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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A British View of Bolivia

Bolivia; the first impression I had of the country upon arrival was dominated by the beauty of the landscape; flying from Santa Cruz to La Paz the sight of mountains climbing majestically to snow kissed peaks was enough to take my breath away. It left me with a keen desire to be upon one of those peaks, sat in the classic lotus position and pondering philosophical questions next to an untouched lake. Upon arriving at my 16th floor apartment and hearing the sounds of a bustling city, I realised this was a place which I would quickly fall in love with; varied, beautiful and with an underlying contentment. Every morning standing and having a cigarette from my window, a picture of the people and the culture began to develop. There is something which the locals refer to as ‘Bolivian time’; things seem to flow at a meandering pace here, as if the eternally ticking clock has been lowed. Meetings might occur an hour, two or a day late. Even from a height you can see what they mean by this; everyone seems to have a relaxed pace of life reflected in the slow pace at which the city’s inhabitants walk. Even those that are clearly late for work run at the pace of a light jog rather than the all-out sprint you might see an airport worker in my hometown speeding along at.

View of central La Paz from my apartment.

Delving down to street level, the noises of the city quickly become amplified. Car horns blare, stray dogs bray and minibus driver’s and there assistants shout their fares. Though poverty is an issue here, it is rare to see someone only begging. Even those who have very little have something to sell; you might walk past different cholitas selling sweets, wire models and the latest Despicable Me minion toys all on one street. Stands are set up that sell everything a corner shop in the UK would but in a metre squared space; the salesman cocooned in a treasure trove of chocolate, fizzy drinks and cigarettes.

Cholita and children in Plaza Murillo in La Paz.

To me this speaks of an industry, creativity and hardiness which is common in Bolivians. Further afield in the El Alto market these feelings are amplified and I could not help but admire the culture of recyclability here. Stands selling anything from used car parts to pirated DVDs to Barbie doll arms sit next to those selling cooking and gardening equipment; all for pennies. I must admit to having been puzzled and a little put off by the gruesome collection of Barbie limbs and heads but I’m sure it’s fulfilled many a girl’s dream of keeping her special doll intact. 

Polleras (cholita skirts) on sale at El Alto market

The more I find myself thinking about it, the more I find I have much to learn from this culture; back home in the UK the importance of recycling is occasionally stressed by a shoddy advert but here it is a way of life that is practical in an economic, societal and environmental sense. You can even buy coke in a bottle which you return, to be washed out for the next customer (if they’re lucky).The industry, creativity and hardiness I spoke of earlier is driven home when you consider the fact that amongst the many salesman of the El Alto market there are hidden millionaires. They’re impossible to tell apart from their neighbour as they are dressed in the same clothing. El Alto inhabitants who sell in the market do not pay taxes and the families that own various parts of the market have well established links with Chinese companies; this means that profits are huge. The cheapness of products allows for the abjectly poor to have a decent quality of life and this is made all the more true by the fact that material gain seems to be lower down the list of priorities then more easily attainable things, such as having a good time and a close relationship with friends and families; it is common to see a baby passed around various stall owners to be cared for by those who are not busy, loved by everyone in its community. This close knit community and more relaxed way of life is something I find myself comparing to British culture. Needless to say I find British culture wanting on the communal front; the apathy many Brits seem to feel towards one another is almost criminal when considered from a Bolivian perspective.
Having said all this is it is true that the people of Bolivia suffer problems such as violence, poverty, lack of water sanitation, gender and social inequality but to my optimistic mind these are issues that can and will be resolved by the Bolivians of tomorrow due to the drive and determination of the people. With President Morales having nationalised gas reserves in 2006 state reserves of wealth are at an all-time high and more of the wealth is being shared amongst the people; a journalist recently compared the Bolivian government to Smaug from the Hobbit; sitting on wealth so vast it has little idea what to do with it. Let us hope these reserves are used wisely rather than the government becoming an old and grumpy dragon!

Written by Adam Jones.

Version en espanol, traducida por Inti Rioja Guzman.

Edited by Kelly-Marie Roberts.

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