I grew up in New York and though I’ve traveled a bit over the years, I’ve rarely been outside the United States. I once spent five weeks in Colombia, but other than that, the only foreign country I’d been to is Canada. So my move to Bolivia with my wife and cat, Louie, was quite an undertaking, an adventure I anticipated with curiosity and enthusiasm.
We landed in El Alto International Airport and took a late night cab ride to a small hotel in La Paz, where we planned to stay to “see the sights” before moving on to Uyuni where we were going to live.
Uyuni was founded in 1890 and was a popular trading post early in the 20th century. Today it is known for the spectacular Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Tourists visit from all over the world to see some of the most amazing sights a person could imagine. And NASA uses it as part of their Ice, Cloud and land Elevation (ICESat) mission to detect ice sheet elevation changes.
My wife had arranged for employment in a company that offers guided tours of the salt flats. I was told that if I so desired I could work part-time giving tours in English. (Interestingly, and I don’t know why, the owner of the tour company told my wife they were eager to hire me and had started adverting “a guide with a New York accent” on staff.)
Like John Lennon once said – you make plans and then life happens. Well, life happened and we didn’t make it to Uyuni. First, I had serious difficulty adjusting to the altitude of La Paz, which is 11,700 feet above sea level. Uyuni sits at 12,139 feet above sea level so our plan had hit a serious obstacle.
We wound up in a tiny village at a lower altitude outside La Paz, in a region known as South Yungas. We planned on staying two or three weeks, then attempting to move on to another area at an altitude between that of South Yungas and La Paz, then back to La Paz, hoping I’d gradually acclimate.
Then, life happened again.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit and we were stuck in South Yungas. No travel at first, then limited local travel. We had no job opportunities in this rugged, sparsely populated area. There is very little commerce. Most people live off small plots of land they own and supplement their existence with meager incomes from working the fields or doing minor odd jobs for people who’ve retired from other areas, mostly La Paz. We had no income, no reimbursement for a lost (expensive) ticket back to New York* and were almost broke. We’d been told that people from other countries were able to get free flights back home.
The United States, the so-called “wealthiest country in the world” didn’t offer U.S. citizens any help. None. I had trouble believing this situation at first. Then I remembered who was running the executive branch of the U.S. government at the time.
The people in the U.S. Consulate were indifferent to my situation – despite being a U.S. citizen in a foreign country with no income and almost out of money due to unforeseen circumstances. (Hopefully that attitude has changed with a new, less destructive administration in place).
We were on our own and running out of money, despite the relatively low cost of living. Medical attention had taken a large bite out of our money. So we made the best of it, but it hasn’t been easy, by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s been quite an adventure.
I don’t want to accent the negative experiences of living in Bolivia. I don’t want to appear arrogant about where I’m from or seem unfair in assessing another culture. The fact is, my experience has been far from normal and the problems that have plagued me during this adventure were exacerbated by the pandemic. Also, I enjoyed La Paz so much I’d like to leave an impression that would make people want to visit. It’s an amazing city.
La Paz, Bolivia
However, I’ve spent an overwhelming majority of my time in Bolivia in a desolate part of the country that, despite it’s rugged beauty, is dangerous on a level I’ve never experienced – actually, never even imagined. I’ve lived in the South Bronx (close to Yankee Stadium) and have been in other parts of the U.S. where I felt a desperation so palpable that I wished I was back in the South Bronx. I’ve been threatened with a gun and a couple of times with a knife. But those were isolated incidents. This is a different world.
The only place we could afford to move into is a poorly constructed cabin with severely inadequate electric service, improper plumbing, no insulation, no air conditioning or heating, cracks in the walls and gaps in the door and windows. (Yes, that’s singular on door, there is only one exterior door in the cabin). To be fair, this was a rush construction job by a non-professional who was providing a place to live for a sick loved one. And this area has no building codes. People are allowed to build whatever type of building any time they want on their own property. (Politically conservative people in the U.S. would love that). And, of course, the price was right.
This is a cabin for weekend getaways. It is not meant for year-round living. But it was all we had for the time being. Besides, it was temporary.
Now that I’ve “bashed” the place, let me bring up the nicer aspects. Living in a tiny village in the mountains can be nice. It’s quiet. There are beautiful views, no traffic jams, rarely any honking horns, no putrid factory smells, no busy highways, virtually no crime and everyone seems friendly. (More on that another time). People regularly greet each other throughout the day whenever they pass. Under different (housing) circumstances it could be a pleasant place to live.
The mountains here are incredible. As soon as we step out our door there are fantastic views. The sheer size is awe inspiring and when fog comes rolling in and partially obscures the mountains, something that happens quite often, particularly in the morning, it can be spectacular.
The diversity of wildlife is amazing. The sounds of the many birds are beautiful, as well as interesting. There are small green and red parrots that fly in large groups and make a squeaking sound as they fly high overhead, dark grey birds that look like crows, though a bit smaller, who sit in trees in groups eating fruit, hummingbirds that dart around the patio and hover while drinking from the flowers of a tree that provides a canopy over part of the patio, light grey birds that look like pigeons who spend most of their time walking around pecking at the ground for food, tiny owls called jurucucus in Aymara (I don’t know the Spanish or English translations) that make an interesting sound at night and are rarely seen, black vultures that systematically circle the valley every day and many other types of birds.
Birds of Bolivia
The first picture is of a vulture. I took it standing two feet in front of the door of our cabin. The vulture looked bigger at the time. We see them every day as they circle around the valley in search of food. They fly in a pattern and cover the entire area. The Aymara call them mamanis. I believe they are known in the English speaking world as Black Vultures. I’ve seen them up close. They are wary, but not particularly afraid of people. They stand about 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall.
