Sunday, 25 January 2009

6,000 down, 1,000 to go (roughly)

It's a very quiet Sunday in Bolivia. Today the country goes to the polls to vote (mostly "yes") in a referendum to change the constitution. It is such an important vote that it makes the international front page of (Of course, not that we Lateen Americans care what Europeans think... but really, amigo, ¿ees on the front page?!)

It is also such an important vote that just about everything is closed today in Santa Cruz, including most restaurants and all but this internet café, it seems. Apparently, this is part of Bolivian electoral law, along with a bizzarre rule which bans campaigning in the two days before the vote. So all this week I've seen demonstration after demonstration - mostly "no" voters as I happen to have been in the affluent part of Bolivia - but then Friday and Saturday were weirdly quiet.

Anyway, my achievement on this quiet day, when I couldn't even find a place showing Liverpool v Everton (imagine!) is this: a map I've been meaning to draw for a while with my route so far and the last bit I plan to do this week...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The heat is on

Today I arrived in Santa Cruz, after a two day mission from Sucre, the capital of Bolivia (if you believe the Bolivian constitution.)

The reason it took so long from Sucre was that I arrived in the bus station there too late on Thursday evening to get on a bus straight to Santa Cruz, so made the decision to board a different overnight bus and spend a day in Cochabamba instead. (Like going from Amsterdam to Berlin via Frankfurt).

In the end, I had a lovely day wandering around Cochabamba, where the weather provided me with the proverbial four seasons in one day. Cold and wet in the morning, the sun came out by lunchtime, it stayed warm enough to cause a thunderstorm in the afternoon, after which it settled into a grey, chilly evening. Then I got on a second consecutive overnight bus to Santa Cruz, and arrived here this morning.

Last night was, I think, the 13th night I've spent on a bus in this trip and Monday night will be the 14th. Two whole weeks. Monday's bus will take me to Asunción, Paraguay, arriving (depending on whether I believe the bus company or the Lonely Planet) sometime either on Tuesday or Wednesday. I'm actually looking forward to it after forking out 200 bolivianos for an "ethnohistory" book on North America to read.

Travelling on buses has been such a staple of this trip that I have got pretty good at it. I can sleep (hence the fact that i was actually able to enjoy a long day in Cochabamba on Thursday after a night on the bus) but I think the crucial discovery I have made is to put myself in a trance-like state where I slow everything about myself down.

Say I get on a bus at 3pm. I settle down. 10 mins. I think about reading my book. 15 minutes later I actually reach into my bag and get my book out. I read for a while. I start to feel thirsty. 10 minutes later I get my water bottle out. I read an interesting paragraph. I take 20 minutes to think about it. It's 4.30pm and an hour and a half has gone by and in my mind the journey has barely begun.

Of course, you have to be prepared to take delays in your stride as well. Almost every vehicle I have used in Bolivia seems to have broken down at some point. Most dramatically, the bus from Uyuni to Sucre last week actually went off the road at one point, causing an hour's delay in which most of us male passengers had to push the bus out of the mud beside the road...

Anyway, so I am looking forward to Monday/Tuesday's journey through the Chaco - the territory annexed from Bolivia by Paraguay amd supposedly one of the continent great bus journeys - but the point of this post was meant to be Santa Cruz, the city where I am now.

These are the last days for God knows how long that I will spend within the tropics. And boy does it feel like it. Santa Cruz is sweltering. This is in fact, the first heat I have felt for weeks since leaving Lima, Peru with Claire. And before Lima, I would have to go all the way back to Cartagena, Colombia, for my last bit of real, tropical heat (ie before that one post I wrote about how nice it was to be cold. No pleasing some people, I know.)

This heat is, to me, the Latin American stereotype, and I'm glad to be back in it. In fact, Santa Cruz is a very stereotypically Latin American city. Flat, hot, filled with traffic and car horns, various smart-ish restaurants and comercial buildings outnumbered by run-down shacks and food stalls, friendly people but with a slightly rough-round-the-edges feel. And colourful. I am convinced that somehow blue is bluer in this continent. Green is deffinitely much greener.

Santa Cruz is all of this. If you close your eyes and picture Latin America, it looks a lot like here, and very little like La Paz or Bogotá.

Maybe some pictures will follow.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

An historic day for Americans

Today was a monster, monster big day in the history of the USA and, by extension, all of America. I was glad to be here for it. (NB It is - in Che Guevara's words - "America with a capital 'A'", "América con 'A' mayúscula" that gives a title to this blog. And, if you ask me, given the historical links/similarities of Latin and North America, the concept of "The Americas" is not as pretentious as it sounds.)

