I’d always desperately craved to have perspective: to see the whole picture and understand it. But I was equally terrified to gain a broader view of the world.
Oh wow, did Bolivia give me perspective: it pried open my tunnel vision, delivering some harsh truths about myself along the way, and scared me half to death with the awe-inspiring potentialities within my life.
It taught with a gentle but firm hand to believe in the miraculousness of life, and its many opportunities for change and healing.
Lesson #1: Slow Down.. and Breathe
The city of La Paz sits at around 3,800 meters above sea level. That’s really high up.
It’s so high up that the sudden winds brought to my mind the tormented thoughts about my past: horrific break ups, the opportunities missed, and my future: what was I going to do when I got back home? But all that came second to, wait for it… breathing. Yes, breathing.
Not what I was going to have for lunch, not whether to watch an episode of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, not whether I’d wash my hair today, or tomorrow. Just. Breathing. Can you remember the last time when breathing was the sole focus in your mind?
The pace of Bolivia had slowed me right down. It was all around: people took their time, strolled instead of stormed, stood quietly and observed instead of staring through the glaze of a daydream, or head down, nose stuck into a smart phone.
When I found myself drifting off into aimless thought, Bolivia prodded me back to reality in a shortness of breath, and I regained focus on my own internal state, and appreciated real life unfolding around me.
Sometimes this created a sense of difficulty and panic within, but on reflection, at that time in my life I felt like I needed such a drastic shift back to peace and simplicity, and I was grateful that Bolivia threw me in at the deep end and took me back to the fundamentals.
Lesson #2: Let Go, Enjoy the Process of Becoming
We left La Paz and headed to the little advertised Toro Toro National Park, home to dinosaur tracks, showing up thump thump thump into dried volcanic rock.
It made me feel very small, and awed to be standing there, living and breathing millions of years later to witness these prehistoric footprints continuing to resound in time.
My best friend – and travel buddy – Anita and I headed to the only local eatery that was open the evening after our exploration of the Park. The restaurant was a cross between a small convenience store, a diner, and someone’s living room. A 14” box TV affixed to the wall came in and out of signal, a few dogs lay scattered about on the concrete floor, plates squeaked across red and white plastic tablecloths as a few locals relaxed and tucked into their evening meal.
A storm was brewing outside, and rain started to hit the tin roof. The food was salty, the air stuffy, there was a growing sense of agitation among us. Thunder struck and lighting flashed, soon with almost no gap between the two. Humidity and electricity was in the air, the lights cut out, the TV screen turned to white noise.
Within minutes we were giggling, and then hysterical with laughter. The restaurant-goers smiled, and sat on the edge of their seats, then joined in. Though none of us knew the other, or could speak well to the other, there was a connection in that little tin room, an energy that was alive, vulnerable and ran hot through the air, and between all of us.
At the point the thunder and lighting were indistinctly one, Anita and I reached tipping point. We both ran out into empty streets and the pouring rain, laughing, and screaming and delighting in the whole experience. A torrent ran down the gullies, and we continued to run, and laugh, and cry together unheard in the deafening rain.
In that moment, we had let go. The history of the place, the heartbreaking scenery we’d witnessed, the energy we’d felt, the pain we’d known, how our lives seemed both trivial and grand all in one, and the world is both larger than us, and nothing more than we already held within us.
Our lives were perfect it that moment, just as they always had been. At that point, we had surrendered, and it was the turning point on our journey. We stopped running away, or toward, and just existed in the chaos.
Lesson #3: Gratitude
A great peace lay within us as we left Toro Toro the next day at dawn.
Low clouds rolled gently over the hills and before we knew it the road opened up ahead of us and the morning haze had evaporated. Outside the sky was a bright blue, and the scenery was a palette of warm earthy colours fading off into the haze of the distant mountains: clay reds and browns, mustard yellow grass, forest green bushes, brown muddy quagmires.
It was a jaw dropping sight that humbled us even further as we started to collect passengers, creating a bus stop in this remote location merely by their presence on the road.
This was their home. It was their view to see each and every day. I felt privileged to be able to catch even a short glimpse of it, and share in their daily commute. Yes, I had spent only a few days of many in this beautiful, fiery wilderness, but I was leaving with my eyes wide open.
I had chosen to truly look at this landscape and people, when I could just as easily have closed my eyes to it. The departure from Toro Toro taught me an important lesson about the choice to be aware and grateful. I thought, “imagine if I chose to look at every morning the way I have witnessed this morning?”
It is an outlook that that I strived for throughout the remainder of my travels in Bolivia, and beyond.
Lesson #4: Be Open to Miracles – The Art of Manifestation
Some weeks later with another two travelers we had met, we were on the trail of the final footsteps of the Argentine Marxist Revolutionary Che Guevara.
After a couple of days on the road, we arrived at the small town of Vallegrande. We wanted to continue somehow to La Higuera, the place of Che Guevara’s execution, but no one was willing to venture that far into the heart of Bolivia, and certainly not explore it.
We hadn’t seen a tourist for days, and were feeling quite deflated that this may be the end of our adventure, but still believed that there was still time for an unexpected opportunity to cross our path.
Over lunch at a restaurant far above Vallegrande, we noticed a “Gringo” on the far side of the restaurant with a woman who turned out to be his girlfriend, and as it was unusual to see anyone who was not a local this far off the beaten track we ended up in conversation.
His name was David from France. He just so happened to be living in and running a guest house in La Higuera, and was heading back there that afternoon, and he could take us with him to start a 3-day tour of Che Guevara’s very last guerrilla encampment in the Bolivian Yuro ravine.
It was ridiculous! It was beyond coincidence. All four of us had been patient, and held a confidence that we would manifest a circumstance that would make our desire for this epic journey in Che’s footsteps a reality.
For manifestation has its foundation in the idea of fields force and energy, rather than hocus pocus magic. Manifestation is an art of realising inherent potential in our existence; it leaves room for the spontaneous, the unexpected, and the inspired.
We had willingly extended ourselves further from the trodden path, trusted and followed our gut, and gone with the flow inherent in the energy of the events around us.
In the following days we trekked through the Bolivian wilderness, slept in hammocks under the stars, sung by campfire, bathed in the Amazon river, climbed waterfalls, smoked Cuban cigars in the guerrilla’s old campsites, listened to stories of love, passion, and betrayal and finally solidified a connection with friends for life.
Lesson #5: Challenge Yourself
In all that I approached in Bolivia, I sat just a little beyond my comfort zone.
Communicating in Spanish, trying new and unexpected adventures, waking up earlier than I would ordinarily like, hiking that bit further than my body wanted, getting closer to nature than I had ever been before.
Bolivia tested the limits of my body’s endurance, and my mind’s capacity for openness and challenge.
I realized that what I had feared most of all was the limits I had placed upon myself in life. I created them, and so, I could choose to step beyond them. I wouldn’t break anything – my own spirit included, and the world would continue to spin.
Bolivia is a country that seems completely oblivious to its beauty, and so it holds no vanity, and makes no apologies.
It is a country that wants to extend itself for you, to teach you a new way of thinking that had previously sat beyond your perception. It makes you feel like laziness is not an option because the joy of exploration is built into its very fabric.
It allows you to sit separate from it, to form and nurture your own individuality, but it takes great pleasure in being by your side on your own journey.
If Bolivia were a person, it would love you deeply. By extension you it assumes that you would do no less than love yourself. And so you do.
Bolivia believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.
Thank you Bolivia, you were my journey from lost to found.
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Photo: Jennifer Francis