So if you can’t get to Bolivia (in my case thanks to bureaucracy), then Bolivia needs to come to you.
A search on Amazon.co.uk for Bolivia brings up nearly 30,000 products from across the Amazon empire, many of them with extremely tenuous links to Bolivia. As you would imagine, guide books are the top hits, closely followed by books on Bolivian history (though to my mind, anything published more than 5 years ago is pretty out-of-date in political terms).
Further digging lead me to select two tomes which cover different geographical areas of Bolivia:
“In Quest of the Unicorn Bird – Adventures in Bolivia and Beyond” by Oliver Greenfield (1992) and “Ghost Train Through the Andes – on my Grandfather’s Trail in Chile and Bolivia ” by Michael Jacobs (2006).
Mr Greenfield was only 20 when he wrote his book, and writes things only a 20 year old male would even think of putting on paper and only a 20 year old male could get away with. A fair bit of the subject matter would not be suitable for publication on a family website such as BoliviaBella.com
A teenage keeper of frogs and lizards (he would have kept snakes too except that his mother forbade it), Oliver is tempted away from his boring job processing mortgage applications at a building society in the UK for a stint of volunteering (before we had even thought of voluntourism) at Amboró National Park, east of Santa Cruz, in eastern Bolivia. He also ventures on the infamous “Death Train” between Santa Cruz and Quijarro, on the border with Bolivia. The Bolivia outside of the Department of Santa Cruz does not exist in this book.
The Santa Cruz he knew was a city of 600,000 (now around 1.5m) and with 2 rings, though much of what he writes is still applicable today: the affluent nature of Santa Cruz, the drugs trade blighting the area, and the scams that a naive traveller may find themselves embroiled in.
He manages to get himself into the most clichéd of scrapes with predators in the city and back in Amboró he escapes the jungle predators (among them an encounter with a big cat, a poisonous snake and a hand-sized spider).
What saves Oliver (and this book) is that he really knows his herpetological stuff and does leave a very meaningful legacy in the form of discovering a new species (or three) inside the park.
The most annoying thing about this book is that it leaves us as Oliver leaves South America on a one-way flight to New Zealand, fed up of constant scams and the attention that being a foreigner can bring, and having accidentally escaped being an accidental cocaine mule. It isn’t the most positive end to an adventure, or a book for that matter.
I could not have chosen a better contrast to this book than “Ghost Train Through the Andes”. Again, not entirely set in Bolivia (around a third of the book describes his trail in the UK or Chile), the letters of Michael’s grandfather take him around classic Bolivia, that is La Paz, Uyuni, Oruro, Sucre, Potosí and on a detour to Cochabamba.
An accomplished author, and fluent in English and Spanish, Michael Jacobs felt a compulsion to visit the South America described in his grandfather’s letters to his fiancée at the beginning of the last century. His grandfather had taken an engineering position with Antofagasta (Chili) and Bolivia Railway Company to gain professional recognition (and some of the financial rewards that go with it) and prove himself worthy of marrying Sophie.
After the safe return of her fiancé, Sophie burned her replies to him, feeling they were far too personal and revealing to ever fall into anyone else’s hands.
So we travel over the Andes with Michael and back in time via the letters and his access to other historical documents. On his journey as he meets an astonishing range of characters, from relatives of Bolivia’s deposed political elite to wise villagers, all of whom add to the story. Virtually everybody he meets is beyond helpful to him in his travels and he gains access to buildings and areas of territory simply out of bounds to most travellers.
The only thing this book has in common with Oliver Greenfield’s is the encounters with the elements and the way in which Mother Earth determines daily life (and perhaps death) for many Bolivians. Raging rivers, landslides, and freezing nights at altitude are faced without fuss or drama.
I feel that Mr Jacobs lets himself down by making continually disparaging remarks about backpackers whilst not actually talking to any of them, forgetting his own lesson that almost anyone and anything can be interesting if take the time and trouble to find out.
This book is certainly not about Bolivia as a whole. For example Santa Cruz is mentioned only in the context of a soup (his Cochabambino friend tells him the most tasty women are from Santa Cruz) and TariCa (note misspelling) is only mentioned in passing.
Nothing can take away from the fact that this book is beautifully written and utterly fascinating - a history book for people who think they don’t like history.
“In Quest of the Unicorn Bird” might not be to everybody’s tastes but I think that everybody who is interested in Bolivia would enjoy “Ghost Train Through the Andes” and I would recommend you to buy or borrow this book.