[Editor's note: Stephanie Bowen is radical smothered in awesomesauce. She's a great writer. And she's a generous person. One particular example of her exceptional verb-against-noun-pushing lies below. Thanks very, very much for sharing your experiential learning of the Bolivian community, Steph. We're happy to have you home soon!]
“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not you enemy. This will transform your whole life.”
Yesterday I spent 8 hours on a transport truck, wedged between sacks of potatoes, bales of corn, chickens, farmers and their children. I had been trekking through the Maragua Crater with a stellar group of guides and volunteers from Condor Trekkers (my ethical tourism volunteer gig) when wooziness set in. By the time we stopped for the day I had a spiking fever, and by morning it was determined that catching a camion home was my only course of action.
While disappointed to miss out on waterfalls, hot springs, sleeping under the stars and good company, I was relieved that in four short hours I would be back in the comfort of my little apartment.
Given my luck with transport, I´m sure you can guess where is this is going.
When I climbed aboard the camion (ostensibly a pickup truck with 5-foot walls around its bed, used for all manner of transport between country and city), a Bolivian guide named Henrry explained to the passengers that I was very sick. When I smacked my head on the overhead scaffolding, he explained that I was also very tall. My co-passengers nodded and smiled sympathetically, unsure which was a worse affliction. I laid my newly aching head on my pack and tried to ignore the obvious bad omen.
Camions are notorious for their cramped, dusty quarters, death-defying driving, and cheapness, with trips costing little more than a dollar. They’re also the perfect metaphor for Bolivia in general: inexpensive, inefficient, surrounded by beautiful scenery and a total test of patience.
The trip from Arapampa, where we’d slept, to Sucre, where I am currently residing, is a mere 65km, which translates to roughly 4 hours of bumpy driving. For no discernable reason, however, that Sunday driver elected to circle the same loop of the crater for four hours before even approaching the perilous switchbacks that would take us into the city. With every stop, new 50lb bags of crops were piled under, beside, and sometimes on top of me as I attempted to steal some precious moments of sleep.
The trip might have caused fond memories of my Mexican highway nightmare had it not been for another Bolivian staple: kindness. After an hour of dodging bags of crops and banging my lolling head against the truck’s walls, I was offered sugar cane to chew by a farmer, to help clam my churning stomach.
Perilous country-to-city switchbacks
When the truck came to an unexpected stop at noon due to a car rally on the mountain, an elderly lady gestured for me to sit beside her in the vehicle´s limited shade. Stumbling awkwardly over bodies and livestock, I curled myself around a bag of potatoes next to my adopted grandmother. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, she gently stroked my hair as I drifted off to sleep.
An hour later when the obstruction finally cleared, I was woken by the soft cooing of fellow passengers, who grinned as I returned to my place in the sun.
I don’t mean to romanticize my experience. It was hot, dusty, smelly and rough. Dirt roads, virtually no shocks and no seats to speak of do not make for a comfortable 8 hours in any vehicle, let alone one piled 60 deep with bodies. I arrived at my apartment at 5:30 at night, coated in a layer of grime and ready to collapse. Like so many experiences I’ve had thus far in this wonderfully bizarre country, my journey home had been fraught with confusion and discomfort. But the trip was also a testament to the calm stoicism and warmth of the people here.
While in Sucre I’ve befriended a host of lovely, quirky folks, one of whom is an inspiring young woman in the throes of opening a restaurant. She attended one of the world’s finest hospitality institutions, is passionate about healthy, well prepared food, and wants her restaurant to bridge some fairly obvious gaps between locals and travelers. When she arrived in Sucre she was armed with an airtight business plan and had a location all but secured. 6 weeks later, she’s finally been able to nail down some of the specifics of renting her space.
Nothing in Bolivia happens quickly. In fact, nothing in Bolivia happens today. When enquiring about business dealings, administrative protocol, transport schedules, or the cessation of near-daily political protests, the answer is always manyana – tomorrow. Want to rent a vacant space and open a restaurant? We’ll look at the contracts manyana. Need a residents’ ID card? It’ll be ready manyana. Want to know when you’ll at long last be able to disembark from the flatbed of a truck and dead faint into your sickbed? Probably manyana.
It can be frustrating to leave a home that prizes efficiency to a fault, and attempt to go about your business in the Land of Manyana. It’s hard to get a lot done here (witness the complete cessation of this blog during my 5 weeks tenure in Sucre). But the upside of all of that inefficiency is that it’s hard to get a lot done here. When things move slowly, so do you. And when you move slowly the world can be a far more interesting place.
Curled up on that bag of potatoes, I realized that my apartment might as well be in Toronto for the amount of time it was going to take me to get there. Bit by bit, the anxious longing I often feel for impossible outcomes ebbed away, and when it did something remarkable happened. I was finally able to feel the relief of the cool breeze that was sweeping through the camion. I cracked open my fever-swollen eyes and stared at the rolling green hills and blue sky beyond the truck’s walls. I marvelled at the comfort of a stranger’s weathered old hands sweeping the hair off of my sweaty forehead with all the gentleness of my mother. And I was overwhelmed with gratefulness for that improbable moment.
In Bolivia, where everything is happening tomorrow, you might as well enjoy what you´re dealt today.