Use The Force, Gringo


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, January 28, 2004 was originally posted on February 01, 2004.

DAY 102:  Lonely Planet’s South America On A Shoestring, which covers all the countries in South America in an abridged form, is a brick, weighing maybe two pounds.  Lugging it around had become a burden for me — I already had the burden of lugging around cameras and electronics — and so early in my trip I took the suggestion of many travel gurus out there:  rip out the sections that you need, as needed.  At first I hated the notion of ripping out pages in my neatly bound book, but after the first rip, there was no stopping me — it was just easier.  Ripping was a great idea as I could just fold 3-4 pages conveniently into my pocket, but it wasn’t such a good idea when I lost the pages I needed:  the section about taking the train from Santa Cruz, Bolivia through the small tropical highland towns to the Brazilian border.

SOME PEOPLE TREAT THE LONELY PLANET BOOK as a bible, calling it “The Book” or even “The Holy Planet.”  Others, like my recurring traveling partner Lara, call it “The Lying Planet,” as most of the information is outdated and wrong.  Many people I’ve met on the backpacker trail have what Heidi (from my New Year’s trek) called “a love/hate relationship with Lonely Planet.”  On the one hand, you hate that their writers influence the opinions and the routes of the majority of backpackers.  On the other hand, you realize that as much as you hate it, you are dependant on it for places to see and places to stay on a somewhat limited time frame. 

Zolly the Hungarian told me a story about a girl he met in Mexico.  She too had a love/hate relationship with her guidebook, but one day decided to put it away.  She compared it to the scene in the original Star Wars (Episode IV) when Luke Skywalker put away his targeting computer in the trench of the Death Star, only to rely on his instincts and The Force.  “I’m ready.  I can do without it now,” she said according to Zolly.

With my pages missing from my pocket — I must have misplaced it in an internet cafe or a bar — I was forced to use The Force.  Luckily I remembered a little bit from what I had skimmed from the section I needed and went off to the Santa Cruz bus/train station at eight in the morning when tickets went on sale for travels that day.  Zolly tagged along and got a bus ticket to Sucre, while I waited on the long line for the railway.

Originally I remembered reading in “The Holy Planet” that it was possible to get a ticket to ride in a freight boxcar like a hobo — something I wanted to try for the sake of the experience — but apparently things had changed since the guidebook edition had been written.  (Yet another reason why I’d agree with Lara and call it “The Lying Planet.”)  I saw no option of a freight car and security to the tracks was too tight that you couldn’t sneak onto one.  I took the closest option to riding the rails like a hobo — a second class ticket in a passenger car, the cheapest option available.  I purchased a ticket to San Jose de Chiquitos, a small town about halfway to the border to break the long journey in two — I figured that perhaps I could get a boxcar from there.

I BID ZOLLY GOODBYE and just wandered around the big modern train station for most of the day, waiting for my 4 p.m. train.  I left my luggage in storage and wandered to an internet cafe across the street, and then had lunch at one of the many broiled chicken places nearby.  The restaurant was run by Chinese people and on a big screen television in the corner, someone had put on Bruce Lee’s 1973 classic Enter the Dragon.  Bruce reiterated the theme of the day — me without my guidebook — when he told a martial arts student, “Don’t think.  Feel.”

I FELT MY WAY BACK TO THE TRAIN STATION in time to get on the long security line to the train tracks.  Once on the platform, a cop noticed me and my big gringo backpack and stopped me for questioning like a Stormtrooper in Star Wars

“[What’s in the bag?]”

“[Only my clothes.]”

“[Where are you going?]”

“[San Jose.]”

“[Why?  Are you a volunteer?]” she asked.  San Jose was one of the several Jesuit mission towns in eastern Bolivia.

“[No, just a tourist.]”

My papers checked out, but she led me to an immigration officer nearby.  My papers were still in order and they let me on my way — I didn’t even have to use a Jedi mind trick.

