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.
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.
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…