Copacabana: A World Away

Lake Titicaca


matt 120pxWe’ve only been in Copacabana for an afternoon so far, but it’s a world away from dismal La Paz. Although only a few hours bus ride from La Paz, we’re now on the beautiful shore of Lake Titicaca. I’ve heard numerous conflicting stats about different lakes in South America from different people, so I don’t know what to report. I do know that the lake is big enough to look like the ocean; that is, it is deep blue and the other side lies beyond the horizon. We are, however, 3800 meters above sea level. In fact, except for Sucre (2800 meters) our entire time in Bolivia has been spent at or above 3500 meters. For our first night here, we decided to treat ourselves to the Honeymoon Suite at “La Cupula.” It’s white-washed cubic compound with domes and blue trim, that looks like it could be from the Cyclades. Up on a hill next to town, we can see all of town, the lake, some islands, and Peru. We spent our night watching a spectacular electrical storm play itself out over the lake. Our two meals (trout for lunch and steak for dinner…Joylani ordered a breakfast) have also been considerably better than the typical Bolivian fare we’ve been eating. I haven’t even seen fried chicken or a 2L Coke yet…and we’re in a Bolivia…like I said, a world away.

Bolivian Economics

matt 120pxI’m afraid that Bolivia is headed down painful paths, both politically and economically. I’ll begin with what I believe is the simpler of the two issues: the economy. To begin with, Bolivia is one of Latin America’s poorest nations , with average earnings around $900 and GDP per capita only $2900. We heard that mining is the most lucrative industry, as miners can earn around $10/day (although most die within 10-15 years of their first entry into a mine). In contrast, doctors earn around $250/month, or $8.50/day. Thus, there’s not a real incentive to educate oneself (except to emigrate). Foreign aid is a huge part of the economy. Besides the politics of aid that get reported in the papers, foreign aid is evident everyday in Bolivia: the donated vans and buses with Korean and Japanese characters still on them, the road signs indicating a road is being funded by the EU or Denmark or someone else, and the used clothes that people wear. Like its neighbors, Bolivia is fully reliant on commodity exports, especially mining. Although its relied on everything from silver to tin, today its main exports are natural gas and zinc. Again, like its neighbors (some of whom I’ve written about already), the commodities crash that began in July 2008 will have devastating consequences for Bolivia. Bolivia has practically no domestic industry and its entire economy is hostage to world commodity prices. The bottom line is that Bolivia’s economy is FULLY dependent on commodity prices and things are getting worse. There’s not much Bolivia can do about either; corruption siphons off money even in good times, the currency is pegged by the government so the central banks hands are tied, and Bolivia has massive debt which precludes it from doing anything proactive. Bolivia’s economic situation is simple and bleak: its poor, getting poorer, and not much can be done.

            Its on this wave of bad economics that Juan “Evo” Morales has swept into power. An Aymara (Bolivian indigenous ethnicity) coca picker, Evo rose to power as a labor leader. After a long struggle that included beatings, prison time, and eventually politics, Evo became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2005. He has been incredibly controversial both domestically and abroad. He’s sparred with the US over American drug policies concerning coca. On this issue, I actually take the side of Evo and Bolivia. The US is withholding trade and economic benefits because Bolivia does not ban farmers from growing coca. The US position is that Bolivia is supplying the cocaine drug trade. The Bolivian position is that coca leaves are grown and used widely within Bolivia. Traveling around the country, its evident that everybody chews it- even we’ve tried it. Some people believe it combats altitude sickness, while some just like it for its stimulative properties (like cigarettes). Evo asserts that the US’s domestic drug problem is not a valid reason to assert power of Bolivian affairs. This issue actually got quite hot and the US even withdrew its ambassador and all Peace Corps staff a few months ago (although I believe they’ve returned since). Since Bolivians use and have used coca for generations and it’s a part of their culture, I don’t think the US should belittle Bolivia as it has. Secondly, I don’t believe Bolivia has a cocaine problem and most coca is processed into cocaine in Colombia and Peru.

