Border Hopping in Bolivia

First off, I am really sorry for being slow with the posting. In the future, I am going to try to have one out every week - on Sundays if I can. Anyhow, here is a little bit about crossing over from Bolivia.

What I encountered in Bolivia was something I am calling "cultural intimidation." It is not that anyone ever talked down about me or the US, or that anyone ever tried to be intimidating to me.  Let me explain with an example from when I crossed the border into Chile. 

There is only one way out of southern Bolivia into Chile, which takes you through the Atacama desert, which I am told is the driest on Earth. The bus left at 4 in the morning - that's fine, I have done worse - but the next 16 hours were some of the most stressful I have had so far. Yes, 16 hours.

First off, even though I bought a ticket for a seat, I found an old Bolivian man sitting in it when I got there, and I wasn't about to make the old man move. So, with a bunch of Bolivians, I stood for the next 5 or so hours, and I discovered that I can sleep standing up on a moving bus. People brought out food I had never seen before for breakfasts, and I was offered and ate some soup that I still am unable to figure out. We did not travel on a road, just across compacted dirst and sand, and we had to stop for hours at a time at several random places. I really never figured out why we had to stop so much. Initially, I thought it might because we were planning an illegal border crossing.

Anyhow, I was traveling with a Bolivian marching band of about 30 people. It was just me, them, and family or two in the back. Each time that we stopped, the band got out its instruments and played us a full march, sometimes marching around the bus to show off. When they weren't playing, the band took an interest in me and why I was going on the bus with them. They told me about how this is a dangerous road and I shouldn't be doing it and about how the city we were going to was dangerous as well. They also made plenty of jokes about me, but I really had not option for turning back by this point, so I had to laugh and sit quietly. 

A picture of the border. There were two shacks on either side that processed our papers. 

A picture of the border. There were two shacks on either side that processed our papers. 

The border crossing we made was in the absolute middle of no where. The border guards on both sides where mildly surprised to see me. They lined us all up to examine our papers and our luggage, all in the middle of the desert. Both sides very conspicously placed me at the front of the lines, and each side very conspicously checked my papers for a few seconds, but they spent minutes checking the papers of the Bolivians.

What I want to convey about this experience is not so much what happened, but that I had no idea why it was happening. What people were eating, what they were wearing, what was going on with the customs officials, where we were going, why I was in the middle of the driest desert on Earth in the bus most likely to break down on Earth - I really understood none of it. And the whole way people were asking me questions about why I was there. And most people tried pretty hard to be polite and not stare, but there was that too. And the Bolivians kept trying to get me to drink their pure (like actually 95%) alcohol with them, which may sound fun, but when you have been anxious about your own safety all day, you immediately think that they are trying to drug you. For probably the first time in my life, I had an overwhelming feeling that I should just not be where I was, or that I had no cultural backbone for what was happening.

A picture of our caravan at one of the many random stops we made. Here the band is getting their instruments out to play.

A picture of our caravan at one of the many random stops we made. Here the band is getting their instruments out to play.

For me, this sense of being alone in the wrong place exaggerated my feelings of insecurity. I really had no reason to be afraid, and the Bolivians could not have been nicer in trying to share their things with me. They even dedicated one of their songs to the solo gringo traveler on the bus.

And although I have made it sound like this intimidation was a bad thing, I think it is exactly what I was looking for when I left for my trip. As a straight, white, blond male, there are very few times when I am not in the majority of something at home. Until now, I have never had the experience of feeling like I had no idea what was going on, or that I was unsupported by the culture of where I was. I have never really even thought that a person could feel uncomfortable because of something as simple as the soup people were eating around him.

I can imagine that this is what many in the US feel on a daily basis - perhaps some of you have felt it. I imagine it is what many immigrants felt when they first got to the US, and I bet many people who are the first in their families to go to college feel it as well. There may be little or no hate directed at you, but every day can be a barrage of things that seem normal to everyone around you and completely off to you. And then, when you talk about things that you do or like, the people you are with just have no idea what you're talking about. To me, that is cultural intimidation, and I can immagine it pushes against many in the US. For me, cultural intimidation has been in the background almost every day of this trip, but this one day I felt fear the whole day. I hope this memory doesn't leave me, and I doubt it will, because it is something that I know can make me a better person back home. As am discovering, this cultural intimidation is something we all participate in, whether we recognize it or not.

Are there ways to deal with cultural intimidation? For me, what calmed me down was the one guy in the band who explained the names of places to me and told me how to get around the city when we got there. His kindness was simple and costless, but it really helped me take a deep breath and carry on.