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.