After traveling in Bolivia for 6 weeks, Kristen and I have experienced a wide range of emotions and accompanying thoughts, that we are still trying to process. It’s a complex country. Due to our obvious status as strangers in a strange land here, we can´t help but question and wonder about the cultural differences we see in Bolivia. Are things ¨better¨in the USA? Hard to say, but we are used to some things back home that we really don´t want to give up. Here is a list of some things that really annoy us about Bolivia, sorry in advance for the complaining. There will be an entire post soon on everything we love about Bolivia to balance this out 🙂
# 1. The Food is Less Than Delcious, and Often Dangerous:
One of the best things to do as a tourist is try out the local cuisine. What is the best thing to eat around here? Well, in Bolivia it turns out to be potatoes, and that´s about it. Keep your fingers crossed for some hot sauce to put on those potatoes because the flavor profile is pretty bland. To be fair, there often is hot sauce, but why not just make the food taste like something in the first place instead of making me search for salt and pepper?
After giving up on traditional Bolivian food, either because it tastes like not much or you have been poisoned one too many times, maybe you want to try the Bolivian take on ethnic food. Well, that would extend to trying the local pizza or Chinese food, which is not something I would actually advise you to do. It´s utterly boring and kinda gross. The pizza has thin and soft crust, sauce will be more of hint than a full idea, and the cheese will be pale and slightly sour. Maybe your pizza will be graced with one or two slices of deli ham or canned mushrooms.
If you decide for Chinese food it will be overcooked rice, barely seasoned, with a smattering of vegetables and some pork shavings or chewy chicken. If you opt for noodles instead, rest assured they will be spaghetti noodles. Always spaghetti noodles around here. Most Bolivians seem to enjoy fried chicken with their Chinese food. I say you are better off just going to one of the million fried chicken places where they specialize in chicken dinners. Watch out for Friday or Saturday nights though, because the fried chicken place will be insanity. Someone told me a sausage dish called modongo is the national dish, but I think they might have unofficially changed it to fried chicken through popular vote.
So you tried some Bolivian food, maybe even found something delicious (next post I’ll fill you in on all that I find scrumptious but elusive in Bolivia), unfortunately the next step is that you’re going to be sick. Food safety in Bolivia is not a thing, so any meat you ate was most certainly not refrigerated at a constant temperature or handled with any rules of hygiene. If you went for a salad, there is a good chance the dirt was washed off the leaves with unfiltered tap water and then not dried. There is a large surface area on lettuce, lots of water, lots of microbs, lots of stomach issues. Bring some antibiotics to Bolivia and hope they work. Also, if you are into Pepto Bismal, bring that too because they do not sell it here.
Let´s not even talk about the coffee in the Bolivia. Why in a country where they grow coffee, does everyone drink instant Nescafe? It´s just frustrating. And they don´t seem to want to give you milk when you order a coffee. If you try getting it on the side it has to be all steamed up for some reason, and cost you extra. Just give me a splash of cold milk! I have no idea how to say that in Spanish, but it wouldn´t matter if I did. No one would get it.
#2. Garbage, Garbage, Literbugs
Bolivians throw their garbage on the ground. I’m not saying its every single Bolivian who doesn’t notice littering, but I have seen people of every social class and type throwing their garbage on the ground. The garbage is EVERYWHERE. It will probably always be there too, because who is going to come pick it up if there is always more? Sure, some parks and city streets have uniformed people sweeping up the garbage and putting in the bins (which are actually pretty plentiful in most cities). Then there is the vast countryside of garbage. It´s all along the highways and falling down the cliffs behind people’s houses. Do they not see it? Do they not care?
One taxi van we got into had a sign in it that said: ¨Please help keep the van clean and throw your trash out the window.¨ I´m not kidding. If I was suddenly Bolivian, I think this would be my cause, yelling at people that I will take their trash when I see them about to throw it out the window of a moving vehicle.
#3. Getting from A to B is Usually an Uncomfortable Mystery
Yay! It’s time to hit the road! So, you go to the bus station to buy a ticket. First off, don’t try and plan too far ahead. One day in advance could be fine, but same day is often best. The schedule may change overnight or better yet, the bus might not make it. It can be a ¨wait and see¨ if the bus survived it’s last journey before committing to another trip. How confidence inspiring!
