It’s actually warm!
Landing in Santa Cruz is like landing in a different country – Brazil maybe, or even Europe (yeah, I’m THAT happy!). Tall lean skyscrapers, wide PAVED boulevards, green parks with sloths (both human AND animal), extensive nature reserves and tropical rainforests in the vicinity.
And an elevation of 1,400 feet with an amiable sun and a chill breeze that are not trying to burn a hole in my head or blow me off the surface of the Earth.
Our transformation from I-don’t-care-what-I-wear-as-long-as-I’m-warm to I-need-to-shave-those-legs! is done after we check into a posh hotel, that has jet tubs instead of electric showerheads and light airy suits instead of freezer boxes.
This is what Brazil is probably gonna be like, I look around the space, enchanted – warm and sunlit and luscious with a life is a beach attitude! Can’t wait to get there, even though once in Rio de Janeiro, I’ll be taking over a group from another tour leader who just got fired.
Having finished checking out the pretty but probably least impressive main square in Bolivia (what can you expect from something called 24 de Septiembre INSTEAD of Plaza de las Armas?!), I’m taking a stroll through the nearby flea book market, looking for some nice reading.
After I got this job, in the first wave of excitement, I took on the mission of buying famous classic novels written by famous classic writers in every country I go to. Our schools kind of skip teaching Latin American literature, and since it has produced some of the quirkiest books of the last half a century, I decided ignorance was not always a bliss.
So far, I’ve got hold of books by Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s most famous novelist, whose comedic novels set in the Amazon are a great example of the bizarreness of Latin American literature (yeah, military audit services are not always what they seem, regarding Peruvian troops stationed in the Amazon and their sexual deprivation), and books by Carlos Castaneda, the author I’ve been PRIMARILY after.
Sure, I could have bought his books before – they have been translated into 11 languages – but I’ve decided to read them in Spanish, their original language (no mistranslations, no inaccuracies and no filter between me and the writer). Also, reading foreign books attracts general attention and makes people look INTERESTING!
On the other hand, reading books in a language that is not your own can be a gigantic pain in the neck – have you ever tried to read the unabridged version of Tolkien, or the extensive lectures on whale anatomy in Moby Dick?!
And what about all the bonny lasses and thou hast had thy day, old dame in the Ivanhoe’s olde English?
Sitting in the shade of an equestrian statue, I look up. Staring into a distance above my head is General Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, the Liberator who gave Bolivia its name, and has the most statues in the world as a historical figure (no, it’s not Napoleon – he comes in second by a head!). They’re found on all the continents including Australia, Asia or Africa. Even Spain has a couple, although it was precisely the Spanish Empire that he and his fellow liberator General San Martín freed the South American countries from.
Reading up on the Independence Era of South America is like trying to figure out Twin Peaks or Legion. Did I give it a serious try? Yes, I did, but the chaos and confusion, all the sudden twists, endless putsches, repetitive revolutions and assassinations made me cry from frustration. And we’re talking only about a 30-year period here!
What the hours spent in despair gave me is this: San Martín was an Argentinian and freed Argentina, Chile and Peru, while Simón Bolívar was a Venezuelan and freed Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. When done liberating, the two leaders met in a close-door meeting to discuss the brilliant future of the continent, after which San Martín quit without a word of explanation and left for Europe.
Unlike them and their lofty bronze monuments commemorating them, President Evo Morales has to make do with vinyl sheets.
Todos somos Evo, says the huge billboard above our hotel’s parking lot; we’re all Evo. Looking down from it is a round indigenous face with dark eyes, a triangular nose and long, thin lips; a coca leave garland is hanging around his neck.
They say Evo hates ties and shows up dressed casually for even the top-level meetings. I look up and really – on the billboard, he’s wearing one of his official signature pieces, a dark woolen blazer decorated with traditional Andean embroidery (looks like his lucky striped alpaca sweater was left at home).
A union leader for coca farmers and the son of a poor llama herder, Evo Morales is the country’s first indigenous president. And the longest serving one, too – his being in office for almost 14 years in a country that has had 20 presidents in the past 50 years, many not lasting a year, is a definition of accomplishment!
I mean who wouldn’t like a guy who plays soccer at 12,000 feet, has a portrait of Che Guevara made out of coca leaves hung in his Presidential office, has had the Congress building equipped with a clock whose hands spin to the left as a symbol of “decolonizing” Bolivia, and suggests that eating genetically modified chicken makes people gay?
Still, the wheels of fortune in politics grind up eventually everybody (and 14 years in office is really too much). One day, he ends up on a Mexican government jet, bound for exile.
Back in the hotel, I spread my books on the bed and try to decide, which one to read first – the Allende, or perhaps a Marques or maybe an Amado?
There’s a knock on the door.
“Hey, Petra, when you said we needed a Yellow fever certificate of vaccination to enter Brazil, did you really mean that they won’t let in without one? Because we don’t have it. I guess we missed the info in the pre-travel instructions your office sent us.”
Seriously, how clearer do we have to make it that if a country imposes an official vaccination requirement because they have presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito in their territory, they mean business?!
Too familiar with local bureaucracy – it’s forms for EVERYTHING, for crossing the border, for extending visa, for residency, with 3 types of photo and 4 different colors of the background, and don’t dare lose any of them because if you do – a fine, if you can’t find the one they’re asking for – a fine, if it’s not the original one – a fine.
So too familiar with local bureaucracy, I call the hotel reception, the best source of ANY local information on the planet (the FBI could learn from them).
And really – the reception not only puts me in touch with someone who’s “got contacts,” but the certificates they provide are pristine legit. All we have to do is to pay a 100 Bs for this criminal transaction, and fill them out. Hard not to be impressed!
The next day, as if jinxing it, the tropical breeze we’ve been enjoying so far, turns into cold winds blowing in from the Argentinian pampas and sending the temperatures from 100 degrees to 50.
So, back to our original condition of refrigerated fettuccine.
“Do you speak Brazilian, too?” Someone wants to know while we’re crossing the land border into Brazil. Still picking clove out of my teeth – the last night was another night of street food with a choice between a plate of salteñas, the Bolivian-style empanadas, and cuñapés, the yuca and cheese bread balls – I watch with disbelief, as the immigration officers are waving everybody through, not bothering to ask for the certificates. Aren’t they required to do so by law?!
“Yeah, just like I speak Mexican in Mexico!”
And when I find out that Carlos Castaneda didn’t write his Teachings of Don Juan in Spanish BUT in English, since he was a naturalized American and not a real Peruvian, I have no other option but to turn on CAPS LOCK!