Sunday, September 5, 2010

The ABCs of South America (2) - Frustration in Bolivia

The ABCs of South America is an alphabetical arrangement of the most memorable parts of my South America trip in the summer of 2010. You can start at the beginning here.

B is for Bowler hat ladies and the Beef with Bolivia

When I arrived in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, the first thing I noticed was that a dominance in fashion exists there that is different than any other place I'd ever been to. There is one 'look' that is sported by upwards of 90% of the city's elderly women. It consists of a few dozen alpaca sweaters, a long loose dress and typically a neutral-coloured shawl. But the most important piece is the one on top - the unforgettable bowler hat.
An elderly woman looks on in Oruro, thinking, "Damn my hat looks good."

The popularity of the 'bowler hat lady' look is probably due to its versatility. The Bolivian fashionistas experiment with lots of accessories to accent their looks.
A bowler hat lady in La Paz experiments adds sunglasses to her look in the shade of a La Paz street.
The interesting part of the bowler hat phenomenon is that it is more than just a style of dress; it is a status symbol. Anecdotally, I learned that the reason they're so popular is because having a tall, cone-shaped head is linked with intelligence and status in Andean culture. The ladies often wear the hats high on their heads so as to give the appearance of having a cone-shaped head. As well, the style of the hat often tells you more about the relative affluence of the lady wearing it. The length of the brim, the height of the hat, the colour - all of these things seem to determine how important the lady is.
My brother stands beside a gang of Bolivian bowler hat ladies.
But besides bowler hat ladies and a few sights, Bolivia was largely forgettable as a tourist destination. It's less developed than Peru or Brazil and, due to the a few things that went wrong on that leg of the trip, it is associated with unpleasantness in my mind. This is what I have dubbed, "The Beef with Bolivia."

The beef with Bolivia grew steadily and eventually just became an ongoing list of grievances. Firstly, we were forced to take two more overnight buses than scheduled. The first was because we had to take a detour due to road blockages from striking civic workers. Fair enough, but the second was because of some incompetence from our tour guide regarding our flights. So, with an extra 33 hours of overnight bus (15 the first time, 18 the second), you can see where most people would develop a beef. I was pretty accepting compared to some of the other people on the tour. For most, the 18-hour bus ride debacle become known as "Night Bus Gate". You can read more about it when I get to the letter 'N'.

Besides the night bus incidents was just a general lack of distinctness and comfort in Bolivia. There was no food or sight (besides one day in the Salt Flats) that stood out as a 'must-eat' or 'must-see'. It was also really cold a lot of the time (due to the high altitude) and my brother got really sick one night in the Salt Flats. The combination of extreme coldness and no running water meant he spent one pretty miserable night making trips back and forth to the bathroom. He and the other people on the tour understood that Bolivia was a less-developed place but really the experience paled in comparison to other parts of the trip.

An impromptu dance session by the side of the road to combat the blistering cold. Just to show you it wasn't all beef.
(Editor's Note: Probably not every post is going to be about just one letter of the alphabet; it's just the first few letters have given me a lot to write about!)

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