            From the second we saw Evo posters on every wall of the Bolivian Consulate to the graffiti of “EVO, SÍ” on every rock along the highways, its immediately apparent that he has quite a following. About 60% of Bolivia’s population is indigenous, which matches up well with the 54% of the national vote that Evo won. Unfortunately, Evo has stirred up racial bitterness and is fanning the flames of hatred against the nation’s white minority. One of his first moves was to suggest a new constitution, which supposedly will be better for the indigenous population. It met fierce resistance and violent protests erupted across the country in early 2008. Eventually, the white politicians agreed to hold a referendum on the new constitution if Evo agrees to step down as president after two terms. The referendum is scheduled for January 2009 and I am glad we won’t be here as I think it will get very dangerous. The constitution introduces (among many many other things) land-reform, which is of course just a euphemism for land-redistribution. The majority-white province of Santa Cruz is threatening to secede, because it’s basically a ploy to give white land to indigenous. Our white hotel-owner in La Paz seemed concerned of what the future holds. Although land-reform seems like a page out of Mugabe’s book, Evo is borrowing ideas from dictators of other failed states too. One of his first moves was to nationalize (steal private company assets) the energy industry, just as Chavez did in Venezuela. It seemed silly to me to see the posters of Evo with the Castro bros and Chavez, the leaders of broken and failing nations. He disagrees with capitalism and wants to be identified as a revolutionary who can change Bolivia. Guess what? Bolivia’s had dozens of revolutions and over 70 presidents. Evo is pursuing the policies of other men who have bankrupted their nations and I don’t think Evo can bring about any positive change. Yea, it’s great that an indigenous can become president and its good that he wants to help his nation. But he’s just the latest of a new wave of Latin American neo-liberals that is going to drive his country into the ground. Fidel? Look at his country over the past 50 years. Chavez? Watch what happens now that oil has dropped and you kicked out all private oil companies. Correa? Want to default on your foreign debt because debt is “humiliating,” look what happened to Argentina. Land reform? Look what Mugabe’s done to Zimbabwe in only five years! Not only is Evo pursuing populist policies that are both bankrupt and downright communist, he is a racist preying on Bolivia’s minority. Bolivia is already headed down a painful path, but Evo will only exacerbate the pain.

La Ciudad Blanca



matt 120pxSucre is the so-called Ciudad Blanca, since it appears that nearly every building in town is whitewashed. Looking at the city from afar, it’s actually somewhat attractive with all the white walls and red tile roofs. Up close, the city is not very attractive. Its like the other Bolivian towns and cities we’ve visited so far. Crumbling adobe and brick walls, litter and garbage all around, streets full of taxis and exhaust, and rumors of dangerous areas. We’ve visited a lot of towns around the world that we’ve liked that could be described the same way, but Sucre lacks good food and anything interesting to see. The food in Bolivia has not been getting any better. Despite the fact that Bolivian food is dirt cheap, Joylani and I have started cooking ourselves- the food is that bad. Most restaurants are closed except for mealtimes and standard fare is cold fried chicken, fries literally dripping in oil, dry rice, lukewarm soup, and nasty looking salads. Not only is it rarely ever appetizing, but it’s mostly unsanitary too. In fact, the only reason we stayed her for three days is because we got sick. Although Joylani enjoyed the native textiles museum, the Casa de Libertad, the historical heart of the nation, was nothing more than a boring gallery of portraits. Perhaps, being at the heart of Bolivian independence, Sucre holds a special place in Bolivians’ hearts, like Boston or Philadelphia do for Americans. I, however, only found the town somewhat appealing when we ate a meal above town (photo above).

Matt´s birthday lunch

Plaza de San Francisco, Sucre

joylani 130pxWandering up one of the hills in town today in search of a good view, we found what we were looking for and it included a stop at this hotel/restaurant we stumbled upon.  The food was good, the view was nice, and, besides me getting sunburned on my face and the half of my forehead not covered by bangs, we had a sunny little meal to celebrate Matt’s birthday a day early.  Happy Birthday Matt!

Bolivia, Sucre

Final Leg Home

matt 120pxAlthough it may seem that we’re just traveling northwards arbitrarily until we get back to California, we do have something of a plan/itinerary. For a variety of reasons, we had always planned to be back home by spring 2009. I began searching for airfares back in October, when we were living in Buenos Aires. Seeing the prices for one-way tickets from South America to California and having already spent a small fortune flying from Beijing to San Francisco to Beijing to Seoul and then from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, we decided to try to book a ticket home using miles. We then discovered that miles-wise, it’s cheaper to fly to the US from northern South America, which worked out for us because we were planning on traveling the continent pretty extensively. It was when I was searching for dates that we could get a one-way home with miles from Lima or Quito that Joylani shared one of the greatest ideas she’s ever had (in my opinion, not hers). Since one-way and roundtrip tickets cost the same amount of miles, Hawaii is politically part of North America, and many flights to Honolulu connect through SF or LA, then we could get a roundtrip from Lima or Quito to Honolulu and just stay in California on the return journey. In other words, after finishing up South America, we could go to Hawaii for a few weeks, then fly home…all for 30k miles apiece! Pure genius. So, as it stands, we’ll be traveling northwards until we get to Quito, where we’ll catch a flight to Honolulu (via the US) at the end of January. Then we’ll chill on Oahu for three weeks before ditching our onward flights at LAX. So not only do we do have a rough itinerary we’re trying to follow, but our days in South America, on this trip, and as homeless hapas are numbered.

Five Pepto Bismals…

joylani 130px…And one last minute Immodium before our bus left on a 4-hour drive from Potosi to Sucre held me over just long enough to make it to our next hostel.  I didn’t think I’d be going for days after all those pills, but apparently I was wrong.  I hate being sick.

Potosi to Sucre

matt 120pxBolivia is the first developing (although even that is a euphanism) country we’ve been in in awhile and things definitely run at a different pace. For some reason, every bus ride we’ve taken here has reminded me of Laos. From the border to Tupiza, it was the bumpy road and poor passengers. From Uyuni to Potosi, it was the entire villages made of temporary structures. And today, from Potosi to Sucre, it was the fact that it took us four hours to travel 132 kilometers (82 miles). Like Laos, despite the fact that highways around the country are being paved, Bolivia is so mountainous that travel is invariably slow. Also like Laos, Bolivia is really different. And for that, I appreciate it.


