Dead Outlaws, Capricious Buses, and Giant Insects: A Bolivian Love Story

Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please contact Dean at, and he will let you know how you can start participating!

Read the rest of the wonderful love letters here.

“Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I have never been more relentlessly uncomfortable, dirty, sick, or annoyed as I was traveling through Bolivia. For one, not only are intestinal troubles inevitable — ranging anywhere from mildly annoying to “weight loss program” — it appeared to be socially acceptable for near-strangers/new friends to inquire after your, erm, situation. This charming ice breaker is in no way limited to Bolivia, but it was the first country I experienced it in, so the association between land locked South American country and the shamelessness of backpackers is firmly entrenched in my brain.

Also, the transportation was a horror show. If and when the intended bus showed up, it almost always burst a tire during the journey, the passengers included farm animals and furniture, and the roads were so dangerous, the driving so pants-shittingly scary (as though that wasn’t enough of a concern already) that many travelers purchased some sort of muscle relaxant or Valium derivative for the journey.

However, since most of us had only a cursory hold on Spanish — what some referred to as “combat Spanish” — which drug someone actually received in that nefariously nondescript brown paper bag was often a surprise. Particularly disconcerting was the one co-passenger of mine on an overnight journey who marveled aloud that he’d been sold rohypnol. Another guy had gotten an antidepressant. “I won’t be able to sleep, but at least I won’t be depressed about it,” he’d said, swallowing the pill with a shrug and a grimace. 

 And yet, whenever somebody asks what my favorite countries are, Bolivia still tops the list. South America was my first big trip, and it’s true that your first journey is like your first love: intense and indelible.

Playing with the kids on The Uros Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca
Playing with the kids on The Uros Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca.
I was SO sick that day- that’s me trying my hardest to stand upright.
My affair with Bolivia comes back to me in snapshots. It was there that I grew to love being surrounded in a language not mine, and my identity as an Outsider burgeoned. On the tail of a shattering relationship, it was there, learning how to travel, that I put myself back together again. Bolivia taught me that whether your bus is on time, five hours late, or doesn’t come at all, the best course of action is to sit in the chaos and eat chocolate with a friend.
Hitching a ride in the back of a pickup truck in the early morning, a young girl in a white and blue uniform made goo-goo eyes at Yuval. I thought of how wonderful it would be if in a diary in the depths of the Amazon somewhere, there was an entry about the foreigner who shared fruit with her on the way to school one day and whom she never saw again.
Eating messy hamburgers at four am in Cusco after spending all day at the Ollantaytambo ruins, and all night dancing, covered in fluorescent face paint and sweat. Episodes like these were almost always the precursor to the aforementioned intestinal issues. Worth it.
Cicadas the length of your forearm that come out of the jungle’s dark places once every seventeen years, and only live for three days. Such poetry for such an unsettling creature. They fell out of a starless sky one night, plonking gracelessly onto the ground like something out of Naked Lunch. Lean dogs flipped them over with their noses. One of them landed on a blonde girl’s head while we were drinking milkshakes on folding chairs on the sidewalk of the main street. Her friends nearly fell out of their chairs laughing.
Cultivating a routine in Rurrenabaque. I’d wake up early, before the day’s heat wrapped the town in torpor, and arrive at the French bakery just as he was taking the day’s batch out of the oven. I’d take my perfectly warm and oozy chocolate croissant to a nearby cafe, the same one every day, and order coffee, settling in for a perfect, languorous morning. The cafe was family-owned, and the younger kids would be watching cartoons and giggling in that exuberant, whole body shaking way little kids do. The eldest girl would bring out homework and ask me to look it over with her.

The throng of street children in Sucre who ran around with shoe shining kits, cajoling passersby to let them shine their shoes, even though most people wore sandals in the heat. They collected coins from the foreigners and competed to have the best selections. One of their favorite games, after they’d asked if anyone had any Michael Jackson on their iPod, was guessing which countries we were from.

One of the kids, a little boy of maybe six or seven, was bold and exuberant, the obvious ring leader. He’d squawk, mockingly, in gibberish if anyone spoke to him in a language other than Spanish. Once, when a group of us were hanging around the central plaza, he climbed into one of the guys’ lap, sprawling like a king on his throne. The backpacker, a red headed Israeli with whom I crossed paths many times but never remembered his name, said something in Hebrew and the boy sat up, hair askew, “La cama habla!” The bed speaks!


Five of us crammed into a jeep, driving through red and gold cowboy country, to see the graves of infamous outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. San Vincente, the town where some say they met their demise — by murder-suicide, rather than the heroic charge into gunfire the movie depicts — is now a Canadian-owned mining town. Although there is a growing niche market for “death trail” tourism, San Vincente is often overlooked by tourists. Our guide took us through the heavily guarded gates and to a small, one room museum. We waited a while outside for someone to come and unlock the door. The mayor and a gaggle of townspeople came to enthusiastically shake our hands and we had our picture taken for a tourist magazine I didn’t catch the name of. The group followed us into the building, looking at us looking at the artifacts.

The  display was sparse, with more pictures from the Hollywood movie and mining paraphernalia than anything else. There was a skeleton in a glass case angled awkwardly in the center of the room. The mayor told us that it was a German miner they had mistaken for Butch or Sundance – similar bone structure, he said. We visited the graveyard too; theirs was an unmarked, mass grave reserved for criminals and nameless peasants in which their remains were never actually found.

Leaving Bolivia. The guy behind the counter at the Argentine bus terminal informed us, as pleasantly as he could muster, that the tickets we had purchased in Bolivia were not actual tickets. That bus did not exist. I rubbed my hand over my face; Roisin sighed the kind of sigh that comes from spending all day on a hot and filthy bus, dragging heavy mochillas around in the beating sun, being swindled when we thought we had this country figured out, and faced with the prospect of spending a night in a shitty border town with nothing to do. He just chuckled and shook his head, printed out two real tickets, and said, “Oh, Bolivia!”
Oh, Bolivia
Oh, Bolivia

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