Advice is like bitter medicine. Even if it's good for us, we don't want to receive it. In all likelihood, if advice were a medicine, it would be a suppository. When traveling and beset by other travelers, I clench particularly tightly. How much trustworthy advice can you expect from a person with only a passing knowledge of where they've been? Certainly, it can make a remarkable difference by the time you find yourself there days or months later. But alongside a grain of salt, a fellow traveller's advice is still worth taking, even if it turns out to be a placebo, a worthless sugar pill of knowledge that only fooled you into thinking something. If nothing else, it acts as a reminder to keep a healthy observance.
When I encountered northbound travellers while motorcycling in South America, those who drove indicated that gasoline was impossible to come by in Bolivia. It wasn't that it was scarce. It was there, just not equally for everyone. There seemed to be little discrepancy in the advice—anyone driving a vehicle registered to an extranjero (foreigner), could expect to pay two to three times the regular price for fuel, if they were serviced at all. The filling of jerry cans was meant to be illegal. The phrase no hay gasolina (there is no gasoline), passed from the lips of station attendants and was spread to motorcyclists from Buenos Aires to Bogota. "It's the land of no hay," one rider told me before I went. "Even if there were something to get, you wouldn't find anyone that'd help you get it. Most indifferent place I've ever been."
This kind of indifference can seem like an affront to the traveler, particularly those astride a motorcycle. A motorcycle is a decidedly conspicuous way to travel, and even the most disillusioned riders can become accustomed to the fervour of passersby and the interested crowds that gather around their machine. Being ignored, although a gift to those who wish to gaze into a culture unperturbed, can seem like an insult.
Impervious to this, and the issue of gasoline availability, were some of the faster riders, especially the Yukon-to-Tierra-del-Fuego-and-back-in-six-weeks types. Typically, they had nothing to say—they were hardly in any country long enough to notice local discrepancies and anyway, their 1500 mile range fuel tanks rarely warranted the need for checking in at backwater pumps.
Several theories for the fuel regulations were floated. Conspiracies involving embargos or corruption were common. A disdain for foreign travellers was another, and one of the more entertaining reasons. In a country where the exchange rate reduces most necessities to pennies, why not charge a little extra? There were tales of fuel thieves and the harsh punishments that befell them, and conflicting reports that either rural or urban stations were better. Occasionally and fortuitously, a traveling policy wonk would interject and note that Bolivian fuel was subsidized by the government but only for Bolivian nationals, didn't we know?
Still, the chatter over fuel made me slightly nervous. I knew from the highlands of Peru that Andean fuel stations could be hard to come by. With my '80 XJ650 only making 125 miles to the tank with a tailwind, I'd often come close to running dry.
The crossing into Bolivia at Desaguadero, unlike so many borders since Canada, was memorable only for being unmemorable. Despite sitting on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the town was parched, a droughty ghost town. Like the excavation its name implies (in Spanish, desaguadero means to sluff off excess water), the town appeared bereft. Besides the cryptid presence of an efficient, smiling border guard (when had I ever encountered one of those?) and a few stooped women clawing at the ground with wicker brooms, there was no one about. Where were the loiterers, the money changers, the hang-abouts? It was less a town than a cold, flattened outpost on the altiplano. It was late morning and the high number of squat, boarded-up buildings added to the chilly air of abandonment. After unsuccessfully withdrawing cash from the town's ATM, I turned the last of my Peruvian soles into Bolivianos, bought a tasteless, dusty meal of fried meat and rice and, not wanting to linger, rode into the country.
The road unfurled peaceably toward La Paz, winding purposefully past fields of crouched men and women. Bundled in thick woolen sweaters, the women in bowler hats, their dresses like upended tulips, they looked ancient. Hacking at trapezoidal flaxen crops with hand scythes, they stacked the bound sheaves in pyramidal stooks, a sight so antiquated they would have caused my father to reminisce.
It wasn't long before I needed fuel. I had twenty-five Bolivianos, enough, I hoped, for an accommodating amount. I pulled into the first station I came to. Sidling up to the pump, I remembered the medicinal no hay warnings I'd swallowed. I made the gamble that, by keeping my helmet on, I could pull a fast one.
