When I found out that I would be going to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay and that I would have 48 days of vacation I figured that it would be a perfect opportunity to travel to both Bolivia and Brazil. Little did I know that the process of getting into both countries was very complicated and taxing to the point where I decided to go to both Uruguay and Argentina before I attempted to go to Bolivia and Brazil. My concern was that I wouldn’t be able to convince anyone to come with me to Bolivia. The visa process alone is enough to deter many people a process that includes, but is not limited to a 2 copies of my passport with one notarized that is used to get my police record in Paraguay, several 4 cm x 4 cm heads shots with a red background, a copy of my Paraguayan residency card, a copy of my credit card, airline reservations, hotel reservations, a shot record that proves that I had been vaccinated for yellow fever, and the ultimate kicker $135 upon arrival in Bolivia.
Cochabamba Christ, roughly 1 ft taller than the Christ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
At first, I was skeptical about going through the complicated visa process. That was until I was convinced by my friend Kevin, who will be living in Bolivia working for an organization that builds pedestrian bridges in the mountains to connect isolated villages to pathways that lead to larger populations centers, that the end of January would be a perfect time to meet up and travel with him. It didn't take much prodding, and I found myself days after my trip to Uruguay running around Asuncion obtaining the required documentation to be allowed to travel in Bolivia. I turned in everything I needed at the Bolivian embassy in Asuncion on January 5th, collected the documents on the 23rd, and was on a plane to its biggest city, Santa Cruz, on the 24th. Initially I thought that because Bolivia and Paraguay are South America’s poorest countries with Bolivia being the poorest and also landlocked that they would have a lot of similarities. I couldn't have been more wrong in that assumption for a variety of reasons.
Mt. Chacaltaya outside of La Paz
For starters, the history of the two countries is very different. Bolivia was and is rich with natural resources, and during its time as a Spanish colony was producing massive amounts of gold and silver to the point where most coins minted by the Spanish from the 16-18th centuries was done in Bolivia. In modern times Bolivia has discovered both oil, and large amounts of natural gas, which power a large majority of its cars at very low prices. Paraguay on the other hand, was the first country in South America to gain its independence from Spain doing so in 1811, and it was, unlike the rest of Spanish South America, not liberated by Simon Bolivar or José Francisco de San Martin. Paraguay was located in the heart of South America, along the Paraguay river, and while widely considered a paradise lacked the natural resource wealth of the other colonies that either had large amounts of gold and silver or access to the sea.
Bolivia geographically ranges from the arid area of the Chaco in the Southeast, mountains along the western boarder, and tropical Jungle in the Northeast. Bolivians live in a very diverse range of climates and regions while Paraguayans predominately live in the bottom third of the country, which one would consider sub-tropical. A vast area known as the Chaco that has limited infrastructure separates the major populations centers of both countries resulting in a relative lack of trade, and as a result fostered vastly different cultures. The most notable interactions between the two nations took place from 1932-1935 over an area of the Chaco that was believed to contain vast deposits of oil. The American company Standard Oil backed Bolivia with Shell backing Paraguay. The resulting conflict despite Bolivia’s superior numbers and technology led to the death of approximately 120,000 soldiers with Paraguay winning the war and therefore gaining a chunk of Bolivian territory in the process. Paraguay achieved victory primarily because of its ability to use Guarani in radio communication. Paraguayans had two other advantages. They were more accustomed to the harsh climate and they had none of the racial tensions that existed among members of the Bolivian army, made up of white officers and Indian soldiers. Since the end of the war the histories of the two nations have continued their unique paths, and was very evident during my time there.
