Beloved and complicated Bolivia 1: Field Series by Macarena Cardenas

Following Amanda’s post about the hard reality of fieldwork, I wanted to share the beginning of my journey to Bolivia, which is happening right now. I am writing from a bus and using a tablet, so please be aware that this is far from a master piece.

A British scientist, an American GIS expert and I have all come to Bolivia to extract sediments from high elevation (~3000 – 4000m above sea level) lakes in Bolivia. That means bringing a large amount of equipment and of course, logistics and planning.

Oh dear airline. The first step shouldn’t be hard: leaving England to Bolivia. We arrived at Heathrow airport three hours in advance of our flights in order to make sure we had plenty of time to check everything in. We were flying with AA. When they saw us coming with the boxes of equipment they had a kind of “fried egg eyes” expression, and said to us ” a new embargo policy came out yesterday, you cannot fly with these boxes to tropical South America.” That was the beginning. No information was available when booking the flights, not even when Joe, the British colleague in charge, called the company to ask if we could fly with the boxes (“it’s fine, you just pay excess ” they said at that time). The other option, sending the boxes by cargo, meant (based on previous experience) the equipment would arrive by the time we needed to come back.

Disappointed and laughing - Joe and our equipment at the airport

Disappointed and laughing – Joe and our equipment at the airport

I love how we dealt with the situation, we didn’t give up, we stayed firm, remained open to ideas and kept smiling. We got to speak to the manager who was very helpful, and managed to change us onto two other flights.  Although that meant we had to wait for 10 more hours at the airport (and this involved lots of running around with the boxes between flights) we could still fly.

Old-new country. Our arrival in Bolivia was not easy either: Chris, our American colleague didn’t get his bag, and the equipment almost didn’t make it to the country because of customs. After waiting and dealing with this we got all of the luggage later on.

Do not judge on looks. Our next step was to hire a driver and his car to get both us, and our equipment, to a location 10 hours from the city. Considering that hire firms don’t use the Internet to publicise their services, there is nothing you can do before you get there. Fortunately we had Ulises with us, the most helpful local I have meet so far. We got to the terminal to hire a mini bus. Everyone seemed equally untrustworthy, with everyone offering different things. We decided to go with the one that seemed to have the largest office (which looked to me like an old workshop after a war had taken place).  They even gave us a receipt… Our instinct about their reliability had failed us though since they just took the money and then disappeared. After hours of chasing and waiting (with extremely valuable help from Ulises), we managed to get the money back, and also to get a real driver with a mini bus. (He is now driving us as I write, chewing enormous amounts of “green chicken”, aka coca leaves, that he takes from a little green bag at his right hand side, and which makes him look like a hamster).

Our brave and fantastic driver - Coca leaves in his hand and cheek

Our brave and fantastic driver – Coca leaves in his hand and cheek

It’s not the language that makes us different, at least not the only thing. During this trip I have confirmed that it doesn’t matter if you speak the same language (I have felt a little lost already, even though there isn’t even a difference in vocabulary). There are so many codes, and procedures we learn and follow even without realising it. That is beautiful, and we take it for granted. I like being aware of this, and enrich myself by learning about others.

In the main plaza of Santa Cruz - people, culture and heritage

In the main plaza of Santa Cruz – people, culture and heritage

We laugh anyway. My colleagues and I have been quite positive, and are really enjoying the experience. It’s great to know you don’t have to take decisions alone, and as it is said: three brains think better than one.

What I have learned so far:

● Use your smile and insist at the same time if you want to get something done (not very new really)

● Always check for “late changes in legal procedures” before traveling, especially for the not so legal

● Love locals and have one on your side if you can

● And, team work is so much fun, no matter the circumstances

I will hopefully be able to write more soon with news about the pretty hard hiking we will be doing into the mountains to get some samples.

 

The team, from left to right: Chris, Macarena and Joe

The team, from left to right: Chris, Macarena and Joe

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