Anyway, the bus station is confusing enough that you end up going in advance anyway. You have to go to each company counter to see if they have a bus to your destination. Hopefully, they have a handwritten sign with times but often those times are wrong anyway, so you may end up going to each bus company counter and asking if they are going to a certain city, at what time, and with what kind of bus. So just go for a good wander, looking a bit lost and perplexed. To add to the fun there will be people yelling destinations at you in a kind of creepy, sing song, persistent manner.
Likely, there is more than one company going to your destination so you will have to randomly pick one of these people shouting at you to go talk to. Then when you get to the counter there will be no one there to sell the tickets. Maybe they are in the bathroom, or at lunch, or who knows where. Hopefully, they will come back soon but there is no way of knowing.
Another good way to pick can be looking at the buses outside before entering the terminal to see which one you might dare to board if you had to choose. Of course, that company probably has some crappy buses too, but maybe not? maybe this bus with the tread on the tires indicates that this company has acceptable buses? You can also try asking if the bus has a bathroom or fully reclining seats but you will not be told the truth (see #5). As far as I have experienced, or heard from any other travelers, there are no buses in Bolivia with (open) bathrooms or fully reclining seats.
Ok, whatever, you crossed your fingers and bought a ticket. Now, it´s time to board the bus. Somehow you need to get your bag underneath. Maybe you need to leave it at the company counter inside, maybe you need to find a young boy who will load it for you, maybe you just need to wait and see. When you do get your bag underneath, it´s unlikely you will be given a ticket or any other proof that you ever had a bag. The door to the luggage compartment will probably remain open and unattended so maybe you should wait to jump on the bus until the last minute, just to make sure your bag comes along for the ride. Or you could just press your face against the window from inside the bus, scanning for anyone walking away with your bag.
Did you pay the bus terminal use fee? What´s that you ask? There will be a small fee for the privilege of using the terminal. Good luck figuring out where to pay this fee. Sometimes there is a booth in the bus station and sometimes you will pay it on the bus. Hopefully, you also paid to use the bathroom in the terminal because otherwise you have a very long wait till you can pee again (see #6). But yay! you´re on your way! Suddenly, the bus will stop right outside the bus station and many more people will get onto the bus. Hmmm, is this to avoid the bus terminal use fee? Or maybe they just couldn´t get to the terminal on time?
Now that you have located your seat, which will inevitably have something crusted onto it, you can enjoy the ride. The road will be twisty and involved going up and up and then down and down. Winding, winding, winding. The bus driver will drive on both sides of the road indiscriminately and pass when there is definitely not a passing lane. Pray that you got a seat by a window, because you will want to open it. There will be lots of smells on the bus, but one of the dominant ones will be coca leaves, and it´s kind of any overwhelming smell. There will also be lots of food smells and human odors.
Three different people will probably be playing music really loud on their phones so you can hear a great mishmash of pan pipes. Winding winding winding. The bus will randomly stop to pick up or drop off people in the middle of nowhere. You will wonder when and if the bus is ever going to stop for a bathroom break, but the answer is never, unless you ask to pee on the side of the road. This is allowed, but everyone will see you pee. No Bolivian woman will ever ask the bus to stop for a pee. It will always be a gringa. There are many tolls and security checkpoints and women will appear at your window, ready to toss you a bag of roasted chicken and corn, or a soda, or candy, or whatever you need. Be prepared with exact change because no one in Bolivia has any change.
You can also take minibuses around the countryside on routes that large buses don´t cover. The process for them is largely the same, except that you will need to find where they stop (somewhere incomprehensible), barter for the price (or just accept whatever because you will probably be laughed at for trying), know where you need to jump out in the countryside (the driver will conveniently forget you are even in the taxi), and you will have far less leg room. Most of these little VW buses would have two rows of seats in the US, but the Bolivians manage to cram 4 rows in and won´t take off until all the rows are full. Gringa legs will not fit, especially if you are under 5 foot 2 inches.
The likelihood of having a window that opens will go down dramatically from a tour bus and you might suffocate. You will roast alive while the Bolivians around you snuggle down into leather jackets and wool hats, inexplicably cold in the 80 degree heat of the coca leaf reeking van. More and more people will be crammed into the bus, in places you didn´t imagine would be a seat. Children will be strewn on top of everyone. Anyway, it´s nice that there is public transportation since most everyone doesn´t have a car. Don´t expect to hitchhike. You can hail basically anyone for a ride but they will charge the same as a minivan for picking you up.
