I was so excited about going to Bolivia. I had heard and read a lot and there was a huge amount of pressure riding on this trip. This was after all where I was planning to stay for a significant period of time and really get under the skin of a country. I eagerly looked the other passengers up and down, but most of them got off before we reached Santa Cruz. We arrived on Saturday night and the taxi pulled by quiet crowds sat outside pool rooms and street bars watching the world go by. Already it felt a whole lot more basic, poorer and yet more mysterious than anywhere else I had been. I went to sleep wondering what I'd wake up to.
So where do I begin with Bolivia? It is so different to anywhere I am used to, a completely different world that you quickly take for granted. Women in coloured shawls and long layered skits with gold teeth and long black hair, sometimes in plates stretching down their backs under old fashioned bowler hats. 62 per cent of the people in Bolovia are from Indigenous backgrounds, and the Aymara and Quechua cultures and traditions still dominate. The men have warn skin and the women carry heavy bundles on the backs.
We walked through a park where a fair was visiting and watched as the rides were manually operated by fairground workers. Had we gone back in time? In the market women sat crossed legged selling oranges, enpanadas and bread and we ploughed past stalls for everything from boots, to spanners to tights and vegetables. Women approached us offering bizarre looking deserts, jellies in plastic cups with cream on top or sweets shaped like ice cream cones. And I saw my first signs of the political revolution that is taking place in Bolivia as I write. Graffiti reading 'Morales is a dictator' and 'death to Morales.'
Evo Morales is someone you will be hearing a lot about in the coming weeks. Here's a brief potted history if you haven't heard much about him already. Basically he came to power about a year and a half ago in a massive show of support from his people, winning 54 per cent of the vote if I am not mistaken. Brought up in poverty he spent his youth herding llamas and playing the trumpet before moving into the coca growing industry and eventually becoming leader of the union that represents coca growers in Bolivia. He is the first Indigenous President in Bolivia ever, in a country where people from Indigenous backgrounds have repeatedly been excluded, marginalised and racially discriminated against. In Santa Cruz they hate him because he's renationalised hydrocarbons industry and is they believe, a threat to their stability and prosperity. He's a man who fills people with hope and fear. I'm undecided about what I think about him. I don't know enough about Bolivia... yet. But I do know he's phenomenally interesting and one of the reasons why I came to Bolivia. Ask anyone on the street what they think of Morales and they'll have an opinion. So from the moment I got to Santa Cruz and smelt the coca tea and cooking oil and saw the faces of people and the graffiti I knew this was going to be an interesting ride.
Just a nasty bus
I could almost hear the soundtrack from a horror movie as we stepped on board, faces aghast and classically asking the driver 'is this bus coche cama... ?' I bet he'd heard that a hundred times before from bolibus virgins like us. It was crammed full of families taking up two seats and people sitting holding cloth wrapped parcels on their knees. No air conditioning, no heating, and when the bus started moving it sounded like it was about to fall apart. Rollerdisco and I just looked at each other as we tried to crunch our seats back into the reclining position. When the film started the sound quality was so screechingly poor that the passengers shouted for it to be turned off.
That said.... it was an experience. And in some ways I really like the fact that tourists travel along with the locals in the same shit transport. In Argentina tourists and rich people are cushioned and cradled from the reality that faces poor people, of which there are many. And Bolivia is a developing country, the poorest in South America. Of course you're going to piss in a hole and travel along dodgy roads sometimes. Get with the programme.
We took photos, though less confidently than in Brazil. In Bolivia people are suspicious of photographers and tourists. I was asked several times what I would use the pic tire for and would I sell it in the UK. Sometimes people want money for a photo but mostly they just want an explanation and when you say that all this is very different to what you are used to at home and you want to show the pictures to your mum they don't mind so much.
I have painted a romantic picture of Sucre, because it is a very handsome city. At the same time there are women and children whose clothes are faded like brown paper and stained with dirt. They wear battered hats and have bad teeth. Their hands feet and nails are sometimes so badly neglected they look as if they are corroding. An outstretched hand, older people sometimes dribbling, too weak to control themselves, they eat scraps from little tinned bowls and search the bins at night. On the backdrop of these grand white buildings everything looks quaint and pretty. It's easy to forget that many people in Sucre and the surrounding villages live on less than two dollars a day.
