Published in Journal of Hispanic Philology, 11 (1987), 193-98.

The Editor's Column

Bolivia

by Daniel Eisenberg

One of the countries most exciting to visit, with the most favorable surprises, and which I left with the most pleasant feelings, was Bolivia, which I visited in 1981.
     Bolivia began for me in Brazil, when the bus turned off the paved road out of Campo Grande onto the dirt road towards the small border city of Corumbá. The road went across the southern tip of the Pantanal, a huge swamp and bird refuge. We met three vehicles in six hours. It is the only trip on which I've ever seen alligators alongside the road (three), and on which we had to ford streams with ducks swimming where we would be crossing. The driver would stop, and look, and then across we'd go, scattering the ducks. Brand-new Mercedes bus.
     Into Corumbá at dusk, finding the woman with Bolivian currency for sale, seeing whatever movie was shown simply to pass the time. While traveling, I improvised a technique for estimating the size of towns: counting the movie theaters. Corumbá had two.
     The South American Handbook said the Bolivian train crossed the border and came into the Brazilian station, but that was no longer correct; one had to cross by road, then take the train. A bus took one across the border to the Bolivian station, but I wasn't allowed on because I hadn't gone to the Brazilian train station to clear passport control, naively thinking it would be located on the road. Five of us shared a taxi from the Brazilian train station, passing through Bolivian passport control (no customs) and over a short stretch of dirt road to the first Bolivian train station. The toll was 25¢. All roads in Bolivia have tolls. All vehicular trips have an official itinerary sheet, stamped as one progresses.
     The train ride to Santa Cruz de la Sierra was pleasant, except for the derailment, which nearly left us upside-down but didn't. Fortunately only the last car was affected, and when it couldn't be quickly lifted back on the tracks it was unhitched and we piled into the two front ones. Santa Cruz is the most modern city in Bolivia, I was informed by young men on the train, feigning offense that it wasn't the center of my visit to their country. It exists in a world of its own, on smuggling and cocaine. It is one of the few places where American dollars were not much in demand (the other was Colombia). There were plenty of dollars. In Bolivia one does not change money in a bank but with a money-changer, and in Santa Cruz these stand around the plaza with their funds in black satchels. There are no tourist sights. The market was worth a visit, with its quantities of electronic equipment sold from stands, under a canvas roof. Santa Cruz had the most motley collection of vehicles ever seen in one city, from almost every country which makes them, even Russian Latas (Fiats). They bore ancient license plates from Florida, New York, and Brazil, or none at all.
     Santa Cruz de la Sierra is not in the mountains, despite its name. It is at the foot of them. There is no railroad into the mountains, but there are regular buses: two a week to Sucre, where I was going. Bus travel is more important in the Andes than elsewhere. The bus driver, whose title is "maestro," carries the mail. Drivers work in pairs, spelling each other, and have huge muscles from steering the buses over the dirt roads.
     The daylight portion of the trip featured gas purchased out of drums in a store, tapped into a pitcher as if it were wine. (Gas was distributed in drums hauled by pickup trucks, as a tank truck could never have navigated the road.) While the bus was serviced we had lunch at a inn with no plumbing, eating what was put in front of us and glad to get it. There were large antennas providing the town's only link, other than the road, with the rest of the country.
     This was the main highway to Cochabamba and La Paz. The secondary road taking us the last 12 hours to Sucre was the worst. It was out of a cartoon: one lane, carved out of the side of a mountain, unpaved of course, with nothing marking the edge of the cliff. This was our route at night, in the fog. When we met one of the various tractor-trailers going the opposite direction we had to back up until a wide place was found. Vehicles there do not have heat, I learned; one needs a blanket, which one of the drivers lent me.
     The bus carried two spares and a goat, legs tied, in the baggage compartment. (One can't take a goat inside a first-class bus, the driver insisted.) For the third and fourth flats we waited while driver and assistant took the tires off the rim and patched them, inflating them from a dashboard fitting for that purpose. As there was plenty of time to observe I noticed that time was saved by replacing only five of the ten bolts that held the wheels on. After that I started walking around and inspecting the tires and wheels of any vehicle in which I was going to ride, but then how much choice did one have, anyway? The women would sometimes cross themselves when they got on a bus.
     Sucre was worth the visit: a colonial city, almost unchanged; from there into Perú Concolorcorvo, who I had with me, is still helpful. Sucre is the capital of Bolivia: a good test for the accuracy of maps. The only governmental function in Sucre is the Supreme Court, but it's still the capital. La Paz is "sede del gobierno." Bolivia's independence document is on exhibit, and one learns that Bolivia, then called Alto Perú, was the first country in Latin America to declare its independence. A former palace, now an army camp, could be visited, with its empty bird cages, ruined mansion with ballroom, and antique ornamented indoor plumbing, perhaps the first in the country.
