On early impressions I wouldn’t say Bolivians are the friendliest of folk. Before you go get your panties in a twist about me being overly judgemental, hear me out and continue to read my blog. Things change. But, having talked to other travellers, I’m definitely not alone in this judgement.
Don’t get me wrong, along my short stay thus far in Bolivia there have been a few people that have reached out, chatted, laughed and wished me a good stay. But on the whole, connecting with the locals has felt difficult.
I had been staying in Samaipata for a few days. Each day I visited the same little shop to stock up on water and whatever else, and every day I was polite and smiled at the woman who ran the place but she refused to meet my eyes and kept her features hardened.
In the market I walked through an alleyway of vegetables and a stocky lady told me off. ‘You can’t go here’, she said curtly. ‘İLos sientos, perdon!’ I said, smiling apologetically and quickly getting out of the forbidden zone, but she just glared. No understanding, nothing.
And when I later went to buy bread, the young girl behind the counter was equally cold. This time, however, youth gave her confidence to stare me straight in the eye. ‘Un boliviano’, she said. It felt like a confrontation.
Really, I’m isolating some incidents here. Samaipata is a fairly well-trodden stop-off on the gringo trail with a constant flow of travellers passing through. It doesn’t appear to be a desperate place and tourism undoubtedly helps to feed the local economy (hostels, hotels, restaurants, and so forth) – but maybe it’s partly the pride of the locals that creates these feelings of indifference. And possibly some frustration too.
In the taxi on the way over to Samaipata I was sitting next to a man with a computer on his lap.
‘What’s wrong with the computer?’ I asked him in an attempt to start a conversation. ‘Nothing is wrong’, he said, ‘it’s for my work. I work in Santa Cruz and travel back to Samaipata a lot. Samaipata is my home’. ‘Any other travelling?’ I asked him. ‘In Bolivia, yes’. He was silent for a bit. ‘I would like to go to Europe’, he said a little while later, ‘but it’s expensive’.
Another day in the park, a skinny little lady with greying plaits came and took a pew next to me on the bench. ‘Frio’, she said, pulling in her coat around her frail, ageing body. She told me that she wasn’t well, that she had heart problems. We sat quietly for a while.
‘Where have you travelled?’ she asked suddenly. I mentioned a couple of places. ‘Have you travelled?’ I asked her. She shook her head.
And Lenny, the tour guide from the ride back down from El Fuerte continued this narrative when I asked her whether she had lived in an English speaking country because her language skills were so honed.
‘No’, she said, ‘I just learn myself. I have an American friend who lives here and speaks no Spanish, so I must learn English. Then, if my English is good, if I go to America, I won’t get treated like a Mexican.’
‘Like a Mexican?’ I asked. ‘Yes, my friend told me that in the US they will think I’m a Mexican. I hear that they treat Mexicans bad. I don’t want to be treated like a Mexican.’
Ambitious and educated, Lenny clearly had aspirations to travel (and to be respected). I wondered whether, as an older woman, she’d live to realise that dream.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and it didn’t surprise me that travel was an out of reach luxury for many. All conversations highlighted how fortunate I was to be on such a journey whilst making me ponder about whether tourists swanning into these little towns, laying down their money, eating out in restaurants every day and visiting all the local attractions with such ease was generating some resentment.
In a reverse situation I’m sure there’d be moments when it would seriously piss me off, where I’d question how the hell global economies work, why such financial disparities exist.
After a few days in what was realistically a sweet little place, I decided to head on to some other adventures. I loaded up my backpack and as I walked through the town and down to the main avenida to catch the bus from Samaipata to Vallegrande, something happened.
A little girl leaning out of a window smiled and waved. Teenagers on a break from school said ‘hola’ and ‘hello’ and giggled. A woman with a kid on her hip on the way to her garden said ‘buenos tardes’ before continuing a conversation with a friend.
So, go on, shatter my early expectations of you Bolivia. I’ve yet to discover what you’re really about. And thank you, Samaipata, for the smiles. They made my day.
11 responses to “Trying for a smile in Samaipata”
Love your work, as always Fin. I know all to well how that feels…finally working up the courage to even speak Spanish to locals only to get that awful stare back. In my experiences the Bolivians were either really outgoing or completely held back. There was no in between….haha. Happy travels!
Thanks Matt, comments appreciated as always! Having left Bolivia now, I’d agree about the polarisation… but… when I’ve chatted to locals about how Bolivians are different to other South American people, often they say more reserved. So maybe that’s just it. More held back and reserved, nothing more, nothing less. And if you can break through that barrier, it’s a whole different story.
I can totally relate with you here. But it’s something I have experienced throughout Latin America. Many people are outgoing and accepting and other people just shut down when they see you. The other day in a shop I had a girl pretend not to understand a word I was saying even though I know my spanish is perfectly understandable… But, oh well haha I guess we just have to shrug it off and enjoy the good times.
Totally. Enjoy the good times, keep trying and sending out good energy and don’t worry when you don’t get it back 🙂 Enjoy your journey and thanks for commenting!
I’ve found that many campesinos, especially in the poorer countries, are reserved. And, as you say, there is resentment of tourists coming with their cameras, smart phones, nice clothes and backpacks, often trying to eat, sleep or buy handicrafts on the cheap, when locals can hardly afford to go to the big cities in their own countries, let alone to another country. It’s not surprising. We travelers should try our hardest to be friendly and warm, even when we feel snubbed. And, we should do our best to share our (relative) wealth to support residents trying to make a living in towns barraged by short-term visitors. Consider if you were on the other side of this coin…. (an apt saying, since the coins – i.e., our economies – are so different).
Completely agree Abi. I hope I get across that sentiment – I try to write lightly but still get across depth and information, but I appreciate that sometimes my words may come across a little glib. And yes, I’m always surprised when backpackers – or flashpackers as I’m hearing them referred to more and more – make their wealth so visible. No need.
You’re doing a good job, Finola. Saying something a bit outrageous (at the beginning of your post) is a strategy for bringing attention to your blog, and certainly has some truth to it, but it’s important to remain balanced and to realize – as you do – that a few days as a flashpacker (I like that term, as unfortunate as the reality is…) in a place does not make anyone an expert. I don’t mean to sound judgmental, as I’ve had very similar experiences to yours, and often feel guilty about how I and other tourists look/seem to the locals.
Agree. Give me a ticking off if I ever forget to do this.
…so true! Even being based somewhere for years, I didn’t feel expert on the place. It probably takes a lifetime to fully appreciate and understand somewhere, and travelling gives you the tiniest taste of what a place may be like. Momentary, single angle appreciation. So long as we remember that that’s all it is, I think we’re on the right track.
Great post, comments, too. It’s interesting to discover your place amongst the locals when traveling. A few foul experiences can sure cloud future judgement but staying open to possibilities as you are is a sure way to break that invisible barrier. I’ve experienced similar feelings in Central/South America but they are generally overwhelmed by the generosity that always comes.
I think you’re totally right – that staying open to possibilities is key. hCeers for stopping by and commenting. Always good to hear people’s feedback and own impressions.
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