There was a demonstration taking place in Sucre when we arrived. Dozens of Aymara people in traditional dress carrying banners and shouting. They were the relatives of those murdered in Bolivia's first gas war in 2003. Hundreds were injured and permanently disfigured. It happened in a city called El Alto on the outskirts of La Paz and the date is known as Black October. It began with an order to kill demonstrators and ended with the resignation of the then President of Bolivia. But no one has ever been brought to justice for the atrocities and there have never been any real answers. The President, who some claim gave the order, now lives in the safety of the US border and others who may be implicated retain their positions of authority. The Vice President of the group that represents these families sat in the square with supporters, her face full of grief and despondence, she told me a little about their story.
In the past I would have just listened, taken it in, thought about it myself and then perhaps written about it in the blog. But this time I took numbers and names and promised to come and see her when I got to La Paz to try and write something for wider consumption. 'People don't know about our fight she said. Because we are just from El Alto.'
I bought the papers to read up on what was going on in Bolivia and saw a mention of the demonstration and articles about Evo Morales' attack on the judiciary, partially linked. He had attacked them for being corrupt and they had responded calling him irresponsible and slanderous. Days before there had been an attack on the Church, and certain civil society groups were voicing concerns about a drift towards totalitarianism.
This was all delicious food for thought. Maybe I am always looking for stories, all I know is that I love talking to different people and asking questions, trying to make sense, but with the decision to stay in South America and write I now felt I had a reason for doing that. The plan was to get to know the country before I started to pitch ideas to the UK press. But it didn't quite work out like that.
Later that afternoon I saw a TV van parked outside the Municipal building. I approached and the presenter told me that Evo Morales and all of his Ministers were arriving the following day in Sucre. I hovered for a moment then crossed the road to see who was being interviewed. We were supposed to be leaving the next day and I knew that the more I lingered the more something was likely to come up... and I was likely to stay around.
The interviewees turned out to be a Politician from Evo Morales' party, MAS and his delegate in Sucre. I smiled, introduced myself confidently (for the first time in Latin America) as a journalist. How long was the President here for? What would he be talking about? Could I come along for the visit?
There was a little voice in my head saying... You have just arrived. You are asking to go on a Presidential visit. Are you mad? Yo mental blagger! You've got a nerve. But a much bigger voice said.. get moving girl. This is gold dust.
So I went back to the hotel and told Rollerdisco that I really could't leave as there was a chance of hitting on a really interesting story... and would she mind if I stayed and maybe she could come along too...
Then I went along to the offices past security guards and officials and said that the Delegate and the Politician had suggested I get accredited. And whilst I waited for them to print my press pass I bought a mobile phone and dug out my notebook and my digital recorder and drank coca tea to stop altitude getting in the way of this story.
I had managed to get Rollerdisco in on the act too so at six thirty the next morning we got up and made our way to the Square where a bus was picking up journalists. Thing is when we got there it had left and overnight the plan had changed. Ah I said to Petrina, so it's the same as back home then, and I waved down a taxi, rang the Press Officer and headed towards the Presidents plane which would be landing any minute.
The first big story
Outside some journalists, from the state owned TV and radio companies had been given preference for filming the president when he arrived. So when the plane touched down there was a rush to get out onto the runway. Security officials ushered us to stay back but I was amazed at how close we could get to the line of army officials and politicians awaiting the President. And then he arrived. Casually dressed, smiling warmly. He approached the officials as camera men jostled to get the best shot and then surrounded him to ask him about the most pressing issue. I stood by watching and listening, wondering what my scoop would be, intoxicated by that familar buzz that is one of the reasons why I love my job.
The President headed off and we scrambled onto the bus to take us to the next destination. We had to drive for an hour through the Chuquisaca region, and as usual it was a bumpy journey. Looking out the window I saw the landscape with no signs of civilisation reveal itself ahead, mountains and steep cliffs, dry and dusty. But I was still busy chatting to the other journalists and getting to know and like them more and more.
The bus pulled into a village, that looked more like a collection of flaky brick houses. We couldn't see what was happening beyond so got off the bus only to realise the action was further along. Hitching back on the journalists shouted at the driver to hurry and as he turned the corner we saw masses of people running in the distance with flags and banners. We got out into this vast dusty space and ran after them trying to find our way to the President who had just arrived by helicopter. I followed the locals who seemed to be taking a short cut and climbed through the brambles to get to the crowds gathered in front of the stage where Morales sat. Clutching my pass i pushed through to the other side, where only the press and officials were allowed. I caught my breath and saw that I was a meter away from the President who was now draped in gifts, a garland of flowers, a hat, streamers and confetti.
