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Bolivia: Right place, wrong time

The sheer unpredictability of travel is part of its enduring charm, and the best adventures are surely those that gift us tales to tell

Bolivia: Right place, wrong time
Locals protest in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Image: Alamy

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“They’ve closed the frontiers,” I write in my journal. It’s June 2005, late at night in an anonymous hostel in Cochabamba in Bolivia. “Things are changing rapidly here and as I write, my stomach is churning with something like excitement or, maybe, fear. I think there’ll be a coup within the next two weeks…”

I didn’t mean to get involved. I doubt anybody but war reporters deliberately show up to situations like this. I came to Bolivia in search of witches’ markets and jungles and lagoons that change colour with the wind. When I crossed the border from Argentina, my desert-sore eyes were distracted by red flags and shepherds tending lama. From my comfortable, squishy seat on the overnight bus, the unrest on the news seemed unreal.

Yet, within days of my arrival, it was clear something serious was going to happen. And by the time I got to Cochabamba, it was just a question of what. Every day another rumour: there’s going to be a civil war; the airport in La Paz is shut; the frontier with Chile is closed; the president is going to resign; the president is going to be assassinated; the Americans are involved; the Israelis are being airlifted out. No, the Americans are…

But here in the bubble of Cochabamba, the high, thin air is fresh, the sky is blue, the fruit in the market delicious and plentiful, and the ice cream excellent. The only whisper of trouble is at the bus station. Every day I visit it to check whether I can leave. The roads between Potosi, Sucre, Cochabamba and La Paz are all blockaded by outraged campesinos (peasant farmers) burning tyres. People have been trapped here for over a week and the army has started feeding them from giant soup pots. They form long, forlorn queues of men, women and children, standing quietly and hopefully, laden with bundles and bags, while the old women’s bowler hats and straw boaters bob expectantly. They’re stranded because they can’t get to La Paz, nor afford a hotel, nor, it seems, feed themselves.

“I don’t know what course of action to take,” I write. “I could get a plane out of here. The airport is still open. But that would be $300. But if it means saving my skin…”

I know I’m being melodramatic. It so happens that my favourite piece of travel writing is about a coup, one experienced by Bruce Chatwin in 1980s Benin. “This was not my Africa,” he wrote, after being bundled into a truck and forced to stand in the sun for hours by angry teenaged soldiers, then getting his bare toes stamped on by a large lady sergeant. “Not this rainy, rotten fruit Africa”.

I feel proud, at least, that I may get to witness a real coup, just like my literary hero. But there our shared destiny ends. I’m stuck in a suburb in a very nice, but small, town. I’m not a campesino waving a banner for justice; I’m an English girl on a jolly. I think what they’re fighting for is very worthy, but I can be no help to them at all. All I’m doing is eating ice cream and checking the news on a very slow internet connection.

I’m about to switch off the light and lie silently, listening for gunfire, when I’m called to the hostel courtyard by the receptionist. “Mira,” he says, gesturing to the TV. The president, a white-bearded man in his 60s,
is making his resignation speech.

The next day the bus station opens and, along with the grannies in their bowler hats, I return, unscathed and unnoticed, to my travels.

Read more of the Travellers’ Tales cover story in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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