Travel, the world and stopping through Bolivia

Context is all important. We are really pleased to be putting this up today.  A blog about travel and the experience of coming through the beautiful country that is Bolivia. Thanks Gavin for dropping this one for a little.

Whilst thinking about what to write for this post, I ventured into our attic and dragged down the travel diaries I had kept during a couple of my backpacking jaunts. After reading through them, two things instantly struck me. Firstly, how glad I am that I set aside twenty minutes every day to write notes on what I had got up to, and secondly how lucky I have been to visit such a diverse range of countries. Actually, a third thing did strike me – the amount of foreign beer I have consumed!

I have a passion for travel. The sights, sounds, people, food and camaraderie I have experienced have had a profound effect on who I am today. The thrill of arriving in a country, traveling through it, and discovering what makes it tick is hugely satisfying.

What do the locals eat and drink? What is the predominate religion and how is it observed? What drives the economy? What are the people like and what is their quality of life like?  Which historical events have defined who they are? Who are the individuals that inspire the nation? I often find the answers to some of these questions sitting in a main square or busy café, watching life go by.

Pondering these little issues usually leads to me a comparison with my own life. It gives me perspective, respect for what I hold dear and for what I have. It enables me to appreciate my place in the world.

These thoughts have mostly come to me in my travels through the developing world. Initially I was drawn to these countries by a desire to meet people, and experience cultures, vastly different to my own. Along the way I have been touched by the openness and honesty of the people I’ve met and the simplicity of their lives. It has led to me to a somewhat changed view of myself, my family, and my country.

I quickly realised that an open mind in these parts of the world is important. At times, we in the Western World have a tendency to view developing countries with an ignorant air of superiority, believing that the “First World” knows best in terms of a specific set of customs or way of life. In many ways, I found the reverse to be true. I discovered the benefits of reflecting on a culture I have experienced and understanding how I could incorporate parts of it into my own life.

Reflecting from the relative comfort of my living room, I look back on the incredible and challenging experiences these places presented to me. I am reminded of the sense of dread as I stepped out of a Tuk Tuk and through the gates of Tuol Sleng Prison in Pnomh Penh, Cambodia; the feeling of bewilderment as a taxi driver in India crosses the centre line at 100km/hr whilst overtaking and into the path of oncoming traffic, protected only by his horn; seeing a street vendor in Damascus, Syria setting up her stall early morning, with only three lemons to sell; watching colourfully wrapped bodies being carried by stretcher through the narrow alley ways of Varanasi by chanting men to the funeral pyres on the Ganges; staring in disbelief at the staggering achievement and architectural brilliance of Macchu Picchu in Peru; taking a step back in time in the labyrinth of alleys in Fez, Morocco, jammed full of food, spices and donkeys.

If I look back on the countries I have visited each one has certain things that spring to mind: the food of India, the delightful people of Cambodia, the Crusader castles of Syria or the Mountains of Nepal.

Travel through the countries of South America presented its own unique set of challenges and experiences, none more so than Bolivia.

The topography of Bolivia is truly something to behold. Where else in the world can you descend from a snow covered 4000 metre pass on a mountain bike via a road aptly named “Death Road” to the relative warmth of the jungle some 3000 metres below in a single day? Bolivia can be summed up in that adventure, a country so unforgiving in its terrain, yet so warm in its culture.

Bolivia’s de facto capital city, La Paz hits you in the lungs when you arrive; it is a tough place to acclimatise when you are touching down at 3650 metres above sea level. The city gives you a feel for what Bolivian life is like. It sprawls on mountainous terrain; ramshackle buildings precariously perched on top of one another. The city centre resembles a modern day market place with street vendors selling their wares, and shoe shine boys jostling for position amongst the colour of the city’s women dressed in traditional attire. It does house some high rises and a commercial district but La Paz is a million miles away from places like Buenos Aires in terms of development.

Venturing away from Bolivia’s administrative capital via a rickety bus along some seriously pot holed roads, the contrasting landscapes are something to behold: salt plains, volcanic landscapes, a mineral rich town (Potosi) that is still being mined after nearly 500 years of tragic pillaging, dense Amazonian Jungle full of wondrous wildlife and those impossibly high snow-capped peaks. The history of the country is also intriguing: it is the birthplace of South American liberator Simon Bolivar (also the country’s namesake), it contains the largest indigenous population on the continent who are led by a proud and sometimes controversial indigenous leader, and it is the largest producer of Coca leaves in the world (and deals with the expected trials and tribulations that accompany that fact).

For the moment my travel days are on hold as I step into fatherhood for the first time. Travel will be a different experience from now on with a new set of challenges. I look forward to donning the backpack again, exploring other parts of the developing world with my family in tow. Bolivia definitely deserves a re-visit – I am intrigued to see how much it has changed on my return.

Written by Gavin Lloyd


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