Different speakers got up to address the villagers of Chuqui Chuqui underneath a huge poster with Evo`s face on it. It read, 'Bolivia Digna, Evo Cumple' his trade mark campaign slogan. It translates as 'Bolivia deserves, Evo delivers' but literally translates as 'Bolivia dignified, Evo fulfills.' And looking around i realised that it was dignity that was at stake. Behind me were hundreds of villagers who had little to eat, no clean water and no light. For years they have been dealt a shit deal, a result of unchallenged racism at the highest levels in Bolivia's ruling class. Yet here they were waiting patiently for their leader, one of their own to speak.
When Evo got up on stage he commanded attention. He spoke with humanity and passion. Unlike so many leaders, to me he came across as someone who genuinely believed in his fight and was motivated by a quest for justice rather than power. 'I am like you' he said ' I never expected to be President'. I have since been told by my rather clever father that those words often slip from the mouths of soon to be dictators. And maybe he is right. Evo Morales is close to Chavez. He worries the middle class who feel excluded and sees fit to attack the institutions that, whatever their background, are independent. But what I saw when I looked at the supporters was a gathering of people who believe in him and believe that things will change. And maybe they are changing.
Some people still stand crossed armed and are dubious but for most this is the first person
who has sought to represent them and who knows their struggle. They want him to be their saviour... failure will cost them their dignity. Like Bachelet being the first woman President in Chile and Evo the first Indigenous President of Bolivia failure will not be forgotten in a hurry. Evo openly admits that if he fails people will be less likely to trust another Indigenous President in the future. Like I say I am not judging, not yet and maybe not ever. But seeing all those people and hearing their cries for the President was very powerful indeed.
After the speeches the President was served a traditional lunch. Once again I found myself just a few feet away from him, with the crowds being held back by the guards. In fact I seemed to be in a better position than some of the other journalists a lot of the time. I put it down to naive confidence. For a moment the President looked very alone as he sat at that table. And I wondered how it must be to be treated like a celebrity or a god when really you still feel you are the same as your adorers. When I talked to the hacks about this they sort of agreed. They hadn't thought about it before but yes he was single and did sometimes look alone and uncomfortable with the hype. 'Everyone loves Evo but no one loves Evo?' I questioned... Could be they said with a wink.
The next day Rollerdisco left to carry on with the holiday and I got up early to head out to another village. Again the helicopter touched down to villagers carrying banners. This time the MC had to work to get the crowd to Cheer. They too seemed bemused by the fuss and furry of government officials and journalists bustling in the sparseness of their remote little village. There is clearly a big push to communicate by the Morales government to communicate with the masses, these are after all the people who brought him to power. This visit was intended to publicise progress and convince people that change was happening in their country. And whilst I continued to find him inspiring I also noticed a muscling in machinery that surrounded him and gave off a slightly authoritarian stench as the wheels turned to move the President onto each engagement.
Later that day I watched Morales and an official from the Venezuelan Embassy address hundreds if not thousands of agricultural workers in a football stadium. Chewing coca leaves, looking out at the President, they listened to the President talk of revolution in the countryside and how land would be returned to them not sold off and Bolivia would not pander to American demands or be part of a so called free market that did nothing for small producers. And when Morales presented the workers with thirty tractors, donated by Venezuela, the shouts became louder. He left the stadium on board one of them with streams of followers running at the wheels.
The next day saw festivities for the anniversary of the first cry for freedom, which came from Sucre in 1809. This is where the first uprising against Spanish colonial rule took place and it's marked every year with parades and processions. Today Morales was dressed smart. He attended mass and then left the Cathedral with a mob of stern suits at his side to lead the procession. Once again I was in with the journalists, running ahead to try and get a decent shot at the same time as trying to take in the atmosphere, the flags, the people waving from balconies, the chants 'Evo Evo Evo' and what was the President doing? He looked uneasy, on edge as if this strict ceremony and star treatment was too much. And maybe it was. As he spotted friendly faces in the crowd, some he knew, others felt they knew him he waved and smiled. At one point he turned round with the City's Prefect said something and grinned at me. I have it on camera and I swear he was saying, look it's that funny English girl who keeps following me around.
