Drive Through Bolivia

Drive Bolivia
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Bolivia was like a little step back in time. We didn’t intend to stay too long but we ended up hanging around and working on a few projects over Christmas and the New Year. Coming from Peru, you get to La Paz straight away and the glorious chaos of that city is refreshing and infectious. Then you get sucked into the rest of the country, each new town as vibrant and energetic as the last, until you’re finally back down from the Altiplano, the Andes giving way to the flatlands that stretch towards Brazil. Here is our drive Bolivia report:

The Poverty

The poverty compared with all the countries we have visited in the last four years seems much worse – it’s in your face with kids forced to dance in the streets, legions of old people employed to beg for money, drugged-out shoe-shiners sleeping in doorways.

Government money must be in very short supply – all over the country. The border we came in at had a power cut but no back-up generators. The passports were checked by candle-light, the face-recognition cameras sat idle in the dark. The border that we exited was just a small room sweltering in the jungle heat with no air-con – I think they were modernizing: the office next door was slowly being demolished by a kid in flip-flops with a big hammer. Lack of paved roads; ancient buses spewing out choking fumes down medieval-sized streets; people pissing everywhere; hundreds of kids on rural roads begging, some of whom threw stones at passing vehicles who declined to stop and cough up money; animal butchery performed next to gutters and drains. Visually, things reminded me of somewhere like small-town India and I still fail to understand why when Bolivia is endowed with so many natural resources, a small population and a “socialist” president.

The Park Ups

La Paz – We parked up right in the center of town a couple of blocks up from Plaza de San Pedro and a block from the main drag. It was an unusual road in that it didn’t have any stores or buildings on it so was used, by day, by commuters and taxis. Occasionally, a cop would come round with a wheel clamp but would only put it on a car which he knew would want to leave soon because then he’d collect the 50Bs fine. We were there for 3 weeks over Christmas and never had any bother from anyone – the only problem is that it’s a public urinal for thousands of desperate people and they tend to make a bee-line for the privacy that a big, parked truck offers. After Burning Man and the nudist Wreck Beach in Vancouver, we’d never seen so much cock in our lives. Officially the Hotel Oberland, south of the city in Mallasa, is the overlander’s choice for parking up. It’s a nice enough establishment, the only problems being that it’s a fairly miserable parking lot that you’re living in and you’re a couple of buses or taxis away from the city action. And they charge 50Bs per person.

Ojo del Inca is a geothermally heated pond a few miles north of Potosi which lets people pitch a tent or park up. Nice place to park for a few days but watch the batte-axe of a woman who runs the place. At first she charged us 85Bs but dropped to 25Bs when she saw we were quite happy to park just beyond the property. To visit for the day, you have to pay 10Bs each.

We spent a couple of weeks on the streets in Sucre. We tried out one place in the center that used to let people camp in their garden but he’d closed up, saying it was too much bother. Not much bother at all, however, is just parking up on the streets. A really nice spot is by the Parque Bolivar – at the bottom is an ex-gas station where you can shelter from the weather – although the best things about Sucre are the climate, which is perfect for living in a truck, and the friendly stray dogs that inhabit the center of town.

Samaipata is a small town 100 klicks up the hill from Santa Cruz. Just out of town is a three thousand year-old site, the center  to many nice treks and stuff. It is also heavily expatted with lots of comfortable hostels, bars and restaurants. We stayed at the Jaguar Hostel for 15Bs each per night – a small place run by friends and popular with Argentinian campers. This town is a pleasant place to rest and take a deep breath before heading down into the heat of the lowlands.

Agua Calientes is half a day’s drive from the Brazilian border. For 10Bs each, you can camp under trees by a geothermal lake which is very popular Bolivians and the local Mennonite communities.

