Following my salt flats excursion I felt a sudden compunction to do something productive with my time so I decided to park up in Sucre for a couple of weeks where I did 8 days of Spanish classes. I´d like to say that I´m now fluent in Espanol but that really isn´t the case. I´m developing a sort of mongrel Spanglish which must be absolutely awful to listen to but I can make myself understood, for the most part, as long as I don´t delve into anything to serious – region, life, death and the like.
The classes have actually been really helpful and I am trying very hard to keep the learning going but there have been some notable hiccups along the way. When trying to buy some tomatoes at the market I exclaimed with confidence, ´I´m a tomato´. When trying to buy a chicken breast at the butchers, I announced to the young female attendant – ´I like breasts´. Ah well, all part of the learning experience I guess.
Sucre is a really lovely town. It´s much lower in altitude than La Paz and much warmer. It´s easy to walk around and it feels very safe for foreigners. With all the colonial architecture you could easily be somewhere in Spain. Through the language school, I formed a good group of friends and life consisted of Spanish classes in the morning followed by ´study´ at a cafe overlooking the city in the afternoons, most often assisted with a bottle of wine. One Sunday we even got ambitious and cooked a roast for 13 people. For this we bought a filet of beef which fed all of us with meat to spare and it cost 12 pounds. So cheap! I would never dream of roasting a filet for people at home.
This is one of the notable features about Bolivia – everything is super cheap. In Sucre, I had my own apartment – separate bedroom, bathroom and kitchen – for 6 pounds a night. I would buy 3 avocados, 3 tomatoes and three bread rolls (the shopkeepers only wanted to sell things in 3s for some reason) for 3 pounds. A really nice dinner out at a posh Gringo restaurant is about 3.5 pounds. As a foreigner, it´s easy to revel in how far your money goes. You can live like a King for nothing, it´s great.
And yet the reason we can do this is because poverty is so extreme here. There are beggars everywhere, often the elderly, and at one fast food restaurant I went to, kids came in with plastic bags, literally begging for the scraps off your plate. That is heart breaking. Child labour is also common place, you´ll often be served by young children at market stalls.
One night I got a chance to watch a Bolivian film, The Devils Miner, I highly recommend it if you get a chance to see it. It follows the lives of two children who work in the the silver mines at a town called Potosi. Potosi was once the world´s richest city because of the silver it produced and this funded Spanish colonialism for many years. Today, there are only scraps left but poor locals still go into the mines in the hope of finding silver. The working conditions are appalling and the life expectancy for miners is mid 30s, my age. It is estimated that 12,000 people work in the mines, almost 1000 of these are children.
All of this has got me to wondering about travel in poor countries. When you´re in your late teens and early 20s I think it´s really important to go out, see the world and experience new cultures and different ways of living. As you get older, it´s more difficult to do this kind of travel without taking on some responsibility for what you are witnessing. If you see great poverty, or injustice and just carry on through enjoying the fact that your dollar goes a long way, what does this make you? I´m not really sure what the answer is to all this but its something I´m thinking about a lot.
On a lighter note, I´d like to spend a moment on the people and, of course, the food. I´ve found it quite difficult to have any meaningful interaction with Bolivians, partly because of language barriers and partly because they can be quite reserved. Unlike in Asia or the Middle East where tourists are seen as a great business opportunity, Bolivians can often be indifferent to the potential trade that you bring. On the other hand, I´ve found some of the Bolivians I´ve met to be really welcoming and to have a great sense of humour.
In Bolivia you start to see people getting around in the traditional dress of the Andes. There is a real difference in dress, particularly for women, between those from the country and those in the cities. Country women will most often be seen in a puffy pleated skirt carrying a colourful morcilla (bag) which could hold anything from potatoes to a child and on their heads they´ll often wear a felt top hat. It´s a fantastic get up and I´d love to show you pictures but I´ve not been brave enough to take any. I guess I figure that if someone came to London and took pictures of me because my dress sense was so unusual (some of you might argue it is!), I´d be a little bit offended.
The food in Bolivia definitely beats that of Chile. They´ve got an amazing range of fresh fruit and vege and as I´m getting closer to the jungle I can get my hands on papaya, mango and other exotic fruit I´ve never tried before. They do great soups and for lunch it´s best to order the set menu where you get a soup and some sort of meat dish. The meat isn´t as good as that of Argentina, where is?! And like Chile and Argentina every main comes with rice and potatoes which I think is slight overkill but, then again, carbs are good.