Sitting on a Bench (in Bolivia)

If I had to pick a favorite part of South America, it might be the plaza.

It’s something we just don’t really have in the states. Yeah, we have our parks and public spaces, but the plaza – at the center or heart of any town or city – just doesn’t seem to be something we value all that much. It’s not to say they’re not there, but they’re certainly not used, not enjoyed, like here.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia doesn’t really stand out as a model of much. A tranquillo town – the biggest in the country – that to me most closely resembles its nearest international neighbor, Asuncion. The Plaza 24 de Septiembre though, does stand out. One reason being that the entire city is designed to make it stand out. It’s truly is at the heart – the rest of the city radiating outward in concentric circles like some sort of antipodean water-less sprawling Amsterdam.

Ok, so it’s nothing like Amsterdam, but the circle pattern thing draws comparison.

I was reading recently that successful public spaces – like many of the world’s more famous plazas – are sized at around 450 feet, which is coincidental because that’s about the same distance from which we can distinguish another approaching person and determine their sex, dress, gait, etc. In the plaza in Santa Cruz last Sunday, it would have been hard to draw a straight line 20 feet without hitting a family or a couple, an old man drinking coffee, a vendor selling it, or a band of children chasing after something. The most multicultural city in the country has a lot of excellent people watching going on any given Sunday, not at any sort of event or at any particular hour or for any particular reason, but available all afternoon from any of a hundred benches.

The thought of Bolivia for a lot of people conjures up an idea of a certain type of dress: the pleated skirt, the leggings, the shawl, the extraordinarily undersized bowler hat pinned to braided hair. Searching that 450 foot urban horizon, a few women in that dress might catch the eye, but nearly all are transplants from the Altiplano region, a journey away. So on this day, in this place, this image, this idea of Bolivia needs reassessment.

Travel comes with a lot of preconceived notions. By the time you find yourself on the ground, a place never seems to fully fit your notions or expectations the way you thought it would. It turns out it’s the places that do, that sort of in a way are the most disappointing. These places tend to become the biggest let down because they almost got it right – but not as good as your imagination did. It’s the places that hit you out of nowhere – the market in Sucre and it’s fresh made juices up for sale along size dozens of varieties of potatoes unknown to any supermarket; the vineyard you stumbled upon while lost and asking for direction; the perfect sandwich shop hidden in an alleyway; the hike that starts in someone’s backyard; they city you hadn’t even planned on visiting – that always wind up the most pleasantly surprising, and daresay most enjoyable.

And that’s what makes us want to go back out. It’s not the brochures and guidebooks and the adventures promised by our imaginations – it’s the stuff hiding in plain sight: the everyday. Only it’s a day different then we’re used to, and far different from what we expected.

Checking your expectations at the door is a lesson South America has been trying to teaching me for the past three and half years. I forgot for a moment or two earlier this month and was swiftly reminded that that’s something you can’t just forget about – and if you do your time won’t be nearly as enjoyable. Maybe that’s why the plaza is the best place to remember this kind of lesson – it comes with no expectations, except maybe to have a seat, hopefully in the shade, and let the world pass you by for a moment while you get to have  a window on everyone else’s every day and make it part of your own.

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