Hello friend! I surely hope you’ve been better than me.
Oruro is a god-awful, no-good lousy town. I make up my mind as soon as I jump out of the bus and the poignant smell of piss and trash hit me, a cocktail so typical to third-world towns and bus stations but which I have so far successfully avoided in Bolivia. It’s close to midnight, my mouth hurts and I’m alone in a new city that looks like a suburb to a violent Wild West village. I stomp past a woman yelling for passengers to the bus to Cochabamba, my next destination, and I long to jump on it and leave behind the empty, dark streets of this useless town, but I’m in need of a nice sleep and a thorough toothbrushing session even more, so I trudge along.
The hostel isn’t far, just some four blocks of walking. I keep my eyes open for shady characters and tense up a bit as I see a silhouette of a man emerging from one of the side streets, walking towards me, but as he passes me, I notice he is indeed a she and a fellow backpacker nevertheless. To be honest, although the streets are devoid of all life except for some stray dogs going through roadside thrash, I don’t feel threatened. I might be living in a post-Brazil safety bubble, but so far Bolivia has felt like an incredibly safe country to backpack on my own. As far as travel safety goes, I believe some lousy pickpockets do make their rounds in the busier cities, but I don’t feel like I need to hang on to my phone tooth and nail here.
After a few knocks on the door, a sleepy Bolivian guy opens the door and hands me the key to my room. My thoughts are so focused on the pain on my gums that I will not later even remember his face (although, some who know me might add, facial recognition skills are rarely my strong suit anyway). I’ve booked a private – a luxury that any backpacker who’s been on the road long enough can appreciate fiercely. Great thing it is, too, since I doubt I would be able to have a meaningful conversation with anyone right now.
My gums have been aching since Friday, and now it is Monday evening and the pain is driving me close to tears. With the help of WebMD, I have self-diagnosed gingivitis, and as every internet source suggested, have been brushing and scraping and flossing with the devotion of a member of a Toothfairy cult, but this suggested self-treatment doesn’t seem to have had any effect. I’ve never been one to shy away from things other people seem to find scary; darkness doesn’t bother me, heights thrill me, and the only reason I am wary around spiders is because I don’t know which ones are poisonous and I am not ready for the responsibility to be Spiderman. But now, alone in the night whose silence is occasionally broken by what I hope are sounds of firecrackers, in a simple Bolivian hostel room, the thought of going to a dentist terrifies me.
I am reminded of the words of the English guy I met in Brazil back in January. He said: ‘Bolivia is an incredible country, but one way or another you will get sick. Maybe it’s the food, the altitude or the dust, but you will get sick.’ I was expecting food poisoning but with my iron stomach didn’t worry about it too much; my usual travel maladies are just common colds that I seem to catch every time the temperature rises above +30 degrees Celsius. Well, it wasn’t a gone-off chop of chicken or even the (literally) breathtaking heights, but I had ended up fulfilling his grim prophecy anyway.
A part of me wants to stay in all day and binge on Youtube storytimes – a luxury that Bolivian wifi has not allowed me in weeks – but the adventurous part of me drags me out of bed and into the street. Oruro doesn’t seem much more impressive in the daylight. Cars honk at other cars, pedestrians, and just for fun as they aggressively squeeze into a roundabout, in a true Bolivian fashion defying every traffic rule that I was ever taught. The shady side of the street makes my fingertips cold; the sunny side is hot enough to melt the flesh off my bones.
I walk alongside a small parade of first-graders dressed up in dresses made of bin bags, candy wrappers and newspaper. I think the parade is promoting the benefits of recycling, but there is also a gorilla and a few pre-teen Harley Quinns thrown into the mix, so I’m not sure. My aching gums make me regret ever leaving the hostel. I leave the parade behind and climb up to a lookout marked by a small statue of a lighthouse. This seems to be the local make-out spot, I decide, as I watch the few couples necking by the safety barrier as if none of the other pairs in love were there. Even though back in Salar de Uyuni I half-seriously wished for a travel romance from a few shooting stars I spotted, it’s the furthest thing in my mind right now; in fact, with my sore, bleeding gums the mere thought of mouth-on-mouth action makes me wince in imaginary pain. From up above the town impresses me even less than it does from the street level. I’m tired, I’m miserable, and I’m missing my travel mates that I’d just let go a day earlier. But not home – even at this lousy moment I at most wish I could visit a dentist at my university’s health clinic, where the ladies working there are smiley and helpful and above all speak Finnish, but even then homesickness hasn’t caught up to me yet.
On my way back to the hostel I buy mouthwash and an ice cream to soothe my mind and mouth equally. A friend I met back in Santa Cruz has dropped by at the hostel, but after one cup of tea I excuse myself back to my room. Smiling hurts. I brush my teeth one tooth at a time, taking my time as if exploring the body of a new lover or making my way through and especially complex sushi buffet, and wince so hard when the mouthwash hits my mouth that I spill some of it on myself.
Maybe I am too harsh on Oruro; after all, it is not her fault for being just a town, not even a particularly miserable one in comparison to all the awful no-man’s towns around the globe. (I doubt I will ever detest a place as much as I detest New Delhi.) In a miserable state of mind, a traveller easily makes wrongful assumptions on their physical location. And sometimes travel is just that; instead of singing in the car as a foreign landscape rolls by like a painting, surrounded by friends from three continents, you get toothache and solitude. These days will come and they will go. In a few days my mouth will not hurt anymore (I hope… even though I might have to pay a visit to a Spanish-speaking dental doctor), and I will be a part of a new crowd, as exciting and foreign as the last one.
As I board my bus to Cochabamba Wednesday at midday, I feel slightly better. Maybe it’s the mouthwash I’ve been poisoning my mouth with; maybe it’s the Ibuprofen I’ve started popping like sweets. I don’t even look out the window as we roll out of the town. I’ve changed my mind again and decided to just keep on hating on Oruro. Adios, you no-good, pitiful excuse for a town. Thanks for nothing.