The end of the road blockades in Bolivia gave me the opportunity to enter the country. In Bolivia, civil roadblocks are very usual because this is the only way for the people to protest against the government leaders who don’t represent the will of majority of the country. Bolivia is still the poorest country in South America in spite of rich natural resources. We arrived at the border from Chile at 4 a.m., so we had to wait for 4 hours above 4000m in -10 degree till the office was open, the landscape reminded of me the film of Star Wars. We got a stamp, and at the no-man’s land, we had to change buses and move our gear to the next bus (including mattresses). After two hours bumping, I arrived at the first Bolivian village: most of the Indians were wearing traditional hats. In the main square, I found a fascinating straw-thatched roofed colonial church. Travelling into the past. This is my place.
Because I hitchhiking, after many months, on the bus I met the first backpackers whom I was talking to. During their travel all of them experienced ‘South America’ by having their belongings stolen. It is South America. We arrived on the market day, almost all the Indian women were wearing long skirts, sweaters and poncho-like scarves and the typical small bowler hat. You can buy on the market anything from fruits, watches to computers. From a music shop, Bolivian music was floating out giving the feeling of where we are. People were queuing up for gas cylinders, in spite of Bolivia being one of the richest gas producers in South America. After sunset, the thermometer fell below 0, but the locals had no hot water nor even heaters in their houses. The only way to warm them up was to put their hands over candles or cooking pots. In the morning, they poured hot water on the tap to melt the ice. The hot water for showers in the guesthouses all over Bolivia are heated up by two electric wires but the result is never hot. The bulb on the ceiling was fixed with sticky tape. The outlets never worked properly and in shower rooms there were no hangers for our clothes. We could not even dream of toilet papers for the hotel prices of 2$.On the 23rd of June, they celebrated the winter solstice (mid winter day). Building fire on the streets was the same as Scandinavians do during mid summer day.
Salar de Uyuni – The salt desert I went for a day trip to see the world’s biggest salt desert which is 12.000km2at an altitude of 3800 meter. This dry lake’s bottom consists of a few meters thick salt layer which is covered fully by water during the wet season. During Inca times, they produced/dug salt here and they carried it to their Empire through the famous Inca trails as the Roman Empire did in Europe. Not far from here, there was a rich silver mine, so thanks to this, there was already a train railway built in the 19th century. In the surrounding villages, they were digging for salt, because in this rigid, barren, infertile environment, it is the only income for them. But today nobody was working because of yesterday’s celebration. They had drunk too much. In the far distance, a volcano rises from the shiny white salt lake. Moonscape. In the middle of the lake, there is a small hotel which was built from salt including chairs, beds etc. The Hungarian flag shows that some Hungarians were helping to build this building. But the highlight of the day was a fish-shaped island where thousands of cactus stretch towards the sky. The longest is 12m high and 1200 years old. Returning to the bus station I read an advertisement about the festival tomorrow in Potosi which made me go there the next day.PotosiI arrived on the day of a festival and all streets were filled with bras bands and dancers dressed in traditional dress representing different areas of Bolivia. Most of them didn’t wear socks in spite of the freezing temperature. The local people were buying beer and hot wine for the musicians and the dancers. After 10pm, most of the people were drunk so the festival quietened down soon.Potosi was the pearl of Spanish Empire. Today, it is a world heritage city because of fantastic colonial architectures including more than 80 beautiful churches. This is the world highest city and was established in 1545. It was the world’s biggest silver mine which supplied the Spanish crown for 300 years. In the 18th centuries, it was bigger than London or Shanghai! The houses there had wonderfully-carved wooden balconies giving a charming aspect, which was not like today’s mining towns for example in Hungary.A huge hill was rising next to the town, the famous silver mine, which was cultivated by slaves during 300 years it was worked and more than 8 millions!!! of them died. They were forced to work over 12 hours a day (by giving them coca leave), and they could get out of the mine only once every 4 months! We can visit this mine and see how people are working today, but the environment has not changed so much because they are mostly using hand power to cultivate the mine and because of silicosis, most of them die within 10 years.
In the 19th century, no more silver was found in the mine, so today it is producing zinc, copper, and sulphur. On the mine tour, we exploded dynamite which we bought in the market in the suburb of Potosi. In the mine, we gave coca leaves for the miners who are always chewing them to eliminate their tiredness and hunger. We also gave pure alcohol (96%) to drink to them and when we arrived at the underground shrine, we gave the same things to the devil of the mine. They are afraid of the devil, so they try to get along with it and befriend by offerings. We can listen to colorful stories about miners who sold their souls to the devil; in return next day they could find a rich shaft to get wealthy. There are 5000 shafts on 17 levels, in the deeper part they are working in 30-50 degrees Celsius, with visibility only 20 cm because of thick dust. Returning to the ground, there were some widows who were breaking useless (which already had been thrown out by miners as a garbage) stones, working under the strong sunrays, earning only one Euro daily. And in freezing evenings, they sleep in their stone shelters. This is a hellish existence, a real hell on Earth.
