It’s the altitude, dude – on the road to Sucre

The constitutional and judicial capital of Bolivia, Sucre, is a small town of 200’000 people which boasts beautiful colonial buildings everywhere. The city’s name doesn’t refer to the sweet ingredient, but to the revolutionary leader Antonio Jose Sucre. He was one of Simón Bolívar’s closest friend, who was back the most important leader of Spanish America’s successful struggle for independence. Unsurprisingly, the city is full of history and consequently is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Downtown SucreBolivia has endured many political changes over time: Almost 200 governments changed hands in its 183 years as a republic. No wonder, the nation has the lowest GDP per capita in South America, although it has enormous natural resources.

Currently, the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, rules Bolivia in a controversial way – at least this is what I keep hearing as an outsider. Some Bolivians praise his background as a simple coca farmer and left-wing activist to be the good solution for sustainable economic growth. Others are jokingly telling that the country is going to develop backwards with his anti-privatization laws and confrontational foreign policy.

Particularly, the relations with the United States of America have politically suffered, since Evo Morales decided to suspend the US induced coca plant eradication program. Although this plant is being used abroad as a derivative (cocaine), it’s part of the Bolivian lifestyle and culture. Chewing coca leaves does reduce pain and increases alertness. It is therefore fairly common to see hard working people chewing coca anywhere in Bolivia. The raw leaves aren’t harmful nor addictive. They even contain a lot of calcium, iron and vitamins. Coca being a key farming product, Bolivia gets a lot of pressure from abroad, to ban coca plantations. All this keeps me quite curious about this nation’s future.

Downtown SucreComing from the towns of Uyuni and then Potosi, the road was mostly a bumpy dirt track. About 80 kilometers from Sucre, the road became a solid track, but very winding. The bus I traveled with, would climb steep passes, only to drive down the same level of altitude to cross the next valley. This constant up and down over high mountains takes toll on the total travel time. The trip between Potosi and Sucre (roughly 150 kilometers) takes more than three hours. In general, distances in Bolivia are nowhere near the big numbers encountered in Chile or Argentina. But because any travel within the country involves crossing numerous high-altitude mountains on desolate roads, the trip times are enormous. Buses would be comfortable, but they mostly lack the on-board toilet (which are common in the neighboring countries). Therefore, “pipi-stops” – such as I did encounter back in Laos – are common in Bolivia. And although the bus would sometimes stop at three o’clock in the morning on a remote farm land, I would want to wake up and go for a leak. Because I never knew, when the bus would stop next.

Downtown SucreDoing such important stuff in the middle of the night under a very starry sky, in an altitude-sickness induced grogginess, made me think about weird things. For example, I wondered about how many countries I theoretically still would need to visit, to be able to say that I visited ’em all. Wikipedia on my mobile phone came to my rescue and I frantically tried to absorb most research about this subject while there was GSM coverage (which is surprisingly good and cheap in Bolivia). But there is no easy answer to the task of defining the countries making up my potential list – because it is all about terminology: “Sovereign States” (the proper term) must meet a couple of conditions, such as having a permanent population, a defined territory, government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.

To complicate things, a number of sovereign states that meet the conditions are disputed, such as Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia or Taiwan. And then, there are the so-called “Micronations”, some of them that I have already visited (namely the Hutt River Province). These aren’t recognized states, but to me they are worthy enough to make it on my list, since they feature mostly interesting background stories. Among the more famous ones are “Sealand”, “Minerva” and the “Principality of Trinidad”. Writing down a list of all these countries to be visited (does the “European Union” actually count as such?) will be always an achievement of personal interpretation. Because such a list will always include or exclude certain nations for whatever reason.

Here I am with my important thoughts and decisions on an altitude of 4000 meters, freezing the appendix off while peeing in the dark into a pothole on the main highway connecting Sucre with Potosi. Am I going mental in Bolivia? Or is it just what the American gringo on the bus used to say: “It’s the altitude, dude”. We’ll only know, once I return to lower grounds.