As regular readers already know, I headed out to Bolivia this weekend to give myself a little break from la vida chilena. Bolivia and Chile have a somewhat contentious relationship, born of the 1879-1883 Guerra del Pacífico, in which Chile ended up taking a lot of (very important, mineral-rich) territory from Peru and Bolivia, including Bolivia’s only coastal region. Bolivians trace the poverty of their country back to this war, particularly due to huge quantities of money gained by Chile due to the mines in this territory. On top of this, as of 2007 American citizens have to apply (and pay) for a tourist visa to enter the country, a special reciprocal requirement imposed by President Evo Morales (actually a really interesting figure, and the nation’s first indigenous president…more on that later). So I was a little worried that I had chosen to visit a country in which I wasn’t particularly welcome due to either of my identities.
The visa process, though, was surprisingly simple. I had done my research and gotten all my papers in order before the trip (application form, passport photo, bank statement, hostel reservation, yellow fever vaccination certificate) but the immigration officers didn’t ask a thing about them once I handed them over. The only thing that seemed to matter was the $135 entrance fee (maybe just because it was 4 a.m.). Interestingly enough, the thing that seemed to impress them the most was that I spoke Spanish. One of the immigration officers gave me a whole speech about how he had to learn English for the job because all the other American tourists who come to visit refuse to learn ni una palabra de español. I apologized for the arrogance of my compatriots (which I got to see later in full flagrance) and explained that I was studying in Chile for the semester and only had a weekend, muy poco tiempo, to visit Bolivia. The immigrations folks were kind enough as to give me several suggestions of things to do…high on the list was a visit to Lake Titikaka, the world’s highest navigable lake. I had been planning on doing that trip but didn’t think I had enough time but the women in immigration assured me that it was doable in a day.
Afterwards, I had to pass through customs. I had totally forgotten that you can’t bring anything with seeds through the borders and I had thrown an apple and an orange in my bag for breakfast , along with pan con queso y mermelada. The customs officer apologized profusely for having to take my fruits from me and two of the women working in immigration, with whom I’d been talking earlier, actually started arguing with him on my behalf–pero sólo son frutitas, que es el problema, es su desayuno pués!! After I assured him that it was really ok, that I had bread to eat as well, he shook my hand and they all wished me well on my travels. All for being a gringa who spoke Spanish.
Afterwards, I took a cab to The Point hostel on Calle Alto de la Alianza (which I would recommend, based on the cleanliness, friendliness/helpfulness, hot showers, good food, and bilingualness of the staff–it was actually an effort to get some of them to speak to me in Spanish) to drop my bag off. The fellow at the desk called me a cab to the Cemetario General so I could catch the first bus (6 a.m.) to Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. More on that in the next post.