He did know who I was. Standing from his balcony as the rest of the procession went by, the Politician I had first approached nudged the President and pointed to me. I had asked, cheekily if I might get a private audience with Evo for an interview and the Politician, as well as numerous other men in suits who'd suffered a Kika offensive, had said he would see what he could do. Looking down at me from above the President nodded at the Politician signaled that he would do an interview. But this is Latin America. God love them for their enthusiasm but never count your chickens till you've seen some huevos (and yes the double meaning is intended.)
That day I talked to everyone, Ministers, reporters, people who loved Evo and had travelled for miles to see him, people who stayed away and frowned at a mention of the Presidents name. I nearly got an interview. To my shame the Politician beckoned me over to Evo's table at lunch and whispered in his ear about the interview. But the President had to catch a flight and told the Politician he would like to do the interview but not today. So Evo left. And I smiled at just how close I had been to the colour and excitement of the last few days.
This was the story. Not the detail about the Supreme Court or Morales' response to the Venezuelan President's attack on the media... not yet at least. What had grabbed my attention was the flags, the faces in the crowd, the songs sung for Morales, and the people who stayed away with clenched fists and furrowed brows. It was Morales booming revolution from the bottom of his stomach, calling out to his people to work with him and it was him eating alone, being ushered along and looking out of place in officialdom.
But at the time i didn't realise that. Sat in my hotel room head fusing with ideas my ability to work out what to write slipped away and I desperately tried to work out the news story, the peg, the top line. Thing is I am not part of the news machine. Not unless I get caught up in some really big story. What I have to offer is the colour and flavour of the stories and people I meet on this journey... or at least the ones that appeal to a UK audience.
I hadn't really realised that until I talked by phone and by email with a very very lovely man who shall be called my partner in comment. Because although we lost touch for a while I think we have always been since the early days of student journalism partners in comment. And a few years ago he did his version of commenting or commentating on the world and went to Israel / Palestine to live and travel and write. So he knows how it feels to be caught in the hysteria and call an office in London where they say 'Evo who?' And he knows how it feels to wonder how on earth you can condense something so complex into a few very basic paragraphs. And he knows about feeling lonely and scared. Even if he wouldn't admit that bit. So it was thanks to him in part that I re-thought my words and proceeded with a little more calma.
On the end of a terrible phone line to London an editor said she was interested and asked me to send 800 words by Monday. Paula, Maño, and Maz had by this point arrived and they brought with them their own tales of adventure having missed their flight, not slept for two days and convinced an American Pilot to drink vodka at eight o'clock in the morning. Rolladisco had visited the mines at Potosi and owing to the sulphur and the altitude gone down with sickness and shivers. I wanted to go with them to the next stop, the salt flats of Uyuni but deep down I knew I had to stay and write my piece. Paula, a journalist too was brilliant. In fact she was really the one who told me to be realistic when I tried to sort through a way of getting my work done and coming. She's a gift she is; Wise and supportive and so much mischief. In my head she's like a cartoon character with long flowing hair and a cape, who looks after animals and friends in their hour of need. In this case she gave me a look, toasted the bit of luck so far and told me it was all OK to stay in Sucre and meet them later.
Carrying my laptop to the bar I saw that the keyboard was covered in wine. IT dumb asses take note. Do not do what I did next. I panicked. I tried to wipe the wine away but didn't switch the machine off. I walked it to the toilet and tried to dry it under the drier and then sought to switch it on to see if it would work. It clearly wasn't working properly. I decided to deal with the immediate problem. I would leave the computer switched off and find an internet cafe where I could use the copy and the photos I had sent to Comment to the editor in London. Job done I went to bed frantic with worry that this huge piece of equipment, this machinery that held all the programmes I needed for work and that made me feel professional...not to mention the cost, was no more.
The next day the London editor told me she liked my piece and would be publishing it the next morning. This was a huge achievement. My first piece published, a good start, an in and on a big fat juicy story. For two minutes I danced around the room and then came deflation as I tired to switch my computer on to be met by a meagre sentence reading 'No operations could be found.'
I blame the altitude for the emotional unrest that followed. That and being a long way from home and a long way from all things familiar. I got the hotels technician to look at it... 'el detalle es...' ('the thing is..) he said and then shook his head. I wasn't confident that he knew what he was doing, perhaps unfairly, and headed to another IT shop where they seemed to have more certificates on the wall. The staff shuffled about nervously in the back room as I shared a tearful cigarette with a girl called Evelyn on the shop step. Again came the 'El detalle es...' I decided not to go ahead with a major and by no means guaranteed repair operation and headed back to the hotel buying red wine and chocolate on the way. Best to check my insurance and phone mum and my nice technical friend at the BBC before I took any further action. Maybe it would be better to find a Sony centre in La Paz...
