Tag Archives: travel

Back in Bolivia (diary: 25 January 2017)

I have been a very lazy girl blog-wise. However, a New Year’s resolution to write every day and a friend actively asking where she could read my travel updates has prompted me to start posting things again. These will probably be mostly in the form of edited diary entries, because my personal paper diary is a great place to be a horrible person and nobody needs to see that.

As of yesterday, I have a home. All indicators suggest that it is a pretty awesome home. I can walk to my favourite part of the market, the town centre, and several friends’ houses. So far, there appear to be 100% fewer Manchildren, which is a definite plus.

For anyone reading this who didn’t follow my Facebook rants, the manchild was one of the sons in the family I lived with last year. Highlights included the following conversations:

MC: Your boyfriend is making some kind of soup. Aren’t you going to help him?

Me: Why would I help him?

MC: Because… you’re a woman, and women can cook?

and:

I am sitting at the table, crocheting and obviously not even slightly cooking

Me: Andy’s making brownies.

MC: Are you sure you don’t mean, you’re making brownies?

MC, later: These brownies are really good. And made by a man!

and:

We are watching a music video by a fourteen-year-old girl with an incredible voice

MC: It needs more ass.

Me: She’s 14!

MC: Yeah, but it needs more ass. Sex sells. Look at this video by Singani Bolivia. It’s got more ass and has had loads more hits.

You know, just to name a few off the top of my head.

Returning to Cochabamba was a 31-hour mission that involved flying Gatwick-Madrid, Madrid-Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz-Cochabamba. That didn’t sound stressful enough, so I decided to travel while the train company that runs the Gatwick line was striking, on a flight that would be delayed by two and a half hours because it was so foggy outside it might as well have been a cloud.

Fortunately, I had booked a very long layover in Madrid.

Boliviana de Aviación thought that was all sounding too easy, so the night before, they sent me an e-mail telling me I had been shunted onto a later flight from Santa Cruz. In a slightly surreal touch, this e-mail came from an actual human, putting a line highlighted in green at the bottom begging me to let them know I had received the message.

Viru Viru sounds like a cocktail or a party dance, or perhaps a drug that cures typhoid. Typhoid is all the rage in Cochabamba. Viru Viru is a large airport in Santa Cruz where black coffee is more expensive than in Madrid airport (priorities, people) despite Bolivia growing coffee. It was there that I bumped into the first Bolivian I knew: serendipitously, it was one of the owners of the hostel where Andy and I stayed when we first arrived in Bolivia in 2015.

This was particularly amusing because it was in the exact same spot where we had to wait in Santa Cruz that first journey. That time, we were meant to be going straight to Cochabamba, but the aircraft ran out of fuel in strong headwinds and deposited us in Santa Cruz, instructing us to simply take the next Boliviana flight to Cochabamba.

The people on our flight formed an impromptu mob, shouted a lot about how there were women and children waiting, and then stormed off to try to strongarm Boliviana into running an earlier flight. It didn’t work.

Bumping into a friend and the absence of any angry mobs made Viru Viru seem far more homely this time.

Arriving at the flat of a friend, who had been looking after our stuff, he said that for breakfast there was water or whisky. I had breakfast whisky (the most important whisky of the day) to celebrate having got to Cochabamba without having my residence visa invalidated on spurious grounds (something I had heard of), or getting dropped off in Caracas or Suriname or somewhere because of fuel shortages.

I am now installed in a  beautiful flat with some Bolivian friends. My rule of thumb for moving is that you will have to compromise on space, location, or price, but here we got a better deal on all three.

The shower here is heated by a boiler, which you have to light with a match. This means the water is actually hot. In the old place, the shower head was electronic and could either deliver a voluble stream of cold water, or a dribble of hot water. It was as if the shower knew this and tried to deliver a happy medium, because the water pressure would fluctuate constantly without you ever having to touch the dial. At least it made us have short showers.

Andy is joining me on Bolivia in mid-February, subject to angry mobs, wrong airports, visa wrangles and assorted other Fun Things.

Ciao for now!

