Culture Shock: Bolivia
Bolivia by abmiller99
Andrew Cummings give us an insider’s view on the eccentricities of Bolivia, after having spent his year abroad there...1. All dogs go to La Paz
One thing you might notice about La Paz is that there are dogs everywhere. They wander the streets in a way similar to cats in the UK, and on every street corner, in every square, you’re bound to see a dog. They come in all shapes and sizes, and almost every single one will be wearing something. That’s right: these cat-like dogs wear clothes. And not just any old clothes: in the past, I’ve spotted labradors wearing zebra-print coats, pitbulls in pink t-shirts, denim-clad chihuahuas, and – perhaps the strangest of them all – a pug in a Tudor dress. Though they might appear to be wandering the city alone, the majority of them actually have owners and homes to return to whenever they feel like it, although there is the odd stray. To make this phenomenon seem even more bizarre, there’s no sign of any poo anywhere. To summarise: La Paz is home to dogs that do wear clothes but don’t excrete.
2. Ch-ch-ch-ch-change, please?
A slight but frequent inconvenience is that cash machines dish out money in hundreds. You’d expect people in Bolivia to know about this; unfortunately you’d be sadly mistaken. No matter where you go, you’ll almost always be expected to carry millions of coins around with you so you can buy that model of a llama made out of salt that you always wanted. OK, so trying to pay for a salteña – Bolivia’s answer to a Cornish pasty – with a 200 boliviano note may seem impractical (take it out on the cash machines, it’s their fault), but once I was asked by a taxi driver to go into three different shops asking for change for a 20 boliviano note to pay for a trip that cost me 10 bolivianos. Get used to it, or get change.
3. Look at me
If you’re not brown-eyed, black-haired, dark-skinned and under 5’5’’, you’re going to attract a little bit of attention in Bolivia, particularly in places that don’t receive a lot of tourists. Appreciate that many people don’t see blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan creatures such as yourself in the flesh very often (and you’ll also need to appreciate that even brown hair is a little out-of-the-ordinary). Often, this attention is accompanied by a smile; on various occasions I was asked by waiting staff, shop assistants and even a band where I was from and what I was up to in Bolivia, and it was all very good-natured.
Saying that, on some occasions you might attract the wrong kind of attention. You’re a foreigner, an easy target; as long as you don’t go around dressed like a traveller (or a ‘gringo’: impractical, stripey trousers, llama-wool jumpers, etc.) you should be fine. I lived in what’s considered as one of La Paz’s more dangerous districts, and had no problems whatsoever. You’ve got to watch out for taxis, though: only use ones that say ‘Radio Movil’ on the front, as otherwise that car you’re getting into might not take you where you want to go. Your safest bet is to travel in numbers, or simply get a minibus (micro) or a taxibus (trufi) instead (see ‘Shortbus’ below). As a final note on this, be aware that Bolivia is not the crime-ridden, anarchistic state it’s sometimes made out to be; there are places in the UK that are much more dangerous than, say, Santa Cruz and La Paz.
5. Papers, etc.
Take photocopies of your passport, because occasionally you might be asked for it on the street to prove you’re not overstaying your welcome. Upon entry, ask for 90 days, because you’re freely entitled to them; for some reason officials have decided to start giving you only 30 unless you specify. If there’s a mistake on your entry stamp, don’t worry: I was technically living in Bolivia illegally for two weeks without knowing, but with a quick trip to the migration office they corrected my VISA without so much as a slap on the wrist. I was considering writing a novel about my time as an illegal immigrant, but I decided to write this instead. Damn.
One thing that might strike you as slightly out of the ordinary is local transportation, at least in major cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz. These may take the form of mini-vans complete with Bolivian man/woman/child screaming destinations in incomprehensibly rapid Spanish as they pass, or perhaps an American highschool-style bus, which are slightly slower, but much larger, much less cramped and much more colourful (blue-and-white or lime-green buses aren’t uncommon); either way you’ll have to shout when you want to get on and shout when you want to get off – they don’t do bus stops, really. Lastly, you might take a ‘trufi’ – it looks like a taxi, but it’s actually a kind of bus. These are all incredibly handy, incredibly cheap forms of transportation – a half-an-hour journey can cost anything from 10 to 50p. Drivers honk their horns for any old reason, too; sometimes it feels like they’re broken, but no, they’re just Bolivian.
Oh and, finally, if you’re moving around, be prepared for lots of geographical variation and stunning views. Life is hard.