When I was spending a few months in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I happened to be working for some NGO at the time.
This NGO would basically take in foreigners to work for local NGOs in the city.
As you can read more about here.
Anyway, I remember very clearly we had some meeting or whatever with all of the foreigners at the main building of the NGO that brought us into the country.
And mostly just had a group discussion about life in Bolivia to relate to each other.
As well to ask questions with the people running the NGO who understood Bolivia better than we did.
Some being other foreigners who had spent a very long time in Bolivia to some actual Bolivians who helped run the NGO.
Anyway, there was a concern that a couple in the group had about Bolivians.
The question was basically “why do Bolivians lie all the time about the time it takes to cover distance?”
Then this couple provided an example.
In which they described a moment in which they were walking around Cochabamba looking for that hiking trail you take going upwards to which you will arrive at the Christ statue.
With the view of the entire city below you.
I did that hike myself and here are some photos of that journey.
Anyway, they were trying to find the point at which you would begin hiking upwards to get to that spot…
But had difficulty finding it.
So they’d ask different locals along the way about which way to go and how much longer it would take.
Now, keep in mind, the girl in the group, if I remember right, was Latina herself and spoke Spanish fairly well.
So it wasn’t a case of them not understanding the locals or viceversa.
They could ask and get directions just fine.
It was just that, from their perspective, it felt like literally every local was bullshitting them about how to get to this point in the city.
Telling them “oh, it’s over there! Only 30 minutes away!”
To which then they would walk some…
Where 30 minutes has passed or so…
And they were obviously lost.
Ask someone else.
The next person points them to a completely different direction with a different time requirement to get to their location.
And that would be bullshit also.
Anyway, the couple still seemed annoyed at the fact that they were flat out lied to several times over about the direction they need to take and how much they would need to walk.
This isn’t a case of the locals “trying to be helpful” if literally everyone is giving them an answer that is obviously wrong.
At least that’s my opinion.
But their confusion about why it seemed like everyone was bullshitting them isn’t an unusual critique of Bolivians.
I had my own experience like this!
The Journey to Potosi
During my free time, I’d often take overnight bus rides to other areas of Bolivia on the weekends to see different parts of the country.
Now I already wrote about this story as you can read here.
So I’ll keep most of it short and relevant to the topic here.
But anyway, I get on the bus to Potosi from Cochabamba.
And I remember waking up very early in the morning after an overnight bus ride.
I don’t remember the exact hour on top of my head but it must’ve been like 6 AM maybe.
Anyway, the bus stopped and it can’t go on anymore.
We all have to get outside and now finish the journey to Potosi by walking.
In large part because there was this major ass protest blocking any vehicles from entering or exiting Potosi unless it happened to be a motorcycle that could get around the blockade.
So the walking began for everyone.
Now I knew that we had to be close enough to Potosi because the bus had been riding all night.
So we must be kinda close, right?
Well, I asked anyway different folks along the journey to Potosi.
Random people I would see on the side of the road who were burning shit to keep warm as it was quite cold.
And every single person told me that the journey to Potosi would end in 30 minutes.
Every single one.
Just as long as I kept walking along the path.
Now, to be fair, the direction they gave me was accurate…
Just walk along the path straight ahead.
Which was obvious enough anyway as there wasn’t too many other routes to take.
But 30 minutes?
If I remember right, and you can check that article for better details, I think it took me like 4 hours to get there.
And so I had at least 4 or so people lie to me or perhaps more about how much longer the walk would be.
And every single one told me 30 minutes.
That was annoying.
Especially as I did get concerned about if I somehow missed Potosi by not taking the exact direction necessary.
Though there were plenty of people around me walking in the same direction so I figured I was OK.
Anyway, it’s not just me that has noticed this.
Internet Inquiries About This Topic
Some long time ago, I remember finding an article online that described this exact issue that I had.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it again.
Which is part of the motivation for why I’m writing this to at least have an article out there warning other foreigners about this potentially annoying issue you might have in Bolivia.
In which you might notice people straight up giving you bad information all the time about how to arrive somewhere and how long it will take.
It’s a minor issue but seems to be one that others have noticed also.
