Having just arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia where I will be volunteering for the next three months with Proyecto Horizonte, and after spending only three days at work, the opportunity of a camping trip to the mountains arose. It meant that I would miss two days of work within my first week which left me feeling ever so slightly guilty, but we, the volunteers, were encouraged to go.
And so we went. It was all very spontaneous and all very exciting.
We were told that the camping trip was taking place because of a traditional festival that was happening at the weekend: the Festividad del Señor de Exaltación. This festival happens once a year in the small mountain village of Machaca in the Cochabamba department of Bolivia. We were promised traditional dancing, such as the Morenada and the Diablada, and a chance to see life in a rural Bolivian community. And that’s what we saw. Only it wasn’t quite what we had expected.
First things first. I have to tell you that I got incredibly sick on the first night. And, somewhat typically, this illness didn’t disappear until 3 days later when we were on the bus home. In other words, I spent the whole weekend feeling a bit squiffy.
Next, I feel that I have to tell you that Machaca is probably one of the worst places to get sick, ever. It’s extremely remote, there are very few opportunities to eat well, and it’s not exactly the most hygienic place. Especially when you’re camping in a derelict building, whose ‘garden’ appears to be the community toilet…
So, I feel that my illness may have marred this experience slightly. However, after talking to the other volunteers it seemed as though they were also slightly surprised by the way the weekend turned out.
Our expectations were roughly as follows: beautiful sunshine, wonderful scenery, bright happy people in a rural community who had prepared traditional dances for the visitors travelling from far and wide for this festival, and folk music.
Here is the reality: it rained, the scenery was spectacular, the bright happy people were only bright and happy for a while until the inhuman amount of chicha (a corn-based alcoholic drink) consumed resulted in brawls and unconscious bodies scattered across the village, and the music was a type of electronic folk music which is very popular in Bolivia, especially in buses and taxis, but which gets a bit much after a while, in my humble opinion.
Looking back on the experience I now see that my expectations were very naïve. For some reason we thought that the festival would be a polished, organised event. But why or how would this be the case when we were entering a very remote, very poor village in the Bolivian mountains? All of my, perhaps Westernised, expectations were completely out of place here.
Reality took over.
We definitely saw rural Bolivian life. And it wasn’t pretty. The poverty we found there was shocking, the standard of living was very low, and we saw just how hard life must be for the people of Machaca. I left feeling as though I had had a reality check, and thought about how much work has been done at Proyecto Horizonte and I wondered whether the community of Ushpa-Ushpa was anything like Machaca before Proyecto Horizonte came on the scene.
The people of Machaca certainly had their flaws; there’s no denying it. There were things that I saw that I didn’t like. For example, the behaviour of some of the men at the correo de toros, and the way a couple of my friends were treated towards the end of the night after a whole day of chicha consumption. But it has to be said that the people of Machaca also welcomed 7 gringos into their community for a couple of days, and we were even invited to a wedding reception, which, although slightly uncomfortable at points, was an extremely generous offer from the newly married couple.
Overall, I’m glad I went to Machaca, despite my illness and feeling miserable for a lot of the weekend. I saw a part of Bolivia that I had, up until then, only seen from the surface. I also learnt that I had subconsciously imposed my expectations onto people whose culture means that they don’t think in the same way I do. I feel foolish for thinking otherwise, but it’s a lesson I’ve learnt and something that I will try not to do in the future.
Expectations and reality can be hard to manage when it comes to travel. You may often be disappointed. But, for me, it’s actually one of the fundamental reasons for travel: to see the reality of a place, instead of imagining what it might be like. And even if the reality is disappointing, or shocking, it means you’ve experienced a place warts ‘n’ all. Imperfections are part of reality and, in the end, that’s what makes travel so interesting.