Monday, 26 March 2007

Here we go-oh ...

... moaning all over the world.

That's the English for you. During our travels we complain almost incessantly because nothing is ever quite good enough for us. Then we go home and people ask "How was your trip?", and we reply, quite truthfully, "Brilliant!".

Anyway, here is more nonsense from me for those gluttons for punishment, all slightly out of date - think of it as a sort of Bolivian de-brief.

I was prevented from travelling to the north and east of the country since the rains have caused terrible floods and a lot of the roads are washed out. Well, not prevented exactly, but it became impossible to reach most places without the kind of Herculean effort of which I really couldn't be bothered.

Entire villages have been destroyed - they're built them on the side of hills using mud bricks, so when the floods come the houses go. Bolivia is already a poor country, and a lot of these farmers are scraping a very basic living at the best of times, so the hardship and loss of life has been severe.

So maybe the nation has more on its mind than whether I have a good time or not.

Buuuuut ... the countryside in Bolivia is absolutely beautiful, and the only thing wrong with the place is the Bolivians. It is a lot like being in Wales after all.
I didn't experience any outright hostility from the locals, even while wearing my Cienciano football top (which I was told later was a no-no, even before the 5-1 Bolivar @ss whoopin') but I met people that had been spat at in the street and had stones thrown at them and the like. Welcome to Bolivia.

Apparently they're a very proud people.

A lot of the Bolivians you meet in the street are nice and friendly (those that don't spit at you, that is), but it seems that a prerequisite of being involved in the travel and tourism trade is the kind of deep rooted malevolence toward humanity that back home is the preserve of people that think up reality TV shows.

They use a lot of the same tricks to scam money off you as the Peruvians, but they don't have the affability or charm of their near neighbours.

Meeting some Peruvians is like chatting to an old Irishman at the bar, where he's regaling you with one tall tale after another, and, yes, of course he'll take a drink, that's very kind of you, and you'll be so thoroughly entertained by his nonsense that it won't be till the end of the evening, when your wallet is empty, that you'll realise how much you've spent. On him.

Meeting a Bolivian is like having a red faced Glaswegian come staggering up to you in a pub and shouting "Hey, pal, are you gonna buy me a drink, or what?"

In India people will tell you whatever you want to hear because they simply can't bear to disappoint you, but in Bolivia they will lie blatantly to your face, with attitude and with aggression, because they think you have money in your wallet. They couldn't give a llamas *rse for your disappointment. You're rich and I'm poor, their bearing seems to say, give me your money. It becomes tiresome.

I appreciate the lives these people lead are unimaginably harsh compared to mine, but still, y'know. F*ck 'em.

I still haven't been called gringo anywhere yet, but in La Paz one guy I walked past in the street turned back and shouted at me - I think he said "Hey whitey, give me some money!" ("Blanco, déme dinero") - to which "No" seemed the only apt and appropriate response. I was expecting further discussion on the subject but my reply seemed to satisfy him - he carried on walking at any rate.

On one occasion a few of us were standing in the street waiting for the rest of the group (you do a lot of that if you travel in packs) and a couple of donkeys wandered past. One of the guys put his camera to his eyes to take a photo and suddenly an old woman came from nowhere, screaming at him that he had to pay. You photograph my donkeys, she said, you pay. As if his photographing her donkeys in the middle of the street was an intrusion. Like I say, they're a proud people, but after five minutes of being shouted at by this extremely large old lady* he didn't bother with the photo.

* It's a tendency to describe all old ladies as "little", but there's no such thing as a little old lady in Bolivia. Only the robust survive. Largeness is considered attractive and marriageable to such an extent that slim young girls in the country wear skirts to make themselves look bigger. In La Paz, where they have a diet of US TV and Latin American Vogue, they're just as borderline anorexic as anywhere else, but out in the mountains different rules apply. No self-respecting farmer wants a slip of a girl who'll die before giving him sons.

I guess I should point out here that I've been spat at in Surrey, and robbed more times in London than anywhere else in the world, so it's easy to forget just how thieving and hostile people can be back home. In La Paz I was chatting to an English bloke that had been ripped off in Brazil - by another Englishman. He was absolutely livid that he "was robbed by an English c*nt" (to use his exact, if asterisked, words). It somehow broke the traveller solidarity that everyone assumes exists, but quite often doesn't.