The Internet

Internet in general in Bolivia is pretty bad. But using 3G on the ol’ smartphone was surprisingly good. Sure, most times, I had to work at night to get some reasonable speed but quite often I had to use my phone when we sitting in a café or restaurant because it was still faster than the Wi-Fi on offer. The phone package was kind of a good deal – $1.5 buys 500mb that lasts for a day but rolls over when you next charge up the credit. Problem was, usually, trying to get through 500mb was wishful thinking.

The Food

There are markets everywhere in Bolivia – they are obsessed. Even on Christmas Day, some of the stalls were set up and selling. The range of vegetables is limited but they are tasty and cheap. If they aren’t exactly organic, they are grown from good seeds and you can bet it was human labor that spread the chemicals and harvested the produce, brought to market in the back of a small truck. In the bigger cities there are a few supermarkets but everything was a few Bolivianos more than the markets. The purpose-built markets in every town are a good place to get a cheap meal – the central market in Sucre was pretty busy with big communal tables – and there’s an evening version too. La Paz was excellent for vegetarian food.

The Roads

We gave up on going to see the salt flats. We knew it was the wrong moment – the rainy season had been underway for a while and the incoming Dakar rally was going to mess everything up – but it was the 100km of corrugated dirt track to get there, affording an average speed of 15mph, that ultimately put us off. There is a skeletal network of goodish roads running from La Paz to Santa Cruz and, then, a new, smooth one across the flatlands to the borders. Coming out of Sucre, for example, there were two choices: (a) go on a 200km detour to get onto the nation’s main highway or, (b) use the unpaved, direct road between the nation’s traditional capital and their biggest city. We chose the direct way and ruined a tire on the sharp rocks – never getting above 20mph for two days. Yes, the roads are pretty bad in Bolivia. Even when they are paved, they’re full off potholes, ruts and crazy undulations – and when it rains, the unpaved ones turn into rivers of mud.

The Fuel

Buying fuel in Bolivia was a novel experience. The rule is that, if you turn up at the gas station with a foreign-registered vehicle, the fuel is (currently) 9Bs as opposed to the normal price of 3.7Bs.  I believe that another rule is that you are limited to one container if you turn up with fuel cans. Coming in from Peru, we could only find one gas station in La Paz which let us fill our truck up for 5Bs; driving further inland, most gas stations began to sell us diesel at that price and then on the highways between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba gas stations would charge us the normal price. Past Santa Cruz, though, heading towards the Brazilian border at Corumba, we found it very difficult and resorted to buying 200 liters of diesel from someone’s backyard in San Juan de Chiquitos. From there it’s 200km to Brazil and we passed no gas stations at all until we hit the border town itself.

When looking for a lower price, there are a few tricks: You should ask for a price “sin factura” and tell them not to worry about the cameras – they don’t work. You can try later in the evening when the manager might not be around. You might even be able to convince them that your vehicle is Bolivian, you just haven’t changed the plates over – or you can even Photoshop a couple of Bolivian plates and stick them in the window. Don’t let them charge too much – we felt 5Bs was a fair price and on a 50-litre-amount, the attendant is making nearly $10; a nice bonus for him or her. But don’t moan at them – some of the attendants are pretty paranoid about the whole thing and it’s your responsibility to be able to just say “OK, thanks but no thanks”, and still be able to drive on to the next gas station.

You might think that it’s immoral to steal tax from Bolivia by buying their subsidized fuel – and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. If you can afford it, the diesel price of 9Bs per liter is hardly super expensive and still cheaper than most of Europe, say. But there must be many immoral facets to Bolivia’s economic situation and, I believe, the fuel is subsidized in order to please the more wealthy folk who can afford to run their own cars or own transit companies and the poorer folk who don’t trust the government to deliver the benefits that higher fuel taxation would bring…

Drugs

You will probably get offered cocaine before getting offered marijuana – a depressing fact that will probably make you want a spliff even more. The drug of choice, of course is chewing coca leaves, popular with people of all classes but especially any worker with a tough, physical job. We hardly ever saw a builder or mechanic without a bulging cheek and a small green plastic bag close at hand. The desired effects of chewing this stuff come after a few hours persistence – try rubbing in a bit of soda to speed up the process. Our main substance abuse was focused on e-liquid which is available from some people in La Paz who don’t have a shop yet; find ‘em on Facebook and arrange to meet up!