The differences that seemed most obvious to me was the public transportation system, the peoples' interactions, and the appreciation for public works. Traveling in either country is a challenge. In Paraguay the spectrum of buses one can take from one place to another varies from wooden box on wheels to spaceship like dream liners. In the major cities there are buses to other major cities that consistently leave throughout the day, and rarely take more that 8 hours to arrive in one place. Bolivia, on the other hand, is quite the opposite.The country is not only larger with populations living in all corners of the country, but the infrastructure is much less developed given the geographical challenges that exist in maintaining a complex highway system and drastically varying altitudes and climates. In fact, only 7.9% of the roads in Bolivia were paved in 2009 according to the World Bank. Paraguay, while not drastically better achieved 11% of roads paved in 2002. Granted Paraguay is flatter and much less prone to natural disasters like landslides. As a result most bus travel in Bolivia requires an over night bus over the mountains and through the woods. I spent two of my first four nights in the country on a bus, which left me perpetually sore and tired. Dealing with the altitude was also brutal given that many of the cities are over 12,000 feet above sea level. The most frustrating part of traveling though was the way the bus terminals operated. Most bus companies, given the distance between most traveled routes, would all leave at the same times every day meaning that 40-70 double Decker buses are trying to leave the undersized terminals at the same time causing almost every bus to be delayed by between 1-2 hours on average. There are also thousands of people trying to leave at the same time causing the staging platforms to overflow with people. I never understood why there wasn’t a better system of staggering the buses throughout the day. The only conclusion I could come up with was that because of the distances people would only want to travel overnight to arrive early the next day, but that seemed too logical. While I am sure that is a factor, it seemed to me that long distance travel in that system has become an ingrained mentality, and that it will take a dramatic improvement in infrastructure and government investment to change.
Plaza Uruguay, Asuncion
One of the things I love most about the people in Paraguay is how friendly and open they are. Sure it takes a bit of effort to go over to someone's house, introduce yourself, and make an effort with Guarani, but the rewards of doing those little things are returned tenfold in generosity through food, terere, and social outlets. Granted I have never spent much time in Bolivia, my trip was only 13 days, but my interactions with street vendors, bus drivers, and waitresses at restaurants was far less pleasant than they have been in Paraguay. One particular instance that stands out was when I was walking the streets of La Paz with my friend Brook. The streets were overflowing with vendors selling everything from produce, to Halloween masks. Brook wanted to buy and apple and asked how much it would cost? She said 5 Bolivianos for 5 apples in a sack, roughly $0.75. The woman also had individual apples sitting out on top of each other. When Brook said she only wanted 1 the woman refused to sell it to her not stating a reason, and continuing her conversation with the other woman sitting next to her completely ignoring us. That strange interaction manifested itself throughout the trip in many different forms. Paraguayans seemingly go out of their way to be helpful even to the point where they will tell you the wrong answer instead of saying they don’t know. Bolivians are much more inclined to ignore your question by responding in a way that isn’t quite what you asked for. A good example of that was when I was trying to get information about boarding a bus from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba. The terminal was flooded with people and I had no idea how to get on a bus. My friend Kevin was trying to deal with what we do with our bags, and I was trying to figure out where we needed to go. I walked up to a kid who worked for the bus company that we bought tickets from and ask “What platform do we need to go to get on the bus?” He looked at my ticket and answered my question by saying “Cochambaba.” I said “that is where I am going where do I go to get on the bus” His response this time was “you paid 90 Bolivianos.” After asking for the third time I finally got the answer I was looking for, but not before I got supremely frustrated by how difficult it was to get that question answered. Now I admit that my accent can be a bit strong, but it wasn’t like I was asking a complicated question. In Paraguay the response to that type of question is something like “the platform is over there” instead of going around the question. Those little subtleties are the things I picked up the most thought my travels in comparing the two countries.
The last and most stark contrast to me existed in the form of the public works. Both Paraguay and Bolivia have long histories, and a long list of heroes to commemorate. Both countries have monuments and statues to those heroes, but in Bolivia the public squares, parks, and statues are immaculate while in Paraguay they often look decrepit and graffiti covered. Also the number of parks and public plazas where much higher in Bolivia than Paraguay despite the fact the Bolivia is supposedly a poorer nation. That culture baffled me. I still don’t know the reason for that, and maybe never will. My instinct though led me to look at the economies of the two countries. Bolivia makes a lot of money because of its mineral resources, natural gas, and oil. Paraguay is predominately an agriculture economy with large revenues coming from selling excess power it generates from the three major dams it has. Paraguay sadly is one of the most corrupt countries in Latin America, and despite it’s revenues it seems to me that Bolivia uses its money more for social programs, public work projects, and their maintenance more effectively than Paraguay does. Bolivia is the worlds 118th ranked country in terms of corruption with Paraguay ranking 154th. While neither ranking is good it is a pretty stark contrast that is evident in both countries public spaces.
Having lived in Paraguay for almost a year and a half it has become a natural for me to compare it to other countries I visit in the region. My instinct told me that there would be dramatic similarities between the countries, but that instinct was wrong. Everything from the climate to the food is different, but given their small sizes, landlocked status, and poverty rankings it is easy for people to compare the two countries on paper, but the reality is far different from the statistics.