Though I would argue it goes deeper than just Bolivians lying about time and direction.
I’ll explain my theory on that later.
But, in doing my research to see if others have noticed this, I found two websites mentioning it.
First, you have this blog here.
In which the author, known as Flora, explains situations in which she found locals just straight up lying to her.
One of the examples was some dude lying about a motorbike he wanted to sell being automatic.
To how strangers “would confidently point me in the wrong direction to an address I asked about” to also lying about what stock produce they had available in their stores.
In her words, it breaks down to people “making things up.”
Again, the article to that is here.
Then you have this funny source here from Lonely Planet where someone posts a question in a forum about Bolivia.
The title of the forum is “Why are they lying?”
Why You Always Lying Meme
Dissecting an Internet Forum
Then the author of a Lonely Planet forum, known as “tropigirl,” wrote so many examples of her finding the locals lying about things.
One of those things she found people lying about is relevant to the topic we’ve been discussing here:
“If you ask for directions - one person will tell you right and another will - left. If they say 5 min - ut´s at least 30.”
Then, for comedic humor, tropigirl has this funny line here:
“It´s no wonder that this country in such a horrble condition - they should blame only themselves.”
Now, before we move on, let’s just address what I find funny about this.
First, I can’t imagine trying to give real talk about some of the negatives of a country like Bolivia to other gringos.
Even though I point out the faults of countries down here freely on this blog.
But to do this on a travel forum like Lonely Planet is like sticking your hand in a bee hive.
You are going to piss off a lot of people.
The foreign travellers who feel the need to be Ambassadors to the country you are criticizing and the insecure locals who will feel salty about your comments.
Though, to be fair, I felt her comment was also funny because I felt it was a good example of someone who only has negative things to say.
It’s just entertaining to me to see someone rage vomit all over their time in a country down here.
Let’s not pretend we are better than her though.
Most gringo folks living down here, regardless of if they admit it or not, will likely have a day like that.
Where the negatives of living down here hit them all at once and they just feel the need to vent.
Maybe she’s just venting?
Or maybe she always feels like this and is one of those gringos who never has a good thing to say and is trashing the country 24/7.
Anyway, the responses to her post are as you would expect.
Not all of them were bad actually.
Though this one in particular I found just to be ridiculous by someone called Nahuel:
“Bolivia is the poorest country of SA. Many people live in very bad conditions. You cannot expect to pay exactly the same as the locals do.”
I wonder – should the same standard of paying more be applied to the locals who happen to not be poor?
And if we were to continue his logic…
“Oh pobre boliviano! Ya veo que no tienes plata! Puedes coger mi esposa también! Vengo del primer mundo! Puedes tener todo! Mi dinero, mi casa, mi esposa y mi Dodgecoins!!!”
There were some good or reasonable responses on that forum.
One guy named “Steve20050” had a decent response that I didn’t entirely agree with but I felt was reasonable.
And it’s his comment that we’ll use to springboard into the end of this article.
“Yes the directional thing can drive you crazy. This is not just Bolivia. They are sinsere in trying to help you and actually may not know the answer, but wish to help so give you an answer right or wrong.”
Covering the Main Points
There’s really a lot of points we could cover based on just that forum alone.
Like how it’s not OK to discriminate against foreigners with the gringo price.
To trying to place a fair amount of blame on the lack of development of a particular place between what foreign countries (Spain, US, etc) did and what corrupt locals have done (cops, politicians, dictators, etc).
And, as Steve20050 rightfully pointed out in his broader comment, how one needs to accept the negatives of a country like Bolivia.
Not everything is perfect and you just have to accept that.
Or, as I’ll put it, you risk being very jaded like Tropigirl might likely be.
Or maybe she’s just venting – we all have a day like that once in a blue moon.
Anyway, the topic of this article, as you know, started on a point about how numerous foreigners have reached the conclusion that Bolivians make shit up when it comes to giving advice on things like directions.
Now, as you saw in Steves comment, this is supposedly something that “this is not just Bolivia.”
Is he right?
When it comes to directions specifically, I’d say no.
Most countries I have been to in Latin America or Europe…
The locals did not lie to me about directions.