It's also easy to believe that they target tourists, though - which they do, but only because the odds of a gringo having money are better. I saw enough in La Paz to realise that the thieves there will rob anyone. Just like thieves everywhere, in fact. Rob from the rich (you) to give to the poor (them) and all that.

Like I say, it's a beautiful country. I've read that Peru was equally obnoxious fifteen or twenty years ago but the economy is more prosperous now, life is easier, so the people are friendlier, so maybe if the truly beloved President Morales delivers on his promises of stability and prosperity, in fifteen years time there will be no Bolivian buts. For now, though, they're a bunch of w*nkers.

La Paz grew on me, though. Did I mention before that it's apparently the highest capital in the world? I was actually higher up sitting in a hillside cafe in La Paz than I was while jumping out of a plane. Not quite as scared, though, despite all the crime warnings and terrible tales I'd heard.

In La Paz the many shoe shine boys in the street all wear balaclavas and face masks. It seems incredible to me, but I'm told it's because it's such a low status occupation that none of those involved want to be recognised. It gives them the look, though, of a crack team of desperadoes that are about to storm the ministerial palace and give everyone inside a really good buff and polish. Like on every street corner there's a couple of trainee ninja turtles ready to fight crime.

Despite the poverty, one thing they seem to have in Bolivia is a more varied diet than Peru, where if they ever ran out of chicken, rice and chips I think there'd be a famine of epic proportions. In Bolivia they call that dish Chicken Milanese, which to me seems to be doing Milan a disservice. When I was in Milan (a long while ago, I must admit) I don't recollect ever seeing a single chip. It should really be called Chicken Peruano.

I did encounter another side effect of being in a dwarf nation, too.

I'd brought with me an old pair of hiking boots (that have already served in New Zealand and India, not to mention the mean streets of Redhill) and I watched as the hills and mountains of Latin America quite rapidly destroyed them. With the Inca Trail looming I felt it was time to invest in another pair.

Normally I hate shoe shopping because I have mutant duck feet and it's hard to find decent shoes that fit me. When I bought trainers in Cusco I tried on about twelve pairs that I hated, by which time I was so bored of the whole process that I pointed to the cheapest pair in the shop and said "Just give me those".

However, I was confident that La Paz would see me right because I found a corner of the street market where every stall sold only shoes - I thought I'd died and gone to quality footwear heaven.

I'd reckoned without these pesky tiny latinos, though. I take a size nine (42 in Europe, 10 in the Americas) and most of these stalls were utterly astonished to hear me asking for such an enormous monstrosity of a boot. At one shop, where they had some great shoe solutions for midgets and pixies, the woman disappeared out the back for about twenty minutes and returned with the ugliest pair of trainers I've ever seen and said
"This is the only pair we have, that big". Her bearing suggested that I should count myself lucky that they even had these clown rejects from the circus, but I politely declined.

Finally I managed to find somewhere that was selling boots for normal people, neither the best designs nor the best quality, it must be said, but at least each one was large enough to fit over my big toe, after a bit of breaking in.

Bolivians walk unimaginably slowly. In fact they walk as if they're only putting one foot in front of another because the world doesn't have the decency to turn faster. They also employ a rolling gait that allows even those that aren't morbidly obese to block the widest pathways, and often they use props, such as large canvas bags, to assist them in this task. If these prove unavailable they make do with wildly swinging arms and unpredictable leg twitches. They do this knowing full well you're trying to get past - even more so if they realise you're a tourist. If you're carrying a rucksack, forget it.

So while I was wearing in my new boots, I found some real satisfaction in using exaggerated leg movements (maybe some uncharitable people would call them "kicks") to get the more recalcitrant out of the way. Who needs "permiso?" to pass when you have new boots?
All the best



Ten signs you've been in Bolivia too long
1) You've met more than three Bolivians
2) You now think Peru is an over-priced tourist trap
3) Being ripped off to the tune of about 6p will leave you fuming for days, and ready to start a riot
4) Altitude, schmaltitude
5) Seeing vast fields of coca leaves, or raw cocaine, no longer interests or amuses you
6) You've taken to scrupulously checking every note you're given, so as not to be lumbered with any more worthless, unspendable pieces of scrap paper ... worth approximately sixty pence.
7) You're quite happy to shove even the old ladies off the pavement if they're in your way - it's either them or you
8) You've started awarding points for style to the people that try to rob you
9) You now know why you've never heard the phrase "Bolivian craftsmanship"
10) You're in Bolivia


While I was in La Paz I had what was for me a genuinely new experience, meeting a whole crowd of unfriendly Australians. Although I was shocked at the blatant racism in Australia, especially Sydney, I think I can say that every native I met there was friendly (though some of them did need some softening up), and every antipodean I've met in London has been affability itself.

