Bolivia is an amazing country located in the 28% at the height of 3000m above sea level. Even before the World War II Polish travellers and scientists began to descend here. The main role was played by geologists who have contributed greatly to the development of the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Especially worth mentioning is Józef Jackowski , who arrived in Bolivia in 1889. Initially, he worked on the boards of the Bolivian mines, where good and fair governance endeared him miners. He learned the Quechua language, from which he translated the Indian prayers and poetry. Józef Jackowski also completed a topographic map of the south-western Bolivia. He was also the founder and director of the school of mining in Potosi. Another well-known Polish geologist working in Bolivia was Roman Kozlowski. Since 1913 he worked in the mining school in Oruro, where he was director in the years 1915-1919. The school was named the university at his request in 1917. He was on the research of oil and coal, and was the founder of the first geological museum in Bolivia. Rudolf Zuber , another from a group of Polish geologists working in the Andean country, also studied the Bolivian oil fields .
However, the Poles in Bolivia are not just geologists. Joseph Warszewicz was among our fellow citizens who had contributed to the development of the country. He was a botanist, who, being here in the years 1845-1850, described many previously unknown plants. Also Wladyslaw Kluger who ran here intensive topographical work, and in 1878 in Krakow published a book “Letters from Peru and Bolivia” bringing these distant countries to Polish readers.
Slightly larger group of Poles (1500) came to Bolivia in the interwar period and during World War II (730 people). Today, however, no more than 100 people of Polish nationality live here permanently. A large group are also Polish missionaries (121 people). They are dominated by the Franciscans. It is worth to mention two of them who have the title of Bishop – Jan Dowlaszewicz Billman is a bishop in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and the Bishop Bonifacy Antoni Rejman was vicar apostolic Nuflo de Chavez.
In connection with such a little Polish community, it is not surprising that in Bolivia there is not Polish Embassy. If necessary, Polish tourists can go the consulate of Germany.
Upon arrival in Bolivia, we had incredible luck to unexpected meetings with the Poles. It started on the first day in Copacabana, where we were accosted by Krzysztof, who along with Max rode through the world on motorbikes. Unfortunately, their trip had a tragic finale. About a month after our meeting, guys had an accident in Quito, where Max died … Then , at our first meeting in Copacabana they just waited for the next Polish traveller – Michal, who now travels in South America from south to north without the use of motor vehicles. Walking, running, swimming, canoeing, riding a bicycle… Awesome man! We went together for a beer, where we were talking like forever. The next day we also met Ewelina – wife of Michal, who had come to meet him before flying to Australia, where he is now a permanent resident.
From Copacabana we went to Sorata – little townlocated in the Bolivian mountains. While I was there I read in the guidebook that in one of the hostels, located a little outside the town, Polish borscht is served. We could not waste this opportunity! It turned out that the owner’s parents were from Poland and a Polish dish is to their memory on the menu. Imagine our surprise, however, when our table there was not expected by us soup, but a piece of meat in beetroot sauce… We had no heart to say the owner that the Polish borscht was a little different.
It was quite similar when we arrived in La Paz. We have established contact with Szymon who has been living there for quite a few years. He told us about a couple of Poles – Ania and Daniel, who, together with two small children are travelling around the world. We spent a couple of amiable days together. Among other things, we went with Ania to the Death Road, giving her the little break from the kids.
From La Paz, we headed for the Sajama National Park. On the bus we met Jake – American whose grandparents came from Poland. At this point I started to laugh that the whole Bolivia is full of Polish identity. But it turned out that Jake was the last of the “Poles” met in this country. Later, after returning to La Paz, we heard about a couple traveling on a tandem, who may be from Poland, but we failed to meet them to confirm this information.
All Poles we met along the way were delighted by the landscapes of Bolivia. They have also drawn attention to a very likeable people. However, it is difficult not to notice their lack of education: very often they have problems with calculations and do not even know their local areas and are afraid to admit when they do not know something. They prefer to give incorrect information to tourists than no response at all. Unfortunately, this happens very annoying. There is interesting mix of the Catholic religion and the faith in the Pachamama, El Tio and numerous rituals associated with them. It gives Bolivia specific colours. Besides Bolivians love to celebrate – there is no a week without any fiesta. Being in La Paz all the time we encounter a street parade with dancing and music.
The knowledge of our country among the people of Bolivia is very negligible. Often when we say we are from Poland, we meet the questions: “Poland? And where is it? And what language you speak there? “Some Bolivians only know that John Paul II was from Poland. Most of them, however, never heard about our country.
Besides encountered in Bolivia Poles we did not come across here too many Polish traces. Only from time to time, we found the plaques commemorating the pilgrimage of John Paul II to Bolivia in May 1988. These boards we found, inter alia, in the Cathedral of Potosi and Santa Cruz de la Sierra. Also the highest in the world (outside of Swiebodzin in Poland) statue of Christ in Cochabamba is dedicated to this pilgrimage.
Bolivia is a fascinating country that is still relatively rarely visited by our countrymen. We personally invite everyone to come here because of the really low prices, stunning nature and lovable people. Perhaps by increasing the number of tourists from Poland we can increase the Bolivians’ knowledge about our country?
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Photo © Justyna Kloc