5 years ago, I went on an adventure that changed my life, and gave me a wake up call to reality. By that time, I had already traveled a lot around Brazil, and also visited Argentinean and Paraguayan lands, but that month backpacking was my first big international journey.
I always had plans in my mind for all sorts of whimsical trips, but I really wanted to start there, in my own backyard: South America. During this month I travelled to 3 countries: Bolivia, Chile and Peru. This whole experience was something really meaningful and life changing. However, I have to highlight Bolivia for some reasons that I will explain in this post.
As Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, the trip was as much a reality check as it was an adventure. At the beginning of the journey, there were many struggles and cultural shocks. Also, this was my first experience with high altitudes, having to get used to physically adapting to a different environment. I had only read stories from other backpackers who had travelled north beyond Salar de Uyuni (Salt flats desert). It wasn’t a destination you would find travel agencies advertising, as you would expect in Chile and Peru. A lot of people had, and continue to have, prejudice towards this country.
People questioned me while planning my trip, bringing to light the disrespectful stereotypes many hold of this developing country: Why are you not going to the States instead? What are you going to do in Bolivia? The country and the people are ugly and poor. If you want to experience Bolivia, go to the Brás region (An area in São Paulo, Brazil where there are a lot of Bolivian immigrants). I was shocked with such comments. I knew these people had no idea what they were talking about. They had never been to Bolivia, yet they had created false and unkind preconceptions.
I felt sad to see my fellow Paulistanos (people who are born in São Paulo) portraying Bolivians so badly, especially after I visited the country and saw the reality there. A lot of them go to Brazil for the chance of a better life, working hard and sending this money back home. Brazilian currency (Real) is worth a lot more than the currency there. When we go to Bolivia we feel very rich. Can you image the other way round? And it truly hurts me to see people in my own city mocking when they come across a Bolivian with a better standard of life or driving a more expensive car. C’mon, what’s wrong with you, people?
Last year when I was in Brazil, I went to Brás and the nostalgia hit me hard. I saw bus signs calling for trips to Oruro and Cochabamba (Bolivian cities) which, before, were only different names but, now, they had a meaning to me. I really wanted just to get into one of the Bolivian bars to check if they had any Paceña and, with my rusty Spanish, talk about my experience of the country; the places I have been to, the buses that broke down along the way, and the feeling of saudade after that.
*Saudade is a word in Portuguese that can’t be translated, it means ” a deep longing for something or someone that is now lost” – a feeling of longing, nostalgia and melancholy.
I visited 7 Bolivian cities: Santa Cruz, Sucre, Postosí, Uyuni (and the Altiplano), Copacabana and La Paz. It wasn’t a luxury trip (That’s not my style), the food and accommodations was very simple. Only in Santa Cruz did we allow ourselves to stay in a hotel, as the price was really cheap and, we were going there only to rest. Plus, the rooms had an air-conditioner, which is much appreciated, as Santa Cruz is like getting into a sauna. In most places, we stayed in hostels and lodges; some of them we even doubted if the bed sheets had been cleaned. Sometimes, we ended up in our sleeping bags on the beds. During the 3 day trip to the Altiplano, we slept in lodges in the middle of nowhere. The idea of having a hot shower was a distant dream. We had to face filthy shared bathrooms and cold showers (it was Summer, but freezing cold!) – and needed to use wipes to help us cleaning ourselves.
These kind of trips require you to be more practical when it comes to your backpack. You are not going to bring lots of clothes, even if it is a month-long trip. I wore the same clothes, and probably if you check my pictures you will see I am wearing the same stuff all the time. There was a sense of freedom going out not worrying about the way I looked, if my hair was nice, if my make up was OK, or if my clothes are matching each other. You care most about the experiences you are having rather than superficial frivolous matters such as these.
It was really rewarding being there, living for the moment and making new discoveries every day, learning more about the culture of people who share the same continent as me; not being afraid of talking to people, and getting to know their life stories. This was, in fact, the most important thing for me. You learn a lot about others and also yourself! You realise the world is bigger than you thought, even if you are just there in a neighbouring country, close to home.
Visiting a country that is poorer than yours, and seeing a different reality, makes you think a lot about the way you live and your values. I’m not into buying new clothes every month or material stuff. Thankfully, I’m not a crazy “shopaholic”. It makes me spend my money on what I believe is the most important possession to me – experiences.
This time in Bolivia made me realise that I don’t need much to live, and to give more value to the simple and basic things. A lot of people don’t even have these basics. It taught me to be thankful for having the opportunities that I have and, learn always to try and be a better version of me, showing empathy towards people.
Bolivia also helped to me try something I had always sidestepped. I had tried to be vegetarian before. But, it was only when I walked past public markets, seeing all that raw meat and, when I ate llama, that reality hit me hard. I didn’t want to be part of that system anymore. I did’t want to look at an animal and feel so guilty and horrible the way I felt every time a llama came my way. Bolivia, somehow, made me take one of the most important and happiest decisions in my life.
The experiences that I had there made me stronger and less fussy when facing problems in life and on the road. Sometimes I laugh when I see people complaining during trips in Europe; simple accommodations here could be 5 stars somewhere else and so on. Perhaps these humble trips make you less demanding, helping to appreciate that at the heart of the ordinary, lies the extraordinary and beautiful.
Bolivia also made me think about what kind of traveller I wanted to be. I don’t want to go to places just for the sake of going. Instead, I want to know them better, and learn more about the place and people who live there in a more meaningful way. The valuable things in my life came from this – from the experiences I now gather in every trip I take.
My goal and what I wanted in my life became clear – Bolivia was only the beginning!