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Voz III | Crossed Off The Map: Travels in Bolivia

Blending travel writing, history and reportage, Crossed off the Map journeys from the Andes to the Amazon to explore Bolivia’s turbulent past and contemporary challenges

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Blending travel writing, history and reportage, Crossed Off The Map journeys from the Andes to the Amazon to explore Bolivia’s turbulent past and contemporary challenges.

It tells the story of the country’s profound and unexpected influence on the wider world over the last 500 years – fragments of history largely forgotten beyond its borders. Once home to one of the wealthiest cities on Earth, Bolivia kickstarted globalisation, helped to power Europe’s economic growth and trigger dynastic collapse in China, and played host to everyone from Che Guevara to Butch Cassidy.

The book also explores how ordinary Bolivians in and around the world’s highest city, largest salt flat, richest silver mine and most biodiverse national park are coping with some of the touchstone issues of the 21st century: the climate emergency, populism, mass migration, indigenous rights, national identity, rapid urbanisation, and the ‘war on drugs’.

In its pages, award-winning journalist and travel writer Shafik Meghji illuminates the dramatic landscapes, distinct cultures and diverse peoples of a country that – in the words of one interviewee – ‘was the building block of the modern world, but is now lost in time’.

Here is a sneak peek from the book, to be published next month and available to pre-order now through our partners, Practical Action Publishing.

Voz brings our loyal subscribers a long-read article each quarter, conveying the experience and analysis of our partners: activists, journalists, artists and academics. We hope that their in-depth testimony and commentary will help broaden our understanding of Latin America, and through it, the world.


Prologue: Bolivia does not exist

In 1867, so the story goes, Mariano Melgarejo, the 15th president of Bolivia, asked the British ambassador to pay respects to his latest mistress. When the request was haughtily declined, Melgarejo, whose time in office was marked by brutality and political miscalculation, took great offence. The ambassador was swiftly apprehended, stripped naked, tied to an ass – facing the rear, naturally – and paraded around the main square of La Paz, before being kicked out of the country.

When news of the incident reached Queen Victoria, she angrily ordered the Royal Navy to bombard the Bolivian city. After being politely told that La Paz was located high in the Andes, 400 km from the Pacific coast, she called for a map of South America. When one was produced, Queen Victoria took it and crossed out the country’s name. Bolivia, she declared, does not exist.

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This apocryphal story is known as the ‘black legend’. It appears to have been first recounted in a book published in Chile, which has always had a fraught relationship with Bolivia, in the 1870s. There are several versions of this tall tale: in one the British ambassador is punished for refusing to talk to Melgarajo’s donkey; in another for declining a glass of chicha, a lightly alcoholic maize beer whose fermentation process traditionally involves human saliva. The date of the incident, identity of the protagonists, and nature of the dispute change from telling to telling.

But although the ‘black legend’ may not be true, it sometimes seems as if Bolivia really was crossed off the map. Despite being twice the size of France, sharing borders with Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Paraguay, and lying right in the heart of South America, Bolivia tends to be overshadowed by its neighbours. It rarely makes more than a fleeting appearance in the international media, and the coverage it does receive typically focuses on political scandals and environmental disasters.

Tourist numbers have more than doubled over the last decade. Before the Covid-19 pandemic around 1.2 million foreigners were visiting every year, including 100,000 from English-speaking countries. Bolivia is now a firm fixture on the ‘Gringo Trail’, the backpacking circuit around South America, but most travellers stick to a handful of destinations – the shimmering Uyuni salt flats, majestic Lake Titicaca, the beautifully preserved city of Sucre. Few venture much beyond the Andean region or have anything more than a passing knowledge of Bolivian history, which is perhaps not their fault given that, beyond academic titles, English-language books about the country are few and far between. Travel writers tend to hurry through Bolivia en route to somewhere else, and there has not been a major travelogue dedicated solely to the country in many years.

Yet this is only a recent phenomenon. Between the 16th and early 20th centuries, an array of conquistadors, colonialists, adventurers, missionaries, treasure hunters, revolutionaries, explorers, entrepreneurs, diplomats, soldiers, scientists, and bandits flocked to Bolivia from across the globe. They produced books, reports, letters and diaries containing stories that once read are impossible to get out of your head. For as improbable as it may seem to many beyond its borders, Bolivia helped to shape the modern world.

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La Paz, Bolivia. Shafik Meghjji
La Paz, Bolivia. Image: Shafik Meghji

I heard about the ‘black legend’ on my first visit to South America in 2004. At that point Bolivia wasn’t really on my radar: the plan was to head to Rio de Janeiro for carnaval, before flying to Peru and hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. But one hedonistic month in Brazil rolled into another and my funds ran perilously low. Flights to Peru were prohibitively expensive and I realised with some trepidation that the only option was an arduous 4,100-km journey across the continent on wheezing buses and trundling trains. At the time, Bolivia felt like an obstacle to me, a huge chunk of the map dividing central Brazil from southern Peru, and I resolved to travel through it as quickly as possible.

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But after crossing the border at the steamy town of Puerto Quijarro, my perspective swiftly began to change. A train, the Ferrobús, carried me west through the lakes, swamps, forests and seasonally flooded plains of the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands, home to anacondas, caimans, jaguars and hundreds of species of birds. A short way into the journey, a wiry man in his sixties leaned over to introduce himself. Services on this route, he told me, were once known as ‘Death Trains’, thanks to their transportation of yellow fever victims in the 1950s, several fatal derailments, and the alarming tendency of some inebriated passengers to clamber onto the carriage roofs before toppling off the sides. ‘But that’s all in the past,’ he said with a smile.