SucreIn 1538 this capital city was established by Spanish. After 1825, when Bolivia achieved their independence, they named their country after Simon Bolivar, and this city was named after General Sucre, who was one of the army leaders in the independent war. The local people still regard the city as the capital but most of the government offices except for the highest court are functioning in La Paz. Being at only 2000m elevation, the climate becomes more tropical and life is more vivid, with traffic, and a busy market district. It is common to see here `live` telephone boxes: people who attach mobile phones to their bodies with a chain, and let their customers make a phone call anywhere and anytime. We saw many more beggars and musicians here, but the best was an old blind man who was karaoke-ing to radio music and when there was speech on one channel, he looked for another channel to sing a song. To be a vegetarian is easier here but even if I ask not to put any meat in my meal, they ask me ‘so you want chicken, or fish?`This is not a linguistic misunderstanding but a cultural difference. Another typical story is that if I want to eat fried potato, they give chicken too. Ordering only potatoes is not possible. Strange logic for me. I discovered a vegetarian restaurant, but surprisingly, I found goulash, in which of course meat is used, on the menu. At the street vendors’, you can find MP3 CDs of Falco –the Austrian singer from 80s – and Berlioz the classical composer, friendly together. Eclectic. Hotel Jerusalem, bazaar Elohim attracted my attention and made me think why here?’, and Lada Samara, the Russian car appears from the `great` past. Bolivia is eclectic.In South America, it is strange that they collect bus terminal tax. On the other hand, it is true that 11- hour bus ride cost only $5, but usually not more than $1 per hour. But we have to be exposed / to watch classical Chinese Karate films all the time, plus listen to crying children around us. The main road often turns into a dirt road to shake my thoughts up. With the long journey we can attain a modified mind state without any drug.
CochabambaArriving at dawn, the nightlife was going on, drunken people and some ugly prostitutes were still on duty. During daytime, this business capital turns into a market town, but here one can hardly see traditionally dressed Indians. They were selling pop- corn and lemons from wheelbarrows or just sitting on the ground. In this country, they are still reusing and repairing the old 50-kg. rice sacks. One of my Servas hosts invited me to his son’s birthday party at local McDoval’s!! (not McDonald’s) Very funny. In the nearby park, there were street performers blowing fire, and street photographers with interesting backgrounds, who send your pictures to your address. There were many denominations preaching and baptizing then getting rid of bad evils from people. It was theatrical and emotional. When a beggar came to me, the priest suddenly got out his role to get rid of the beggar, then, the next moment, he continued his emotional preaching. After that I couldn’t avoid my fate, I was the next who was de-devilled (rid of my evils) by the priest. So, the rest of my travel I had to continue without my daemon. 🙂 (Socrates was executed because of his personal daemon.) Other Indian women were singing Bolivian Christian pop with lots of tears and emotions. A bit further on, a local radio station’s DJ mixed Bolivian oldies, people dancing to it and others invited me to drink the local alcoholic drink.In Bolivia there is discrimination against Indians, but Kechuas and Aymara Indians are very proud of their tradition. Generally the situation of women is very hard because of the `macho` society.
For Bolivians the family is very important but it is very common that women raise their children without their father. Contradiction. Their compulsory education is free, but the quality doesn’t give a chance for the poor people to enter universities. Bolivia should be rich because of rich natural resources but isn’t. Bolivia is a very depressed nation due to their history (there are many similarities with Hungarians). They are not proud of their achievements. The politicians are corrupt, as usual everywhere, and they sell out the country very successfully. The dissatisfied folks blocks the roads regularly; as a result, the president resigned. And what next? There come another one who is similar to the previous president. The south part of Bolivia is rich in oil and gas, but the people are protesting against the building of a pipeline through Chile because they still have a big trauma caused by a war 100 years ago, in which they lost a big part of their land. Amusement park. I tried ‘Kamikaze’ and a father of a young girl asked me to look after his daughter while the roller coaster was running. We could imagine the feeling of what the falling airplane was like. So it was a good preparation for the La Paz bus ride going up to the mountains again. In the evening I bought a bus ticket but in the morning, I surprisingly found out that the bus company did not run buses to La Paz in the morning. In South America everything is possible. Finally the woman in the office booth just found another company for half the price. So they had a big profit at my expense. Clever.