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Errands, Bolivian style

Today, we needed to do four things:

  1. Eat a sandwich
  2. Print out a waistcoat pattern
  3. Go to Interpol
  4. Buy some fabric

It was not a wildly successful trip.

The sandwich

One interesting fact about Bolivia is that there are very few international fast food chains. In Cochabamba, there are no McDonald’s outlets, no Starbucks, and no Subway, although it does have a Burger King.

Instead, there is a little sandwich shop whose clientele, captive in the lack of Subways, pays prices that wouldn’t be out of place in London for baguettes with a nasty tendency to dribble water and diluted mayo. Their main selling point is that the vegetables are “clean”.

It is precisely this shop that my partner has developed cravings for. So, I sat and watched him much on a foot-long pork sandwich for 38 Bs; approximately £3.80. A handsomely-sized “personal” pizza, presumably for a rather large person, at a well-to-do restaurant down the road costs 35 Bs.

The waistcoat pattern

At the first shop I visited, I explained that I needed this pattern in either A0 or lots of bits of A4. The woman’s face went blank at this. She asked a colleague, who had no idea. Helpfully, I took a piece of A4 paper from my rucksack to demonstrate. “Oh, that’s a special size,” she said. “We could do it for you, but it would be 600 Bs.”

At shop number two, the woman explained to me the impossibility of printing just one document. I made a mental note to return if I needed 300 waistcoats patterns.

At shop the third, the man’s face darkened. “Those sizes aren’t standard around here,” he said, adding ominously that it was perhaps common in the US. I sensed that I had crossed some kind of line with my arrogant paper dimension requests. He launched with grim satisfaction into a monologue about how if I wanted to print this funny size, I could go and buy my own paper and find a printer that would take it, but his machines wouldn’t.

My wicked paper imperialism and I gave up at this point.

Interpol

To verify that we aren’t some kind of DAESH sleeper cell or El Chapo, Bolivia would like Interpol certificates from us before we can have a visa. Interpol, we were assured, is on the north side of Plaza Principal – you know, the one that is completely closed and in utter disarray while they refurbish everything from the paving to the pigeons.

We tried to walk along the north side, but a gun-toting policeman told us, while we ducked a falling cable from the works above, that we needed to go round the other side, and also that Interpol was on the other side of town.

On the other side of the work, a dutiful workman informed us that there was no entry. I asked him how, in this case, we were meant to get to Interpol. He seemed to consider, decide that he didn’t know, and then casually ignore the question, but while these expressions were playing out on his face, a stream of people walked past him, so we joined them.

We reached the end of the path, asked another policeman where Interpol was, and he, too, told us it was on the other side of town. At this point, out of time, we decided to postpone it for tomorrow.

The fabric

On closer inspection, the shop on Avenida Ayacucho turned out to be catering for a specific audience, so we decided to look in the market tomorrow. But if you see photos of Andy in a waistcoat made of lacy, floral bridal wear, you’ll know we went back.

 

Mangoes

Today, we found a fruit seller selling 25 mangoes for the equivalent of £1. We got 12. When we got home, our host mother was shocked at the price.

That was way too expensive, apparently.

They were weird mangoes. Andy said, in a worried tone, that they “feel like water bombs”. They are made of thick juice and hair. You have to suck them. Use your teeth at your peril: you will be picking mango fur out of your teeth for weeks. You often see the stones on the floor, with hair sticking out from the sides like spikes. They look like cuttlefish.

In more Cancha funtimes – La Cancha being the name for the vast market in south-central Cochabamba – when you buy avocadoes, you tell them when you want to eat them and they give you one of the appropriate ripeness. The words “ripen at home” are nowhere to be found. I hate “ripen at home”. They only put that because “we shipped these fruit from places where there be dragons when they still resembled starchy meteorites” doesn’t fit on the label.

Just about the only thing we can’t find here is mushrooms. Andy went to two markets and a supermarket in search of the fungusy goods on Sunday but none were forthcoming. Our host mother eventually found some, somewhere. It is a tiny pack of pre-sliced, cling filmed mushrooms that apparently cost the equivalent of £1.50.

