Unlike the majority who travel with sightseeing as their goal; I have no interest in museums, touristy spots, beaches, sky scrapers, nice roads, or historical sites. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy all these things, I do, but the drive behind traveling for me is to know the people themselves not what they have created or destroyed.
I was going to Bolivia to try to establish a local branch of our organization so when another fiasco like the 2011 floods happened, we wouldn’t be at the mercy of the utterly corrupt and incompetent government of that country to give a helping hand to their victims. But many things changed that idea and it wasn’t the hot weather or the bad roads either. It was the Bolivian people themselves who did that.
What I’ve written and will write until the Bolivian chapter is done is my first-handed account of this journey, whether you find it amusing, unbelievable or naïve, it’s the reality and I won’t apologize or change a single word of it. So if you are looking for beautiful pictures of majestic mountains and Indians in colorful dresses, you are in the wrong place. Not that Bolivia is not a beautiful country, which it is, and not that there aren’t any pretty things to see, which are plenty, but when it comes to hospitality, warmth, generosity, honesty and decency, Bolivia fails on a grand scale.
And this is not an opinion of a gringo in a strange land, this is the opinion of most anyone you meet in their neighboring countries, with Argentina being the champion for a damn good reason too. From the southernmost part of Patagonia to northern Jujuy, there isn’t a place that hasn’t been taken over by Bolivian immigrants and when I say taken over I mean it literally. Imagine the immigration chaos in the united states with all kinds of people screaming that these immigrants are taking over our jobs – well, now imagine these same immigrants take over your land or your house when you went on a vacation, and come back to see another family living in your living room and you can’t do a thing about it. That’s the reality with the Bolivian invasion in Argentina.
Not only the Bolivian immigrants abuse the soft and too welcoming laws of their neighboring countries, they do it with utter disrespect, destruction and air of arrogance that I have yet come to see anywhere else in the world. From parks to residential buildings, there isn’t a day that a Bolivian family doesn’t occupy someone else’s possession unlawfully and take it as their own. Take a trip to Buenos Aires alone to see it in action for yourself.
I was aware of these facts by my numerous trips to Argentina and even witnessed it first handed myself one day when my friend Tati and I were going to his (empty) uncle’s house in Mar del Plata and we walked in on a Bolivian guy already living in the house. But I dismissed this odd behavior as hardships of immigration and desperation, but to come to witness the same behavior in their own country among their own peers is something you can’t ignore.
From the moment we stepped foot in the customs office at the border and being robbed right off the bat, to refusal of water at the military checkpoint, to when we stopped at the immigration office, 200km deep into Bolivia, my mind was just dismissing one shity Bolivian act after another for a few bad apples in a bunch until we met the whole family of Bolivians who were to insult us to no end, for no reason other than that they could.
Not only the immigration person (I don’t think you can call a no shirt fat guy behind a desk an officer) insulted, ridiculed and bullied us around, he was joined by his wife, a bigger bitch than himself, and two other con artists who joined the prey. I asked the guy to take out or void the visa out of my passport as I had no intention of going into Bolivia anymore, but he refused. He wanted money and refused calling the embassy as well. He kept calling us any profane word that he could remember and wouldn’t null the visa. Then the good cop bad cop started, one guy came over and said what valuable do you have on you? And this was my time to give them back a little taste of my land. They called me an Iranian terrorist not knowing that in 7000 years, among many things like art, mathematics, civilization, poetry,… which these jungle duelers were clueless about, Iranians have also mastered selling feathers to Indians and making them believe they got a good deal.
I brought out two video cameras out of my tankbag, one a worthless broken Canon that I should have trashed a long time ago, and the other a good but cheap HD camera that worked. I told them that the Canon was $250 (a big lie) and the small HD was $130 (also doubled the price), but I’m not giving them the Canon for $130. That automatically fixated their greedy eyes on the broken camera. But would they just take the camera? No way. They were worse than that. The negotiation took over an hour and Lourdes once heard them saying that they have some money, take the camera and all their money too! And she relayed the message to me in English.
First they wanted all the money (we had just enough Paraguayan money for a tank of gas), and both cameras in exchange for the visa. I said hell no. Then they said that deal was off again and we were captive once more. Then the negotiation went on and finally we agreed on the gas money and the Canon camera. I handed them the camera and the change, got my passport back and told the guy one last time to at least say welcome to Bolivia. His reply was “you are not”. I wished them happy filming with their wonderful new camera and we jumped on the back of the bike and got the hell away.
They had a smile on their face as we left and we had a bigger smile on ours. I wonder if they ever understand why they got screwed, but I doubt it. I wonder if they ever figure out why their next event is filmed on a broken old camera with no sound that cuts off with the smallest shake. I doubt it. Best of luck to them anyway. When you deal with hyenas, you got to put the decency aside and treat them the way they treat you. That’s the law of the jungle and in Bolivia it’s the only law.
Now that I had my passport, I decide to put as many miles as I could behind us so I rode like a bat out of hell. Instead of going on the detour road again, I hopped on the fresh asphalt of a new road on my GPS and rode straight-shot without stopping until we came to a disheartening stop. The road was blocked completely over a bridge, and this time there was no going around. To the left was a giant drop off and to the right a jungle. Going back was not an option as we had to go all the way back to the immigration office to take the other road, and even if we could sneak by them we had no gas left to double back the past 80km.
We looked around and found a blue tarp in the jungle with a family living under it. These people turned out to be the only nice and helpful Bolivians we have met on this trip. The women got to work with a shovel to bring down the wall but it was too risky to go over that 10ft hump as if the bike rolled back, I would fall at least 50 ft into the bottom of the jungle below. Then a cheerful drunk old lady came along and suggested to bash through the jungle on a single track and go around the obstacles. Everyone thought she was crazy but frankly that was a much safer and a somewhat doable alternative.
So I turned around and headed down the hill on the single track. It was hell maneuvering this giant bike through, but I came out the other side in one piece. I gave the lady a couple packs of cigarette, dumped the last bottle of reserve gas in the tank and bid farewell to the north, away from the immigration office.
Low on gas, transmission gear oil, and with no money we made it to the town of Villamontes. The only gas station in the town didn’t accept credit card of course, so we went bank hunting. Two ATMs were out of cash, and the third one only had American dollars which I happily took. I exchanged $60 USD to local money and headed back to the gas station to fill up. The gas pump said 3 Bolivianos (name of the currency) per liter and I got 23 liters which should have come out to 69 B or roughly $10 USD. But I was charged 207 B or $30 USD, that’s $6 dollars a gallon. No this wasn’t the gas station attendant being a crook (nice for a change); this was the set price from the government of the West-hating Evo Morales to overcharge the gringos with foreign plates triple the price for gas. (See, Bolivia has a lot of good ideas for attracting tourists)
And to clarify something, I have no problem paying the extra “tourist tax” at poor countries for different commodities as the money compensate for the cost of the living difference, but in Bolivia? Extra tax for what? For the amazing roads? For the non-existent hospitality? For the daylight bribery at the customs or for the world class welcome we received at the immigration? You could have stabbed me and you wouldn’t see a drop of blood.
This is getting a little too long so stay tuned for the next part.