As we enter the main plaza the enormity of the situation hits me. We are ten “gringos” (foreigners) taking part in one of the most important celebrations of the year. Thousands of Bolivians stare and cheer as our overwhelmed selves respond to the cries of “Viva Bolivia!” Their shouts compete with the sound of firecrackers as they ricochet off buildings, and the marching band that marks Independence Day.
Backpacking to cheaper, culturally diverse countries is a phenomenon that has caught on for many Aussies, particularly university students taking advantage of long summer holidays. Who am I to resist the trend? Whilst at uni I have managed to “do” several countries in Asia and now South America. But travelling is more than cool pictures, pretty trinkets and crazy stories that jealous ears don’t really want to listen to. It's an alternative form of education that allows you to experience first hand things that don’t seem real in the text books.
That idea is what led me, cursing and coughing, deep into the tunnels of a Bolivian silver mine. At one point I had to recognise the irony of the situation. I’d paid money to make myself hot, bothered, and generally unhappy. Dust filled every orifice as I struggled to crawl and keep up with the group. But soon I felt like a precious westerner when we met the miners. Suddenly my genuine complaints became trivial. We had only descended to the 4th of 9 levels in the mine, and were just visiting for a few hours. The miners, who work in cooperatives, sometimes stay down for as long as 24hrs, and have a life expectancy of 10-15 years once they enter the mine. This is a risk they are willing to take, for if you strike it lucky the success is all yours, and some miners cruise about town in hummers to prove it. They seemed oblivious to my discomfort, and I wondered what they thought of me, turning their life into a tourist attraction. But I couldn’t help being fascinated by their lifestyle as I stared into faces as young as 13, whose cheeks bulged like chipmunk’s as they stuffed them with cocoa leaves.
That night we managed to break down the barrier between tourist and local a little more as we experienced one of those rare travelling opportunities that you can never plan for. Our cheeky tour guide invited us to march with him and his college, and we jumped at the opportunity to be a part of such an experience. Finally I became less of a spectator… we were in the fish bowl and loving it!
The next few days saw us horse ride through red canyons in a wild west landscape, cruise in a 4WD past colourful lagoons, mountains, and bubbling geysers, and chase squawking pink flamingos. But by far the best memory of Bolivia was going beyond the role of witness to experience the adrenalin rush of patriotism in a country other than our own.