August 13, 2009
In Sucre, tucked into beautiful buildings are often even more beautiful courtyards. In my search for breakfast, enticed by a sign advertising salteñas, I walked through a lobby into a flowery hidden oasis, pulsating with energy and happiness. Salteñas, somewhat similar to empanadas, are a typical mid-morning snack for Bolivians. I’d arrived during the rush. Large groups of college students sat at tables joking and laughing. At other tables were families of three generations engaged in jovial conversations. While the salteña resembles an empanada, the first bite will show you that it is not. As I bit into mine, hot juice from the pastry dribbled down my chin and onto my shirt. I looked around sheepishly to see if anyone else had this problem. Everyone else was eating their salteñas gracefully with skills acquired over time.
After breakfast, I found a bank with a Western Union near my hostel. I went right up to the counter where the teller was incredibly friendly and took complete care of resolving my monetary issues. While he was in the process, I turned around and saw that there was an extremely long line. Had I cut in front of everyone?! Or was the Western Union teller separate? But there were no angry glares from the people waiting and the transaction was quick. I had enough money to make it through the rest of my trip. My backpack was still heavy, but I was no longer carrying the extra burden of worry.
After purchasing a ticket for Samaipata the next day, I headed up a hill to a wonderful lookout point called La Recoleta. There, I could see the entire city and mountains that surround them. Below whitewashed arches covered with graffiti was a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating and a view.
The restaurant was overrun with people speaking with an accent I hadn’t heard in awhile. Americans! It’s funny how jarring your own accent can sound when it suddenly returns to your ears en masse. Besides a couple I talked to briefly on the bus the previous day, I hadn’t met any Americans since I’d crossed the border into Bolivia two weeks before. Experiencing a bit of culture shock, I took a seat away from the group to peacefully enjoy my lunch and the gorgeous city below.
I went to the Museum and Textiles and Ethnography, which was indeed “not boring” as the travel agent I’d bought the bus ticket earlier from had described. After seeing all of the textiles, I was delighted when I walked into a room full of Bolivian music and festival history. Andean music is melancholy with subtle undertones of joy. It is incredibly well-suited for the land. I sat at a listening station and heard songs that sent sound-waves of elation through me. The voices were uninhibited and often out of tune. People sung with the kind of abandon reserved for those whose minds haven’t been filled with ideas of what music should be. As a vocalist with perhaps too much classical music education, I reveled in these passionate voices.
I thought back to the sadness I’d felt when driving through remote villages in the cold desert. Life is undoubtedly hard in those environments, but perhaps music, color, and frequent celebration bring a little beauty to such places.
In the early evening, I reunited with the French group I was staying with. We went up to the roof of the hostel to watch the sunset over the city. They shared both my love at first sight with Sucre and my surprise at how how few tourists there were in the city. Maybe people don’t go there because there is not much to “do” there, it’s more of a place to just be. Many backpackers stay on the path that takes you straight up and down western Bolivia that will lead you in and out of Peru or Chile. But if you’re willing to deal with crappy transportation, Bolivia has much more to offer.
The next morning, after seeing yet another daily Bolivian Independence Day parade, I found a market near the hostel with help from my French companions. A courtyard full of fruit! Fresh produce had been hard to come by in high altitude Bolivia, an inhospitable environment for most plants. But Sucre, at a lower elevation, is where a transition to a warmer, more tropical climate begins. I wanted pineapple and strawberries and passion fruit, but bought several oranges and apples, the most practical option for the long drive to Samaipata.
Before meeting up with the French group to head over to the bus station, I had a late lunch in a restaurant overlooking Sucre’s main square. The square was like a condensed version of Sucre, aesthetically pleasing, joyful and full of life. The places I love most on my travels are not the ones full of sights and monuments; they are the ones full of character and wonderful people. Sucre has maintained an old-fashioned sense of human interaction while clearly looking forward. The city and its people radiate warmth and beauty. I’d wanted to reclaim the joy that had been lost over the previous few days of my journey, and in Sucre, I found it again.