Though poverty exists in every nation, in every city, and in the vast expanse of land that fills the space in between them, spend a little time in Bolivia and it is easy to see why the culturally and geographically rich Andean nation has the unfortunate distinction of being South America’s poorest country. A title that Bolivia’s neighbors are happy to cede and perhaps a little perversely the draw for backpackers looking for a place to stretch their dollars.
Every traveler I had spoken too on my way down the continent had raved about Bolivia being one of their favorite countries for a multitude of reasons, so I had pretty high expectations as I crossed the border in a station wagon packed with women in their brightly colored knitted sweaters, long black braids, and each with a tiny bowler hat perched high on the crown of their head. As we barreled over a pot-holed riddled dirt road at breakneck speeds to the small town of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca’s southern shore, it was dawning on me that I might have to adjust my expectations. Even though the name, Copacabana dazzled my senses by conjuring images of exotic drinks served in coconut shells and lively music playing throughout a resort lake-side town, the reality was anything but resort like. Copacabana, like many of Bolivia’s cities is a hodgepodge mix of buildings in various stages of completion or decay. Sitting on stoops and curbs throughout the town, and to greater extent the rest of the country, are little old ladies hunched over by years of hard labor from tilling the earth for the produce that lays for sell on colorful fabric at their feet. This isn’t to say that Copacabana isn’t a beautiful place, because it is quite beautiful – it’s just that the beauty is more to nature’s credit and less to man’s.
Overlooking the city, atop a small hill is a large cathedral with multicolored ceramic titles where a priest for a small donation steps out with a bucket of holy water to bless a parade of newly purchased automobiles decorated with flowers, garland, and foam sprayed from sparkling wine and beer bottles. Moored along the shore are small swan shaped row boats in one of the bluest lakes that I have ever seen. In the distance a small emerald-green island sits and waits to catch the sun each night as it sets.
Copacabana is representative of Bolivia in the sense that the sublime beauty of the land is constantly in stark contrast with the sheer mundane and disheartening plight of a people just trying to make it through another day. Bolivia is a country of extremes, from the hot humid rain forests in the north and flat dense scrubland of the Chaco in the south, to the teeth chattering, finger numbing cold wind that sweeps off the mountains in the Altiplano to rattle the windows of the building and bones of the citizens of La Paz and Potosí, two of Earth’s highest altitude cities. And like the wide vast disparity of its natural resources, the people who inhabit Bolivia also have a rich and colorful mix of cultures, religions, and traditions.
While I was in Bolivia I was able to hike across a small island on lake Titicaca through tiny farms and villages to a spot where according to Inca mythology was the birthplace of the sun. I hiked around one of Bolivia’s most important archeological sites, Tiwanaku and stare at the stone sentinels left behind from a mysterious culture which departed the earth long ago. I fought to catch my breath in one of the worlds highest capital cities, La Paz and browsed through tonics, healing powders, llama fetuses, and amulets at the witch’s market. I spent Easter morning alone in 16th century cathedral before heading off to the market town of Tarabuco to haggle over the price of hand-woven ponchos. I stood and posed for way too many photographs in the world’s largest salt flat and meet three amazing women, whom I hope will become life-long friends. I crossed the country in a series of hellish night buses in an attempt to retrace Che Guevara’s last days, a journey that ended in a small laundry room covered in graffiti which urges the revolution on to victory. Spent the day with a Peruvian couple wandering around waterfalls and the pre-Incan ruins of El Furte near the sleepy town of Samaipata. Sent myself into a food coma at a vegetarian buffet in one of Bolivia’s wealthiest cities, Santa Cruz. Hiked into the Maragua crater, placed my hand in a dinosaur’s footprint, and left the hike feeling as if the communities had left their own collective imprint within me. Climbed down into the shocking and claustrophobia inducing mines of Potosí, where man’s display of greed is at its worst. I also perfected the art of de-stemming coca leaves like a local before heading off to the frontier town of Tupiza where like any good cowboy, I’d say my farewells to Bolivia and it’s people and ride off into the horizon.
Looking back, Bolivia is the country where my own personal quest to find meaning and answers to life’s great esoteric questions started to take shape and come into focus – though I still lack the ability to articulate what that means. I do know, however, that while traveling in Bolivia I felt like I was on the right path and was constantly fueled by the people I met – who all seemed to be on similar quests with similar questions they needed answered. Often, I ask other travelers what they love about traveling and most respond with a variation of this sentiment, “to see and understand how other people live.” It was an answer that frustrated me with its vagueness, but now after nearly a month in Bolivia, it was an answer I fully understood and appreciated. Backpacking isn’t just some voyeuristic peep show, where you get to see how people less fortunate live their lives. More often than not when you take the local bus inevitable the mother seated next to you will ask if her sleeping child can spread his or her feet across your lap, when you eat in the market stalls with questionable hygiene standards, you get to watch people joke and laugh with friends and family, when you stay with families in their communities and share stories about your own family and way of life you find out the two aren’t all that different after all. Yes, “you get to see how people live,” but you also get the change to learn in the process that the old adage that the quality of our experiences out-weighs the quantity of our possessions – is in fact a far more rewarding way to measure the sum of a life.