Rough Start: Part II – Culture Shock

My jaw keeps dropping and I can’t stop it. I’m tempted to hold it shut, but my extremely pasty and dry mouth won’t let it close.

My stress about arriving to Juliaca, Peru was done for and in the past, but I completely forgot about how I would get to La Paz, Bolivia.

Fortunately I was able to get a few 10 minute interval naps on the flight from Juliaca, but it wasn’t enough. It was also exacerbated by the fact that the flight had a long stop in Arequipa, Peru before arriving in Juliaca 30 mins later.

Flight from Lima to Juliaca. First steps outdoors in South America.

As I stepped out from the plane I kind of felt like I was the Beatles stepping into America. It was one of those exits.

Around me all I could see were mountains and flat a flat valley.

Musicians greeted me at the baggage claim in Juliaca airport

At the tiny airport a woman came up to me offering me a taxi. I told her I wanted to go to La Paz, so she said I need to go to Puno first.

Jammed in with 10 other people – shoulder to shoulder – I took the taxi to Puno. As you might have seen from my post about packing, I brought two bags. I was warned not to put my bag in the back of a bus or taxi, but I had no choice, so I broke my first safety rule.

When I left the Juliaca airport, that is when my jaw dropped. The city of Juliaca was devastating. No roads were paved. The houses were half buily and looked like they were basted together by children. There are specific areas for hot showers and public bathrooms because people don’t necessarily have them at home. As a former student painter I couldn’t believe how little people give a shit about painting. Sure, an arbitrary thing, but in Canada we prioritize a well-painted buiding. In Juliaca, most things were painted, but extremely aged and peeling. Advertisements, mostly for Coca Cola, Tigo and Movistar (cell phones), were painted all over houses instead of on billboards. Graffiti was on nearly every house, mostly about politics and politicians. My first impression is: why do people care so much about politics when their lives seem so unaffected by the government? They have nothing. No social programs. It’s like absolutely nothing was influenced by the West – unlike my trip to the West Bank, Palestine, where I could see a lot of Western influences.

The women’s clothes were absolutely stunning. Traditional Bolivian dress is a top hat and heavy colourful clothes. (Sneak peak! I plan on doing a story about this). I was sweating balls and these people were wearing 30 pounds of clothes.  I guess for them it’s all relative. Summer is coming up, but we are not yet in the hot months for Peru.

Around the van taxi dozens of mini taxis buzzed around, but they looked more like toy cars than taxis. Smaller than a smart car and cheaply made. People were riding in the back of trucks in the open air. Donkeys, goats, sheep and cows were grazing everywhere with very few humans around.

I need to go back to Juliaca and film. I can’t adequately explain it and I have no photos because I was scared shitless to bring out camera when I was carrying all my technology and was the only gringo.

I had been practicing Spanish, but I hadn’t ever really spoken it. I had no choice now. No one spoke English nor got any word that I didn’t know how to say.

Still, I asked the lady next to me – “Yo voy en La Paz. Como?” (I’m going to La Paz. How?). She sort of explained, but I didn’t get it. However, the Heavens were looking down on me. A lovely young woman from Lima, Peru sitting in front of me was going to La Paz and said I could follow her. We hopped directly into a taxi in Puno on our way to Bolivia, which was supposed to be a four-hour ride. No, there would be no stops. I had to pee. I was hungry and thirsty and sweaty and scared.

But the trip was cut abruptly short…

At the Bolivian/Peruvian border our taxi was stopped by police. We couldn’t go any further even though we had paid the full price for the taxi. It was kind of frantic, but my angelic Noémi assured me it would be ok and we started to walk our stuff across the Bolivian border.

Hundreds of Bolivians hustled and bustled around me, doing their thing. Truly a centre for trade with sacks of everything and many little shops. Unlike at the airport with tight security, the Bolivian/Peruvian border was an absolute joke. First, I went to the Peruvian customs, a small desk with three attendants, and handed the officer the visa I received from Peru. He gave me the go ahead and off I went to the other side of the street to the Bolivian embassy, which gave me a new (cheaper quality paper) visa and stamped my passport.

I grabbed a bottle of water and moved on. Noémi and I hopped into another taxi, this one unmarked heading to La Paz. Everything is a taxi apparently.

Keep in mind that I hadn’t really slept since 8:00am the day before and now it was 11:00 am and I hadn’t eaten since a 4 am McDonalds yogurt parfait in the Lima airport.

Noémi and I got to talking as best we could with my broken Spanish and her extremely limited comprehension of English. I had the dictionary out and we talked about a lot! Noémi is another teache, for what she said was ears, throat and stomach. Definitely didn’t get that. She was heading to Cochabamba from Lima to visit friends and party.

As we approached La Paz, the taxi driver stopped in El Alto, La Paz’s higher and poorer neighbour. El Alto is at 4150m above sea level. Pretty drastic considering I’m coming from the Ottawa valley at 70m! They say that everyone who enters El Alto gets motion sickness, so I took a special altitude pill and felt fine (except for the hunger and fatigue). I’ve been told I’m not clear sailing yet from altitude sickness…

El Alto is chaos. Cars and shops and billboards and hoking and natives and rich and poor and COMOTION. Lanes are as many cars as they can fit and everyone rides extremely close to eachother. Again, I was afraid for my life, but it seemed like everyone was super calm about it all.

The taxi driver didn’t feel like driving us to La Paz so we got out. I tried to call the place I’m staying, but no answer.

Noémi didn’t mind waiting for me. She said she had to wait for her bus to Cochabamba anyway. I was so grateful to have her. I constantly tried to pay for things for us and compliment her as much as possible. Together we went to La Paz terminal bus station, which is more market than bus station and stored our bags before heading for lunch. Before lunch, we had to use the bathroom, which COSTS MONEY. 0.50 Bolivianos for each use and it wasn’t clean at all nor did it have soap. 1 U.S. dollar equals 7 bolivianos, but still it’s the principal that seemed bizarre. Good thing I brought my trusty hand sanitizer.

Lunch was crap and Noémi wasn’t hungry, which I couldn’t believe cause we’d been travelling so far. I was so hungry I didn’t feel like being too adventurous especially into a pork chorizo, so I just got a hamburger. They asked me how I wanted it cooked. I was like LONG TIME! I did not want food poisoning on my first day in Bolivia. Who gets their hamburger rare? Didn’t even know it was possible.

After lunch Noémi called me a cab and actually took it with me to our new flat.

Me and my angel Noémi in the La Paz bus station

I would have honestly been dead without her. She got us the right prices for taxis, helped me through customs and translated everything for me even if she had to explain using sign language. This taxi drive was nuts. The driving in La Paz is even more messed up. Imagine cars coming from 4 directions and they can turn any way they want. Straight or left or right it doesn’t matter. No lights or traffic signs and too many cars. Chaos.

We arrived alive and after she insisted on paying most of the taxi we hugged goodbye and I entered my new apartment – a good 35 hours from waking up in Toronto.

I had no clue how I would get here and in the end I used airplanes, buses, taxis, unmarked taxis, and even pushcarts to arrive. Along the way I used very very limited Spanish and people were kind enough to help me. I’m so relieved.

Looking back it kind of seems crazy that I was so panicked now that I am in such comfort in my new home and with such like-minded and chill people. But, I’ll leave the reality show that is the Bolivian Express for another day. Going to play soccer tonight and I hope I’m not gonna’ die from altitude sickness.

Chow for now mi amigos!

Ps. Btw, the name of the artist that arrived at the Lima airport was a South Korean group called Big Bang.

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5 thoughts on “Rough Start: Part II – Culture Shock

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