When I moved to the south of England five years ago, I didn’t realise that it would soon become my mission not just to defend my homeland but to repeatedly explain exactly where it is. I hadn’t thought about the fact that the British voting map divides as much by the north-south line as our accents do. Indeed, I hadn’t really realised that our accents were quite so different.
This is far from unique to Britain. I remember a few years ago being told by an irate French lectrice that the reason it was quicker to get to Paris from Bordeaux than Toulouse was because of the collaborators. (Yes, Bordeaux is apparently in the French north. Like the British north-south divide, that of our neighbours across the Channel doesn’t obey anything as obvious as the laws of geography.) And then, later, living in the southern north, or the bit south of that that might actually have been the south, that I should ask in bakeries for a chocolatine, not a pain au chocolat, because otherwise everyone would think I was Parisian. (I’d have been quite flattered to be mistaken for a Parisian actually, but apparently that was worse than being English. Which is saying quite a lot.)
To get to the point. Bolivia is also a divided country. Not north-south, but east-west. After not very long reading about the place, particularly in recent news, you come across a reference to the Media Luna (half moon – just as the French are a bit wobbly on their compass points, the Bolivians have some interesting visualisation going on. I’d be concerned if the moon looked like the map of the departments of Tarija, Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando.). And the angry political and historical and cultural and geographical and racial and culinary and just every kind really of divisions of a country that, much as I love it, I also feel is a bit of an odd construct.
It was 6 de agosto at the weekend (I come from a culture that doesn’t have ‘x of the month’ festivals (and, for obvious reasons, doesn’t have Independence Days. Other than those of countries that escaped our imperial rule. But then we don’t actually celebrate them.) – I mean, obviously it was the 6th of August in between the 5th and the 7th. But the 6th is more special than the others. I lived on the street named after it for a little while, so it must be important, right?). Having been through not-actual-independence-but-a-predecessor-to-it on the 16th of July, I thought this was going to be Actual Independence this time. You know, from Spain. Well, it is far from that straightforward. 6th August 1824 was an actual battle (Junín) that was won in the wars of Independence. But as signs everywhere told me, this was the 191st birthday of Bolivia. Quick bit of maths: they’re a year short. It took them a year to decide they didn’t want to be part of Peru, and the actual decision was made on the 10th of July. Nothing actually happened on the 6th of August 1825. But that’s the anniversary that’s celebrated. (I know, I know – next thing I’ll be telling you Jesus wasn’t actually born on the 25th December 0AD. Oh. Wait. Never mind.)
The brief history lesson was just me pointing out that Bolivia isn’t perhaps the most historically solid of nations. It got an illogical bit of coastline because Bolivar thought all of his new countries should have access to the sea. (It then lost it, but that’s another story.) It had large bits of Amazon that no-one bothered to map for a long time, and there’s some story about a dictator swapping some jungle land for a white horse. (And then the rubber boom happened.) And it got mountains and highlands and llamas and dust and wind and cold and, really, not the best deal in the whole break-up of the Spanish Empire. And most significantly for what I’m trying to say, it got a lumped together collection of various groups of indigenous people and the descendants of the Spanish occupiers.
When most people think of Bolivia now, it’s probably of the first half: of Evo (and his jumper), women in funny hats and skirts and plaits, coca and alpacas and mountains (and cholitas climbing mountains – I’m all for women breaking boundaries, but ‘women climb mountain’ is not news, no matter how flowery the skirts they were wearing) and protests and quinoa and mining and debates about free chickens and eccentric papal gifts (there was a lot of commentary about the exact significance of the infamous communist crucifix thing, and the Pope’s reaction to it. I personally think he was doing a ‘Why does no one ever just give me a box of chocolates? Has it not occurred to them that the Vatican has plenty of over the top religious artefacts, and I’m trying to downsize? Where on earth am I going to put this one? Maybe one of the cardinals would like it?’ But this may be blasphemy or Catholic treason or whatever obscure crime insulting the pope is. If you don’t hear from me for a while, the Swiss Guard have probably come for me.) That’s the half I know, the half I talk about, the half I (for the most part), study.
I’d heard stories of the other half. Some, rather unappealing: the climate is hot and humid, the mosquitoes rampant, the racist tendencies of the people even more so. ‘Oooh, you should go! You’d love it! The people aren’t like here. They’re more European. Friendly. Taller. Whiter.’ proffered one of my interviewees. I wasn’t sure whether to be more offended by the suggestion that I would be happier in an area with more white people, or horrified that this was the kind of conversation anyone would think you could have aloud, in public. And I’d read a lot about the politics of the region, and its economy, and it all sounded a bit industrial and commercial and conservative and dull and flat and unappealing. But somehow I managed to be persuaded into crossing over into the infamous region of Santa Cruz.
It was probably not as dramatic a transition as it seemed. I fell asleep on the bus, so to me it seemed like one minute I was in a dry, dusty, arid (but spectacular) landscape, and the next it was a river valley that was all green and full of citrus trees and vegetables and it all felt almost Mediterranean. I’d spent about six weeks in dry, dusty heat (and paceño dry, dusty, polluted cold), and then all of a sudden there was a thunderstorm and I was wading not-quite-knee-deep-but-not-far-off-and-I-was-wearing-sandals-and-everything through flooded streets and hearing horror stories of roads being shut off by landslides, and whizzing on a bus through a river gorge past roadside stalls of citrus fruit and plantations of peaches and vineyards and everything seemed green and fresh and not quite like the Bolivia I was used to.
