Tomorrow will mark the end of my first month in Bolivia. I remember my first day in Bolivia all too clearly (it ended in tears). I crossed the border from La Quiaca in Argentina to Villazon in Bolivia and, considering it was my first solo border crossing, all went pretty smoothly and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I even managed to get ahead of my schedule by taking a shared taxi instead of the bus, which would leave Villazon at the same time as my taxi would be arriving in Potosi. I was feeling very smug.
My first mistake was sitting in the front seat. I was excited by the views at first – the mountainous landscape of Bolivia really is stunning. But then my excitement turned to fear as I realised just how crazy Bolivian roads and drivers are. The hairpin turns and the ambitious overtaking alongside various animals and people in the middle of the road left me with sore muscles from grabbing the sides of my seat. At one point I even let out a wail when I thought we were about to run over a dog that had run out to bark at the car. The driver and the other passengers found this hilarious, and I just had to laugh nervously at myself to save face.
After 6 gruelling hours of no sleep (I had been up since 5am but felt slightly awkward about sleeping in the front seat where everyone could see me), no food, and incessant Bolivian electronic folk music, it began to get dark and I suddenly remembered that I had nowhere to stay in Potosi, and didn’t even have a guidebook for Bolivia. I hadn’t booked a hostel because I didn’t think I’d be arriving until the next morning. At this point I started to regret being ahead of schedule. My smugness had certainly disappeared by now and had been replaced by (ir)rational fear.
“Shit, I don’t know the first thing about Potosi”, I thought to myself. “I don’t even know where the centre is, or how big it is”. And, as we passed the sign for Potosi and turned the corner at the top of the hill, below me I could see the sprawling mass of lights that could only be Potosi. It’s massive. For some reason, in my head, I had imagined Potosi to be a big town rather than a city, and for it to be compact enough for me to navigate its streets without too much preparation.
It was about now that my eyes began to well up. I reprimanded myself and tried furiously to get an Internet connection on my iPhone. Eventually, I found the name of a hostel, but no street name. The other people in the taxi didn’t know where it was…
It boils down to this: it was dark and I was clueless. Not a good travel combination.
The driver stopped on a seemingly random street and I was told to get out. It was time to pay. I was sure that back in Villazon I had haggled the price of the taxi down to 100 Bolivianos (about £10) but when I handed over this amount the driver stuck out his hand and told me that it was 200 Bolivianos. I was even more upset by this since I had seen that the other passengers had paid only 100 Bs. However, my lack of Spanish and my traumatised state left me unable to defend myself. So I handed over the money bitterly and the only thing to redeem this taxi driver was that he showed me into another taxi and told the driver to take me to the centre.
Miraculously, I found a hostel, and there were rooms. I had the choice of being in a dorm or a private room. Now, usually I never choose private rooms, but by this point I was in no mood to socialise and just wanted to be alone. I opened the door, flung my stuff on the floor and burst into tears. It sounds pathetic, but I was feeling very upset at Bolivia. The prison-cell appearance of my room didn’t help much either.
Thankfully, my first day in Bolivia was not an indicator of the rest of my time here. The next day I was helped through a road blockade by two old men who proposed to me along the way. Things were already starting to look up!
I’ve realised that I don’t have any pictures from the drive through southern Bolivia or my half-day in Potosi. I’m putting this down to my traumatised state. It’s a shame, but maybe I’ll go back there when I’m more prepared and can actually see the city properly.
The moral of this story? Be prepared – if only so that you don’t end up crying on your own in a hostel. And, first impressions aren’t everything.
In just 4 weeks, Bolivia has shown itself to me to be a very welcoming country, full of interesting people and places, and I’m looking forward to experiencing more of this landlocked South American country over the next few months. Although I do miss the sea…