BOLIVIA ON MY MIND. (Part I)

When I first arrived in South America in the nineteen seventies, supposedly on my way to Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia and the, for me, mythical Magellan Straits, I don’t suppose Bolivia was on my mind.

I didn’t make it to the straits of course. I got stuck in the South of Colombia, in Cali to be exact, with no money to get any further, in the company of a blond German friend who much to my dismay turned all the girls heads, a rolled up dollar bill and some white powder thoughtfully provided by a member of the Peace Corps.

How come you’re back so soon asked Anne, a woman I’d met on the plane from Panama (a DC3, I think it even had bullet holes from the Korean War) to Medellin 1, where I showed up only a month after I’d supposedly left on my round South America tour. I can’t remember my reply, it was probably pretty feeble, but I do remember feeling awkward, as if I’d somehow failed, despite having travelled from Toronto across Canada and then down West Coast of the US and Mexico, through Central America and eventually into Colombia. In retrospect I hadn’t done so badly, and definitely had no regrets about missing Bolivia.

The second time around

The objective this time, some forty years later, was not Bolivia but rather, once again, Argentina. The result wasn’t much different, although I did get closer, to Bolivian border town of Bermejo to be exact, a place where everyone seems to be involved in trading something or other, tourists are not that common, and the presence of huge rafts supported by what seem to be airplane inner tubes, and that don’t appear to move during the day, suggests that most of the traffic and the goods are contraband. Isn’t that what borders are for?

It was a close run thing however. I actually crossed the river to Aguas Blancas on the Argentinean side, where both the Bolivian and Argentinean migration offices are housed. In fact, I made the short journey twice.

Looking back I suppose I was somewhat casual about getting into Argentina. It hadn’t occurred to me that a Canadian passport would be a problem, and at first there wasn’t. It was Patricia that got the grilling: Oh, Colombian passport… wait a minute says the female officer, who, fingering the document as if it were property of a leper, promptly disappears into the back office. She reappears a few minutes later accompanied by a burly white shirted male officer who fires a barrage of questions: you got a name in Argentina? anywhere to stay? A Hotel? A friend? You have a flight out? A ticket? etc. etc. etc.

The frontier: Bermejo and the Bermejo River.

Aguas Bancas-Bermejo - Bermejo, Bolivia
Photo: Walter Ramallo Viajeros.com <http://www.viajeros.com/fotos/bermejo-2009/855502&gt;

The questioning continues until someone notices that I haven’t paid the ‘reciprocity tax’. Patricia is now forgotten. What’s it all about? The Australians, the Canadians the ‘Americans’ charge us a fee for getting into their countries, he says, so we do the same thing. Hence the reciprocity bit.

It doesn’t sound like an unreasonable thing to do. I tell the official that the Brazilians did the same thing when eye scans were made obligatory for entering the U.S. Anyway, I’m quite willing to pay. So how much is it? He doesn’t know, or at least he’s not sure. Could be US $120 he says… but you can’t pay in cash, only on line… and this, of course, involves crossing the river and going back to Bolivia. It wasn’t the answer I‘d been expecting.

There’s a chance, I imagine, that they’ll let me in with my UK passport, which I’m also carrying. I suppose that if it was simply a UK passport my chances would not be much better, perhaps even worse given the ongoing Malvinas-Falklands dispute, but as it’s an E.U. document I expect, or rather hope, that there will be little or no problem. I’m wrong. It has no exit stamp from Bolivia, says the white shirt stiffly as he examines the passport. No, that’s in the other passport. But it has to be here in this passport. Why? He doesn’t have a ready answer, and I strongly suspect that he’s wrong, but unsure of himself as he has never come across something like this – and he’s certainly not going to tell me that – rather than make some sort of mistake or appear uncertain, he refuses. Better to be wrong than sorry.

