Posted by: Jena Davison | November 30, 2009

Goodbye Argentina, Hello Bolivia

It was a bumpy three hours. That is, the bus ride from the Bolivian border town of Villazon to Tupiza, Bolivia, where I am now. Less than 5% of all roads in Bolivia are paved, which makes for long, circuitous journeys on makeshift dirt paths. Crossing the border into Bolivia went surprisingly smoothly. I woke up around 6:30am to catch a 7:30am bus from Jujuy, Argentina to La Quiaca, the Argentine border town. The ride was about four hours long. I was a bit nervous about crossing the border alone, but had not met anyone in Salta or Jujuy who was going to Bolivia around the same time as me. In fact, the majority of people I have met, have been traveling south, not north.

When I got off at La Quiaca, I grabbed my bag and went to the tourist information booth to ask where the frontera (border) was. I was told to walk three blocks straight, to take a left and walk a couple blocks more…in the direction of lots of people and commotion. As I was mid-way through my walk, I met an Australian guy named Adrien who was going to cross the border also, so I stuck with him as we got our exit and entrance stamps. The lines were not too long; it took about a half hour to get my exit stamp on the Argentina side and then we crossed a bridge, where I could physically see the border between Argentina and Bolivia, and waited for our entrance stamps. Originally, we were waiting in a long line that was moving as a snail´s pace, but a helpful woman informed us we were waiting on the wrong line, and we darted into the station, where we filled out a bit of paperwork and were on our way.

I am super happy I got my visa to Bolivia in advance, because it probably would have been a huge hassle to get at the border. I decided to get it in Salta, which was a good decision on my part. I had to get passport photos taken, photocopy come documents, fill out an application, and pay $135 USD and then received it the next morning. The most annoying part was paying for it, because the money had to be in U.S. dollars so I woke up early to go to the bank to exchange money, which took about an hour and then rushed to the consulate to get there before it closed. When I got there, I was told, no, I could not pay in cash, but instead had to go to their bank and deposit it into their account, and bring back the receipt for the transaction. Again, I waited on a long line, only to be told I needed to go upstairs for this sort of transaction. Once I realized that, it took all of five minutes. Oh, and the consulate´s bank was literally right next door to where I had exchanged money prior, so it was a total waste of time and money on taxis. It just seemed so inefficient. I still don´t understand why they couldn´t take the cash and deposit it themselves, but that´s the way it was.

Anyways, as soon as I crossed the border into Bolivia, I felt like I had entered a completely different world. Markets overflowing with everything from watches to hygenic products to candy and flowers, lined the streets. I immediately felt like I stood out much more than in Argentina because most of the women were dressed in their traditional indigenous clothing. The typical indigenous outfit consists of a pleated skirt that falls just below the knee, a sweater, and apron-like shirt on top of the sweater, and high socks or opaque stockings whose tops are hidden by their skirts. They wear their hair in two braids, often with some ornaments attached to the ends and a short-brimmed hat on top of their heads. They carry their belongings in brightly colored cloth, which they tie diagonally across their chests, forming a bag against their backs. The women´s skin is dark and aged and their smiles often reveal missing teeth.

When we crossed the border into Villazon, Adrien and I walked about seven long blocks to the bus station and bought a ticket to Tupiza for 15 bolivianos, or a little more than $2. We had about an hour and a half to kill, so we grabbed some lunch at a place across the street. The restaurant was set up in the front of a gymnasium that looked like it was straight out of the 1980s due to its neon-colored walls. Huge speakers rested on top of one another on either side of the opposite end. I ordered soup and Adrien ordered milagnesa. Going to the bathroom was another interesting experience. Most toilets don´t flush here, due to the fact that running water is not always available. When I paid the Bolivian woman 1 boliviano to use the toilet, she handed me a folded pink piece of toilet paper and pointed toward a bucket of water, which I was told to pour into the toilet when I was done. No flushing needed. Of course, all toilet paper needs to be thrown in the wastebasket as well.

We eventually boarded the bus to Tupiza, which looked very aged and smelled suffocatingly musty. Many people packed onto the bus, as once all the seats are occupied, people can pay a bit less to sit on the floor in the aisles. Additionally, the bus stops to pick up and drop off people on the road all along the way, stopping every ten to twenty minutes or so. As soon as the wheels were in motion, I was instantly captivated by the scenes flying by my window. I have never been to a third world, developing country, and it was definitely a shock seeing the destitute some of these people live in. Many Bolivians in the countryside live in dirt shacks that are organized into small communities, which lack electricity and running water. I have absolutely never seen anything like it in my life, and I truly think everyone should be required to see it in their lifetime. I also can´t help but wonder how drastically different their perceptions of the world and life must be.

The path we drove on to Tupiza was simply a narrow clearing in the dirt, which wove in and out of the sandy hills. It was one-way, and appeared to be the only road in the area, so anytime a car came from the other direction, we had to pull over and wait for it to pass. Originally, the landscape appeared to be really muted and earthy, as the tiny mud huts seemed to blend in with the hills they were built into. The muted green of cacti and shrubs was the only other color anywhere in the distance. However, eventually this landscape changed a bit and the mountains started becoming marblized with deep purple, which was absolutely beautiful. Finally the deep purple peaks faded into solid mauve mountains which rolled into the distance. Suddenly, we seemed to drop into a small canyon, where mountains towered above us, shaped by millions of years of weather.

Our bus pulled into Tupiza´s bus station around 5pm and I headed to my budget hotel and checked in. I treated myself to a private room for two nights, since it was only $12 and I figured it would be a nice change from sharing a room with at least four others, as I have been doing for almost two months now. Tupiza is small and simple, but is surrounded by red mountains. It is a nice way to ease into Bolivia, as it is small enough to walk around everywhere and I can get a grasp on Bolivian lifestyle before I head into some bigger cities. Tomorrow morning I leave on a four-day tour of Salar de Uyuni, which are these incredible salt flats in southwest Bolivia, and I am looking forward to it.

So far, I really like Bolivia a lot. It is nearly impossible to not be immersed in the culture at every corner. I think what appeals to me most about it is the fact that it is completely unlike anything I have seen or experienced in my life.

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