Don’t flush the toilet paper! – Access to basic services in Bolivia

Moving to a new country is never easy, but it’s a lot easier if you have the “creature comforts” from your home country. It can be a big adjustment to go from living in downtown Toronto to living in a small room, full of cockroaches and ants, washing your clothes in cold water, by hand, in the dark! However, these adjustments have one positive thing about them – they are great learning lessons! They help you to understand what other people encounter on a daily basis in their lives in different countries. They make you grateful to what you took for granted back at home. Most of all, they’re a good character builder, and teach you a lot about being patient!  Thankfully, this is not the way I’m living here in Bolivia!

    

Left: Beautiful, precise landscaping in the parks and plazas of Sucre. Right: Eating hot chicken soup on a cold, rainy day.

Heating

When I first arrived in Bolivia, my biggest issue was heating.  I’m quite a small person, so I have the problem of always being cold no matter where I go.  I had similar issues in Nepal. Even on a tropical beach, once I go in the water I only last about 20 minutes until I’m freezing.  I guess I need more body fat… Anyway, none of the buildings in Bolivia have central heating.  If you have money, you can buy a small, electric space heater, but that’s about it.  The buildings also don’t have any insulation.  Most of the walls are made from about 2 feet of cement and nothing else. There are cracks in the walls, and gaps under the doors. Lots of building have broken windows, and many houses are not completely sealed off from the outdoors. For example, our house when we first moved here.  Our front entry was actually outdoors, and that opened up onto the kitchen, dining room, living room, and the stairs leading up to our bedroom.  Therefore, whatever temperature it was outside, it probably was inside as well.

  

Left: I always keep a jacket in my office for cold days, including in summer. Right: Electric heater and kettle from my office in Sucre.

The solution? Layer up!  In La Paz it was snowing when we arrived.  Although that happens only 2-3 times per year, it gives you some indication of the cool temperatures it can reach. Although it’s not -40 like a cold February day in Ottawa, it’s a lot different because there’s no real way to warm up other than drinking tea.  My office at work actually seems to be the coldest room in the building, but thankfully after the first day they managed to wrangle me up a heater and a kettle (for making tea). So far this has been sufficient, though I sometimes wear long johns and a coat to work.  Night is definitely the worst, but thankfully Steve is usually warmer than me.  In Sucre it’s actually quite warm during the day (can be about 25 degrees even in winter) but quite cold at night (about 3 degrees and I can see my breath on cold winter mornings).

  

Left: So much tea! I recommend coca tea if you’re still trying to adjust to the altitude. Right: Although the days can be warm, nights sometime require “fall outfits”, like cute boots, sweaters, or scarves.

Water

There is running water in all big cities in Bolivia. In fact, my house even has a washing machine – score! For the most part, the water never seems to run out, though I have heard of it being turned off during certain major strikes in the country – but that’s a very rare scenario.  However, twice since I’ve been here there has been issues with the water pipes coming into the city and the water was off for a few days.  There was also a big drought in Bolivia a few months ago, but it didn’t impact Sucre as badly as other cities. However, we have a big tank on our roof, which will store water when none is flowing, so that helps.  The locals do drink the tap water, but it is not advised for expats. Instead, there’s a number of different ways you can get drinking water.  You can buy large jugs for a water cooler in your house, you can buy water from the store as you need it (at the beginning we were buying 2L bottles every day or two since we didn’t have our own place yet – it’s about 6/7 bolivianos or about $1US for a bottle), or you can boil/filter your water to use (which is what we’re doing now, and what we did in Bangladesh as well).

 

Left: Our second bathroom.  You can’t actually use the shower because the washing machine is there (which drains used water into the toilet). Right: Last week in a nearby river. Locals often use various rivers to do laundry in the countryside.

In Bolivia (like a lot of other countries), the sewage and plumbing system is very old and not very strong.  Similar to my time in Greece, I’ve learned that you’re never supposed to flush toilet paper in the actual toilet.  Instead, each bathroom or stall has a small garbage can (similar to girl’s bathrooms in most countries) where you put all paper and other bathroom products.  Many a tourist has been known to forget to follow this rule, with embarrassing consequences (namely – backing up a toilet in someone’s house and not knowing what to do to resolve the situation).  Thankfully, I usually remember and now it has become routine.  There’s also no proper sewer system in the city streets, so when big storms roll in, the streets become a river of water!

  

Left: The thunderstorms here are INTENSE and often involve hail. Right: A bit difficult to see, but during a storm all the water flows down the street like a river, sometimes even high enough to go up onto the sidewalk.