As I’m getting the exit stamp annulled, the Bolivians smile at me, and I admit that perhaps it’s better this way: better to give the money to the Bolivians, who are poor, than to the Argentineans, who are not. 2

Back over the river in Bermejo, we reconsider, rent a room in a cheap ‘hostel’ where the shared and rather grubby bathrooms don’t work, the shared shower has only a single board covering the window and the water is cold. If it had bars it would be called a prison. There are no other tourists here. Our room is also pretty dingy, but on the positive side, it’s cheap and there are only a few cockroaches to be seen, at least during the day. At night we wrap our food in a plastic bag and hang it outside on the washing line, so the greedy little beasts can’t get at it.

When I finally log on – the internet is often desperately slow in Bolivia – the reciprocity tax turns out to be only $75, and we decide to pay it. But it doesn’t make any difference, the system won’t accept my card, and when I call Buenos Aires to find out what’s going on, they tell me they don’t take debit cards, Visa or otherwise. It’s what ‘you’ ask us for says the friendly but determined voice at the other end of the ‘line’. I’m willing to pay I tell him, I want to pay. But it doesn’t work and, besides, it’s late on Friday afternoon…

I go back across the river the next morning in a final attempt to get into the country, but while the officials are different, and very pleasant, the answer is the same. It seems a shame, but rather than staying another day in Bermejo we decide to turn around and head back to Tarija and Bolivian wine country. Argentina won’t cry for me.

* * * * * * *

1.  Medellín:  The first visit to Medellín, was, shall we say, interesting. The years of silver and lead as they called them (Años de Plata y Plomo ) which roughly translated means pay up or you’re dead, had not yet begun: Pablo Escobar, a local resident who would become the world’s most famous Cocaine King, had only recently left University, while the Medellín Cartel, which by 1989 had become so powerful that it declared ‘total and absolute war’ against the Colombian government, was still in its pre infancy. That said, a bomb did go off somewhere in the city while I was staying, and the guerrilla was ‘out there somewhere’ Anne warned me one day when we went wandering in the countryside. She wasn’t joking, although the second phase of the Civil War, this one involving the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) lead by Manuel Marulanda or Sure Shot (Tirofijo), was also still in its initial stages.

All in all, though, I felt pretty safe in Medellín. It was one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen, the other being Vancouver, and seemed a pretty relaxed place to be a drink coffee, or tinto as they call it. Although on a more personal level there were ‘incidents’. For example, the night the American exchange students, (female and from Boston if I remember correctly) arrived at the house where they and I were staying, followed by two drunk and rather impatient Colombian men. As the only male in the house at the time I was expected to stand up to them, and ‘persuade’ them to leave. I don’t know what they said to me, but I do know that the decibel level was high and that if the face of one of them had been any closer he would have been kissing me. It clearly wasn’t meant to be friendly and I was certainly worried, in part about how of the house owner, a local university professor – whose friend ran a local steel mill and owned an impressive vintage car in which we would drive down to the local liquor store to buy Aguardiente – would feel about his furniture being splattered with blood, skin and pieces of bone. Mine, I might add. In the end I suppose my passive resistance (I like to think of it as Gandhian) had some effect, at least that’s what I tell myself, although the men finally left only when one of the girls began screaming the house down.

2.  Bolivia is a poor country: According to the CIA Factbook (yes, that’s the dear old Central Intelligence Agency), Bolivia is the poorest nation in South America, even taking into account Surinam, Guyana, and French Guiana, and that despite growing at a fairly healthy rate (5%+) over the last few years. With a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per Capita of only US$4,900 (the UK weighs in at some US$37,100), it lags some way behind Argentina, whose GDP per capita is US$17,700. Of course, the statistics offer little hint about how the money is being spent or distributed, and given that South America is the most unequal continent on earth, the panorama in Bolivia would likely continue to be pretty desperate if it weren’t for the advances made in the last few years under the Morales government. There are no real numbers for inequality (GINI index) since around 2008, so it’s impossible to come up with hard data to support the claim, but anecdotic examples include the fact that Bolivia is one of only three countries in the ‘developing’ world that provides an income for all its retirees and that the Morales government recently raised the minimum wage by 20%. A cynic might point out that there’s a presidential election just around the corner, but that’s how democracy works, isn’t it? Or is that just being cynical?

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