Sucre, Bolivia – December, 2014
Bolivia has been the poorest of the countries I’ve visited: indoor plumbing, hot showers, and toilet seats are often considered luxuries. This made Bolivia the South American capitol of backpackers looking for an authentic experience. With the country attracting countless visitors and the most popular sites lacking advanced infrastructure, the city of Sucre became an outpost of sorts for outsiders who wanted to see the salt flats, silver mines, Amazon, et cetera. Day trips to see how the locals lived from the comfort of your bus, nights spent with other Europeans buying overpriced drinks at bars. It was the best of both worlds.
I went to Sucre, of course, for the same reasons. My Monday to Friday were spent working in a village with no flushing toilet, refrigerated food, or English speakers. I escaped to Sucre for the weekends for those things, plus check my email and wash my clothes.
I spent most weekend nights with Mike and Charlotte, Kiwi and Belgian respectively, who shared a hostel room with me. We would go to other hostels to see documentaries about the area (The Devil’s Miner, about Bolivia’s silver mines, is equally haunting and captivating), or hang out at clubs that played Green Day and Macklemore. Occasionally we would branch out and go to a bar where they were doing a language exchange, typically a poorly disguised excuse for western backpackers to try to hookup with local girls, though in Bolivia it featured western backpackers trying to hookup with Argentines. I came halfway across the world and still spent my free time hanging out with people similar to me. The whole neighborhood was like this, a collection of bars, restaurants, and hostels where the traveler wouldn’t be inconvenienced by Spanish or Bolivians.
I really couldn’t really put my finger on why the other backpackers there bothered me. Individually, they were mostly fine. I was another backpacker, no different than them, yet I often felt dirty being among them.
Then it hit me. It was the lack of respect. Like waitresses, Bolivians were ignored until you needed something and then you were just polite enough to not get your food spit in. Bolivians apparently didn’t have a rich history or a proud culture, they were just there to help you see Death Road, Uyuni, or wherever. Spanish (or Quechua) was an inconvenience to be avoided.
I would not consider myself an honorary Bolivian, but I did try to understand them and see the side of Bolivia that they treasured. I asked people at work what I should do while I was in Sucre, what I should see and what I should avoid. Parque Cretácico was the overwhelming favorite of my students. I went there and found a park full of gigantic dinosaur sculptures and slides. Did I mention that I work with children? Parque Cretácico is an awesome place, if you’re a childish dinosaur enthusiast. Which I am. But… hanging out with children and young parents wasn’t my ideal weekend.
I branched further into the city, using only Spanish and avoiding places that looked like they cater to people who look like me. Instead of feeling like I was seeing the “real” Sucre, I felt like an invader. I went back to hanging out with my hostel friends. Back to hanging out in Little Europe at night.
Talking with other travelers, Bolivia felt more like a wildlife safari than a foreign country. Europeans gathered together, saw the Lonely Planet recommended must-sees, then returned together. Actual Bolivians were an inconvenience to be avoided until you needed a cab or food.
It was patronizing. It was demeaning. Our mutually parasitic relationship was glued together by obligatory unpleasantries. It was the Caribbean 2.0.
I was not one of them, right? Was I more than an invader? Wasn’t I different, considerate, and respectful and Outkast just came on, want to dance? What were we talking about again?
Advertised as a gateway to Bolivia, a place where you come to explore the wonders, Sucre was quite the opposite: a gateway from Bolivia to the west