Maybe the Bolivian vibe had affected them, but this lot didn't quite fit the mould.

Apparently they were all quite young and this was their first trip abroad and they were terrified of everyone and everything, so were huddling together for protection, but I've truly not met such a bunch of stuck-up kangaroo-f*ckers before - and I realised that the Aussies can disappear up their own backsides like everyone else. You see, travel really does broaden the mind.

The people that seem to unite everyone, though, are the Israelis.

Almost everyone I've spoken to seems to have their obnoxious Israeli stories, and all the tour guides hate them - some even explicitly ban them. I must admit I haven't had any problems on this trip but when I was in New Zealand, if ever there was a group in a hostel or campsite that were throwing their weight around, acting like they owned the place and generally making things more awkward for everyone else, they were, without exception, Israeli. I even had a slight contretemps with one particular Israeli on a campsite once, and still bear the mental scars.

They're even less popular here than the Californians.


On my last night in La Paz I was having drinks with my tour group from the Salt Flats, and another group that had been following the same route and staying at the same places. In the normal way of these things, because there were so many of us we picked up quite a few stragglers, including a (friendly) Aussie called Phil and an English girl called Tracey that we rescued from the unfriendly Australians.

When the bar closed, one English couple invited everyone back to their hostel for further drinks. After a brief conversation with my Aussie, during which we agreed to buy some whiskey to take along, he disappeared to the bar and came back a few minutes later with a litre bottle of vodka. "This is better" he said "More people drink vodka".

I don't like vodka, but bearing in mind how late it was and how many we'd already had, I figured we might appreciate a little help with the booze, so I didn't punch him or anything.

So then the three of us, Phil, Tracey and me, leapt into a cab to head for the couple's hostel. At this point the English girl decided she didn't want to go to the party, but would rather go back to her hotel. Fine, we said through gritted teeth, which hotel is it?

She couldn't remember the name.

Where is it?, we asked.

She couldn't remember where it was, but suggested that we drive around until she saw something she recognised.

After a short while part of the name came back to her, and with the cab drivers help we worked out which hotel she needed.

When we arrived at the steep pedestrianised street leading to said hotel I realised for the first time just how drunk this girl was. She was unable to get out of the cab unaided, and it took both Phil and myself to hold her upright and get her moving in roughly the right direction. She couldn't remember her room number, but fortunately the doorman of the hotel knew her (he didn't look completely shocked to see her in such a state, either) and we left her in his capable hands.

So finally we headed off to our little party. Except that at this point we realised that we'd become separated from the main crowd, and didn't know the room number we wanted. Never mind, we said, we'd sort something out.

The taxi bill wasn't cheap in the end, but we figured the driver had earnt a tip. Quite frankly I felt like I'd earnt a tip myself, but finally we arrived at the right hostel, at the same time as a couple of blokes, and I slipped in behind them as if it was natural and followed them up the stairs.

I've cursed myself many times in the few days since for what happened next. I really don't know what came over me.

As I was about halfway up, I heard Phil the Aussie walk up to the night porter and explain, in Spanish even I could understand, that he'd met some people in the bar and they've invited him back for a drink. He didn't remember they're names, and he didn't know what room they were in, but could the porter tell him which room an English couple were staying in?

I could've kept walking up the stairs. I should've kept walking up the stairs. However, I turned round and went back to reception, just in time to see the night porter go absolutely mental, start shouting, and throw the pair of us out, saying something along the lines of "we're not running a night-club here".

So, there we were, in the street in the middle of the night, plus one bottle of vodka, minus one party. At this point Phil decided he was tired and wanted to go to bed, and frankly I was a little tired of him, so we decided to go our separate ways. The only thing left to sort out was what we'd do with the vodka. I'd paid for it and he'd given me half the cash, and he now didn't have enough cash to buy me out, so I gave him his money back and kept the bottle.

So that was how I came to find myself smuggling a litre of vodka that I don't like across the border into Peru.

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