Joe Viner on his gap year traveled all over Latin America to find himself. After traveling to Argentina, he decides to explore Bolivia, and finds that it is a lot more friendly than he expected it to be, and yet, not. 

 

In 2007, CNN ranked Bolivia number one on its list ‘World’s Unfriendliest Nations For Tourists’ and, honestly, I’m not surprised. [1] From what I’ve seen, Bolivians are constantly on the move, very often burdened with a huge sack of giblets, and therefore do not take kindly to American news anchors blocking the pavement to tell them jokes.5075641017_72e9088499_z

Bolivia gives the impression, especially to a milquetoast tourist such as I, of being a little backward, perhaps a little wayward. However, I think, this could not be further from the truth. Upon discovering a near vertical precipice of mud and shingle, most governments would erect a cautionary sign; the Bolivian built a road on it. Coming across a vast, uneven volcanic plateau at 4000 feet most governments would think ‘hiking trail’; the Bolivian thought ‘large metropolis’. On finding a miscarried llama fetus most governments, if history is anything to go by, would throw it out; the Bolivian chuckled and said ‘fool, you must vacuum dry it and bury it under your house for good luck’.

There is surely a method to this madness.

After visiting Argentina, I believed myself to be the seasoned traveller with the desultory wisp of a beard clinging to my chin. My eyes and countenance were darkened by the brutality of life I’d witnessed: a month in a country where Shreddies are stolen from hostel cupboards like napkins, where the only entertainment offered on nine-hour bus journeys is Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill on repeat. A month of UHT milk. In Bolivia I hoped for light relief.

I crossed into the Bolivian border town of Villazón, and no sooner had I readjusted my bandana than things started going pear-shaped. Hoping to snag myself a pretty decent cover photo, I took a few selfies with the ‘Welcome to Bolivia’ sign. This, it seems, is a capital offence. No sooner had I positioned my peace sign than an ancient Bolivian man in khaki slacks charged at me with a plastic cane screaming ‘Gringito!’ (which means ‘little white boy’). Naturally, I hotfooted it along the street and lost the aged militant in the crowds. I had only been in Bolivia for a few moments, and I was already running for my life.

8292682199_0c48bfa555_z The CNN judgment began to make sense. It is, of course, worth remembering the conduct of the United States in Bolivia, whose war on drugs swept the country in an attempt to reduce coca leaf farming and caused a severe economic downturn. Americans have to pay an additional toll on entry into the country. We Brits don’t have to, but apparently a spanking at the hands of elderly border guards is a gratuity tax.

Not wanting to linger too long in Villazón, which makes Croydon look like St Tropez, I decided to get the train North East to Uyuni. Uyuni is a regular stop on the tourist trail, and no wonder. Its incredible salt flats are enormous, white plains of sodium chloride, and interestingly the only place in the world where you can spill rice pudding with complete impunity.

But before I could enjoy that, I had to spend ten hours on the train. I opted for the slow Wara-Wara service, mainly because although the alternative Uyuni Flyer is five hours faster and more reliable, I expect you pay for punctuality at the expense of most of your vital organs. Despite my earlier trauma, I was in a cheerful mood upon boarding the train. I bought a takeaway pizza to ease the pangs, and as we chugged sedately out of the station, the red sun setting behind the Andean foothills, I was overcome with a sense of harmony and goodwill.

Then the ticket man came.

I was informed that I had a third class ticket and was currently ensconced within the plump cushions of premium. He frog-marched me down the train, past the smug faces of other, more alert tourists. I balanced my rapidly cooling pizza in one hand, my bag in the other, and tried to keep my trousers from falling down with my elbow. This was a demanding load even for stationary activities, and having to navigate around a shrieking engine and furnace was practically suicide. I managed it though, and soon arrived in third class. I wedged myself in between two bearded indigenous women with crates of produce on their laps and tried to ignore the chicken carcass resting against my face. Things went from bad to worse when the child opposite me started being violently sick and a bag of what looked like potpourri but smelt like old casserole spilt from the luggage rack.

I would have eaten my pizza, but didn’t want to bother anyone with the smell.

Perhaps I’ll try my luck in Peru…

 

 

Joe Viner

 

Photo credit: Joe Viner

 

[1] Check the article out here. http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/14/travel/friendly-countries/index.html?hpt=hp_bn7