#4. It´s Hard to Breathe and Getting Harder
Even as I sit here in an internet cafe, I’ve resorted to covering my mouth and nose with my scarf because the air pollution from traffic is that bad. I read a rumor on the internet that the public buses are decommissioned local transport from China that had to be sold because they don’t meet Chinese emission standards. I believe it. All the buses and trucks in Bolivia are belching clouds of gray or black gas. I’m not very knowledgable about emissions from vehicles but I’m pretty sure all colors of smoke coming from them are bad. To back up this urban legend, buses do have characters on the side from some Asian language that I’m not smart enough to identify (probably because my brain cells have been killed off by the pollution).
Add to all this pollution some extreme altitudes. La Paz lies at 12,000 feet above sea level and Potosi is considered one of the highest cities in the world at 13,500 feet. There isn´t much oyygen up here in the first place so good luck walking up and down the cities streets. When you do pause to inhale deeply, take a good look around first to avoid choking down a big lungful of bus smog. It can’t really be avoided in La Paz, but Sunday when most things are closed can be a good day for taking in the architecture.
#5. The Telling You What You Want to Hear Game
Another cultural quirk we want to complain about is the Bolivian custom of telling you what you want to hear. Often, this turns out to be a blatant lie. But hey, they were just trying to be nice! So, if you ask for directions, you will always recieve directions, whether that person has any idea where you are going or not. The solution here is to ask everyone you see for directions. Maybe it´s the law of averages, but you will eventually get there. I know this isn´t just a fun game they play with gringos because even Bolivians ask everyone for directions. I was once walking to a waterfall with a Bolivian in an unknown town. She literally asked every person we came across where the waterfalls were. You just keep asking.
Sometimes these lies seem spiteful though. Like, if you ask if there is hot water in the showers at a hotel. They ALWAYS say yes, but there probably is only hot water every once in a while and they won´t tell you that. There might not be hot water at all. The same is often true for wifi. Maybe they have wifi sometimes, but not all the time and it is never going to be a fast connection. As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as fast internet in Bolivia. Interestly, the lady at this internet cafe told us the connection was slow before we sat down. Confused, I asked her if there was somewhere in town with a fast connection? No, she said.
One of my favorite lies is 2 for 1 drink special. They must do these specials for gringos, which is nice, but the price is not actually 2 drinks for the price of one. Usually it is just a small discount off getting two. For example if a mojito is Bs 22, you can get two for Bs 30 or something like that. Do they not know what 2 for 1 means in English? I would say the translation for 2×1 from Spanish into English is simply Happy Hour. On a tangent, there are lots of these in Peru as well for tourists except they may even offer 4 for 1, which turns out to be four small drinks in cups half the size of 2×1. Ok….
Oh, and like I mentioned before, they will often tell you there is a bathroom on the overnight buses. This is marginally true, because often there is a bathroom physically on the bus. The door to said bathroom will be locked though, thus rendering the bathroom unavailable to you. I´m pretty sure they know what you mean when you ask if there is a bathroom on the bus, so I count this another fun lie.
#6 Bathrooms, Try and Hold It
Speaking of bathrooms, Bolivian ones are hard to get down with if you are used to running water. Often, when you are done using the bathroom, you must exit the stall, put your hand into a barrel of questionable water, fill a bucket up, and then dump that water in the toilet to flush it. Outside of one of the libraries we volunteered at, the water barrels were marked with hazardous waste stickers. Ok, it´s great to reduce, reuse, recycle, but I draw the line at hazardous waste barrels. I´m not putting my hand in there, especially if I can see insect larvae hatching in the waiting water. One of the schools we went to didn´t even offer water for flushing, so I´m not sure if those toilets ever got flushed…I wonder if a composting toilet or a latrine wouldn´t be better?
Forget about toilet paper, toilet seats, stall doors, sinks with running water, soap, paper towels or washing your hands. Bring you own toilet paper every time you enter the bathroom and hand sanitizer for when you leave. Always travel with your own towel and do not expect hot water in the showers, or shower curtains. Expect that everything you bring into the shower will get wet. If you´re in a hostel, expect a line because the person to bathroom ratio will be high. Peeing in the street in broad daylight seems to be reserved for the very young or the very old. For everyone else, you have to at least try to take cover, but it´s pretty much a free for all if you cannot find a bathroom. That being said, I´m glad they do have bathrooms at all.
Ok, enough complaining. This post took me forever to write and doesn´t have that great of photos because I didn´t want to spend all my time taking horrible photos of Bolivia since I really like it. Some challenges do exist though 🙂 Next post I will write about what I did love about Bolivia.