WELL HELLO GENIUS! How about you don't let any tom dick and harry or in this case Rodolfo Guido and Wilber fiddle with your lap top before you check your insurance. How about you take note of the fact that the err 'tools' hanging on the wall are mainly screw drivers, and even me, a technophobe knows them don't look too professional. How about you exercise a bit of calma and stop crying like a baby over a piece of machinery so as you can deal with it like an adult.
Like I say.I blame the altitude.
By this stage the staff in the hotel, from the Evangelical night receptionist, to the unemployed lawyer to the cleaner to the cook called Daisy, to the woman with the red puffer knew my troubles. They had been with me through the highs and the lows and day by day my towels got softer and my breakfast more plentiful. Lovely lovely sweet people but the best reassurance came from my friend at BBC Brum and my mum. BBC Brum held back a swear word or two and said 'well don't panic. Best thing is to leave it somewhere warm and take it to Sony in La Paz...' Translated that should read 'Blimey you really did panic like a peasant child fool who's never seen a light bulb let alone a computer.' Then my mum who after hearing what the good news and the really bad news was said 'But darling that's fine i thought you'd been robbed or attacked or something' and then advised me to check my insurance. It was true. I got a bit of perspective when I realised that actually I was well, life was OK and most things are fixable... at a price.
I had spent a fair bit of time with the tall American who had been a great support since... the incident. And the owner of the bar, a curly dutch guy called Gert had also been ever so nice too despite his peculiar views on Israelis. But I still missed Paula. And as practical as I was trying to be I knew I'd burst in to tears when I saw her.
I packed up and headed to the bus station for another sensational journey into Bolivian darkness. An Aussie gay asking whether there would be a meal on the coach (in English) made me laugh. He looked to me for answers and all I could say was 'this is Bolivia not Argentina. Coche cama has a very different meaning here.' He sat down next to a woman in layers of skirt carrying a heavily wrapped baby and quickly shifted in his seat as buskers got on and off and a local struggled to close the sky light. I looked out at the blackness. Shapes and shadows moving in the mountain that I couldn't make out. A full moon up above.
At seven O'clcok I arrived in La Paz, a city I had heard so many horror stories about, in the freezing cold. As the bus pulled in I popped one of the coca caramels I had brought from a natural health store in my mouth. I'll get onto coca later but suffice as to say that i have been sucking on these little sweets daily and am so far the only one not to have experienced altitude sickness. I got into a taxi and watched heavily clad locals pulling out bags of garments and setting up stalls on the street. All around brick houses clutching on to the towering mountains. 3600 metres high; It's a city on the mountain and doesn't try to be anything else. It was daunting for me as I watched early morning La Paz pass by from my window. Could I really be thinking of living here for a while?
I arrived at the hotel, checked emails, unpacked waited for my friends to arrive. And when they did there was red wine and tears and a city to explore. La Paz I would find out is like nowhere else on earth... It's bonkers.
I later spoke to my insurers and took the lap top to Sony where I was told that whoever took a look at my lap top in Sucre had reassembled it badly and caused even more damage. A factor which may render my insurance invalid. Not the best of news. In fact it pretty much sucks. But if I tell you that Paula and I then went to the witches market in La Paz to buy lucky charms in the hope that they might help to remedy the lap top you will understand why I am not despairing. We talked to women with go llama foetus' bunched on their stalls and incense burning and were handed little stone tokens with different meanings...
Every adventure leads to a new adventure. The fact that I am travelling, and stepping so far out of my comfort zone means that from time to time things will go wrong. And other times I'll chat to a witch or as the traffic toots and hoots or watch the President address his masses in the dusty planes of southern Bolivia. Some people get into real trouble when they are away. I won't scare you with the stories. So far so good please god touch wood I have not been robbed or attacked or kidnapped. I have met the most wonderful, generous people and learnt a lot from them. I am well, in fact I am better than well and if a laptop and an undernourished bank account is all I have to complain about, well i am doing OK.
Even still... all prayers, offerings and crossed fingers most appreciated for the lap top... which I am still waiting to hear about...
The drama continues.