My favourite part is that most houses even have hot water (fancy, eh?)! Not necessarily for washing or cooking, but definitely in the shower.  Instead of a normal shower head, all of the modern-style bathrooms I’ve seen have a large contraption on the ceiling in the middle of the bathtub.  This acts as a water heater and shower head combined into one.  Although it takes a bit of getting used to, if you know how to use it you won’t freeze your butt off.  Basically you have to let the water run for a few minutes before it fully heats up, and then turn it back down until it’s almost off, and then the water will be scalding.  Then you can turn it back up to your desired temperature/water pressure – keeping in mind that it’s usually a bit of a trade-off.  The less water you have coming out, the hotter the water will be.  There’s also always electrical wires sticking out about 2 cm from where the water comes out, but we all just try to ignore that and pretend we’re not worried about getting electrocuted…

 

Left: Our shower head… Right: These signs are everywhere in Bolivia – don’t put toilet paper in the toilets!

Electricity

When I lived in Ghana, the power would go out for 12 hours in a row, every 36 hours.  This made doing work on your laptop quite difficult.  When I moved to Nepal, there was actually less power – only about 11 hours every day.  However, there was a schedule for each area (with an app!) and the power was only ever out for about 4-5 hours at a time, which made charging electronics a lot more reasonable.  I haven’t encountered any of these problems since moving to Sucre.  We had one power outage for about an hour one morning – and we only realized because my phone was no longer charging.  The traffic lights in some areas are often out in the evening, but I think this is on purpose because of the minimal amount of traffic after a certain hour.

  

Left: Construction materials often block sidewalks (if there is even a sidewalk). Right: Electrical wires are often a jumbled mess, best to be avoided.

Construction

Construction in most “developing countries” is a bit chaotic. Perhaps there’s some sort of plan, but I can never really tell what it is. One day, there’s a road or a building there. The next day it’s totally torn up with giant holes in the road/wall and people throwing materials around.  I don’t mind this at all when it gets done quickly. However, when the materials sit around in the way for months on end it’s a bit annoying. For example, there will regularly be piles of bricks or scaffolding set up on the only side walk of a narrow street. People are then forced to either walk in front of cars or take another street to their destination.  Since houses here are built in the more European style (with large walls around houses and courtyards) instead of the North American ttyle (with houses in the middle of a lawn that’s accessible by all), there’s nowhere to put stuff but on the street.

  

Left: Random street construction (thankfully, only lasted a few days). Right: Men and women often have matching coloured uniforms, with the men having coveralls and the women having a dress version.

Landscaping + Keeping the City Clean

The landscaping in Sucre is immaculate! I mean, if you ever go to the central square, there is always a team of landscapers. The women use large palm leaves as brooms (they keep them in the tree branches for storage – so cool – and biodegradable – and free!).  Both men and women dig up flower beds, plant new flowers, trim hedges, water plants, and keep all the sidewalks clear of debris. It’s incredibly impressive.  Sometimes I wonder how many employees are hired for this by the city, since that’s not the only plaza or park in town.

  

Again you can see the matching outfits. Men often work in garbage trucks while women often work sweeping up debris from city streets. However, they both have sexy orange outfits!

Garbage

The way that garbage is handled in the city is quite different from other places. The first thing is that in the middle of the city, garbage is collected every day. You put your garbage out after dinner and it’s gone by morning. The only thing you must consider is where to put it. There are no lawns or driveways here, so people put it on the curb where dogs tear it apart. A better system is to hang it on a hook or windowsill outside your front door.  Even though it’s a “developing country”, Sucre is relatively clean.  Cleaning ladies in their orange dresses come around every day and sweep up all debris off the street. However, this is not the case in the country side. I believe there’s two reasons for this. The first reason is that there’s no garbage collection in the country side, so the options are either littering or burning.  The second reason is that up until about 50 years ago people in the countryside had been throwing everything on the ground. They were farmers and everything was biodegradable, so why not?  However, it seems that they have kept this practice while buying plastic goods, which isn’t ideal.  So, you can see that there’s a big discrepncancy between the city centre and the rural areas in Bolivia.

  

Left: What happens when the stray dogs get at the garbage bag you left on the curb…. Right: How garbage should be properly left out at night.

Overall, Sucre is a really easy place to live. It has a lot less things to adjust to than other “developing countries”.  It’s a moderate sized city with good access to services. Just watch out when you’re walking down the street – because the sidewalks leave something to be desired!

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About Amanda

Hi, I’m Amanda! Originally from Ottawa, Canada, I am currently living with my partner (Steve) in Sucre, Bolivia for the next year. I work in the unique space between industrial design and international development – but what does that even mean? I’m passionate about working WITH marginalized communities in a way that utilizes design to improve the lives of different types of people around the world. I have worked, studied, traveled, and researched on every continent (except Antarctica), and most recently I lived in Ghana, Bangladesh and Nepal. I love exploring new cultures and learning more about myself along the way.
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