There were just hundreds of little differences: I’ve got used to seeing the Bolivian flag flying alongside the wiphala, this checked flag that represents the indigenous nations of the Plurinational State. Not in Santa Cruz. There, it’s the regional flag (green and white stripes) that predominates. And then when someone innocently asked our tour guide what languages were spoken in the region: Aymara, Quechua…, he stroppily responded that you’d only hear those from immigrants to the area, and true natives spoke Spanish. I’m going to leave you to ponder the irony of the descendants of Columbus, Pizarro etc being considered more native than those of the people they found and killed when they arrived on this continent. It was warm, and people wore less clothes. This seems inherently logical, but when it’s warm in La Paz and I go out in just a shirt, without a jacket or a jumper, everyone rushes to tell me I must be freezing. I’m not. I could come up with some long analogy about a willingness to take risks, as characterised by going out in your shorts and flip flops when it might rain, compared to the playing safe option of the coat, scarf, gloves, shawl etc when it will probably be sunny and warm, and how this transfers into entrepreneurship and development and ambition and all of these things. But even if you’re sceptical of the concept of that, it has to be said that clothing and its acceptability is not just a reflection of the weather, but of culture: the conservatism of the altiplano is perhaps most evidently characterised by the fact that I have never seen anyone there wearing shorts.
As you leave La Paz, you plod through El Alto – a chaotic settlement with a permanent traffic jam. The further out you get, the less built the houses become. Other than the brewery there isn’t much sign of industry: a lot more informal shops (the row selling bricks, the next block where they’re all selling cement mixers, then on to ladders…) and market stalls and the wonderful improvisation that means minibuses carry tractor tyres and a stack of mattresses fit to satisfy the princess of pea fame can be balanced on top of a taxi. And then suddenly the houses stop and you’re out in the kind of bleak landscape you associate with Wuthering Heights. But without Kate Bush. And about 3500m higher up. And you go past the odd llama and settlement of houses huddled against the wind and there’s these big dominating hills and huge blue sky and a straight flat plain, but no landmarks, nothing really to distinguish one place from the next until you arrive at the outskirts of the next city 300km away. That’s what I know of travelling in Bolivia.
Leaving Santa Cruz, and its concentric circles that I’m sure made wonderful sense to whatever urban planner devised them but I don’t think actually serve any practical purpose (other than to give a vague geographical reference: ‘in the 2nd anillo’ is about equivalent to Parisian ‘5ème arrondissement’ as far as I can tell), is a somewhat different experience. There’s a dual carriageway that feels, lined with palm trees as it is, like it’d be happier in Miami or Los Angeles or somewhere. There are big processing plants for sunflower oil and soya and other big agro-industrial products. There are cattle. There is another brewery. There’s towns, with shops, and roundabouts, and the whole sprawl doesn’t just seem to extend further, but it’s closer to the kind of settlement you expect, the kind of place you would construct a settlement. I suppose Santa Cruz makes sense: it’s logical that this is the country’s economic hub, that it’s increasingly attracting migrants from across the country (and so messing with that neat dichotomy: there were as many women in Aymara traditional dress on my bus as there were people in jeans. And a lot of hats. If I had to choose one thing I love about Bolivia, it’s that hats are so prevalent, and so invested in meaning, in a way that we’ve mostly lost in Europe.), it’s logical that it’s expanding geographically, that its population is growing. And if you were going to set up a business in Bolivia, maybe you would do it in Santa Cruz – the only obstacle is that the export route out is either across the whole country, or through the depths of the Amazon and out through Brazil, but I’m sure if they could build a transoceanic road through Peru and Brazil someone would be willing to do the same in Bolivia. (I am not advocating this. Enough of the rainforest is being cut down as it is, and development of that kind is just not that necessary. Or necessary at all. But I am by no means naive enough not to think it’ll happen.)
It’s not that La Paz is inherently not-modern, but it’s a different kind of modernity: a kind that sees no problem with taking your lamb on the bus or whipping your mobile phone out from the folds of your shawl, cardigan, blouse, petticoats and who knows what else. Santa Cruz, on the other hand, maybe fits better into a narrative of linear development: yes, there are street vendors (although there was a poor choice of bus station snacks available at the ‘terminal bimodal’. Because although it’s a long bumpy bus ride to the altiplano from said lowland city, obviously there’s a direct train connection to Brazil. I’ve mentioned before that transport connections reflect political opinions and power.), but there are also long straight highways, malls and a lot of 4x4s. In short, the signs of money coming into a regional economy, and of the area’s cultural references guiding its trajectory. Santa Cruz looks to Brazil, the US, Europe, and uses its wealth to emulate them. La Paz, for the moment at least, hangs on to the traditions of its indigenous past. And maybe that’s the deep-seated root of all of the other divisions, one that causes any European regional distinctions to pale into insignificance. If they are debates about divergences in recent history, in the shares of the spoils of a capitalist model of industrialisation that is more or less universally accepted, this is a division that reflects an inherently different worldview. And while there are suggestions that it could be evened out as the country as a whole experiences economic growth and development (or, perhaps, that the highland vision, revived by Evo’s presidency and his economic development and cultural revaluation initiatives, will fade away if and when his administration comes to an end), my brief experience of The Other Side suggests that while the geographical boundaries of the divides may shift, the two visions are not just competing or opposed, but so utterly alien that reconciliation is impossible to even fully imagine.