The first several days in this country have me disoriented. I feel some familiarity with it, as if we are back in Argentina with a dimension of Paraguay. So far all the people we have encountered have not made any deep connecting points, just a simple “hello, how are you” and from the men, especially officials in military and police get-up, just linger at the threshold of our open door and peer into the van and watch us intently as we perform everyday, menial tasks. They are intrigued, or perhaps perplexed. Whatever their motives, they definitely lack any sort of self-consciousness and remain as voyeurs until we basically leave the space and close our door. I recall the same sort of interested stares during my first trip across Central America over 7 years ago. I would sit on the buses, a lone gringo looking haggard as ever, and the children and adults would just observe me for minutes on end while we bumped our way across country roads through mountain towns and frontier crossings. Back then I remember falling over my mental precipice and psychologically weak to tolerate the looks anymore without returning their stares with clown-like appearances and at times, demonic eyes of annoyance. So far though, I only feel that lurking presence over my back and continue to sweep my floor and prepare food for Rosa, and maybe make some small talk if I have the energy and positive attitude. The heat is incredible and driving without the ability to open our windows makes for some exhausting mid-day driving.
Not even 10 minutes into Bolivia and I have my first run-in with the cops. I fly past a police post not realizing I had to stop, but notice the irate little officer flagging me down with his hands in the air in my rear view mirror. He seemed a bit furious but I got the feeling he was one of the many well-trained actors on the scene and this was Act I of what would inevitably conclude with our reaching an understanding and me shelling out a handful of Bolivianos to appease his temper. What I didn’t ever expect, however, was that he had before him a sawed-off soda bottle with cash and coins already inside, a tip jar essentially, and him asking bluntly for a financial contribution to his kindness. Oh man. What a trip it’s going to be. But, I’d rather do it than not. So here we go, the first encounter and counting, but it only cost me 4 Bolivianos, the equivalent of 57 cents. Word to the wise here: always stow away your big bills before getting out of the vehicle to engage in this sort of recreation. I always opt to pull out a few measly coins, pull out symmetrically empty pockets with the signature smirk (see reference 1 below), and if need-be mention the fact that we only use our tarjeta de Visa to make all our purchases. Therefore, no big money on hand, sorry buddy. His story was that the Aduana gave me the wrong Customs form for my vehicle, and looking at his watch, stated that they won’t be open for another hour and instead of going back to town the several kilometers, he’ll just give me my stamp and save me all the hassle. For that, I, surprisingly non-reluctantly this time, was happy to give him a few coins and be on my way. And for the first time in all of our VW Vanagon roadtripping career, I was told to slow down. Wow, Bolivia is going to be an amazing adventure of many firsts.
The road from Corumba to Santa Cruz is divided into two segments. The first being that of the other eternal distances of the Chaco and Pantanal nearby with fairly flat landscapes and low bush with narrow rives here and there, and then a small change towards a little bit hilly roads cutting through mesas and small mountains reminiscent of the Great American Southwest. Not without its share of tourist attractions, there is the Jesuit Missions Circuit as well as Aguas Calientes. We missed the latter, but some friends showed us pictures of sinking in quick sand waist deep with crystal clear warm water abound. We did catch one Jesuit Mission along the way and had some fantastic chicken empanadas in San Jose de Chiquitos. A lovely and peaceful town with fuel stations that would not bend to our many attempts at receiving cheaper gasoline than the nationally quoted foreigner price, which is about 235% higher.