Reflections on my first few weeks in Bolivia

by Alison Donald
(Santa Cruz Bolivia)

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. You can send Alison a welcome message if you like. Just click to "post comments" below.

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Aug 04, 2012
by: Jaime /Carisimo

Que onda Alison?
me gusto mucho la forma de presentarte y tu experiencia en Santa Cruz, mi pregunta es, por que Santa Cruz? solo por que tu Roomate o novio es Cruceno?
me huviera gustado que vivieras en CBB..... y fijate que tu experiencia es muy similar a la mia, yo llegue a USA, a Brattlevoro, VT , yo llegue sin nada de ingles, con mi quechua, mi lengua original y el espanol lo aprendi en la escuela
Brattlevoro(en 1967 ) era una ciudad muy rural y era el unico latino y la gente me miraba como algo extrano, no me dejaban entrar a algunos restaurantes, y cuando les decia, good morning, my name is Jaime I am from Bolivia miraban sorprendidos y yo queria practicar mi ingles , asta que encontre a un nino de 10 anos era imigrante del Canada que sus padres venian a la cosecha de la papa,Alan, asi se llamaba el y me llevaba al supermecado y me ensenaba , ..This is an orange, y decia "Repit" y cuando iva a su casa sus padres solo hablaban frances y Aland podia traducir por mi
45 Anos de lucha y trabajo, me siento muy orgulloso de haber trabajado con Cesar Chavez, en bien de los campesinos de CA y todo USA , hoy radico en Mexico y estare en Bolivia para la gran reunion de la famiia en CBB , espero concerte en Santa Cruz. ya ablas como, ellos, dijque pue ? hope ti see you soon, I am glad with your articles about Bolivia , yes la BELLA , uj ratu kama

Dec 04, 2011
Crime against tourists in Bolivia
by: BoliviaBella

Unfortunately crime against tourists does occur frequently in Bolivia. We have several pages on the site that speak to this situation and on which you'll find advise such as travel precautions, preparing for your trip, safety measures, and more. You'll find them under the TRAVEL PLANNER section, in our forums, and in our LIVING IN BOLIVIA section, as well as other pages throughout our 3000+ page site.

I'm truly sorry you had such a nightmarish experience. But I'm very thankful to you for taking the time to share it. By doing so (and I wish everyone did) others may be able to avoid this type of situation.

To future readers of this message, the following are just a few of the pages on which you can find more information to keep you safe during your travels to Bolivia:

Preparing for your trip

Precautions to take during your trip

We regularly post embassy travel warnings here

Bolivia travel tips (includes many safety tips)

Bolivia news - updated daily so you can be aware of potentially negative situations

Crime is one of the reasons we always suggest travel insurance

Bolivia travel warnings

Your travel stories - where you can share to help others

Dec 04, 2011
Street Robbery in La Paz
by: Anonymous

My husband and I are currently staying at the Hotel Europa in La Paz. We were out exploring the city yesterday and were sitting on a bench on the 6th Agosto and Motivideo when we were appraoch by a joung women claiming to be from Chile asking directions. We were joined by a man claiming to be a tourist policemen. We were all hustled into a white taxi and our belongings searched throughly. We became very agitated when he demanded that I remove my rings which refused and I demanded to be taken to the British Embassy. He then hung my bang outside the car and I jumped out with my husband but he had taken all our money, a mobile telephone and camera. We made a statement to the hotel who have forwarded this to the police - I hope! This expereince was very frightening but has not been taken seriously at all. It has made our trip to Bolivia horrible - we have lost all our photographs and we will be so happy to leave on Tuesday 6th Dec as planned. We will, unfortunately, be spending my birthday and our wedding anniversary in this country but we will never visit again or advise friends or family to do so. I suggest that hotels make guests aware of these teams of robbers and also take more serioulsy these events. I would like to make a statement to a police officer face to face not via hotel staff! I should like to unsubscribe to this site as I have no intention of finding anything further about Bolivia - I just want to leave! Your site is pretty useless and doesn't appear to worry about victims of crime more about how wonderful Bolivia is.

Apr 13, 2011
thank you for your comments
by: Alison

@Oscar in Afghanistan - thank you again for your kind words and your continued support of

@Anonymous (and back in the US) - Thank you for taking the time to comment. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy your 2011 visit to Santa Cruz. Do you come back every year? Maybe to volunteer?

I have heard the anti-American comment from another American lady here too. I hope these events are not frequent. I'm not American so when someone is a bit "off" with me it never occurs to me that they may be displaying anti-American feeling. I just assume they are having a bad day, or that they don't get me as an individual.

With regards to getting stared at, I've been in South America for a while now so I am used to it. Except maybe in the South of Brazil I am clearly a "foreigner" and they aren't used to people as tall and fair as me. Staring is not considered rude here like it is in the UK (and US).

The service can be really bad here but then again it can be terrible in the UK too. I've realised the trick to better service in Santa Cruz: either go to places that are frequented by foreigners/ wealthier Bolivians or VERY conversely to the markets etc where these people are basically running their own businesses and I find their service to be very efficient and polite. To the extent that I find myself buying far more than I intended hahaha.

Apr 12, 2011
Che Guevara
by: Omar MAROOFI

I always read about Che. You know in some ways I love him. He was the greatest person I have ever seen. Thanks for your text about him! You can find me here:

Apr 02, 2011
Enjoying your comments about Bolivia
by: Oscar

Hi Alison,
I'm a former Bolivian citizen, living abroad for more that 25 years and I really enjoy all BoliviaBella articles.

I read you article, and automatically sent me home, to Santa Cruz, thanks.

One day, when I totally retire from my material pursuits, I will return to Bolivia, well after living in the US for so long, I might probably become an Expat in Bolivia and obviously try to live in Samaipata, away from the city.

At this time, I'm in Afghanistan, working to better this part of the world, with Aussies, Brits, Yankees and other coalition forces.

Enjoy life in Santa Cruz and its vicinity in my name.
Oscar from Afghanistan

Apr 02, 2011
Stop staring at ME!
by: Anonymous

I know what you mean. I am a gringo from the U.S. and the looks I was getting from the locals were starting to get me angry. I almost wanted to say "what the eff are you looking at a-- hole !" But I did not. I was there for 5 weeks in Feb- March.of `11. Last year it didn`t seem as bad. I think Evo is brainwashing the people into being anti American or something.

But in there defence I am not fluent in spanish (only standard American english, thank you) so I could not joke with them or converse so well. But it seems once they get to know you they warm up a little.

Service at stores or places to eat is unreal. Don`t these people what business? Be nice for goodness sake! I don`t get them. They seem to be some what rude and non curtious. But I guess its a culteral thing. Visit Tarijhia the people there seem alot friendlier.

Good luck living in Santa Cruz. I am just so happy to be back in the States. Great job on the web site. P.S. Boy do I need spell chek....

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