Saturday, December 27

Grasp 3

The bus came a few minutes early, and after bargaining with the driver over the price (their reflex is to try to charge foreigners as much as possible, and since the driver could again barely speak Spanish, working out a fair price took a bit of time) and convincing him that, unlike Americans, Canadians don't need visas to enter Bolivia (since Canada and the U.S. are not the same country, something that he had a hard time grasping), I was on my way.

I only spent a few hours in Bolivia, but from what I could gather, there is a very strong anti-American (hence the visa requirements) and as a consequence, anti-any-foreigner-that-seems-American sentiment as well among the officials. All of the offices of immigration had giant paintings of Evo Morales, the current president, and the first aboriginal to hold the position. He's very outspokenly anti-American. I don't know if this acts as throwing gas on the fire, or if Americans are always treated so badly there.

Overall, I didn't have any major problems, except for being yelled at by the officials a bit, for instance to stand here, or sit there, not to move, not to talk back, as they wanted to show me who was in charge. Yet after a few minutes wait, they stamped my passport and I was on my way.

In the southeastern part of the country at least, there is absolutely no organization in terms of public transport. The other lady who had been on the bus with me (there were only two of us making the trip, which was hopefully just a slow day for the bus company...) asked me where I was going, and I answered the border with Argentina. She said that she was going the same way, but that we had to get a cab there, and so it would be best to look for three other people to fill up the car. The border was 100 k.m. away, and with 5 people, she said the cost would be $2 each, much more affordable than the $5 it would have been with just the two of us. It only took a few minutes to find others who were interested in making the trip, and we were quickly on our way.

Two things that I was very thankful for during this whole escapade were being able to speak Spanish and having thought of picking up twenty one-dollar American bills before starting the trip. It made life much easier, as I could pay people easily without requiring change. Yet I get the feeling that someone who isn't able to communicate in Spanish would be in for a rough ride. I tended to get a bit more respect for being able to talk to them, but in the end, I still had to argue with many people I met in order to get information or a fair price. As far as money goes, it's not so much about the amount in and of itself, as much as a matter of general principal. If you don't stand up for yourself, you won't get any respect at all. It's no fun traveling through an area where you're treated like a joke.

Crossing the border into Argentina was a hassle, as on top of the usual bureaucracy, there's a long (but completely inefficient) process of checking people at the border for drugs. Apparently, most drugs in Argentina come in through the border with Bolivia. The process is basically that they make you wait for a few hours, then ram their hands around in your bag, and send you on your way.

More strange was that apparently, some very stupid tourists cross here as well. I was approached both before and after crossing the border, by local people with ridiculously obvious scams. The first, before the border, told me that he could get me across in a fraction of the time if I gave him my passport. In return, he would give me an Argentine I.D. and meet me on the other side to trade back.

The other, who was walking around on the other side of the border, had a strange uniform and was yelling at foreigners that they had to show him their passports. When he started hassling me, I told him that I had already shown my passport, and wasn't going to do so again. If you use an aggressive enough tone, they don't persist very long, and move on to look for tourists that are a bit more clueless.

Once moving again in Argentina, I caught a bus to Salta, the capital of the one of the mountainous northern provinces. The bus was extremely slow, due both to stopping in every collection of houses that passed for a village, and because the provincial government has set up a series of 'check points' along the highway, which are just like borders. Here the provincial police hassle anyone looking suspicious and ask to see documents.

Seeing as it took 14 hours to make it from the border to 500 kilometers inside the province, I started to appreciate the anything-goes style of Paraguay and Bolivia. There, if you can get the hang of things, it's possible to make very good time. I covered the 600 kilometers from the Paraguayan village where I started to the border between Bolivia and Argentina in 7 hours. I wouldn't complain if it seemed that the bureaucracy that I went through on the way to Salta was achieving something, but the customs officials or provincial police really weren't doing anything. Just sitting around and then briefly poking through bags. At the very least they could have kicked the con-artists out of the area around the border crossing.

Salta is a very beautiful area, where the landscapes change very quickly. Dry plains dotted with cacti give way to fields and mountains in the space of a few hundred meters.

A German man staying at the same hostel offered to rent a car if a few other people would pitch in to split the costs, thereby allowing us to explore the parks and villages around the main city. It was nice to see the local landscapes, as they are indeed very beautiful, but in the end I didn't have a good time. It started to feel more like a high school field trip. It was me, the German driver, an Australian guy and his Korean girlfriend, who had only met a few days before and were extremely affectionate, and a very strong-willed teenage Dutch girl.

I didn't really have much in common with the rest of the group, as they stopped every 5 kilometers to take pictures of the mountains, but were not at all interested in exploring the villages or trying to get an idea of what life is like in the area. It was a pity, because I was very curious. It's a very isolated area, with service only by dirt road. There are hardly any houses, and the people are all of aboriginal origin. The houses are made of a strange pink clay, the same color as the soil.


Blogger offsprog said...

Really interesting. Your stories are always interesting and well written. Keep it up.

10:30 a.m.  

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