Friday afternoon in La Paz, I found the restaurant section of an open air market and took a seat at one of the 10 stands serving relatively the same food for about $3. I ordered a plate of chicken and rice from two women standing behind a counter no more than four feet long.
While I ate the delicious food they served me, I enjoyed a nice session of people watching, the women cleaning pots from the lunch rush, children running about, locals gathered around the small tables to eat from plates of unrecognizable smells and colors. I had finally found a bit of tranquility after a long few days of being in the wilderness and traveling when a older gentleman approached me with an opened hand, palm up and right below my nose. He said nothing. I told him simply, “no tengo,” which he grunted at and shoved is hand closer to my face. I then turned away to discourage him when he growled lunging towards me and snatched the chicken I had left on my plate.
A bit shocked, I looked up at the women tending the stand who looked away from my glance, in a state of shame, or so it seemed. After a minute one woman asked what happened and I said that the man took the food right off my plate, and she then apologized for his actions and warned me about the dangerous characters of the city. Less than an hour later a similar thing occurred when I sat in a square with another traveler who was eating a bunuelo (a thin fried pancake) when a boy approached just as the man before, hand out saying nothing. When we refused him two other boys began to approach when I grabbed her arm, and said let´s go,” which the young men had less than savory reactions to.
I immediately thought back to the woman in the market´s warning and to the countless similar warnings I had heard from many locals in Bolivia, namely taxi drivers and one woman standing outside a church where I was watching a wedding procession who stopped me and told me be careful of my small side bags, because that is what they target knowing travelers like myself hold all their electronics in those bags. Many people had warned but until this moment I hadn´t realized how much of a target I was.
Why am I sharing this? Perhaps, because all the guide books will tell you about the beautiful sights you will find in Bolivia. Amazing natural scenery that ranges from the jungles of the Amazon to the strange deserts of the Altiplano, the best examples of colonial architecture in all of the South America, and stupefying indigenous life and local color are all things that you will definitely find here in Bolivia, but what the books seem to miss is the fact that to travel around Bolivia you, as a traveler, will be in a constant state of discomfort and tension. Buses are torturous, the nights below freezing, amenities like hot water and electricity uncertain, and the streets as all the locals have told me, can be dangerous.
So, I wonder, is it worth it? Is it worth, as an American, having to pay $135 reciprocity fee plus a $7 fake yellow fever immunization certificate (Americans are the only foreigners forced to have this immunization) just to enter the country? Is it worth the physical discomfort? Is it worth the loss of feeling safe? In the end I have to say, YES!
Sometimes the hardest things are the ones most worth doing. If I hadn´t entered Bolivia, I wouldn´t have been able to see the great stained lakes of the Altiplano, found flamingos in the desert, laughed with school children in a tiny adobe pueblo, stood on a vast plain of white salt in all directions with a grand blue sky above me, seen the indigenous women in their bowler hats and braids walking the streets, watched a parade of folkloric dancers move through the streets of La Paz, or watched the waters of Lake Titicaca from the many windows of the hill side ruins of La Isla del Sol. I would have missed so much, had I not braved such difficult conditions.
BUT I leave today for Peru, and I am more than happy about that!