Bolivia

My departure from La Paz, and more importantly Wild Rover, was surprisingly easier than I thought.

Aaron and I picked last Sunday afternoon, and when it finally came around I just left on got on the first bus for Cochabamba. After a week of stalling, I finally made it out of La Paz! I will not deny that WR withdrawal occurred immediately, but the bus ride kept me at bay. For one, Bolivia is actually quite beautiful, and I have barely seen much of it yet. The afternoon was at its peak while we were passing these endless green crop fields. In the distance I could see darker rain clouds just beginning to break open, but our immediate area was mostly sunny few some areas of big, white, fluffy clouds. Then, suddenly, it began to rain, and the air emanated a rich earth smell. Besides the snow-capped peaks in the far background, this moment overwhelmed me with strong associations of my childhood in Kansas. After the quick 20 minute shower, the rain stopped and a bright rainbow appeared. Anyone who has driven into eastern Kansas during springtime will understand how unique these beautiful afternoon showers can be. I was convinced that these mesmerizing events could only occur on the dry high plains, which conveniently is where we happened to be within Bolivia´s immense variety of elevations and habitats.

Cochabamba was a nice place. Outside of our little area around the bus and train terminals, Cochabamba is quite a bit like a proper city as I am familiar with from the U.S. There are a variety of name brand and boutique stores, tree-lined boulevards, restaurants with public parking, and mall complexes. We stayed by the terminal, as that is where the economic accommodation options are located. Our first night at the Residencial Nueva York seemed a wee bit too much like an hourly type of place, so we promptly moved to HI-Hostel Versalles for the remaining of our time in Cochabamba.

We mostly did the tourist thing and saw the “sights” while wondering around aimlessly. We tested out the public bus system. We went up on Cerro de San Pedro to see the Christ statue, Cristo de la Concordia. It is several inches taller than the 33 meter Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, making it the tallest in South America. On the way up I was reminded of a California valley where each little connected town is separated by short runs of hills dividing them apart. However, this is not the case in Cochabamba where everything within sight is still just Cochabamba. We also wandered through the Mercado Concho Calatayud, supposedly Bolivia´s largest market, though I am convinced El Alto´s market is bigger. We toured through the Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas Museo UMSS. It is just a small university collection, but their three sections of palaeontological, archaeological, and ethnographic specimens were right up my alley.

Then on our way to the nicer districts of Cochabamba, we experienced a true Bolivian strike. Bolivia is famed for the constant striking which can debilitate an area in minutes and stop all functioning of businesses, transportation, and government functions. I have interacted with two other strikes:  coming into Bolivia from Peru we went to a less-used northern town for customs due to the momentary closure of the regular route, and seeing heaps of protesters in the streets of La Paz preventing through traffic around select government buildings, but this was the first time one directly affected my actions. The marchers began closing off Calle San Martin, the main road for all public buses to pass along and the primary circuit for reaching the other part of Cochabamba (of which we were trying to go to). The buses were having a horrendous time getting through a side route and traffic was essentially at a stand-still. It was a chaotic mess. We finally had to opt for a taxi, only our taxi could not move anywhere as trapped vehicles were trying to re-enter moving traffic without any sense of order. At one point our taxi driver literally got out and moved whatever debris was blocking our path to non-blocked roads. Watching this happen was astonishing at how quickly everything becomes hectic as people suddenly begin making human chains across intersections preventing traffic from continuing its regular course of action. I see now why this is such an effective form of striking.

The purpose for getting to the other side of Cochabamba was to see the Palacio de Portales, the palace of the famous Simón I. Patiño. This place actually has quite a fascinating history. Simón Patiño discovered a silver mine in his early forties, then built up this huge mining corporation, making him an extremely wealthy man. He moved his family to Europe where it would be better to expand business prospects. However, as Cochabamba is his birthplace, he implemented the construction of this immense house to be built for whenever he visited. As was popular at the time, the entire house and surrounding grounds were designed with French and Italian themes. Much of the wood panelling, architecture, ceiling façades, and furniture were all designed in Europe then brought over and reconstructed. Imagine grand entryways, huge windows in every room, elaborate 1500’s Rome-themed frescoes, silk-lined walls, ornate wood flooring, and luscious surrounding grounds with uncountable number of Bolivian plants (which really says something since Bolivia is a top-ranking country of flora and fauna diversity in the world). I was blown away by the place. Simple yet exquisite. The most intriguing part of this story, however, is the fact that Simón was too busy to ever visit. Thus the house stood finished and unused for forty years. After his death, the family donated the property to the public for a museum, which is how is has served ever since. One of the old carriage buildings was turned into a free library for the public. Quite astonishing.

The bus ride from Cochobamba to Santa Cruz was an excruciating 11.5 hour, stagnant ride where I had the pleasure of sitting directly in front of three small boys sharing a seat and directly next to two boys sitting in the aisle, frequently using my leg as a back rest or my arm rest as a chair. What a lovely time it was. We were merely going to Santa Cruz for the night so that we could back track the next day to Samaipata. Buses now only use the newer northern route to Santa Cruz and from there you can find buses or collectives going along the southern route which will get you to Samaipata. This little venture to Santa Cruz was seeming like a waste of a day until that night when we went for supper at a Mexican restaurant. Despite my bean and mushroom “Big Boy Burrito” being quite tasty and perfectly sized, what really brightened my day were the other diners at the restaurant.

Much to my delight, there were four separate families who all could have come off a Kansas farm from several decades ago. The women wore Chaco-looking, comfy leather sandals or the slightly heeled, leather shoes typical of Sisters; knee-highs; modestly-cut dresses made from fabrics that have long been resigned only for curtain material; and black prayer veils. The men wore black, lace-up, leather shoes (that both of my own grandfathers wore…); tall socks; heavy-duty overalls; button-up, collared shirts; and the smart hair-cuts with permanent hat lines imprinted around the hair line. There were several generations for age, all of similar descriptions. Maybe I have been a little homesick since the holidays, but I keep finding suck marked similarities to things I associate to Kansas. I never spoke with these people, never heard what language they used, and know very little about them. However, I am shameless enough to snap a few photos had I had my camera. When questioned about the other “gringos” in the room, the waiter did not even think we were talking about the four groups of mid-westerners. Haha. They did seem unusually familiar with the establishment. The next day before leaving for Samaipata, I saw another one walking down the street. I am tickled!

…ok, since this wonderful encounter I have actually learned a bit about them. They are a Mennonite community with agricultural and dairy farmers. An estimated number for just Bolivia is around 40,000 people, though the practice of large families causes a steady rise to the population count. They are primarily from Germany, with ties to Russia, Canada, and several other eastern European countries, including relocation from the U.S., Mexico, and other places within South America. German is the pervasive language. They started coming to South America in the 1920’s and 30’s for religious freedom as WWII events were setting in. Many of the communities forgo modern amenities of electricity, sew their own clothing, use horse-drawn buggies, and other varying Mennonite practices. Though these would be traditional Mennonite practices, the lack of electricity likely has more to do with their avoidance of outsiders. They are forming their own communities away from proper cities in the outskirts where land is considered “uninhabitable” due to sparsity of water, thus electricity and water lines would be a premium out of their own pocket. Most rural homes in Bolivia do not have the means of electricity. They are building an agricultural frontier into the thick, eastern jungle of Bolivia and making a relatively prosperous bloc of landowners as multinational companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland rely on their soybean and sunflower harvests to produce cooking oils and animal feed. Further inquiry uncovered other scandals within a few select communities. I am not exactly content with what I have learned about these people, but overall, they are considered hard-working, moral people. I am still delighted at the observation.


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