Oh Bolivia. Where the streets WERE paved with silver. But alas, no more. Instead of cobble stones individually carved out of precious metals, the best you can expect is a smooth dirt road.
But I was quick to discover its not what the streets are made of but rather what is on them that is of interest. Take today for example. My first day in Bolivia. In eight hours, I have been able to travel the improbable distance of 0.8 kilometers. This is because of what is ON the roads. I’ve heard many stories during my day regarding the fascinating thing that is ON the road that is making it impossible to travel the 200 km from the Bolivian/Argentine border to my hopeful destination city of Tarija. Mythical descriptions even.
Mostly what I’ve heard has been unintelligible. Good Spanish or no. The Boliveans have a way of being vague about the most simple things, a capacity some might refer to as poetic.
Not me. Not today.
But let me go back to the beginning of my glorious sojourn into this country. A night bus from the quaint Argentine city of Salta brought us to the Bolivean border at Aguas Blancas. Before I had fully awoken, fully stumbled off the bus even, a short, barrel-chested Bolivean man was hauling my luggage off down a deserted dirt road. Shadows huddled in small groups on the sides of the roads – Boliveanos ostensibly waiting for a bus back towards the more populous parts of Argentina.
I felt a sudden spike of dread. I had become fully aware of my vulnerable gringoness for the first time in my travels. There I was, silly straw hat, rubber Habaiana sandals, guitar in hand staring helplessly down the road as someone ran off with my stuff.
I gave chase. As I rounded the corner in hot pursuit, I was given witness to a sea of short, brown hunched over small bags and boxes. The border crossing. My personal luggage carrier was standing innocently near the bar entrance to Bolivia. Not a ladron at all it turned out.
A couple of smartly dressed Argentine soldiers paced back and forth behind the metal barrier. A bedraggled rooster crowed. Then another, surprisingly close to me.
I sat down in the dust to gather my wits.
Being fear inspiring Canadians, we were the only people stopped for an extended period of time at the border crossing. An older sergeant took our passports away, went inside, and spent half an hour humming and hawing at them in front of a computer. We stood awkwardly aside as wave upon wave of Bolivianos surged passed us. Again I watched in stupefaction as the little man passed me and off round another bend with my bags.
One of the young privates shrugged his shoulders at me when I gave him a supplicating look. Esperan un pocito, he said. Wait a little.
The oppressiveness of my anxiety and our respective silences grew to critical mass and the private began making small talk with us, if you can call it that. Muchos pestes en Bolivea ahora he started morbidly, pointing to a Dengue fever poster. So Malaria, Dengue AND Yellow fever we have to worry about. Great. What can we do? we asked. Repellente, he replied.
Oh the impenetrable armor of mosquito spray.
The next test of courage was a river crossing. Whereas most cultures would rely on a spanning structure referred to as a bridge, the Boliveans depend on a diminuitive fleet of boats called canitas. Their hulls ride 5 inches about the water and the engines are barely strong enough to beat the current. I sat silently and prioritized what luggage I would try and save if we went under. When we went under; I was certain it would happen.
But we forged the river and stumbled bewildered and relieved onto Bolivian soil. We had made it. To the next obstacle, I should say. Because no sooner had we piled our bags into a taxi and zipped to the nearest bus station did we start hearing whispers of a blockeo. Some sort of roadblock.
Quien? I asked the taxista. Vague mumblings were followed by one conclusive word: Campesinos. I had heard that protesting was a regular feature of Bolivian life. But the new constitution has just been past and even the Bolivianos at the bus station seemed to think it was out of the blue.
A couple of hours later, the story changed. A swarm of angry farmers metamorphosed into a devastating mud slide. Well not entirely. Because the campesinos were still supposed blocking the road at one point, but mother nature just happened to be conspiring with them.
By 4 pm it had become apparent that I was being led on. For it was the very people I was asking my questions to that were staging the blockade. The hijos de putas taxistas.
Protesting. It’s a primordial instinct in this country. Viva la revolución y cambio social. But can´t it wait until tomorrow?