If they didn’t know, they’d say that they didn’t know.
Like what you can see in this article I wrote here…
Where I asked two street sellers about how much longer I need to walk along Insurgentes Sur Avenue.
The first one told me he didn’t know.
The second one gave me an answer that was reasonable.
In my experience and in the experience of others I know, it does feel like Bolivia is unique in this regard to giving out bad advice.
And this is where my theory comes in.
Bringing in a larger point that does, in part, seem noticeable in other countries and not just Bolivia.
Check out this book here by Richard P. Feynman.
Titled "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" by Richard P. Feynman.
He was a famous American physicist who spent time teaching in Brazil in the mid 20th century.
You can find the story I am going to reference from that book starting on page 123.
But I’ll summarize it here.
Basically, Feynman is sent to teach physics in Brazil to a bunch of students.
And he notices that there are a shit ton of students in Brazil who are very enthusiastic about learning physics.
Much more than what he sees in America!
And when he asks the students a very specific question like “what is x law in Physics?”
The students would have the perfect answer word for word.
But if you asked them a question that isn’t about reiterating the definitions they memorized from their textbook….
Like, for example, if you asked them to apply the knowledge they have to a real world scenario…
They’d go blank.
Ultimately, Feynman learned that these students were like what Google is today.
It can give you word for word definitions without truly understanding anything.
And the students wouldn’t do the homework nor would they ask questions in class if they didn’t understand anything.
Well, one of the students told him the following from page 125 of the book: "If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, 'What are you wasting our time for in the class? We're trying to learn something. And you're stopping him by asking a question'."
And, ultimately, this was Feynman’s observation that is relevant to my theory from page 125:
“It was a kind of oneupmanship, where nobody knows what's going on, and they'd put the other one down as if theydid know. They all fake that they know, and if one student admits for a moment that something is confusing by asking a question, the others take a highhanded attitude, acting as if it's not confusing at all, telling him that he's wasting their time.”
And that’s my theory as to why Bolivians seemingly lie a lot about things like distance, time and all the other things that people online have been complaining about when it comes to lying.
Essentially, it’s a mindset of “I don’t want to admit I don’t know an answer. So I will just make shit up.”
Now, to be fair, I didn’t come up with this theory.
I actually remember that theory being proposed in that original article I mentioned way back that I couldn’t find for this article here.
In that article, it was claimed that is the reason why Bolivians lie so much about directions.
Is the theory true?
Personally, I don’t know if that is the reason for why Bolivians lie about distance.
It’s just a theory.
On the other hand, some folks might claim it’s “trying to be helpful.”
Which I feel doesn’t make any sense because how are you being helpful if you are knowingly giving information that you don’t have any reason to believe is true?
Doesn’t make sense.
But regardless of if this is the reasoning behind why Bolivians specifically seem to lie more often about directions…
That’s not really the main issue here.
The Main Point
Though I spent most of this article talking about Bolivia and the ideas behind why Bolivians seem to lie so often about directions relative to other nationalities…
Again, that isn’t really that important.
Keep that knowledge in your head for when you need it asking for directions in Bolivia…
But the main point here is something that can be seen in other countries and not just Bolivia.
As Steve pointed out even though his paragraph didn’t focus on this topic specifically.
The topic being that, from a foreigner perspective, it does seem that people are more superficial down here on average when it comes to appearances.
Appearing like they are more intelligent than others.
As Richard Feynman pointed out when it came to his time in Brazil – a “one-upmanship” in his specific scenario.
Or, when it comes to giving directions out and not knowing the answer, just making the effort to appear like you are knowledgeable about the topic just because.
And, to be fair, Steve is right that these issues can be seen in other countries.
It’s not just a Bolivian problem.
It’s something that you can see in other countries like the US for example!
Or any country in the world.
That’s entirely true.
Though, coming from Iowa, I would argue that I see more of this down here than back where I came from.
That’s just my opinion based on my own life experiences.
And maybe it’s true for you also…
Or maybe it isn’t.
Regardless, it’s something to think about when it comes to superficialness of knowledge in Latin America.
If you have any comments, drop them below in the comment section.
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Thanks for reading.