Cerro Rico, Potosi

matt 120pxPotosi is supposedly the highest city in the world at 4070 meters (13,227 feet). However, this is probably more a function of semantics, because I have to believe that there are towns in Pakistan, India, and/or China that have more inhabitants than Potosi’s roughly 150,000. Highest city or not, I’m definitely feeling the altitude here as I huff and puff walking up and down the old city streets. It’s also cold. But it’s not the high altitude, thin air, or cold temperatures that define Potosi. Potosi is interesting because of its history. Although a shadow of its former self, its ornate cathedrals, sprawling colonial architecture and old mines hint at its former glory. Cerro Rico, the red mountain that looms above Potosi is where the Spanish struck silver in the 16th century. Not just a little silver, but enough to finance their expanding empire. By the turn of the century, Potosi was one of the most populous cities (200,000 inhabitants) on earth, far exceeding European metropolis’s such as London (40,000) or Paris (60,000). It also became far richer, all due to the silver from Cerro Rico. It was the richest city in all of the Americas and the Spanish transported shiploads of silver to Spain via Lima. Although Mexico was rich in gold, silver was the reserve currency of the era. They expanded their empire in the Americas, bought slaves in Africa, spices and textiles in Asia, and fueled the famous silver trade of the European colonial period. It is perhaps due to Potosi that the Spanish-speaking world is the Spanish-speaking world, rather than the English, Portuguese, or Dutch speaking world. Today Potosi has a smaller population than it did 400 years ago, its mines have been almost fully exploited, and it’s just another city in one of the poorest regions in all the Americas. To learn more, Joylani and I visited the old Spanish mint. It was one of three mints that the Spanish set up in the Americas (along with Lima and Mexico), but it is the only surviving one. We took an English speaking tour and learned about how silver was first discovered at Cerro Rico and how the Spanish learned about and then began mining it. They immediately began sending silver back to Spain and imported minting technology from Europe. The coins minted in Potosi were used throughout the entire world and gave Spain a huge source of funding for their empire. The cold dry air has kept the wood at the old mint in good condition and much of the original equipment is still intact. We saw how silver was pressed into ingots and subsequently stamped into coins, although the process is much too lengthy to write about. There was so much silver, people were making tables, dinnerware, and even bedpans with it (all on display). After independence, the mines began to dry up and Potosi began its gradual decline from prominence. The mint continued to produce coins up until the 20th century though. Our guide lamented how ironic it is that Potosi used to export currency that was used all over the world, while today Bolivian currency is all minted and printed in foreign countries (mainly Europe). Bolivian silver is still mostly exported, although it is to Asia rather than Europe to build computer components rather than empires. Despite its fall from glory, Potosi was still an interesting place to spend a day and a half. The main touristy thing to do is to visit the mines, which are now run as miner-owned cooperatives. Joylani didn’t want to go due to the health-hazards and cavernous claustrophobic conditions (she hates caves) and I didn’t have a burning desire to go, so we skipped that. We explored the narrow streets and alleyways, admiring the old colonial architecture and cobbled streets. The food still isn’t very good, but we found a couple of edible restaurants in our wanderings, plus a couple new street-food items. Potosi doesn’t hold many of the distinctions it once did, but it’s still the highest city in the world and a pleasant mountain town to spend a day or two in.

potosi, bolivia 2

Uyuni to Potosi

matt 120pxWe spent six hours of our day on a bus from Uyuni to Potosi. Although Bolivia barely has any paved roads and it was a bumpy ride, it was an interesting journey. Firstly, the scenery was absolutely spectacular. Uyuni sits at around 3600 meters and Potosi at just over 4000, so it was high-altitude mountain scenery all the way. We wove our way through spectacular mountain ranges of varying colors. Bolivia has the most awesome geology, with green, purple, red, black, and grey mountains. I couldn’t take any photos because of the dirty windows and it rained on and off most of the journey. Some of the mud villages looked as if the rain would melt them away. Bolivia is very very poor. It seems about on par with Laos, the poorest country we’ve visited until now. In Laos, most homes are temporary and made of bamboo frames and woven mats. In Bolivia, most homes are temporary and made of adobe, or less euphemistically, mud bricks. Aside from entire villages made of mud, we passed a few abandoned villages, their tin roofs stripped and only portions their melted-looking walls remaining. We passed a few mines and the adjacent towns, saw lots of llamas, alpacas, and vicunas, as well as some small farms, their rocky plots delineated by stone walls. Our bus stopped often to pick-up and drop off people along the way. Even the people were evidence that we were in a poor country. The worn clothes, the dirtiness. The men in their earth tones and the women with their chola dresses, bowler hats, and rainbow-colored blankets slung around their backs. For the first time since we were in South East Asia, we’re traveling via local transportation in a poor country. The bus ride was not comfortable or fast, but it was different and interesting.