I'm always asked by people in Santa Cruz what ideas people in the UK have about Bolivia. I can't lie to save my life so I tell them the truth: Bolivia is believed to be a nation of people all of whom wear traditional dress and live at altitude. I always apologise to them for our ignorance about their country and I really don't think I have offended anyone with my honesty. Generally people are very aware how Bolivia is portrayed (and indeed, portrays itself) in other countries.
The thing about Santa Cruz is that you can easily forget where exactly in the world you are.
There are 4 traffic lanes in each direction on the second ring of the city. When these are full at rush hour (glossy 4x4 vehicles jostling with beat-up white taxis) with the towers of Monseñor Rivero and a digital advertising board in the background, you really wouldn't know where in the world you were. The tropical climate and entirely flat landscape would narrow it down somewhat.
A closer inspection would reveal that hardly anybody is wearing a seatbelt, more than a few people are travelling in the backs of pick-up trucks and sadly there may be some children doing gymnastics for centavos at the traffic lights a few radials down.
Most of the comforts of life in the 'developed world' can be secured at an imported price (of which more in the coming months). You can live in an apartment which would make your friends back home envious. You can go from that apartment in your air-conditioned car to an air-conditioned shop to an air-conditioned restaurant, back to your vehicle then drive directly into your allocated parking space underneath your apartment. There are good gyms, pilates classes, cable tv and mobile internet. You can pay with US dollars virtually everywhere. Domestic labour is very cheap so you can pay someone to run your house for you.
It is not just Europeans and North Americans who live like this here - there are a large number of Cruceños (as well as migrants from other countries in South America) here who enjoy a very good standard of living.
What I am trying to say is that it needn't be a shock coming here. There is not so much of the 'them and us' and the classic expat lifestyle is available, if that is what you are looking for.
But that's not a life that I want, though some days I think it would be a lot easier. I live with my boyfriend (a Santa Cruz native) in a nice but resolutely local neighbourhood. I have not seen any other gringos in the area and I would not expect to - there is a good market nearby but unless you want to get your car reupholstered or buy iron-work furniture there is no reason to come here. It is amusing but maybe not surprising that a lady in her smart truck pulled over to ask me if I was lost... 4 streets from our house.
We've been here 6 weeks now and I think my face is getting known. There are a series of people I will say 'buen dia' to on my way to the market: the upholsterers on the corner, the nice man who mends shoes shaded by his umbrella from the scorching sun.
If I notice someone is looking at me I have learned to speak first - if you say 'hola' to people there is not a lot they will dare to say back. Before I put this into practice, I felt people's eyes bearing into me as I walked past. Pairs of lads with not enough work would take the opportunity to demonstrate their English and I would be treated to 'hellohowareyouIluurrveyou' as I walked past.
Granted, greeting people when you have absolutely no idea who they are can make you feel like a politician but I don't want people to think that I am some gringa who has no intention of integrating in their country and won't speak to anyone outside of their gringo circle of friends.
As I type this I am still smiling about events at lunchtime. We walked from our apartment to the shop (though labyrinth might be a more accurate word) next door to redeem the deposits on some 2l soda bottles. The dueña (lady owner) has her small pet parrot on her shoulder. We walk (note, walk) over the road to a restaurant which gives a whole new meaning to the term 'home-made' food. The owners of the house offer a set lunch in the front yard and front room of their home. You can see a bed in the next room. Our waiter today is the owner's 5 year old son whilst his younger siblings stare at me incredulously. We have soup and a main course for 10Bs (around US$1.50). I'm in Bolivia.Alison Donald is the new editor in chief of Bella News, the free BoliviaBella monthly E-zine. Subscribe here.
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