Do you think enough culinary experimentation with mangoes will make them taste like mushrooms?

If not, we could try noni. Anything that looks like an alien, cures cancer* and comes from La Cancha is a good bet.

Noni fruits with leaf on white background

(Image from here).

 

 

*it’s true because the seller wrote it on some cardboard

It’s Lonely Foreigner time!

Those of you who have me on Facebook might have noticed that I’m starting lots of conversations there nowadays. This is because in my new home, Bolivia, I have very few real humans to interact with.

Moving abroad makes you think long and hard about your social networks. Take your friends. How do you know them? Some people spend Friday nights with friends from school or university. Others go drinking in the company of their colleagues. If they’re religious, they might have friends from their temple of choice. My mum spent a lot of time getting to know the parents of my school playmates.

When you move to a new country, you might have none of these. Here in Bolivia, I don’t. School was on the other side of the world. I’m not working yet. I don’t go to church – which, as we discovered this morning, involves signing throaty hymns on a nearby patch of grass of a Sunday because they don’t have a building. I’m here with my partner, but we don’t have kids, so there’s no school network. When I was studying in Germany, I had little in common with most international students, but at least I was in the student community.

This boils down to a miraculously empty calendar. It’s Friday, but nobody’s invited us anywhere. We’ve been in all day for the same reason. Perhaps there are cafes and bars and homes where we would be welcome, but we don’t know of them yet. So I look at Facebook. Then I look at my e-mails. Then I look back at Facebook. I hit Gmail’s Refresh button, just in case they haven’t auto-updated. I check the spam. And I feel incredibly isolated.

When you’re a new arrival, you never know where the next friend might come from. One of my closest German friends wandered up to me in a metal club after the (clearly inferior) friends I’d gone with left without telling me. An ex-colleague tells of a soul mate she met at the Brazilian migration department as they despaired together over bureaucracy. Here, my closest friend seems to have come from a Facebook comment.

Different nationalities react differently to newcomers. In Germany, that reaction was suspicion. Multiple people assured me that in the frozen northlands of Hannover, friends were hard won, but once they were won, they were friends for life. This in contrast to those superficial Bavarians, who tarted out their friendliness to any passing charlatan. This approach seemed logical enough, but the trial period seemed to be measured in years – cold comfort to an exchange student.

I responded to this with the scatter bomb approach, going to everything from climbing centres to punk bars on my own, in the hope of striking up a conversation. This was so terrifying, it may as well have been skydiving. The road from seeing someone you think you’ll click with to getting chatting and – heaven forbid – staying in touch, while simultaneously not coming across as some sort of sex pest, is paved with pitfalls.

In a new country, you have the extra hurdle of a language barrier. At home, you would just ask “Do you want to go for a beer sometime?”. In this confusing new tongue, trying to work that sentence out becomes a perilous game of guessing and second-guessing, even if you’re relatively fluent. You could say it one way, but what if that sounds needy to a native speaker? How about another? That involves using slang your geriatric high school teacher taught you, and may sound like you’ve just time travelled from 1978.

At times like this, I can see the draw of the ex-pat community. People often complain that foreigners “don’t integrate” or only hang out with their own nationality. But they fail to ask themselves when they last befriended a foreigner.

Germany was great, in the end. It took several months and lots of scary extrovert behaviour, but finally, I made solid friends who I still speak to: couchsurfers, jugglers, metalheads, colleagues and, yes, ex pats. I’ve visited them and they’ve visited me. After a year, I was still meeting people I wanted to hang out with again, and they wanted to hang out too. I was no longer this strange, friendless creature, but a fluent German speaker who knew the place and had things to share. But life moves on, and now I’m in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. New language, new culture, new start.

So, if you meet someone who’s new in town, stay in touch. If they seem sound, swap numbers. Invite them to a party. I like hanging out with people from other cultures because they offer me so much insight into my own. They make me think beyond my own borders. And trust me, if you’re ever in their shoes, you’ll appreciate it.

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.