Bolivia. How can I talk about this country without falling into the trap of simplistic superlatives, or, more difficult still, without sounding contradictory?
A few days ago, Apolino, an Amazonian boatman, summed up this unfathomable country for me by saying “BOLIVIA? TODO POSIBLE, NADA SEGURO!” In other words, here, everything is possible (very true) but nothing is (ever) certain!
Because Bolivia is everything and its opposite: fascinating and alluring, but also wearing because of the inevitable surprises, and puzzling, or even disconcerting, for a resident such as myself. One thing is certain, Bolivia stands out for its contrasts and extremes.
First of all, the geography. Twice the size of France, Bolivia offers incredible diversity. Altiplano, Llanos (the great plains of the east), Lake Titicaca, Yungas, Lipez, the Amazon, each designates a unique landscape.
A high plateau perched at 4000 metres and surrounded by mountain peaks over 6000 metres high, infinite plains stretching to the borders of Brazil and Argentina, deserts of rock and volcanoes where the temperature can range from +20 to -25 degrees in the space of 24 hours, lush tropical valleys… It is not unusual to start a day on a glacier wearing crampons, at an altitude of over 5000 meters, and to finish on the banks of a stream, a papaya juice in one hand, listening to the parrots singing.
Then, the population: over 8 million inhabitants, including 6 million American Indians, who often have nothing in common other than the same passport. An Aymara of the highlands has, really, nothing to do with a Yungueño, and even less to do with an Indian of the Amazon Basin. Skin color, language, traditions - everything is completely different.
In this respect, Bolivia is, without doubt, the last refuge of many American Indian cultures: Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, Tacana, Pano, Aruaco, Chapacura, Botocudo…
You only have to take a stroll around La Paz, that incredible melting pot of a city, and to follow a rainbow poncho, or a cholita busy in one of the many popular markets, among the apparent chaos of dozens of sweet-smelling, colorful stalls.
Next, a paradox: in spite of the history and eminently rich culture, Bolivia is far from attracting as many tourists as it deserves. Unlike neighboring Peru, the government has only recently become aware of the potential appeal of the country's rich heritage.
In a country packed with pre-Columbian sites destroyed or buried by the Spanish in order to better impose their rule and religion, only a few have yet been fully catalogued. And the sites that have already been unearthed are far from being developed as they deserve.
For example, how many people know that the shores of Lake Titicaca sheltered the empire of Tiwanaku, the first great civilization of the continent? Or that the Incas, centuries later, assimilated and appropriated their knowledge, techniques and beliefs?
The absence of mass tourism has been of some benefit to Bolivia. In particular, it has allowed the preservation of many traditions and customs: the folklore is still very much alive in all areas and, even more astonishing, in all levels of the population without exception, so that ancestral dances and music are still performed at the many religious or community festivals that fill the calendar.
The most important of these is the Carnival of Oruro, which draws more than 15 thousand musicians and dancers from all over the country each February, making it the largest indigenous festival on the continent after Rio.
This huge party is an outlet for the people: a recognizable carnival but with its own Bolivian charm.
Ah! Remember when Bolivia qualified for the World Cup in 1994, after a fantastic victory over Brazil? It's true: the poor Brazilians had a hard time catching their breath at Miraflores, at an altitude of 3700 meters!
Another major paradox in this country: the income per capita is on average the lowest on the continent, yet the extent of its vast resources is not fully explored.
The mines of Potosi, which were initially exploited by the Spanish, are considered one of the greatest silver deposits ever discovered! And what of the 3 Bolivian "Tin Barons" who, at the beginning of the 20th century, were among the world's top ten richest men?
Enormous reserves of natural gas have recently been discovered near Tarija, and the planet's most significant reserves of Lithium are buried under the salt desert of Uyuni (Salar de Uyuni). The most optimistic see it as the currency of the future. The more realistic see it as an area of political conflict: a fantastic wealth to be shared among only a few.
Because Bolivia is also a country of corruption: it is impossible to determine the number of projects - roads, bridges, schools or hospital projects - that have been used to finance luxurious villas. In the best cases, the promised road will be built, but only half as wide as anticipated. A couple of rainy seasons later, there will be little left.
One of the more positive changes of the last few years is, without a doubt, the development of a democratic stability that hasn't been seen for over 2 decades.
Although Bolivia holds the record for the number of heads of state (since independence there have been almost 180 in as many years), there hasn't been a political coup since 1981, which is quite an achievement!
But, make no mistake, the political discussion is often limited to a commerce of influence and an exchange of services or return of favors.
No real debate of ideas, but rather a succession of sterile and parodying polemics, for the most part, while the real decisions are dictated by the ambassador of the United States.
However, in this country with an uncertain future, things are changing.
Since 2006, the cocalero Evo Morales Ayma is President of the Republic (elected with over 50% of votes in the first round). Bolivia is currently experiencing a real political transition, a real change of course.
At the last presidential elections in 2002 the never-before-seen results of the popular leaders Evo Morales and Felipe Quispe, saw, for the first time, Native Americans seated in parliament.
Barely one year later, in October/November 2003, incensed by the contempt and arrogance of the ruling class, the people of El Alto started a revolt and drove out President Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez (Who is now a refuge in the U.S.A.)
The inhabitants of El Alto paid a high price for their courage: the government's brutal repression caused many dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.
A victory of the people over a corrupt elite? Since his rise to power, the atypical President Carlos Mesa, alone, has tried hard to bring to fruition his political reforms for which the people voted in a national referendum. The history of Bolivia, marked by the systematic pillage of the country's wealth by a handful of foreign multinationals, has evolved, slowly but surely, in a painful process.
Bolivia has managed to conserve a rare authenticity, and travelers who come here experience something unique: a wealth of people and cultures, a concert of colors, harsh or gentle climates. That's why it's easy to love Bolivia. And why it can wear you out. It is one of those countries at the end of the earth that is an anthem to adventure, to real-life encounters, and to the unforeseen events that so often give us our best memories - once you're sake back at home!
For Spanish speakers: