Eye-opening week in Bolivia

Op-Ed, Danny Joseph

Published on June 6, 2014

It’s sometimes quite mysterious where your experience and your psyche take you on life’s journey.

I spent a week or so in Bolivia recently and my senses, seemingly dulled after the longest winter in memory, were vividly awoken.

Bolivia is, by the standard definition, a poor country, a Third World country, and certainly a country of contrasts. I journeyed with three very bright and resourceful people who had explicit reasons for being there. I characterized my reason as a resource person, a governmental appendage to their expertise.

The full day’s travel to get there was unremarkable as far as travel was concerned. But upon landing in La Paz, the world’s highest capital, a strange lethargy overtook us. Altitude sickness. We coped as best we could and slowed our every move to a snail’s pace.

Our reception by the locals was the kind of genuine kinship that is so hard to describe. The hugs were honest firm, and joyous. I certainly won’t bore you with an itinerary, but want to impart what I gleaned from living with these people and interacting with them from dawn to dusk.

If the child playing with a soccer ball barefoot in the dusty street was poor, his smile, the smile of youthful joy, certainly didn’t reflect poverty. If the 10-year-old shoeshine boy was poverty stricken, his smile masked that as well. The sheer majesty of the geography has shaped their lives. There are high-elevation plateaus, low-level plateaus, a great salt desert, arid plains, fertile valleys and bustling urban centres. The Bolivians have carved out their existence based on how they have met the challenges of where they live.

We “westernized” our dinner the first night on the town and somehow I felt as if I cheated. But our subsequent dining experiences threw us into Bolivian life with a bang.

Our mission took us daily on 100-kilometre round trip. The only way to describe Bolivian highway travel is chaos mixed with a liberal dose of potential suicide. With great frequency we witnessed miniature chapel-shaped shrines to family members who perished in the automotive death dance. I shall never forget our driver who handled the madhouse traffic with great aplomb.

 Dogs are ubiquitous in Bolivia. Rarely is a dog a pet, but rather a part of the landscape - the true essence of junk yard dogs.

Bolivia’s (mostly rural) poverty is mitigated by an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. The wonderful bread is baked in gigantic earthen ovens, pushed in wheelbarrows to the market well before dawn and sold all day. Fruit and vegetables were abundant. One dusty street, a victim of massive floods, was dedicated to the sale of caskets. I have no comment. I drank the finest coffee in the western world long before it becomes prostituted; I met natives in incredibly colourful dress; saw the majesty of the Andes; and drank spectacular wine. The other native libation was another remarkable experience - from what I can recall of that evening.

The Bolivians cherish their religious history and their cathedrals, built mostly by Spanish invaders, are immense and inspiring.

It is on a certain level a magical land. We knew it was there from high school geography but to witness it up close and personal is a different matter.

Prior to my trip, I read Love in the Time of Cholera and after coming home 100 Years of Solitude. These two books gave me such a sense of the Latin American experience and a clear insight into the soul of a continent.

Thanks Bolivia. Mucha Gracias y Vaya con Dios


Danny Joseph is a lifelong resident of Truro.