It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama will make a great or even a good president. So far, he has done one thing right: on a day of great joy and pageantry, he confronted his audience (the world) with a sobering message, reminding them of the difficulties he (and the world) faces, whilst giving his message of hope with eloquence and clarity.

And he has another thing going for him: just like a comedian coming on after Jim Davidson, Bernard Manning or, er, Michael Richards, he does not have a tough act to follow. (Did anyone else notice the difference on George Bush's face before and after Obama's speech? At first politely greeted by the crowd, he then had to sit through 20 minutes of "America has screwed up. Let's start over again." I almost - amost - felt sorry for the poor bastard.)

But whether Obama succeeds in the face of all the adversity or not, a black man becoming president marks a proud day in American history.

Europeans are often touchy around the subject of race. Our idea of "political correctness" tends to be ignoring the concept altogether. One Swiss girl I met in the north of Mexico exemplified this: she insisted that race did not exist amongst human beings. She was beginning a very long trip through Latin America when she said this, and I preferred not to argue with her on the point. I don't know where she will have got to now on her journey south - but if she has travelled with an open mind she will have changed her opinion altogether by now.

American history can be seen as a history of race (in analogy to how Marx, the European philosopher, saw "all" history as the history of the class struggle? Please discuss in 20,000 words...), as "America" only began to exist as a concept when white Europeans first arrived in the New World. Later they would wipe out the natives (North America) or procreate and create a new race (Latin America, as celebrated on "Race Day" on 12 October) and bring over African slaves. Therefore, the day when the continents' most important and influencial nation anoints a leader out of what was once the slave race is undeniably a huge moment in that historical process which began with Colombus in 1492. African-American culture has been a part of America for centuries. At last that non-dominant culture is given the political leadership.

I watched the ceremony and speech after traipsing round Sucre - the historical capital of Bolivia - for a good 45 mins to find a place where I could definitely watch CNN in English. After finding a few places showing it in Spanish and one in German (yes, German) I eventually persuaded the owner of a pizzeria to show it in English, and settled down to watch with a couple of Bolivians

A certain analogy to Bolivia can be made here. Bolivia's president is Evo Morales. A "socialist", he is the first indigenous president of Bolivia. He is therefore descended from the "Indians" who worked the mines and haciendas of Spanish America, and on the 25th of this month, he will likely win a referendum to allow him to stand for election after his present term finishes.

He is very popular, largely because he represents the lower classes - or, as a Bolivian might say, the darker-skinned people - and is not a dictator (unlike Hugo Chávez of Venezuela) but was elected fairly.

I wonder how Obama and Morales will get on?


"Así se creó un nuevo paisaje y se produjo una nueva sociedad. América, como ningún otro sitio, fue lugar de fecundo mestizaje biológico y cultural."

"And so a new land was created and a new society was produced. America, like no other place, was the site of fertile biological and cultural mixture."

- The Palace of the Inquisition, Museum, Cartagena, Colombia

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Mexico in under a thousand words

I have been a more active blogger of late, and now I think I’ll go one better by sumarising my trip through Mexico, keeping it as brief as I can to try and avoid the type of excessively verbose posts that have become typical of this blog. So here goes:

(BTW, I’m not counting this preamble in the self-imposed 1,000-word limit.)


I arrived in Mexico for the third time in my life on 1 October. Technically speaking, I then arrived for the fourth time in my life on the same day: Sam, an English bloke I had met that morning, and I had to go back into the USA for ten minutes to remove our green cards, when we realized we could literally just walk into Mexico like some kind of free, open-air concert. How apposite.

Everything I had heard about Tijuana made me decide not to stay there long. Two hours was enough. We had a beer in a tacky, touristy square and then headed to the bus station. On the way, I had my first of countless conversations with Latino taxi drivers – all of which follow roughly the same lines. This driver, as I recall, was interested to hear if we had seen the movie King Arthur and quizzed us on the truth of the legend. Anyway, Sam and I boarded the same bus that evening. I got off after 12 hours – in the city of Hermosillo - while Sam continued all the way to Guadalajara.