Crime

We didn’t change our pattern of behavior much at all – but we managed to get robbed three times in one month. Not from the truck – petty stuff like pick-pocketing, bag-snatching and a couple of kids ran off with our e-cig after we’d been partying together all night… While this post should be about our experience, I’d like to mention one episode some friends had with the cops at the same time we were there: One night a “cop” came banging on their door, wouldn’t show his badge and kept a torch shining in my friend’s face. In the morning, he saw that the GPS had vanished and, as they were driving out of town, decided to report the incident to the police station. Inside, he recognized the guy from the night before who actually was indeed a police officer and, after a bit of shouting, my friend got his GPS back. I mention this story because, again, this family’s driven all over the world and only ever had a problem like this in Bolivia.

Health

Since arriving in Bolivia our stools were always soft – every day for two months. Since getting back down from the Altiplano and entering Brazil, they’ve been back to normal.  There, you really needed to know that, didn’t you? It could have been something to do with the altitude. It could have been something to do with the poor hygiene skills at the markets and eateries. I have a suspicion that it is that much harder to kill everything when the water boils at a lower temperature than sea level or maybe our hand-pump filter couldn’t cope with the bacteria-loaded, untreated water. Our coffee was probably infecting us with a low dose of germs every morning.

The Landscape

What can we say that a thousand photos cannot describe better? Stunning.

 

Stray Dogs Of Sucre

Stray dogs of Sucre
Stray dogs of SucreIt’s not a long way between Potosi and Sucre – a few hours’ drive and a drop of 1000m from the barren hills around one of the world’s highest cities down through the valleys to the eternal-spring climate and greener region of Sucre, Bolivia’s traditional capital and beautiful, most perfect city.

The ancient connection between these two towns is a strong one: Poor Potosi, site of a silver mine where millions died and where, even today, thousands continue to work in terrible conditions and Super Sucre, the place built on Potosi’s money by the mine-owners and still now the posher side of Bolivia, a city both well-funded and steeped in pre and post-colonial history. So far on our travels through Bolivia, Sucre stands out as a beautifully preserved Andalusian downtown surrounded and supported by industrious working class neighborhoods. The buses run cleaner than in La Paz and there seem to be far less children dancing for money in the street – we arrived on a Sunday evening, drove through clean and orderly suburbs and stopped by the main square, parking up with lots of lovingly restored antique cars, their owners enjoying their stroll among the palm trees and fountains. But over the next couple of weeks, as we toiled with the Bolivian internet and did some work online, one incredible thing marked this city out as truly unique – not just for Bolivia, or for South America, but pretty much for the whole world. And I’m still racking my brains trying to understand what it means for the city, the history and the people: From the first day to our last, we enjoyed the company of a few of the dozens of friendly stray dogs of Sucre as we joined them on the streets.

Dogs the world-over

In the West, dogs tend to be attached to their owners or locked away behind fences and gates. In the South, there are, of course, the same kind of pet dogs but there are also loads of them wandering the streets or loose in and around the area where they live. Often they have owners but the relationship of responsibility is subtlety different than is it is for your standard pet – these dogs aren’t really strays, of course. They are not lost – they are free-roamers.

And they are never particularly friendly. I mean, they might tolerate a pat on the head or appreciate a little attention but they generally don’t seek any of that from a stranger especially – you see them sniffing about pretty oblivious to your calls or heading down the road straight past you, purposefully on a habitual route. In places, like at the beach or at some tourist spot, there might be a pack of them used to the kindness of visitors, well-versed in the art of blagging food – and the dogs we met in Sucre come close to this category. Close but entirely different; they weren’t begging for food, they just seemed to hang around the parks, squares and green areas and, well, they just seemed to want to hang out with the people there.

