Traveling tribe: A visitor's lament
21 Aug, 2013 | Amy Provan
Bolivia offers up a lot culturally, but travellers can find themselves in their own closed circle of friends, rarely venturing from it and remaining apart from the native population.
Striped cotton trousers, a llama-print sweater and messy, unwashed hair. Most likely hungover and/or still drunk from last night. We see a traveller in her natural habitat—a party hostel in central La Paz. Grouped around her are many like herself. They chat about fuzzy memories of Route 36 (an underground cocaine bar in La Paz) and last weekend’s jungle trip. That traveller is me.
The place is created to put us at ease. An English-language menu advertises Western food. Fellow English-speaking travellers tend the bar. Each person gets their own comfy bed with two pillows! Davie Browne, who backpacked round Bolivia in 2005 and now owns the the Dubliner Irish pub in La Paz’s Zona Sur district, remarks that travelling here has become much ‘comfier’ than it was in his day. As the evening draws out into night, the hostel fills with approachable faces. Maria and Juliette are two of them. Both French travellers in their early twenties, they found advice on where to go once the hostel bar closes, and which tour companies to use. An otherwise foreign environment becomes an easy meeting place.
‘It’s so cheap here!’ May, my companion, exclaims. ‘Two cocktails for 18 bolivianos [$2.60]?!’ Prices are one of the best things about Bolivia for tribes of backpackers—you can survive on a tenth of what it takes to live in Europe. Most visitors stay only a couple of days, travelling through as part of a larger South American trip. Nevertheless, creating a tourist tribe is still big business. Bolivia is currently trying to triple its tourist income to $1 billion a year by focusing on high-end cultural and ecological visitors, whilst avoiding becoming a ‘mass tourism’ destination. That trade benefits both sides. Travellers have money to spend, and hostels have found a formula that works. Jamie McManus, the Scottish partner of Loki—a major hostel in La Paz, boasts of a sixth branch opening in Argentina. Their business model has been copied all over the continent, improving the quality of hostels and giving entrepreneurial Bolivians an effective strategy to increase profits.
Real fun. But stepping out into the harsh sunshine of the street I realise I had forgotten I was in Bolivia. Hotel licensing laws mean Jamie’s crew can only serve guests, which excludes any Bolivian customers. Seeing alligators, dolphins and piranhas was incredible, but not once on my jungle tour was I forced to speak any Spanish. Nightclubs with 20 boliviano ($3) cover charges, in a country where many live below the minimum wage of $170 a month, are hardly welcoming to anyone but expats and a small clique of Bolivian elites.
This is not really what I wanted when I came to Bolivia. I’m here to understand more of a new place, but how much insight does the small travelling community here get of Bolivian life? Since being here, I have interacted mostly with travellers who can afford to make the journey halfway across the world—making them well off even in their home countries.
Perhaps our problem is rooted in our position as ‘travellers’. As a newcomer to Bolivia, this ready-made tribe is too accessible, and too attractive, to distance myself from. It is also in many peoples’ interests for travellers not to leave the tourist trail, because our money is trapped there as well. But more than this, being a traveller gives me no context in which to understand Bolivia. Why should local people show a stranger how they live? Explaining my curiosity will not get far in justifying pure voyeurism.
So I went to visit Plan International, an international development agency that helps impoverished children, to get a view of this society from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I was given a stack of literature on the position of children in the country—eight in every 100 children between the ages of 7 and 13 work, despite the fact that it’s against the law, and chronic malnutrition affects nearly 22 percent of children under 5. Half of all indigenous Bolivians live in extreme poverty level. Of course, Bolivia’s poverty is well known, but I nevertheless found found these statistics disheartening after leaving the comfortable bubble in which I had been existing.
Travellers in every country are bound to only scratch the surface of a place. Why should Bolivia be any different? The country’s extreme social inequalities mean that disparate social groups are less likely to mix, and travellers in turn are cushioned from the reality of poverty in Bolivia, and this makes it more difficult for us to comprehend the country. With time and persistence, some can break through social barriers. But according to Edgar Dávila Navarro, Plan International’s communications coordinator, it is also possible, with a privileged lifestyle, to never come into contact with, or completely ignore the poverty that exists here.
So I never got quite what I wanted. It seems my quest to experience Bolivia exposed, above all, my own naïveté. I believed that there was an accessible culture to understand. This issue of Bolivian Express shows the stratification and complexity of the many Bolivian ‘tribes’. I wanted to ‘get’ this country in a month, but that’s not how it works—here or at home. As a middle-class South Londoner attending a private school, I am also far from understanding British society in many of the ways I seek to comprehend Bolivia. I know only what it’s like to live a certain lifestyle—to belong to my own certain tribe.
Thus my status as a member of the traveller tribe is prescribed from the moment I can afford the flight here, and can be identified by my blonde hair and sometimes rather ridiculous choice of dress. It’s fun, but not the way to gain understanding of an alien and fundamentally very complex place. Bolivia is definitely not ‘done’.