We’d been in Bolivia for several days and hadn’t really seen anything. The hostel we were staying at was well removed from town, physically and spiritually. On a chunk of an old farm, Las Lilas was quiet and peaceful. The other young guests spoke in low voices out of respect for the stillness of the place. It was nice, but it was driving us crazy. Between waiting for news about our replacement cards and the quiet, we had the anxious feeling we’d never get to see anything in Bolivia besides the city center of Cochabomba (where the banks are) and the wide green lawn of Las Lilas.
We’d managed to retrieve our eaten card only to find it had in fact expired. When we checked our backup we realized to our horror that it had coincidentally expired on the same day. We’d never felt more idiotic – neither one of us had noticed that both of our cards from different banks expired on May 1, 2013, exactly five months into our trip. We very suddenly had no way to get money.
After calling banks, my parents, my brother and our credit card companies with varying degrees of success, we decided we had to get out and see some of this country. We took a series of little buses out to the crumbling colonial adobe village of Tarata and were thoroughly charmed. Charmed until I bought a piece of flatbread in which was living one bee. It stung the back of my throat and I sprayed chunks of dry bread all over an antique alleyway, choking. I had to reach into my mouth to detach the bee from my tonsil while Magda looked on in alarm.
Then it started to rain.
Fortunately my throat didn’t swell shut, otherwise Magda would have had to repatriate my corpse – an ugly task under any circumstances, more so without money. We sat in a little cafe waiting for the rain to pass and I washed hot coffee over my throbbing tonsil. Somehow this trip was taking a turn for the worse, a fact that was no one’s fault but our own, except for possibly a bee’s.
When we returned to Las Lilas, we tried once again to turn things around. We wanted to take a trip to a place called Incalljata, one of the largest Incan ruins in the old Empire. Only, we couldn’t figure out how to do it cheaply. Buses didn’t go there and taxis were charging quadruple their supposed rates to make it there and back. Even a simple day trip was becoming an aggravation. Alex, the owner of Las Lilas, suggested we book a tour with a friend of his, a Dutch ex-patriot named Remy, and his tour company El Mundo Verde.
We hate tours and tour companies. We hate itineraries and traveling in a well worn rut. Remy’s tour seemed expensive by Bolivian standards and we had no money thanks to our defunct cards. Finally, how could touring with a Dutchman help immerse us in Bolivian culture? But we had no other options, so we set up the tour. So started our favorite day in Bolivia thus far.
Remy was slight and friendly with blonde hair and clear blue eyes. His imperfect English was perfect enough to have all manner of discussions about living in Bolivia, Bolivian politics, culture, the nature of touristing vs. traveling, South America and the history of the Incas, all while driving the rough back highways of Bolivia up into the hills of the Cochabomba valley. He’d come to Bolivia speaking no Spanish and having no sense of what the country had to offer. He ended up married to a Bolivian woman, having a Bolivian child and becoming Bolivian in his heart. We slowly realized there may be no better way to come to love a country than by following the path of someone who’s already walked it.
On the road he pointed out details we could have never seen and no Bolivian would think unusual enough to point out. White flags hanging above the doorways of houses meant they were selling ‘Chicha’, an Andean corn-beer that the people of Cochabomba still relish. He shed light on the history of the unusual style of hat favored by Bolivian women, how each style denotes a different area of the country. The iconic bowler hat belongs to the La Paz region, while Cochabambinas preferred wide flat sun hats adorned with fake flowers. If we were cautious in approaching locals for a picture or just to stay hi, Remy was gregarious, stopping and chatting, revealing to us what he already knew: Bolivians are incredibly friendly to strangers, opposite of the sense I’d gotten in the few bureaucratic encounters we’d been forced to have. The Bolivian government’s distaste for Yankees is well known, but when I introduced myself as an Americano to a rough looking farmer on a muddy country road, he shook my hand and said it was a pleasure. Then we discussed the shameful state of an otherwise beautiful cemetery Magda was busy photographing.
Once we reached the ruins of Incalljata, we walked amongst the broken walls, knee-high in golden grasses. It’s one of the largest Incan complexes in the empire, but is untouched by conservation efforts, meaning it has a ruined beauty, ripe for imagining the grounds in their former glory. We were almost alone. Unlike Machu Pichu with its incredible setting and reconstructed triumphs of architectural engineering, Incalljata is hardly overrun by tourists and well destroyed by both time and the Spanish Conquistadors. Despite this, its footprint is astonishing in its scale. A network of dormitories, defensive walls, a prison and the largest Incan building to have ever been found are still clearly visible. There are even the remains of an astronomical observatory that itself acts as an ingenious giant sundial. It is a site so pure and still so unexplored I found several stone and bone implements that looked suspiciously like they should be in a museum, but left them where they lay.
As the sun lowered between two hills and lit Incalljata with the same warm glow it had for centuries, we hiked back down the path to Remy’s truck. We took a circuitous route home, past little khaki colored adobe settlements and patchwork farms growing potatoes and corn. As we drove through the center of a dusty little pueblo, Remy noted a white flag hanging above a rectangular adobe house. We pulled the truck over in the miniature town square and stooped through a low door to enter the Chicharia. Two tiny old women were dressed in traditional Bolivian textiles. One had a rainbow colored satchel around her shoulders. Both sported weathered brown fedoras tilted roguishly on top of their long black and grey braids. They were surprised and seemingly thrilled with our arrival. We bought large half gourds full of chicha, the less ancient of the two women pouring for us. We all toasted each other in Spanish and Quechua, their first language. In my opinion, the Chicha was awful, but the square of golden afternoon light falling through the doorway, framing the little ladies where they sat beaming wide smiles was the most beautiful thing we’d seen in Bolivia yet. Magda asked if the ladies would come outside for a picture and they filed out of the little doorway together. I took the opportunity to give Remy the rest of my chicha. When Magda came back inside she gave me the rest of hers. Afterwards my throat burned a little like bile.
Our last stop was Remy’s favorite little pueblo, a colonial village frozen in time, isolated in the Andean foothills just as they begin their long march down to the Amazon basin. The one story buildings were a uniform warm grey, with red roof tiles being taken over by grey green lichens and collapsing inwards. Other roofs were thatch, some being taken over by wild cactuses. The little town square was designed to be converted into a bullfighting arena. A colonial church with no right angles stood solidly on one side of the square, partially hidden behind one of the town’s two trees. The few people we saw looked suspiciously European, though they wore indigenous Bolivian dress and spoke Quechua. It was all a reminder that history is only history in the context of the present – of which there was no sign.
We’d finally found Bolivia, with a little help from the Netherlands.