Hermosillo was a very northern, very working-class Mexican town, where I inexplicably spent four nights without really meeting anyone. My one cultural experience was going to a pool hall on the Friday night I was there. I left everything of value in my hotel room, took just enough pesos in case I needed to gamble, and went alone to a pool hall a few blocks away. Entering the room was a classic everyone-stops-talking-and-drinking-and-stares-at-the-gringo moment but soon I had settled down to a game of eight ball with the pretty waitress – until she warned me that her extremely jealous boyfriend was watching. I then played several racks and drank several beers with the local drunk, an interesting character called Califax, who played variously outstanding and appalling pool. I left after about two hours.

But I don’t have time to go into that much detail if I want to keep to my word limit. I will have to be more sweeping and poetic.

I left Hermosillo after four nights with the hope of bussing it to Creel, a small town in the Copper Canyon and on the Chihuahua-Pacific railroad, supposedly one of the world´s most beautiful railway journeys. I could have made my task easier by going straight from Hermosillo to Chihuahua, Chihuahua, but for some reason decided not to. History no longer records that reason. My journey to Creel effectively took two days (see an earlier blogpost for the description of that trip), but when I arrived I knew it had been worth it. After five days alone, without seeing a single gringo and without speaking any English, I immediately (and I mean immediately) met a big bunch of gringos and went out for a beer.

The next day I met Richard from Jersey in a hamburger place and, as backpacker groups are want to do, from the two of us a gang snowballed out until – later that day – I had agreed with Tanja and Annette from Denmark, Vivian and Nathalie from Switzerland, and Carol and Kent from New Zealand to do an excursion to the village of Batopilas, 1800m deeper into the Copper Canyon. The drive the next day lasted five hours and transported us from one climate to another: from cold, arid Creel to baking, even more arid Batopilas. A swim in the river was a delightful respite from the heat.

Two days later I had returned from Batopilas and boarded the train to the pacific. There was only one slight problem: a hurricane warning was advising us not to travel to Los Mochís, the city at the end of the line. But, hardy traveler that I am, I ignored this and headed straight into the hurricane’s path. It was a dramatic journey. The scenery was stunning, I chatted to the charming Angelita for a few hours and then, as we approached our destination, the train began to shake and rattle in the face of gale-force winds. It didn’t help knowing that a train had been de-railed in recent days. But arrive in Los Mochís we did, and Tanja, Annete and I hitched a lift into a city with no electricity or running water, found a hotel room and went to sleep in the heat of the Mexican pacific.

Very few words left: can I do it?

After a night in Los Mochís I travelled alone overnight to San Blas, a small town on the coast about 5 hours out of the place that had loomed over me for so long: Guadalajara. San Blas was sleepy, quiet and nice. I read War and Peace and swam in the Pacific for the first time in three years. After two days I set off for Guadalajara with almost equal amounts of excitement and dread. Seeing Darcy, Hugo, Gustavo and my “grandma” was sweet and moving. If I have a regret: I didn’t make time for a trip to Sandra’s grave. If I have a regret. Next Morelia: a city I had always wanted to see. Beautiful, colonial, northern climate, southern vibe, it makes it into my top five Mexican cities. Quickly now: Papantla was next - a small town on the other side of Mexico City. I went there for my one set of ruins on this Mexican trip: “El Tajín”. Not a disappointment. I boarded a bus to Mérida, a Mexican island in the Yucutan peninsula and a lot of fun. Backpackers came and went I went eventually: to Izamal – on the toss of a coin. Mistake. Next Playa del Carmen. A mini USA. Coin toss: tails – Puerto Morelos. Beautiful solitude for one night. Then Saturday night: Cancún. Tanja and Annete wanted to mark the Day of the Dead. I was skeptical. But we went to a cemetery and I reflected. A single red rose for Sandra and the end of my Mexican trip. Sunday, Monday: beach. Tuesday 4 November: Obama; Colombia.

999 words

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Thought of Today - español

A wonderful South American phrase:

No soy el único dueño de la verdad.

I am not the sole owner of the truth.

Selling out

That's right. I now have Google ads on my blog, so I apologise in advance for the "Hot celeb girl pics" and everything else that is advertised to the right of this post.
I will point out that this development shall not in any way compromise the artistic integrity of this blog.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Globalisation - sometimes you gotta love it

I arrive in a small town on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. I have an hour-and-a-half wait for the fourth and final leg of my journey from Cuzco, Peru to La Paz.

So, after strolling down to the shores of the lake and taking a few snaps, what else is there to do other than have a quick look at my email, check a cricket score from Sydney and an FA Cup result from Gillingham? In the process I learn that Man Utd have just kicked off against Southampton. With 45 minutes still to kill, I decide to stroll down the road to see if I can't find a bar that's showing the match.