La PazSituated in a deep valley, the slopes were covered with red-tiled roofs. Arriving from 4400m there is a fascinating view over the city, which is the highest capital in the world. In the city centre noise, smog and terrible big traffic, but not really high skyscrapers as in capitals generally. The whole center is one big market. In every street people are sitting on the cold floor selling fruit and other industrial products. They were pumping vegetable oil from a 200-liter barrel into the bottles of customers. In every restaurant the TV broadcast football matches which are like a show. On 70% of the radio ‘Sports Highlight’ we can frequently can hear for 15 seconds’ the enthusiastic word; ggoooooooooooooooooollll. The local minibuses showed their destinations but the bus attendants still called/shout out the same to collect people. Senseless to me but they have to employ people. Cemetery: there is a tradition in Bolivia, a few years after a funeral they exhume the bones and burn them in a fire, the ash being deposited in the blockhouse-like graves. Behind the glass relatives leave some characteristic objects, for example, photographs, a toothbrush, some football trophies, but most funny was the singing `I love you’ Chinese post card. But the most common things were the plastic Jesus-es and flowers of course. San Pedro prison – it is a real prison and a tourist attraction. For a small tip, you can visit this prison. Whereas in east Europe, it is very complicated to visit, even for relatives, here, even for aliens it is easy to visit.In and around La Paz, so many things to do for example the moon valley where interesting rigid landscape attract us, you can ride on a bicycle down 3300m lower or you can do trekking one of the famous Inca trails in the nearby mountains.
Inka TrailIt was a perfect trade and communication network for Inca administration. They found the shortest and easiest way through the mountains. Every 20km, they had a caravansary and news could arrive from 320km distance within two days!! I did the Choro trail enjoying a fantastic view on my way to the jungle. At first, I climbed 5200m then I started my 50-km trekking. Downwards the landscape changed from the rigid moon-like shapes to jungle. On the second day, surprisingly, I met a Japanese man, who had been living on the mountain for 30 years and he knew Hungarian history well. I finished my trekking at the eastern part of the Andes, which was the territory of Jesuit missionaries till the 18th century.
The movie ‘Mission’ describes this area. They had the strongest army at that time in South America and established `optimum community hierarchy` and they had a good education system and there was even an Italian baroque opera house in the jungle. But their missionary activity was so successful, that we know nothing about the indigenous Indians.TivanakuThere are the most famous ruins in Bolivia where civilization existed from B.C.600 till the Inca time. 20.000 people lived in this ancient well-planned city and they used 175,000kg stones for constructing buildings which were carried from 40km away. When the Spanish asked them how they built this city in the desert, the Aymara Indians answered: With the help of God. So it is the same miracle of human civilizations as the pyramids in Egypt. But not too much remained as the Spaniard used the stones for their building.
At 2000 meters lower there is a pleasant holiday village with many excellent trekking possibilities into the surrounding mountains. I arrived on the `day of La Paz` – the day when people celebrate the independence uprising too. In the 19th century, the celebration of La Paz turned into the uprising against the Spaniards. As a result, they got independence after the short war. Of course, Napoleon did the biggest part of the job, so they only had to fight against a weak empire. Even in Sorata they had a three-day festival starting with the La Paz day and continuing with some Christian celebration and procession with brass bands, dances and beer as usual in Bolivia. There are many excellent trekking routes, so I did trekking to a glacier lake ascending more than 2000m and resting at the ancient Inca ruins where they sacrificed beings to the gods. An extremely strong place, I flew back in to 15th centaury, above me the clouds changed into celestial animals disappearing behind the high 6000 meters peaks. My way to Copacabana the roads were blocked at a village because it is the way that people protest against the government decisions. But the only one who suffer because of blockade are the people, so we had to get off the bus and walk 7 km where traffic could continue again. Many people were carrying their heavy belongings, so I was still happy with my 24kg backpack. The connecting microbus, after a short distance, ran out of petrol, so we had to walk again.
Life is adventure.Copacabana cathedral is an unforgettable beauty in Moorish style, the surrounding hill is a pilgrimage site where people come to ask for safe driving. I ended my Bolivian adventure at Lake Titicaca which is the highest navigable lake in the world (at 4000m) and the biggest in South America. The island of Moon and Sun famous not just because of the beauty of environment but it is the birth of Incas according to their mythology. We could reach the island by a small boat which didn’t have a life buoy because they believe that if someone falls into the water, they are not allowed to rescue the person as he/she will be a sacrifice to Virakocha, the god. So it is how the tradition survive in these deeply Christian country. There are Inca trails, labyrinths and ruins on the island, and fascinating blue water, bright sky welcome us, people ride on donkeys to calling our fantasy to the past. Beautiful sunrise over 5-6000m hills made me understand why the Incas thought about this place was the birth place of the Sun and of course their origin.My visa expired so I had to leave this beautiful country but I’m sure I will return here later in my life.
Facts about Bolivia
90% are Catholic but in the villages, they mix with animist beliefs. They believe in nature gods, because the sun and the earth give the possibility for life. The cycle of the moon is connected to fertility, and the mountains to the weather. Pachamama brings harvest and richness and people offer coca leaves, alcohol and animal blood asking for forgiveness if they hurt the mother earth (mining, agriculture) In Bolivia, they have more than 300 kinds of potatoes.During their modern history, they lost 1million km2 by 1935. So, they have similar trauma as Hungarians. Exporting cocaine brings more income to the country than legal things. The government – with the help of USA – forced the farmers to change from producing coca to pineapples but a few years later the market filled up with unsaleable fruits so they returned to their stable business. Long distance buses are used to deliver mails too.