Where you can find friendly dogs in Sucre

A few blocks down from the main square, the Plaza 25 de Mayo, is the Parque Bolivar – a broad and long, well-treed park with fountains that were lit up at night at the bottom and food stalls at the top. There’s an enormous children’s playground, a public swimming pool and tennis courts down one side and, in the middle, a kind of miniature Eiffel Tower thing that you can climb up. Around the perimeter, joggers join forces with kids on hired mini-quad bikes and, basically, on any day of the week until 11pm or so the place is a good example of an urban recreational area complete with the odd picnic and plenty of romantic teenagers. And loads of dogs who wander around being friendly. They might occasionally join in on the jogging for a few laps. They might interact with their leashed brethren. Mostly they go from park bench to park bench just sitting and chilling with whoever’s there. They never went near the Eiffel Tower thing. If it’s a hot day, they stretch out under a bush – in the evenings, to be honest, they just look like they’re having a right laugh. And after midnight, there’ll be a pack of them all trying to get some sleep in a quiet corner somewhere.
Maybe it’s hard to imagine. These aren’t your typical mangy mutts – the long-haired, smaller breeds looked a bit of a dreadlocked mess but, mostly, they were big, good-looking, healthy dogs. With smiles on their faces, ready to look you in the eye and interact.

There’s one parallel that might illuminate and that’s the infamous Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, Lima, Peru where you’ll find dozens of cats hanging out and dozens of visitors come to watch them. The situation is similar, especially when you see them curled up on the flowerbed as if they were part of the horticultural design. Except that these are, of course, dogs and not cats and, for that reason, just that bit more cuddlier.

Sucre and Sucre’s Mate

Sucre and Sucre's Mate

Our second day in Sucre, we were still getting our bearings and looking around for a good place to park up and live. This process, in a city, generally leads us towards the green spaces. We stopped by one, not far from the central market, and got out to check the area on foot. A beautiful husky-type thing started to follow us, responding to our greetings and letting himself be stroked. He walked with us up the road and then ran back down once he’d realized we had turned around. And when we got back to the truck and opened the door, he jumped straight in and wouldn’t leave until we physically pushed him out.

By the time we had got into a routine of mostly parking by the big Parque Bolivar or up by the main square to get a better internet connection, we had won ourselves a couple of regular canine friends – who we unimaginatively christened Sucre and Sucre’s Mate. I first met them up at the square on a couple of consecutive evenings – an hour or so playing with them and then they’d be off chasing motorbikes. Then once when we drove back down to the park, they ran after us, opting to sleep the night curled up together just outside our door. After that, they were often around, following us about, waiting outside cafes and stores for us and winning a few nights sleep-over actually inside our truck  – Sucre especially liked the bit of carpet at the front.

What does this say about Sucre the city?

I don’t know if anyone reading this finds it all so strange; but I do. You might find this kind of canine behavior at the beach but in a city? I never have before. For sure, some people we spoke to said that the dogs had owners but that they were just left to roam free – and none of them looked underfed or seemed fearful or aggressive as many street dogs do. Judging by Sucre and Sucre’s Mate, who never begged us for food or seemed particularly interested in trash, we think they must have had a regular place where they could go get fed – a place which you might call their home but a place where they only ever spent a few hours a day. Of course, we were always asking ourselves whether they endured any suffering, suspecting a dark side to this story – but you only have to look at them; they looked happy and dogs don’t fake that.

And I’m still wondering why in Sucre, the “nicest” city in Bolivia, this situation has come to be… A perfect balance of factors, probably: A constant, comfortable climate; a people chilled out enough to tolerate and even appreciate them; a municipal authority not quite resourceful enough or minded to get rid of them; maybe a tradition stemming from some long-forgotten event or practice. Whatever: For two dog-lovers living on the road they certainly made Sucre a special city.