Bolivia has turned us into fair weather travellers. More accurately it could be argued that Paul has become a fair weather traveller whilst Tracy is coping much better with this Bolivian experience. I’m (Paul) just getting over my second bout of food poising and a cold, and that coupled with the usual Bolivian difficulties of crossing the road, breathing and staying alive have found me searching for more comfortable travel alternatives at every turn.
One such comfort is a plane journey instead of Bolivian bus rides. If you Google search Bolivian bus journeys, expect to hit hundreds of horror stories about miserable 10, 15, 20 hour rides at altitude over stony roads on buses without toilets with an ongoing likelihood of road blockades which could leave you in the middle of nowhere – Instead of the bus station I sought out the plane station and with the click of a mouse we were at La Paz Airport ready to fly to Santa Cruz.
We flew TAM (Bolivia’s quasi military airline) the pilot was wearing a military uniform and flew the 737 like a fighter pilot on an urgent mission.
The night flight was terrifying, just seconds after leaving the runway the plane banked steeply to the left and maintained the position for about three minutes. It looked like the wing tips were going to hit the houses below, there is no way a plane in the UK would fly in that manner. I was absolutely sure something had gone wrong after take off and the pilot was making a vain attempt to get back to the airfield. The plane continued its steep bank as I tried to see what people were eating in the houses below. At one point in the bank the glowing street lamps beneath us actually stated to get closer – we were going down. I was absolutely terrified and when I turned to Tracy to ask if her something was wrong her pursed lips and tensed body gave me no comfort, she had already adopted the semi brace position. Eventually the plane came out of its bank and flew off the steep plateau of La Paz which instantly gave us +4000m of altitude – thank God for that – I’ll take the bus next time.
There is no doubt that the Bolivian economy is booming. The shoots of recovery are illustrated no more crudely than Santa Cruz. The district of Equipetrol is mainly a busy dual carriageway flanked by trendy upmarket bars, restaurants and hotels. The streets off the carriageway are lined with huge low rise, modern houses in a style that I imagine is similar to a residential district in Hollywood. Equipetrol exists in a small bubble, a five minute walk in either direction takes the inquiring traveller back to third world Bolivian life. Spending time in Equipetrol is strangely weird, a false bubble of new wealth in a traditionally poor country.
Status in Equipetrol is defined by the size of your SUV. There were dozens of pimped up Toyota land cruisers cruising the boulevard driven by black shade wearing, greasy haired posers. Wealth in Bolivia is the exception and the few that have it, flaunt it with unashamed extravagance. We killed some time sitting in a roadside bar watching life pass by, occasional Gucci wearing customers came to join us, each of them nearly crashing into adjacent tables because they were more interested in making sure we had noticed them than looking were they were going. It seem de-rigour to answer your mobile phone whilst striding across the floor of the bar to take the call whilst pacing about outside in the eye line of observers. The message was clear – notice us, we’re from Bolivia but we have wealth.
We took a walk up the boulevard and to our surprise we came across a huge recently built shopping mall, our Equipterol bubble experience was about to get stranger. We entered the Ventura Shopping Mall to find a polished shopping centre which would rival the Trafford Centre. The mall was brand new, it must have been only days old. We couldn’t believe we were still in Bolivia, it felt like home. Just a few miles away you could find beggars and people selling fruit off the pavement. We had to cross a rickety wooden bridge over a sewer to get to the Mall but then we were in a shiny upmarket shopping haven, the contrast was challenging. Despite the pleasant environment, there were hardly any shoppers, the centre was virtually empty.
I doubt the economy has blossomed enough to allow many people the gift of expendable income but there is no doubt that if Bolivians work hard and plan for the future (instead of the next day), there has never been a better opportunity to reap rewards. President Eva Morles is hugely popular, he’s illegally about to contest his third term. Presidential cycles in Bolivia are limited to two terms but after his first, Morales changed the official country name slightly removing the word “Republica” he is now quick to claim that he has only done one term in the newly named country and so that’s his legitimate platform for contesting another term. We are told that Morales will win by landslide, the rich are getting richer and the poor have real hope, the President pursues a socialist agenda and no doubt he’s advocating closing the gap that is the inequality of wealth. On the second day we took a taxi out of town and noticed Raddisson were building a new hotel from scratch. More proof that the economy is on the verge of boom with the confidence of global investors and another illustration that Bolivia has a real opportunity to enter the developed world. The same day we heard that Argentina had defaulted on their bonds, the Bolivians must be rubbing their hands together.
We stayed two nights in Santa Cruz, Equipetrol was the highlight. The second day we visited a place called Guembe Biocentre, an out of town park with a bird sanctuary and swimming pools which would have been relaxing were it not for the stomach issues which beset me. I came down with food poisoning and had to dose up on imodium before the short 25 minute flight to Sucre the next day. We have now stayed in Sucre for four nights. Sucre’s an agreeable place with many whitewashed buildings, a pleasant square, park and a cemetery that’s worth a wonder. We stayed two nights in a hostel called the Celtic Cross, run by an Irishman that had a baby with a Bolivian girl which meant he “needed” to settle in Bolivia – good luck to him! I told him that I thought he was brave settling in this wild, raw country, he assured me his situation was born more out of necessity than choice and he occasionally missed Dublin.
We move on to Potosi next, home of the silver mines. Last night we went to a bar to watch a film called the Devil’s Miner. The film is about a young boy’s experience of working in the Cerro Rico Mine known as the man eating mountain, the mountain is estimated to have taken over 8 million lives. I would love to go down the mine, its a popular thing to do but the stories of claustophobia, exposure to arsenic and asbestos and the threat of mine collapse might just be enough to put me off…..watch this space!