When our plane landed in Santa Cruz de la Sierra a little after midnight, I was furiously scribbling out miniscule letters on five long immigration forms with inexplicably small spaces. (Why are they always so tiny?!) As we gathered our carry-ons and prepared to disembark, I braced myself for the parental challenge of dragging three tired kids through a late night customs process. We’d done it before and we could do it again, but it certainly wasn’t going to be a barrel of laughs. Especially considering one of them literally burst into tears when she realized she would have to get out of her seat and walk off the plane.
A pleasant surprise came when a customs official saw us standing there with our near-comatose girls and pulled us to the front of the line. This turned out to be a huge bonus. As the only foreigners going through the visa-on-arrival process, we were still the last ones to leave the immigration area even with this jump start. We got our bags quickly, found a cab easily and were soon on our way to the hotel we would be staying in for a couple days. As we zipped along a pristine, well-lit concrete highway in a clean, late model taxi and watched modern buildings and palm trees go by, Bolivia didn’t seem to be the developing country we’d been expecting. I thought it would be reminiscent of Cambodia. Instead it looked a lot like Florida.
We’d decided to come to Bolivia because a college friend of mine, Misty, lives here with her Bolivian husband and their 8-year-old son. We decided it would be a unique experience and fun to reconnect with an old friend. Misty helped orchestrate our housing and got us connected to nonprofit organizations for volunteer work during our stay. In fact, she was so helpful I became a little lax in my research and knew very little about the country we would call home for the next month.
As it turns out, Bolivia is a dichotomy in every sense of the word. It’s both very rich and very poor. Extremely beautiful in some areas, and filthy in others. Economically thriving by some reports, while half the population lives in poverty. The national and municipal governments impose widespread red tape policies, but then inconsistently enforce them. Corruption exists at every level of society from the judges taking bribes to get people in or out of prison, to the police officers openly asking for cash in exchange for ignoring traffic violations.
In our first few days in Santa Cruz, we saw this duplicity firsthand and heard about it from the people we met. The first-world luxuries were obvious those initial days in the city while we stayed at the Buganvillas Resort, complete with a fancy buffet breakfast and a heated pool. When we would go out to meet up with Misty’s family, our taxi drove on paved roads and passed car dealerships, massive malls, modern stores and nice city parks.
However, when we started to travel around more of the city, we realized Bolivia truly is the developing nation we were expecting. One turn off a main thoroughfare would land us on bumpy dirt roads which horribly flood when it rains. Streets littered with trash and packed with weathered storefronts are the norm for most parts of the city. Children’s homes throughout Santa Cruz are filled with little ones whose parents could no longer care for them due to poverty or drug abuse. This struggling side of the country sits alongside its modern, shiny counterpart as a reminder of the distance between Bolivia’s economic and social structures and those of its neighboring nations.
The other day we climbed into a dilapidated taxi with rusted out wheel wells, springs popping through the cushions and an engine that made me question whether or not we would make it to our destination. Yet, our friendly, happy driver had his new Samsung Galaxy smart phone mounted prominently on the dashboard. That pretty much analogizes Bolivia for us.
We’re definitely learning and seeing a lot thanks to Misty’s family and the new friends she’s introduced us to during our time here. Within just a few days we’d acquired an actual social life (almost forgot what that was), babysat for a cute dog, met a pet tortoise, and attended a Brazilian country fair, where both Brian and our new friend, Alex, got thrown from a mechanical bull. Similar to our time in Fiji, having friends makes such a big difference. We’ve seen some amazing places in Bolivia we never would have found on our own. If fact, we’ve been so busy, it’s been hard to find time to blog about it all. Trust me, though. We have lots of stories to come about our time in beautiful and sometimes baffling Bolivia.