Fifteen hours later, after a broken night’s sleep, we pulled into the stiflingly hot city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. On my first morning in Bolivia, I encountered in quick succession straight-backed, dungaree-wearing Mennonites chatting in Low German, Bolivian-Japanese farmers shopping for tractor parts, campesinos carrying bundles that looked heavy enough to crush them, and tough youths in blacked-out 4x4s. In the main plaza I sat on a bench and watched a cacophonous band of protesters bang pots and pans outside the 19th-century cathedral, while a shaggy-haired sloth hung from the branches of a towering tree. Santa Cruz felt like nowhere else I had visited: I was hooked.

Over the following weeks I veered off course, travelling to the Andes and the Amazon via the world’s highest city, most dangerous road, and largest salt flat. I met so-called ‘witches’ in bowler hats and miners who toiled in near-medieval conditions and offered libations to statues of devilish figures. Locals told me about revolutionary movements, utopian societies built in the wilderness, ancient sites hidden away in the jungle, clocks that ran backwards, and pink river dolphins.

They also spoke about Bolivia’s interactions with its neighbours and the wider world – fragments of history largely forgotten beyond the country’s borders. I learned that Bolivia was once home to one of the richest cities on Earth, helped to kick-start the process of globalisation, irrevocably changed the fortunes of Europe and Asia, and played host to everyone from Che Guevara to Butch Cassidy, rubber barons to drug traffickers.

Time ran out and I reluctantly headed on to Peru. But Bolivia took hold of my imagination and has never quite let go. Back home in London, I searched in vain for a contemporary English-language book to give me a greater insight into this country of 12 million people. My fledgling career as a sports reporter suddenly felt rather tame and I started to write about travel for a living. I always planned to return to Bolivia, but circumstances intervened. My work took me to Kathmandu and Kampala, Easter Island and Estonia, Paris and Patagonia. I wrote guidebooks, articles and blog posts, and eventually moved from Brixton to Buenos Aires. But I never made it back to Bolivia.

Six and half years passed, disturbingly quickly, until I received a speculative email on a cold and rainy November morning in 2010. The author of The Rough Guide to Bolivia had just pulled out: would I be interested in co-authoring the next edition? I jumped at the chance.

***

Throughout the following decade, working on the guidebook allowed me to spend extended periods of time in Bolivia. I returned repeatedly and explored the country in far greater depth than would otherwise have been possible. Over the course of several editions, I travelled to virtually every region, in the process checking out hundreds of guesthouses, hostels and hotels, visiting innumerable national parks, museums, galleries and historic sites, eating dozens of plates of pique a lo macho, and losing many days of my life on buses, trains, planes, taxis and trucks. Moreover, I was able to spend time with countless Bolivians who were gracious enough to show me round, share their knowledge and experiences, and put up with a steady barrage of questions.

Concepción Cathedral, Chiquitos, eastern Bolivia
Concepción Cathedral, Chiquitos, eastern Bolivia. Image: Shafik Meghji

My research trips also coincided with a particularly dramatic period of the country’s history. Under the administration of Evo Morales, who in 2006 became Bolivia’s first indigenous president, the economy grew at unprecedented rates, millions were lifted out of extreme poverty, and great cultural changes rippled through society.

Gradually the idea for this book began to develop. The initial plan was to write a straight-forward travelogue about a culturally rich, geographically diverse country that had influenced the world in profound and unexpected ways over the past 500 years. But as I got to know Bolivia better I felt the urge to widen my focus.

It became increasingly clear that the country stands on the frontline of many of the touchstone issues of the 21st century. There was a populist president who overturned the established political order. The country has untapped reserves of a resource vital for global tech. Waves of mass migration have seen the movement of more than a quarter of the population. After centuries of oppression, indigenous Bolivians have started to gain greater political, economic and cultural power.

Ambitious development projects promise great riches, but threaten some of the most biodiverse places on Earth. The intensifying climate crisis has shrunk glaciers, caused major droughts and transformed Bolivia’s second-biggest lake into a dust-bowl. There was a contested election, political crisis and right-wing backlash. And that’s without mentioning the ‘war on drugs’, a burst of rapid urbanisation or the growth of an innovative new architectural movement.

In many ways, it felt as the future had already arrived in Bolivia, so I expanded the scope of the book. As well as exploring the country’s turbulent history, I wanted to provide a snapshot of some of the contemporary challenges it faces, while attempting to avoid the pitfalls and prejudices that too often characterise non-Bolivian – and particularly western – writing about the country. I also aimed to share the views, opinions and experiences of some of the Bolivians I have met over the years who rarely get a hearing in the English-language media (I’ve changed some of their names in the book for reasons of privacy or security). They showed me places I would otherwise have missed, were generous with their stories and expertise, patient with my incessant questions and note-taking, and forgiving of my misconceptions and misunderstandings. This book would not have been possible without them.

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Crossed Off The Map: Travels in Bolivia will be published on 15 March 2022. You can now pre-order your copy from Practical Action Publishing.

Monisha Crossed Off The Map Shafik Meghji