reality check in La Paz
"How much is the night bus to Sucre?" I asked the brown-shirted desk clerk; a young guy with an anxiously honest air about him.
"30 bolivianos, señor.....how much is a flight to your country?"
Momentarily taken aback in an i´m-asking-the-questions kind of way, I then replied; playing down the price to make it seem a bit more attainable.
"$800, return ticket." He still seemed speechless.
Of course, in a country where almost two thirds live below the UN poverty line, such options are out of reach.
Bolivia's 2002 gross domestic product (GDP) totaled USD $7.9 billion. Not a large amount by any stretch of the imagination.
"Bolivia’s current lackluster economic situation can be linked to several factors from the past two decades. The first major blow to the Bolivian economy came with a dramatic fall in silver prices during the early 1980’s which impacted one of Bolivia’s main sources of income and one of its major mining industries. The second major economic blow came from the end of the Cold War in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as economic aid was withdrawn by western countries who had previously tried to keep a “democratic” regime in power through financial support. The third economic blow came from the U.S. sponsored eradication of the Bolivian coca crop which was used in 80% of the worlds’ cocaine production at its peak. Along with the reduction in the coca crop came a huge loss of income to the Bolivian economy, particularly the peasant classes."
In short, the chances of most of the populace escaping across the Atlantic are negligible.
On this journey, I have had this conversation countless times:
Juan doe: How much did your skateboard cost in Scotland?
me: about $240
Juan doe: but how can you afford that?
me: Our average wage is about $32,000 p.a
Juan doe: so you´re really really rich!
me: well....sure, we have a higher standard of living, in the way we measure such things, but, for example, a loaf of bread costs $2.
Juan doe: What, but surely you can´t afford that!
me: but.... (a bit exasparated by now)
I give in consistently. I have tried to convey the fact that we still have disturbing rates of violence in Scotland, alongside homelessness, poverty, drug addiction and all the rest. I find it a stiff challenge, however, to modify peoples unwavering and iconic faith in the promised lands of the USA and Europe.
I tell them about the prowling packs of rangey kids on the streets of Edinburgh, pulling knives on you for no reason, other than to vent repressed issues as mindless malevolence on the weakest prey they can find. I tell them about our alcohol problems, bad weather, unemployment, naive racism; in short, all the badness i can conjure up. I´m trying to soften things. I know that there´s not much chance these guys will ever see Europe anyway, and that I should leave them with a dream unscathed, but the fear that they don´t understand the truth is more compelling.
It cuts no ice in any case. Apart from the weather, Bolivia has all these problems with bells on. This is not a lever i can use to balance perspective.
Memories come to my aid.
A truck in La Paz whipping past...gorged to the gunnels with smiling familes; their cheeks bulging with coca leaves...
being able to bargain with shop assistants in a large chain supermarket, of all places, and striking a nice price for my milk, fruit and beer...
wild unlicensed parties that break out all over city streets with no complaints and no apparent reason...
kids playing jump-over-the-sheep in the gathering darkness on the road to copacobana...not an adult in sight...their smiles still visible in the rolling mist of the altiplano...
everything for sale, everywhere, people on the streets trading all night...want to be a taxci driver today? just buy a taxi sticker from a guy at the traffic lights...no driving license? ...get one from the police for a minimal fee...
The government here can´t`play big brother, as it lacks the social infrastructure, and perhaps the inclination too; there are priorities.
Compare this to Sweden, for example, where the Systembolaget system dictates where and when you can buy alcohol, sell it to you in faceless state-owned outlets at highly uncompetitive prices (where´s the incentive to do otherwise?), then plough you with leaflets at the checkout extholing the virtues of sobriety.
I don´t believe the government should be in our lives any more than is strictly necessary. "Man is free, but everywhere in chains" right enough.
It´s not just the greater distance from interventionist laws the people enjoy here, there´s more.
The smile, laugh and dance with greater abandon. They do not exist through and are not defined by gadgets and routines to the extent of the western european. Life is hard here, but the people are so profoundly aware of the proximity of death and decay that they hold on tighter. They appreciate what they have so much more, in my opinion.
HOw many times have i bumped into a friend from high school in my home town, enquired as to how things are going, and been met with one or both of these replies:
"daeín (doing) away, daeín away" or "workin away, workin away"[b]
Away to what? Death? Killing time before it kills you? What kind of way is that to justify the one-in-a-billion chance that you exist at all? Bolivians have nothing compared to us in materialistic terms, but they do maintain a sense of tradion and connection with life that makes me glad indeed to witness.
A taxi driver in Cochabamba even claimes that they lost their coastline to Chile, an event lodged deeply in the bolivian psyche, because they were partying too hard. The Chilean force sneaked in admist the festivities and secured the port.All this celebrating in a year with the worst drought on record in the countrys ostensibly miserable history!
When do the scots celebrate our common heritage? What traditions are truly alive in the main flow of society? Why are the pubs a hundred times fuller on St Patricks day than St Andrews? It is a sad state of affairs that people only get passionate about shared history when we play England at football. sad indeed.
The streets of my home town are dead at night. Only the pubs show a spark of life. People no longer seem to lean over fences and chat, like they did in my childhood. We add more bricks to our divisions, face the TV instead of each other more and more commonly, and invest time and money in objects of silicon and plastic, which slowly waste to leave only a subtle sense of something lacking.
Each feather in our nest makes us more comfortable, but higher from the ground; further from the realities of life, which connect us all...or so we would like to thing...you need not read Lord of The Flies to understand how thin a veneer surrounds us. I wrote a poem about this during a hangover day at Uni:
"what remains of c´est la vie?
A trite and tested a-b-c
whose ethos rests upon a ledge
held up by ignorances pledge"(extract)
"So don´t you like Bolivia?" I asked him straight as he printed my bus ticket.
Looking apologetically at his colleague, he shrugged and smiled.
"yes...sort of, but I would be so much happier in Europe"
I wouldn´t bet on it, I thought. On the other side of the fence as we are, we are rapidly forgetting just how green the grass is.