"Twenty-five Bolivianos worth," I said to the attendant. She was fresh-faced and young but hadn't been born yesterday.
After a quick glance around my bike, she shook her head. "Extranjero," she said. "No hay gasolina."
I looked around. There was nothing but windswept, cookie-crumb emptiness. It was not a place I envisioned myself staying. I adopted a beseeching character and cited my non-existent desire to reach La Paz. When that failed, I appealed to her nationalism and mentioned fictitious Mennonite relatives living in the religious communities of Cochabamba. She only shook her head and pointed to a camera in the corner of the roof covering the pumps.
"Camera," she whispered. The trepidation in her voice told me there was no use in asking again. I rode on timidly, feathering everything, trying to conserve every ounce of remaining petrol until I nudged into the next station, shuddering with fuel starvation. The pumps were so similar, I wondered if I had somehow doubled back and returned to the fresh-faced young woman. But this fuel attendant had none of her contemporary's hesitation. Before I could ready my imploring speech, she had unlatched the nozzle and was in a position to pump. No questions, no eyeing my number plate, no no hay. I hurriedly unlocked my fuel tank, stammering "Only twenty-five worth!" With the satisfying tick of the pump as background, I scribbled in my notebook. Moments later, I looked up and realized in horror the price of the tank was nearing fifty Bolivianos.
"Stop!" I cried. The women smiled confusingly and continued to pump while the numbers ticked up to eighty. Exasperated and worried, I dug out my wallet and took out the few notes I had. "I've only twenty-five," I said, holding up the tattered bills. I opened the wallet for effect, showing its empty folds. The attendant looked confused, then a familiar flash of fear shadowed her face. I thought of cameras, the laws that punish fuel thieves. Not knowing what to do, I thrust the notes into her hand, mumbled an apology and sped off.
It was some miles later, still burning with the thrill of escape, I saw the police. They came into view too late and I was pulled over. The charge was speeding (fifty miles per hour in an urban zone), the fine two-hundred Bolivianos or approximately fifteen pounds. Not that it mattered—I still had no money. I told the policeman as much. He repeated this to his three partners who lounged against the hood of an SUV, and whose laugh suggested they had heard that particular phrase from every rich gringo who burned rubber through their speed trap. I laughed too, brought out my wallet and displayed its empty folds as I'd done at the petrol station, then stood up and turned out my moneyless pockets, the international symbol for 'what the hell do you want now?' The officer gave another little laugh and called his partners over. After some miming and back-slapping, the charge appeared to be dropped and I trundled on toward La Paz, scot-free. No penalty, no hay castigo.
Like most American countries, the foreign mistreatment of Bolivia's resources and people is older than the country itself. Landscapes that were once considered natural barriers to invasion—craggy snowcapped mountains, thick and humid jungle and wide, arid salt plains—have in Bolivia provided the means for foreign exploitation. The Amazon is continually felled to make way for fields of soybeans, cotton, and sugarcane. Foreign demand for a better battery and electric cars has spurred on plans to dredge more lithium from the Salar de Uyuni salt flat. Historically, Potosí's Cerro Rico, or rich hill, provided colonial Spain with its glut of silver, while Bolivia provided much of the raw labour in the form of acémilas humasnasto, or human mules, who excavated and processed the mineral before the Spaniards loaded it onto their treasure fleets. The mining continues to the present day, as does a queer sort of new-age exploitation—for a pittance, tour operators take tourists down into the working mines where they can buy coca for exhausted, soot-stained miners before detonating their own stick of dynamite.
A tendency toward signing away mineral rights and resource access to foreign firms in favour of short-lived gains has resulted in a centuries-long boom and bust national economy that hasn't slowed foreign interest in Bolivia's assets. Despite the constant extracting, felling and refining of its natural resources, Bolivia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with 40 percent of the population living in poverty. Through his Movement Toward Socialism President Evo Morales has tried to reverse the effects of, as he says, "Five-hundred years of suffering," but it is an uphill battle. The primary building block of reestablishing the country's economy was to renationalize as many companies as possible. So it was that Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), the company responsible for all aspects of oil and natural gas production, came under state ownership and began imposing levees on foreign drivers who crossed into Bolivia from Peru, Argentina and others, to take advantage of cheap rates. It was the new, public-minded Bolivia, quietly but adamantly asserting its rights in a bid to make up for lost time.
