Next day, with just over one hundred American dollars left in my wallet, I took a bus to the Pocitos–Yacuiba border cross. Later on I discovered this had been a lousy choice. This trip advanced on the lowlands surrounding the Andean High Plateau. Thus, the trip was long and inefficient; but worse than that, it was on the favorite path of drug smugglers. Crossing the border there was a slow and fastidious affair. An hour after the sunset, a Bolivian immigrations officer slowly explained to me how I could pay the entrance fee. I found then that the local currency was the "boliviano." This was a new name for me; silly as it looks, it gave me hopes of a new future. I slept that night in Yacuiba, the nearest town in the Bolivian side. The next morning I got an erroneous first impression of the country. Instead of seeing the mountainous, cold plateau where most Bolivians live, I found a lush tropical garden. If I ignored the language spoken around me, I could imagine myself in Asia.
The Yacuiba Central Market looked similar to its Asian counterparts. On the other hand, it was distinctly less clean. A "café con leche" cost about a quarter American dollar, and was prepared with rather fat milk and weak coffee. This was cheap in South American terms, but still unusually high in Asian ones. The "pastel" served with it, was a thin, fried pastry, filled with a bit of white cheese. Fricase (a typical Bolivian fricassee in which a tasty slice of pork meat swims in a rich, oily and spicy broth) was served there from the early hours for less than one dollar. Even outside the market, Yacuiba streets feel like one endless market, with stalls selling endless knickknacks on every free spot. Semi-automatic orange peelers consisting of a knife attached to a screwdriver are used to prepare fresh juice and add a surrealistic angle to such an unassuming experience.
Yet, I wasn’t touring. Yacuiba was too small for me to stay there any longer. "Santa Cruz is the big city," someone told me at the market. Without delays, I approached the bus terminus and bought a ticket for the night bus to Santa Cruz. In such a way, I could save the guesthouses fees while still advancing. The Bolivian bus was more decrepit than any other bus I had traveled in the past. Suddenly, the Laotian public transport I used in the past began to look as world-class, despite buses there being forced to carry refueling barrels on their roof on especially rough routes. Yet, the fees for transport in Bolivia were still high. It all meant I had to find an income source soon.
Next morning the bus reached the large terminal of Santa Cruz. I couldn’t find a map of the city there. I left the building and walked around for an hour or so. There were no tall structures; the place looked like a dilapidated village. I returned to the terminal area and stopped by one of the food stalls in front of it. While enjoying an extremely hot fricassee, a local man sat next to me without asking for permission.
"Where are you from?" he asked. It was my first encounter with a culture obsessed with gathering: they gathered trash, old food, rotten clothes, and even useless information. I had no illusions: this was an informant of some type. I answered emphasizing my accent as much as possible; I didn’t want to engage in conversation.
"Where are you going?" he kept pressing.
"I don’t know." By now, I was sure this was an informant. People from Buddhist societies may often ask a complete stranger: "Where are you going?" This is parallel to the English "What’s up," with nobody expecting a relevant answer. However, in a supposedly Christian society that was unlikely. He was after information, and I had no intentions of facilitating his despicable task.
Then something unusual happened. Seeing I had nothing of value to tell, he took out a piece of paper, drew a map of Bolivia and divided it in three longitudinal stripes.
"You are in the lowlands; Santa Cruz is the largest city here," he said pointing at the eastern side of the map.
"At the center are the high valleys, Cochabamba is the largest city there. Then on the west is the Andean High Plateau, with La Paz, the most influential city in the country."
Hearing that was enough. La Paz was my next target. I thanked him, and walked back into the terminal, a building I was soon to leave on a bus to La Paz.
(Excerpt from The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem; the book reads independently of Part I, The Cross of Bethlehem - The Memoirs of a Refugee.)
The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.