Friday, September 25, 2009

All dressed up with someplace to go.

After our overnight bus rides in Peru, the overnight bus to Santa Cruz was interesting. There were no more comfy pillows, no fuzzy blankets and no meals served to us at our seats. Instead we cowered under our jackets and woke up with kinks in our necks. Instead of breakfast, the bus stopped somewhere along the highway in the middle of the hot humid Bolivian jungle where we all got out at a little roadside open air café. While the Bolivians all tucked into the bowls of soup made out of big cow bones, slurping hungrily on the marrow, or knocked back heaping plates of rice with a chicken stew, Adrian and I made do with a cup of super sweet coffee. The one other gringo on the bus, joined us in our choice. She was a young English girl just wrapping up her four month trip and travelling to Santa Cruz to catch a flight to Rio where she would be enjoying some sun before heading home to grey England. When we arrived at the Santa Cruz bus station, we split a cab with her. Well we paid the same as if we had taken two cabs, but there is something comforting about sharing a taxi with someone else after arriving in a new city. Our hostel was located in a residential area just outside of the downtown area and although I had given the driver the address and shown him where it was located he still managed to get slightly lost until I pointed him in the right direction. But it was his loss since we were paying a flat rate no matter what route he took. We said goodbye to the English girl, gave her address to the driver since she spoke even worse Spanish than I did and checked in.

We’d chosen this hostel for its promise of free and fast wifi and great website (I know, we’ve been burned before). The hostel had once been a large house and it felt homey, clean and full of all the good things that make us happy (for me wifi, for Adrian a big screen tv with satellite tv). All good except for the fact that it appeared to be empty. Despite this the only room available was the most expensive. Since we didn’t feel like searching for another option we took it - after all the pool awaited. Yes, I forgot to mention the pool. Santa Cruz was stinking hot and humid and after sleeping on a bus in our clothes we were looking forward to a refreshing dip. The wifi was much better than the La Paz and while we paddled around the pool, the remaining hundreds of photos uploaded which made the hostel 100x better already.

There was a grocery store nearby and while Adrian went to stock up on some grub, the other guests started trickling in, among them Stuart and Max two easy going lads from England, lovely Pauline from Ireland and Linda, a perennially happy German girl. In just a few hours we’d gotten to know more people than we had in our three days in La Paz which is why I like small hostels. And we all had a lot in common – we were in Santa Cruz. No really that was important. The city doesn’t appear on most travelers agendas except as a place to catch an international flight (the airport here is bigger than La Paz’s), or on their way to Brazil to visit the Pantanal. Stuart and Max had only meant to pass through on their way to the rest of Bolivia but had found themselves drawn to the town. Likewise Pauline who had now been here for weeks volunteering at a school. And Linda, well, she was a sweet, giggly student who’d just arrived to start an internship. I immediately assumed it was something to do with international development. But no, she was studying transportation and logistics and her internship was with the Bolivian passenger rail service. I wasn't the only one who found this funny – the notoriously slow and undependable Bolivian rail service would get a free injection of notorious German efficiency, but poor Linda wasn’t going to learn much to help except frustration. Good thing she was the happiest person I’ve ever met – and I wondered if we’d be able to pass through in 6 months time to see if she still was after her intership.

The next day, we left our new friends to explore the city we’d found ourselves in. Santa Cruz is actually Bolivia’s richest and most prosperous city – rumour has it that most of that wealth came from drugs. But whatever the reason, it was now its business centre. Having read that, Adrian and I had high hopes for it. So we walked the 10 minutes into town, finding a French café on the way. I was skeptical when we walked in – French food in what was eseentially the middle of the Bolivian Pantanal - but I was pleasantly surprised by the fancy décor and to hear the two owners speaking French to each other. So we stopped for an authentic French lunch of quiche, coke and éclairs for just 15Bs and then started walking to the sights listed in the guidebook.

