate. Nothing was stolen this time and it was a really chilled afternoon.

A labyrinth of cake and ducklings: Cochabamba Cochabamba

We’ve now been in Bolivia for four nights, but it feels like about a month. I tend towards radio silence when I travel, so here’s a comprehensive update.

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Our welcome to Latin America started on Wednesday morning. We were meant to be on a direct flight from Madrid to Cochabamba. Unfortunately, our plane ran out of fuel in strong headwinds, so Boliviana de Aviacion deposited us in Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The rest of the journey was on a smaller local plane that wasn’t leaving for three hours. A troupe of about 50 angry Bolivians stormed into the arrivals office and demanded that they send the plane earlier, to no avail. A friend here described the whole thing as “a pretty good introduction to Bolivia”.

We dropped our bags at the hostel and spent several hours wandering around Cochabamba in a jet-lagged daze. The sun was fierce, even at 9am. Pictures do not do justice to the central Plaza de Colon. They like their wiring on the outside here. That means any photos of the central square aren’t really chocolate box material because they are criss-crossed by phone lines, power cables and other bits and bobs. In the flesh, however, it is a balmy square of palm trees and verdant bushes of purple flowers. Dotted around the square are kiosks selling sodas, papers and sweets.

Youth hostels vary wildly. On one end of the scale are places like the one I stayed in off Khao San Road in Bangkok, all servile concrete surfaces, Scouse couples having blazing domestics at 4am, and drunk Canadians pissing on the floor. On the other end are places like our current one. The Running Chaski is one of the best places I’ve stayed. On the first day, Andy tried to buy a coffee. The staff told us that we couldn’t buy anything because the bar was still a work in progress – but then enthusiastically made us three coffees, keen to hear what we thought and how they could improve them.

Behind reception is a shady courtyard with a beer fridge, and behind that is a grassy walled garden with hammocks and a brazier for bonfires. Running around the place like a fluffy wind-up mouse is Chaska. She is a dog who is the size of a cat. She wandered in off the street one day, and she is the cutest dog in the world.

Chaska

On Saturdays, Cochabamba market is firing on all pistons. It is a labyrinthine mass of frilly cakes and underwear that seems to go on forever. Local ladies with long plaits joined by beaded tassels stride through with bundles wrapped in bright woven cloths. Three girls of about five crouched next to a stall with a cardboard box. Inside the box were eleven cheeping ducklings. They looked too small for dinner.

I bought a little book of lace crochet, some yarn and a tiny hook from one stall. There was an entire aisle dedicated to giant cakes, with lilac icing crenellations. Some stalls just sold icing flowers and cupcake cases. We bought a huge slab of cake for BOB3 (about 30p) and ate it with our faces, getting cream all over our noses. Then we had a local beer at a drinks stall. “I could get used to this,” Andy said.

Unfortunately, things then took a turn for the worse. Walking along the busy pavement, an older man dropped a DVD on the pavement, blocking the way. For an instant, there were people all around us, waiting for him to pick it up and move on. The crowd melted away. Then Andy stood bolt upright. “My phone’s gone,” he said.

A couple of hours later, we were in a taxi to Cochabamba police station, accompanied by a hostel employee called Abramo. He was good enough to come with us even though his shift had just finished. We owe that man beer. The station took up most of a block and was almost as confusing as the market. Abramo had to ask for directions to the right building three times. Once, we ended up in a building with the declaration of human rights on one wall and a stack of empty beer bottles in crates against the other. Leaning against them was a wheelbarrow.

The deed reported, we headed home.

Andy is a bit shaken by the whole affair. On the practical side of things, the phone was his dictionary, his mobile internet, his light, his watch, and, well, his phone. It’s also made him more circumspect about going back to the market. I think the remedy is to go back asap, with just a few Bolivianos in our pockets. We should go back to the nice drinks stand and have a beer and remind ourselves that the market was awesome – you should just follow the advice about not flashing valuables. It’s no reflection on Bolivia: I’ve heard of the exact same thing happening in Zürich.

You can read Andy’s account of it in his blog here.

Before we could get too bummed out, Sergio, the hostel owner, offered us and two of our Danish dorm-mates a lift up the hillside, where we watched night set in over the city. We stayed until it was dark and Cochabamba was a sea of lights, leaving only when gusts of wind and long fingers of cloud threatened a storm.

The rest of the evening was spent drinking Bolivian wine – which tastes like juice, incidentally – by the fire in the garden. An Argentinian lady called Paola joined us. Since she didn’t speak English, we got several hours of Spanish practice in. I stayed up until 3.30.

And now? Giant Jesus time. Cochabamba’s Jesus is even bigger than Rio’s Jesus. You can see his white silhouette on the hillside all day and all night. I think he’s a ghost. Pictures to follow…