On New Years Eve I embarked for Sucre, the capital city of Bolivia. I expected a fairly light travel day as the distance from point A and point B was not that far; my expectations were not met. Starting at 3:00AM and arriving at 10:00PM all but knocked me out. Perhaps this year I would celebrate from the comfort of bed. Of course, upon arrival the hostel was lively and quickly a trip to the main square materialized. There had been no shortage of fireworks available for purchase up to this point in Bolivia and there was no reason to believe Sucre was different. On this assumption the country followed through. A barrage of firecrackers played background music to the groups of high school students shooting bottle rockets at each other. They chased and taunted with with roman candles in one hand and pounded low alcohol content champagne, the only drink being allowed into the plaza, in the other. Hundreds of people were gathered rapidly in the plaza, and more continued pouring in. Security was tight at each entrance, but only once in the corral did I realized the goal was to keep chaos contained, not prevent it. As the time approached midnight the rockets got larger and the artillery began to take aim at buildings as opposed to friends. There were no rules, there was no order, and I wasted my New Years wish on finding a pair of safety glasses. 12:00AM came and went. Abi and myself located some other travelers from the hostel who were headed out of the battle ground to a local pub. In good friendship building form we followed. My ‘early to bed - early to rise’ New Years strategy quickly deteriorated as a bottle of whisky and liters of beers landed on the table. Here's to 2018, hopefully it's a good one.
On the backpacker circuit Sucre can serve two purposes. The first is a quick stop-over town on the way to Uyuni, the ultra popular salt flats in southern Bolivia. But for myself and hoards of other travelers, it's where you go to school. Sucre has a well developed set of Spanish schools and travelers of all makes and models hunker down with notebooks and worksheets to dust the cobwebs off third grade espanol. It makes sense that this happens here. Like the rest of Bolivia, things are cheap, and classes are no different. A daily private lesson with a well qualified teacher, in a classroom, with all materials provided will run you about Bs. 45 or $6.50 per hour. That's a tough price to beat just about anywhere. Also, Bolivian Spanish tends to be spoken more slowly and with better annunciation than places like Chile or Argentina making it an easy accent to understand. After a day of recovery from NYE and research I found my school, enrolled, and was ready to hit the books at 9:00AM the next morning.
For anyone who knows me (which I think I can safely assume is everyone still reading...) language studies have never been a priority in my life. I HATED spanish class in elementary school. In high school, just thinking about doing Italian homework made me feel nauseous, and the odds of it actually being completed were slim. I felt similarly about English, and have opted out of learning to spell for life; thank you Les Earnest and Ralph Gorin for paving the way (these guys made the first spell checker in the early 70's. Yay! we all learned something today). One of the driving factors for choosing to attend university at Northwestern was it's lack of English or other language requirements for engineers. I think I wrote two 'papers' during my five years there and read somewhere on the order of zero books. Yet here I am, spending almost my entire day's budget to take three hours of one on one Spanish class a day and making sure I'll receive two to three hours of homework and study materials on top of that. Not only am I forking over the cash, I'm eager to do it!
Of course I'm older now and have matured ever so slightly from when I was fifteen, but there is also a major perspective change at play. When I began traveling internationally a few years ago I finally understood why people wanted me to learn these things. Why was it important to learn Italian? Because if you want to become a master creator of pasta, cheese, wine, fine automobiles, audiophile quality speakers, or multitudes of other things you will likely need to go there and be able to communicate with your peers or superiors. Perhaps someone, maybe me, wants to surf in Portugal, ski in Japan, or hike in Peru, said person will likely benefit greatly being capable of communicating with local people in their tongue. I never understood this growing up and thus, saw no reason to care. I'm getting a bit of a late start on this one, but hopefully I'll be able to pick up a second language eventually. For now I'm a babbling four year old, but at least I'm trying.
A phenomenon of sorts transpiers in Sucre. Study groups of travelers gather around kitchen tables every night, flash cards and notebooks in hand. As late night procrastination (old habits die hard) delays translations and irregular verbs are cursed, we begin to forget we are so far removed whence we came. A type of family forms in these study groups, people start to eat breakfast together, cook dinner together, and help one another with homework assignments. People rapidly transport back to a different time, often a simpler, more predictable one, and it's easy to get used to. Sucre is also a comfortable city. The weather is nice, the food is good, the city is clean, and the hostels are fantastic. It's cheap to live yet has the modern fixings of a movie theater, full service grocery store, and artisanal ice cream. I had slated a week for the city, planning to cram as much class time into seven days as possible and be on my way. Two weeks later, it was tough to pack my bags and move on. It was a regular occurrence for someone's three night stint to turn into thirteen. Still, nothing about Sucre was my favorite, other snacks and other vibes have intrigued me more, but there is something to say about having a place to call home for a while.
A collection of people, all of whom chose to leave their routines behind get caught in Sucre's web yet welcome it like a blanket. It forces you to think about what we all might be hoping to find around the next bend.
Enough with the sentimental; time was up in Sucre and I needed to get moving. However, this proved to be more challenging than expected. Bolivian's love to protest and as it turns out, there is currently a lot to be upset about with the government. The Bolivian president has recently made some very unpopular declarations sparking outrage amongst many groups of people. One highly enraged collective is that of the professional drivers unions (truck drivers, bus drivers, etc..). I was not able to get a clear description of what their grievances were, but the actions taken in retaliation were sever. Truck drivers began to blockade entire cities, leaving tractor trailers stagnant spanning across the major roadways in and out. The buses stopped running both locally in the city and along the major travel routes. Unsure of how serious this all was people still tried leaving the hostel only to return a few hours later having been turned back at the bus terminal. Details were vague about what was happening and people began to panic as planned timelines crumbled. I was eventually able to leave during a break in the blockade, but the protests are still underway. I was advised that Sucre would not go much beyond the current state but that La Paz was another story. It was a good time to head south.