Our walking tour didn’t take long – there wasn’t much to see in Santa Cruz. The plaza, the old church, a handful of colonial buildings amongst the typical cement structures and a bunch of shops that sold clothes more expensive than our budget. There was definitely money in the town but it wasn’t being spent by us or on the city. The one exception was a park nearby (photo above) which consisted of an artificial pond ringed by some grass and a handful of palm trees and a large stone pathway/patio. It stood out for its newness. And in fact it was so new, that the ethnographic museum built on an island in the middle of the pond was still being constructed or set up and was closed. Including the time we took for lunch, our tour had taked an hour and a half. So once we’d seen all the buildings it was time to go shopping, but only if we could find something cheap. After 6 months of traveling some of our clothes had started to unravel and threadbare but replacing mine was going to be a bit of a struggle. Not only our women in Latin America at least a foot shorter than me but their also about a foot skinnier. They also like to wear a lot of shiny things – sequins, lame, and crystals – which aren’t really my style. At a large department store, I was lucky to find a pair of khaki casual pants that fit on the sale rack. I have a feeling they may have been maternity pants but they were about $8 so who cares. However, since the rest of the clothes looked more suitable for salsa dancing than hiking, that was the end of my shopping.

Back at the hostel, many of our new friends were back and were now joined by Brenno, a Brasilian on vacation from his job at a hostel in Bonito. Within 5 minutes of talking to him, he’d sold us on stopping by his place and even promised us a discount. It looked and sounded fabulous and hopefully would still be in the two or three months we figured it would take us to get to Brazil. He was a super nice guy – actually they all were. And we got to know each other better at the hostel bbq that night. It was all you could eat meat and all you could drink alcohol. I think it was that last freebie that had us agree to join Brenno to the feria later on. “It’s the biggest one in Bolivia” “It’s a big party” “Everyone goes there on the weekend” were just some of the things he told us making it sound like a nightclub yet it was the local agricultural fair, like the CNE. Max, Stuart, Adrian and I were game (making sure to leave our cameras and wallets at the hostel). And with a bit of prodding I convinced Pauline and Linda to join us too so I wouldn’t be the only girl. But with so many of us now going, we had to take two taxis: the girls (and Adrian) in one and the boys in the other, which meant we never saw the boys again. Little did we know that there were 8 different entrances to the fair which was the size of a small city. No worries there was plenty to keep us occupied without them.

We walked around the displays which were more like trade show booths selling tractors, cars, cell phone plans and giant cows to a mixture of local indigenous folks, partying young people and super-blond, old order Mennonite families. If that wasn’t an odd enough combination, each booth was populated with beautiful Bolivian models two feet taller than any Bolivian I’d met so far and decked out in their designer best. We thought for sure we’d find the boys near any of these women but no such luck. As we continued to wander, we stumbled across some sort of Miss Bolivia contest where 50 even more beautiful women were strutting the stage in bikinis under the watchful eye of a slightly letcheorus emcee. We searched amongst the families and men holding up their cellphones to record the contest for the boys and then decided to just watch the crowning, except the contest was not a contest. There was no winner just an endless succession of beautiful Amazon women, however, none of the men in the audience seemed to mind. I wonder if they were staring because they were wondering the same thing I was – where did they find these giants in a country of munchikin? Um, probably not. And not surprisingly, as soon as the models left the stage the huge crowd dispersed in record time. We still hadn’t found the boys and decided to give it one more shot. I told Linda to practice her Spanish by asking some of the young folks where the party was so we could find the boys – but those she asked just pointed all around. I told Adrian to put his “think like a boy” cap on and he said to follow the women. So we did. Most headed to the trade show booths that were now functioning like night clubs. Beefy bouncers were guarding the entrance while the beautiful people wearing the fancy clothes I’d seen for sale in the shops danced, dranked and partied on the otherside. Unfortunately all of us in our backpacker finest couldn’t even pass off ourselves as cleaners. We figured the lads were somewhere in one of them and in good hands so we did another lap of the exhibits then decided to leave. It was probably for the best as the all we could drink alcohol started to catch up with us.

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