SEEING CAUCASIAN-LOOKING MEN in overalls and straw hats — or Caucasian-looking women in long patterned dresses and straw hats — was an occasional, but not rare, occurrence at the train station.  The Jesuits of eastern Bolivia were apparently a widely-accepted minority, living in communities similar to the Amish in Pennsylvania, U.S.A.  Three of them boarded my second-class car en route to the mission town and sat diagonally from me across the aisle.  To the right of me was a talkative Bolivian woman who started a conversation with me after noticing my big gringo backpack.

“[You are a gringo.]”


“[Where are you from?]”

“[New York.]”

“[Right, you’re a gringo.]”

She asked me if I knew what a certain word meant, and when I told her I didn’t, she and other nearby woman just laughed.  “[See, he’s a gringo.]”

Carmeña (that was her name) continued to talk to me in a patronizing way, me the only gringo on board — the Whiteman Jesuit on board that looked a bit like actor Sam Watterson was fluent in Spanish and didn’t get hassled the way I was.  I entertained her with my less-than-stellar Spanish anyway to pass the time. 

“[How come you aren’t in Pullman class?]” she asked me, referring to the class above first class.

“[It’s expensive.]”

“[Not for you; you’re a gringo,]” she said.  Suddenly I recalled Zolly the Hungarian’s argument about our taxi fare from Samaipata to Santa Cruz — “expensive” should always be relative to the native environment, not the environment back home.

I hated how Carmeña always addressed me as “gringo” — not that it would normally bother me, but every time she said it, my “cover” was blown and another man’s head would turn to me conspicuously.  I made sure the sweater I had tied around my waist covered all my pocket entrances as the day got darker.

Dozens of vendors when back and forth the car aisle selling everything from flashlights to the indigenous chicha drink to broiled chicken.  Carmeña bought a bag of salty, donut-shaped crackers and shared one with me. 

“[Eat, gringo.]”

She started to leave me alone when she tried to talk to the young blonde Jesuit girl across from her, who didn’t understand anything.  “[Now she doesn’t understand any Spanish,]” Carmeña told me.

THE CRAMPED, HUMID TRAIN RIDE ON THE FERROVIARIA ORIENTAL through the tropical highlands lasted only about six and a half hours, although it seemed a lot longer.  Carmeña wasn’t all patronization during that time — she tipped me on a place to stay and told me about things to see in town. 

“[I lost my guidebook.  What is there in San Jose?]” I asked her.

“[Nothing.  People.  The church.]”

Upon arrival in San Jose de Chiquitos I saw that she was right; there wasn’t much to the town at all — although it was nighttime and I couldn’t tell for sure, just like every other time I arrived in a new town at night.  I got a taxi to the main plaza and found the hostel Carmeña had spoken about, where I checked into a single bed room without a private bathroom but with a feature more important:  a fan.

As I dined on my ration of a can of sardines and a pack of Oreos alone in my room, I was content that I had arrived in a town way off the backpacker trail without the Lonely Planet pages in my pocket.  As Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “The Force will be with you, always” — although I don’t think Luke Skywalker was ever made fun of for being a gringo.

Next entry: Random Thoughts While Waiting and Walking

Previous entry: Money Matters in the Mountains

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

Comments for “Use The Force, Gringo”

  • So are you trying to get “Oreos” a sponsor??

    Don’t look. Feel.  It’s like a finger rising to the move.  (slap) Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all the heavenly glory…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/01  at  12:22 AM

  • I know eh??  I’ve never heard of anyone who loves Oreos so much…

    I must be a travel “Pad’wan” because I can’t take a step without consulting “The Book.”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/01  at  04:43 AM

  • wow, you do love your oreos. too bad you don’t have a permanent address, otherwise i can send some of these double stuffed oreos i dipped in chocolate to you. those are even better. though it’ll probably kill you with all the trans-fat and stuff.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/01  at  02:41 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Random Thoughts While Waiting and Walking

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Money Matters in the Mountains


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