It was over four years ago, at the age of 27, that I visited a country I knew absolutely nothing about. My in-depth internet research told me that it was ruled by an authoritarian dictator and that it was connected to Cocaine. ‘Probably folks out there do a lot of that white powder’ I thought.
So yes, expecting abundance of both Evo Morales and Cocaine, I walked across the border from La Quiaca, Argentina to Villazon, Bolivia.
Those few hundred footsteps took me a couple hundred years back in time. The market on the Bolivian side of the border seemed like it hadn’t changed in ages.
And here is why if you can get yourself to Bolivia in your twenties, your older self will thank you forever.
Folks in India think that nothing could be worse than the pothole ridden roads of Mumbai. But for most parts in Southern Bolivia you have to rub your eyes to find the road even while you are on it.
The roads are so difficult that a break down can be listed down as a definite en-route stop.
Poor condition of roads is only but one aspect. The beauty & danger is another. Most bus rides are a breathing exercise. The fog and the mountains take your breath away. But the sight of the deep valley, at the edge of which your bus is riding, can only leave you gasping for breath.
The best example is the North Yungas Road or ‘The Death Road’. I rode it on a cycle like many others. It’s called that name for a reason, read this BBC story to know more about what the road has to offer.
2. Salar Di Uyuni:
Bolivia is home to the largest salt flats in the world, known as Salar Di Uyuni. The beauty & variety that the salar offers is beyond imaginary comprehension. These days the northern lights have caught the fascination of many a people, but the Salar in Bolivia definitely does not pale in comparison.
It is the place where the earth not just meets but imitates the sky.
Oruro is situated close to the centre of Bolivia. It is a town where you get a feeling that hardly anything goes on. For most part of the year that is true. But come February and Oruro is like a giant that wakes up to life.
The town is filled with people from all parts of Bolivia and the world. Colourful, traditional performances and music follow. Kids indulge in water fights.
I went there to pick up water balloon fights with kids. I must admit, it was a match of evens, but with my steely resolve I did manage to win.
February 2015 is the next carnaval in Oruro. Just in case you needed to know 🙂
4. Isla Del Sol:
Lake Titicaca in north of Bolivia also spreads itself into Peru. There is an island on the lake where the Incas believed Sun God was born. Hence the name Isla Del Sol (Island of the Sun).
It is a small island of about 5000 inhabitants. The only way to get around is by foot.
There is nothing to distract you, unless you find kids speaking in an unknown language an unwelcome distraction. It’s the perfect place to chart out plans for the future. Or to just be quiet.
Walk around to experience village life and to check out Inca ruins.
Also to smile at people who will smile back at you.
Ok Bolivia is probably not the best food destinations, if you hate dead animals. The country swears by meat and vegetarian as a concept is alien to most.
But the one thing I yearn from Bolivia is ‘Locro’ – the thick stew. It is the national dish in a few South American countries. Argentinians swear by it, but the Bolivians do a mean job of it too.
The thick stew is a mash of corn, special type of potatoes, some meat and many vegetables. The open source recipe is such that the resultant taste can vary from one restaurant to another. But this ‘haleem-meets-corn -soup’ will definitely have you licking the spoon.
6. The oldest professional footballer for President
Evo Morales, the third term president of Bolivia, is a controversial & intriguing figure.
Evo, or Ebo is everywhere in Bolivia. Evo’s pictures stare at you in most cities. His name initiates passionate conversations on the dinner table and with good reason. He is the first indigenous president of a country where they form the majority. Am I the only one who is reminded of Narendra Modi here?
Evo’s policies are radical, like heavy taxation and legalizing child labour.
Wikipedia says that he signed up as a part of a Bolivian football team making him the oldest professional footballer.
Image source: www.greanvillepost.com
7. Cocaine: Tulsi of Bolivia (not really, read on)
Cocaine is extracted out of a plant but with a lot of chemical addition to it. Coca, the plant from which it is extracted, on the other hand is central to Bolivian life. Labourers chew on it to stay energized, households offer it in a soothing cup of tea. It is also an offering to Pacahmama, the earth goddess. It is hardly the dangerous drug that it is associated with.
The average Bolivian does not even understand the international ban on it. It is what tulsi is to Indians and probably even more important.
So that my friends is what I remember of Bolivia. My superficial internet research ended in driving me farther away than getting me closer to real knowledge.
When all you Odd Travellers go there, you will find your own stories and reasons to encourage others. It is the country to visit when you are still creating your view of the world. Plus, except the flight to get there, it is really cheap.
It is the country that made me accept my ignorance.
Now I know – not all authoritarian figure led countries are dangerous places to live.
Now even I say – Coca si, Cocaina no (Yes to Coca, no to Cocaine)
Thanks to Bolivia!
Image source: vivalatinamerica.com