Twenty metres away I find a bar where the following exchange takes place: [transcribed in full and translated]

-Hi. Do you have ESPN?
-Oh, the English Cup?
-I'll put it on.

Sitting with a Coca-Cola I watch as United besiege the Southampton defence. AFter one critical tackle by Chris Perry on Micheal Carrick, the commentator runs through 35-year-old Perry's career, including a mention of... [drumroll]... WIM-BLEH-DON!

So far away from home and yet - in the new global village - so close.

Of course, a part of me thinks this is pathetic. I'm sure it would have been far more interesting and rewarding to travel Bolivia back in the days when ESPN was only available a few thousand miles to the north; an order of "coca" could only be made on dodgy street corners; and only the soccer anoraks of the country had ever heard of Man Utd, let alone Chris Perry.

But then, after a 14-hour, stop-start bus journey from Peru, it is nice to find a home away from home.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Thought of Today

The good deed done for no recognition or reward is the best good deed of all.

*Thought of Today is an occasional new column on James's America. It is in no way affiliated with BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day™. All rights reserved.

Friday, 2 January 2009

A thumbs up for Peruvian (public) healthcare

I've been extremely lucky so far on my trip in that I did not have to seek any medical help whatsoever until this week (about 108 days in, for any statisticians out there). As some of you will know, the cause was a spider bite I picked up on my elbow in Lima a couple of days before Christmas.

The bite was merely annoying for the first few days but began to swell and get more painful by about Sunday. My first stop was a pharmacy in Lima, where I was given two anti-histamines (I might have been a medical journalist previously but I will apologise in advance for some spellings here). These drugs at first lessened the pain, but then it came back with a vengeance by Monday, at which point I was by the beach.

I sought out the only local clinic - a very clean, very upmarket affair in a westernised shopping centre 5km down the Pan American highway. I was seen immediately by a doctor who spoke perfect English and he set about removing the pus that had built up in my elbow. An excruciating half an hour later, all that remained was for me to pick up my drugs and pay the bill.

Eighty-three pounds sterling.

When, two days later in Cuzco, I made my way to the public hospital to have my wound cleaned again, it transpired I had been given the wrong antibiotics for my elbow and made to pay through the nose for them.

At the public hospital I was seen almost immediately and referred from one doctor to another before being given some (correct) antibiotics and having the wound cleaned. (A mere five excruciating minutes this time). The cost of all that?

Five pounds sixty.

Yesterday I needed to go back to have the wound cleaned (the first time in my life I've been to hospital on New Years' Eve and New Years' Day, and hopefully the last) and whilst the staff were under considerable strain, and I did my best to let people in front of me in the queue (everyone had something worse than me) I was still seen inside 45 minutes by polite staff who never seemed to take a moment's rest. The antibiotics I had been given were clearly working, as the actual cleaning of the wound barely hurt and barely took three minutes. Two pounds twenty.

Part of this impressive service, I think, is that a public hospital is one of the few places in Latin America where gringos may get genuinely preferencial treatment without paying a penny more than an ordinary latino. The thought process I imagine to be something like this: "What the hell is that white man doing here? Does he realise there are private clinics all over the city? I bet in Spain or the USA, or wherever he's from, he would be seen by three doctors inside two minutes! We'd better show him that Peruvian healthcare is nothing to be ashamed of."

If any of the doctors had not been run off their feet I would have loved to discuss with them what the NHS is actually like. Personally I am a huge defender of the National Health Service but I had already formulated a Spanish phrase in my mind to explain why I instinctively brought a book with me to the hospital: nunca se paga; siempre se espera - you never pay; you always wait.

Of course, I'm not going to be naive enough to give total endorsement to a third-world health system. Waiting in line yesterday I saw a woman in considerable pain and distress being treated in the waiting room. Another man was brought in unconscious and seriously injured by a pick-up truck - presumably because that was better than waiting for an ambulance. And I'm sure a city of Cuzco's size could use a more modern building with larger wards. But, as far as I have seen, the professionalism of the staff cannot be faulted (in the public hospital, that is, not the private clinic. Cost differential: roughly 1500%).

As a backpacker, I do consider myself lucky to have avoided the doctor's surgery until this far into my trip, but I also consider myself lucky now to have had a genuine cultural experience in Peru: one that you don't see in the guidebooks or the tour offices. (Who needs Machu Picchu?)

So now it is January 2 and I'm off to spend my morning at... the hospital. The wound needs to be cleaned up again. Bloody spiders.