     Potosí was next, a short distance but a long trip. As the train line began again at Sucre I took it. The track inched its way up the side of a mountain overlooking the Pilcomayo River, and as there had just been a train wreck in Perú with fatalities, I could not help but wonder how often the roadbed was inspected for water damage. The 15 mph speed, even on flat sections, was a relief. Upon approaching Potosí many young men climbed in through the windows, so as to claim seats and sell them to new passengers.
     Potosí is the highest city in the Western Hemisphere, and the altitude did make me sick. Coca does help. The mint is a museum, one mine runs tours; there are many churches and much Christian art by colonial Indian artists, some very talented. The former Carmelite convent can be visited.
     Potosí to La Paz, now in the altiplano and used to fords instead of bridges, was routine. The altiplano is bright, as reputed. It is also cold and desert, like all deserts somewhat threatening but with a lot to look at once one learns how. A descent down Bolivia's only expressway and into La Paz, protected by a canyon from the worst of the cold. In La Paz I was astonished to learn that Bolivia, in its own view, is a maritime country: the phone book proudly proclaims it on the cover, much as Ecuador insists it is an Amazonian country "por razón y por derecho." Bolivia lost its seacoast in a war with Chile a century ago, and the memory is kept very much alive, indeed the topic of a play I saw there.
     From La Paz by bus to Lake Titicaca. Reed boats are still used, although their disappearance is predicted. Fiberglass pleasure boats are also seen. More dramatic is the Bolivian navy, some ChrisCraft painted gray. This is a symbolic force since Bolivia scarcely needs naval protection against Perú, the closest ally among its immediate neighbors and the only one which has not annexed territory once Bolivian. Across the straights of Tiquina by ferry and up a final stretch of winding dirt road to Copacabana, Bolivia's religious capital and pilgrimage site. (The beach in Rio de Janeiro was named for the church of Nuestra Señora de Copacabana built there.) And finally along a poor but flat road into Perú, standing in the back of a truck, Indian-style, for lack of other transportation. In the border town of Yunguyo the three foreign tourists of the day were stranded, having managed to arrive on the day of a general strike, with no transportation into Puno to be had. Yunguyo was a no-movie-theater town, whose only amusement was watching the sunset over the lake. For which eventuality one travels with a deck of cards.
     The above does not quite account for my favorable reactions to Bolivia. A possible additional reason is that there were so few other tourists; packaged tours seldom visit Bolivia, partly because of the altitude, which is much more jarring if arriving by air. One had the country pretty much to one's self. Yet that is also true for much of Brazil and other places as well; outside of Europe, if one avoids airports and beaches one also avoids most tourists.
     But the main reason, I think, is that it was surprising. I didn't know that there were mariachis in Bolivia, but there are. I didn't know that it produced and refined its own oil, but it does that as well (for which reason it has little foreign debt). Vestiges of nineteenth-century English influence survive: English first names are popular ("Freddy"); gasoline is sometimes sold in imperial gallons; the national airline is Lloyd Air Boliviano. Bolivia's politics were incomprehensible; although I tried to find out why it had an average of more than one government per year, I failed. The only information I got was that there were 50 political parties in a country of 6 million people, that this was the way everyone got to participate in the government, and that the coups were bloodless, which is true.
     Throughout my visit Bolivia was—as it often is—under martial law, with its universities closed, yet tension was invisible. Martial law meant one went to an additional office and got an additional stamp in one's passport before leaving. Perú, officially normal and not yet described by the State Department as dangerous for Americans, was much more disturbing, with numerous strikes and demonstrations, the telephone company guarded by a soldier with a submachine gun, the first of the terrorist bombings reported in the newspaper.*
     Bolivia also has a sense of mystery about it, of history, of native cultures which survive, protected by poverty and linguistic isolation. I could observe how the Indians lived: under terrible conditions of health and sanitation, to say nothing of comfort. But Spanish is a minority language in Bolivia. Both quechua and aymara are widely spoken. There were Indians who spoke Spanish, especially in La Paz, although it did not seem that conversation was invited. About what they thought or spoke among themselves, what psychic resources enabled them to survive under such circumstances, I had and have not a clue. All one could do was look. Women in their bowler hats (some with two hats). Brightly colored woolens, shawls, ponchos, and what looked like ski caps, goods carried slung over the shoulder in a blanket or shawl. Their llamas, a small relative of the camel which is the beast of burden in the central Andes. The trucks, the cargo section of which served as their motorized passenger transportation. The ruins of the Indian cities and fortifications.

FOOTNOTE:

     * No foreign reporters, to my knowledge, are stationed in Bolivia, so little information reaches the outside about it. Perhaps the lack of violence in Bolivia is in part due to the fact that violent or terrorist acts would not receive much publicity. When reporters do come, as with the recent visit of Juan Carlos, there are incidents for them to report on: hostile signs greeted the Spanish king, and a bust of Isabel la Católica was dynamited ("El Rey lleva a Bolivia el apoyo económico solidario de la España democrática," El País, May 21-23, 1987, "El Rey, en Bolivia" and "Afectuosa acogida en la histórica ciudad de Sucre," El País, May 24, 1987, all reprinted in the international air edition, May 25, 1987, pp. 8 and 11).