These cold winter days we are nesting in Amsterdam and I’m reflecting, reading and resting; looking back on past trips and planning future ones. So, for the next few weeks I’ll be travelling back to 2014 and reliving Bolivia and Peru.
Modern-day nomads, like tortoises we carry everything on our backs. Experts at packing. Good at making do. There is nothing like the excitement of a new place, when everything is unknown and unfamiliar. We feel as if we’re on the threshold of adventure; for in the first few days, small events can take on epic proportions, and everyday chores are challenges to overcome.
Our new temporary home is Sucre, ‘the white city’, the official capital of Bolivia. We live high up on a hill overlooking the Andes and the red tiled roofs of the town below – great for the soul, not so good for the lungs. We’re at an altitude of almost 3,000 m and walking back from the plaza, we wheeze as if we’ve smoked 20 a day since the age of five. We notice the locals seem to shuffle, moving slowly with small steps. Our Spanish teacher tells us she only likes to walk down, ‘up’ she does with the micro-bus. Marcello, head of the family Romero, and owner of our apartment, warned us: make lunch your main meal, be careful with alcohol in the beginning, and drink coca-leaf tea – after 2 weeks, no worries, – you’ll have Bolivian stomachs!
After one week I have only a dodgy stomach – maybe the Bolivian stomach is in the making. Our apartment is luxurious with all mod-cons. No heating though. And tiled floors. And of course, we can’t drink the water, and no one puts paper down the toilet – the plumbing can’t take it. A more curious feature of bathroom life here is the padded toilet seat; spongy and soft it sighs as we sit. We drop washing off at the launderette. For 8 Bolivianos a kilo, it’s washed, and neatly folded. Easy. Understanding and speaking to the assistant is our greatest problem. There is a washing machine – in the garden – but Marcello and Karla urged us to use the launderette. Electricity is expensive here.
There are two supermarkets. The SAS – ‘bigger and better’ according to Marcello and Karla than the ‘Pompeya’, which is more gringo orientated. (Imported cheese and popcorn!) Bags must be checked into lockers before entering; milk is sold in bags, not cartons, and choice is limited. It’s more fun to shop at the ‘Mercado Central’. Gleaming fresh vegetables piled high in wonderful displays, women with long dark plaits, urging us to try and buy. We wondered why we couldn’t find any potatoes, until a woman pointed us to a section outside, and we discovered sack upon sack, woman upon woman, selling an infinite variety of the humble spud. The vendors with blenders border the tate department. Women hardly visible behind towers of fruit that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. We play it safe and order strawberry milkshakes. Only BOB 4 a glass. Half the price of our favourite café – ‘twice as long on the toilet’ quips Jim. We throw the straws away, and hand back the empty glasses. To our surprise we get a top-up – no extra charge – it’s just the amount that is made. Mistake. Now we have to drink from the glass, which we guess is a big faux pas. No one says anything.
The first time we cram onto the little micro-buses that run all over town, we just get in and sit down. The bus stops whenever it’s flagged down. We realise that everyone else hands the driver money immediately – a flat fare of BOB 1.50 – no matter if you just ‘go up the hill’ or a few kilometres out of town. Again, no one says anything. More importantly we also realise we don’t know how to ask the driver to stop – again there is no scheduled stop, no bell. We just jump off when someone else does, reasonably near the house.
It becomes almost immediately clear that we’re in desperate need of Spanish lessons. And that’s the reason we’re staying in this city for 2 months. For two hours a day we break our heads on verbs and tenses, vocabulary and grammar. Three weeks in, and we can form simple sentences, but we can’t understand any of the answers. Gringo life is a steep learning curve.