For days after my roadside encounter with the police, I wondered if it was those special Bolivian qualities – friendly without being assertive, observant without being smothering, kind without expectation, which had made for their history of abuse. There was national pride, certainly – they had a varied history of starting wars and stringing up the odd president, but, just as I'd been warned, the people radiated an air of indifference. I began to worry that, if I needed help, I'd be on my own. Could it also be no help—no hay ayuda?
Blocking my complete sympathy for their economic philosophy were the fuel station attendants and their continual refusals to sell me gasoline. I wanted badly to believe in their right to charge the white man whatever they pleased, but slowly I began to suspect that fueling stations were where Bolivia's sadists sought employment. Security cameras and police kept tight vigils on petrol stations and a surprisingly un-Latin American attention was paid to paperwork.
"Try the next place down the road," was their go-to turn of phrase, as was "No hay gasolina," which they exclaimed while pumping fifty gallons of premium 95 into a lorry.
No matter that I was finally flush with cash. That my wallet bulged with multicoloured Bolivianos made no difference. "Charge me whatever you damn well please, just fill me up!" I cried to no avail.
Thus turned away, I set out on the road from Potosí to Uyuni, a stretch of some 130 miles. There was no question of whether I'd make it. I set out with only a half tank from Potosí and the unusable instructions to "try the next place down the road"—according to my map, the next place was Uyuni. I went off anyway, too frustrated and proud to beg for fuel any longer.
Fifteen miles later I was descending into a wide valley on fumes. Rising up like a sculpted spoon's edge were barren orange and purple mountains. Across the valley, the thin ribbon of road rose up and zagged through a hidden pass. I knew I wouldn't have the fuel to make it that far, much less beyond the valley. But then, I spotted something. Camouflaged against the taupe moonscape of the valley floor was a grid of buildings. I felt elated, then, as I approached, crushed when I realized most of the buildings were a mess of crumbling mudbrick and caved in thatch work. I pulled in anyway, thinking I could catch a ride somewhere or, failing that, move into one of the houses.
Of all the buildings on the central plaza, only one had an open window, the top of a split level Dutch door, beside which hung a grey chalkboard. Scribbled in a weak hand were the words No Hay. Something had been written underneath, then erased. No hay nada seemed to be the message. Looking into the darkness beyond the window, I could see the walls lined with empty shelving. When I knocked on the wooden door and called into the room, a small, pants-less child ran out from somewhere. Immediately behind him came a woman who scooped him up and held him protectively against her. She stood beyond the room and was bathed in light. Her clothes and face were dark brown, her crow black hair pulled back tightly into a long braid.
"Hello?" I said, adding hopefully, "gasolina?"
She shook her head and disappeared beyond my sight. I waited a moment, then returned to the motorcycle and sat on the pavement in the cold air and sunshine.
I was completely unsure of what to do. The road was quiet, the town was empty. No one had appeared at the loud sound of my motorcycle. I wondered if they had hidden, instead. I threw a few stones, trying to delay my decision. I was miles from anywhere, in a dusty town that wasn't even on the map.
Then, pushing her way through the door was the woman. She carried a gallon jug of petrol, a plastic funnel and a pair of pantyhose. Wordlessly, she placed them beside me then shuffled back into the store. I sat stupefied for a moment, then filled my tank, pouring the petrol through the pantyhose. Afterwards, I placed the items inside and called for the woman. There was no answer, no sound at all. Without complaint, without question, this Bolivian altruist had provided then sunk into obscurity.
Travellers sometimes forget that countries are for living, not visiting. Forget the bitter medicine, the illness was only skin deep. Underneath the Bolivian's superficial indifference lay a strong compassion for those in need. While those who demanded may find none, others who waited would find help even in the unlikeliest of places.
It was only a gallon of fuel, but it made all the difference. I tucked a wodge of notes under the jug. I knew I'd run into trouble again, but there was no doubt in my mind that I would find help. No question, no hay pregunta.