(In Bolivia, vultures are large opportunistic birds that rip flesh from dead animals. They help clean the planet. While living in the United States, to me, vultures were corporate executives and corporate politicians who ripped apart people’s hopes and “helped” leave a dead carcass out of what was considered by many to be a democracy.)
The butterflies around here are amazing to see. The variety in size is astounding. It’s difficult to get photos of them, they move incredibly fast. That’s most likely due to the fact that there are so many predators in the area. Around here there are the quick and there are the dead. I’ve seen a few blue butterflies with a wingspan of about five and a half inches – larger than some of the birds. And then one quiet morning, while sitting on a rock, I saw a tiny white dot of fuzz floating in front of my face. I watched it a moment and saw it land, then realized it was a butterfly – or possibly a moth (it’s difficult to tell – butterflies tend to be more colorful than moths, but most of the moths are only around at night). The wingspan must have been about 1/4 of an inch. It was unbelievable.
While the beautiful scenery, animals and peaceful atmosphere are enjoyable, there was a serious adjustment needed. There are no delis, no pizza joints, no bodegas, no bakeries, no coffee shops (no place at all to buy a cup of coffee), no Chinese food (or Thai, Mexican, Colombian, Japanese…), no laundromat, no music venue and no theatre. There is no guitar shop and my guitar has needed work since I arrived in Bolivia. There is no place to buy a CD, nowhere to purchase many household items (such as a broom, dustpan, lamp…) and no place to buy clothes or shoes. Aymara women make their own clothes and everyone else apparently travels to Chulumani (a larger town with a fair amount of commerce) which is about a 2 1/2 to 3 hour roundtrip or to La Paz (2 1/2 hours each way) to buy clothes. (More on traveling these mountain roads another time.)
Besides there not being the food places I mentioned, the food choices for cooking at home are also somewhat limited since the locals grow much of what they eat. There is no store to walk into and check out items on shelves. Stores are tiny rooms on the main road in which (usually) women have a limited choice of food and household items to sell. Customers stand outside a gate and ask for things. Sometimes they have what you request, sometimes they don’t. It’s a “hit or miss” thing.
There is no non-animal protein around here other than something called habas, which taste and smell nasty (even according to my Bolivian-born wife), but provide protein and fiber and are an efficient source of natural gas. 😮There are no beans, broccoli or peas for sale in this town. My wife and I don’t eat animals so purchasing food items with protein is an ordeal. Also, the only milk available here is cow milk. We don’t drink calf food. We buy powdered coconut milk on occasional trips to La Paz. We also purchase soy protein mixes, vegetable burgers, roasted peanuts, peanut butter, decent quality soap, kitty litter, dry and moist cat food, dog food and a few other items while there.
While food choices have been difficult, one beautiful source of food available part of the year is what grows on the property. There are more than a dozen tangerine trees and a number of orange trees, banana trees and avocado trees. I devour tangerines while they are in season, eating as many as six a day at times. Since I have a slight deficiency in potassium, it was great having free bananas right outside the cabin. And I love avocados – or “palta” as they’re called in Bolivia. We had so many tangerines that we occasionally bartered with one of the local shopkeepers, exchanging a large bag of them for food items we needed.
Another thing missing from the life I had become accustomed to is something I’ve never wanted to become dependent on, but life is constantly changing – regardless of how people feel about the changes – and I’ve had to adapt (as everyone has). There is no wifi in this area. I’m unable to access e-mail, listen to music on youtube, do any online reading or research, or access my blog with my iPad unless I make the treacherous journey to La Paz. (The only option I have is to use my wife’s phone to occasionally check e-mail, but amazingly, I’ve become accustomed to rarely doing even that since it’s an exercise in futility most of the time.) Not being proficient in the language in an area in which you live would be difficult enough with access to the internet. Being virtually cut off from everyone and everything I know is quite an experience.
While doing without so many things I’ve had basically at my fingertips for so long has been a drastic change, it’s also provided great lessons. I’m not a horribly complacent person who takes everything for granted, but it was still good to be thrown out of my “same ‘ol, same ‘ol” routine. I believe habits can weaken a person.
A few years ago I was forced to leave a situation in which I had a comfortable place to live for a very reasonable price. It was great while it lasted, but apparently it was time to move on. I spent the next few years bouncing around from place to place and even had the interesting experience of sleeping on park benches and trains. Though most people would cringe in horror at the prospect of doing that (especially in NYC), I found it to be a fantastic lesson in gratitude, patience and attempting to live in the moment. I found peace once I stopped spending time dwelling on the past (a comfortable bed, my personal belongings and a bedroom door to close) or on the future (is a cop going to kick me out of the park or off the train? Is a rat going to crawl on me while I sleep?)
It could be a little scary on occasion, but there were benefits as well. I was free to travel. I spent time in Taos, New Mexico with my friend Aaron, a Navajo artist I met at Zuccotti Park during the OWS protest; lived in Tucson, Arizona for a few months and spent a lot of time in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley, California. It was extremely interesting, often uncertain and never boring.
So, while life can throw rocks at you at times, it can also bring opportunities for experiences that add flavor and provide context in which to more fully enjoy living.
*One of the requirements to enter Bolivia was having a roundtrip airline ticket. The fact that I couldn’t breathe in most of the country, including the only area in which I had a possible income meant I had to make an important choice about a month after arriving. That choice was taken away by the pandemic.
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”– John Lennon