‘Merely Change’ | Quirky Encounter in Bolivia

I was sitting down with a couple of travel companions at a cafe having a leisurely breakfast on a secluded island (Isla del Sol) located in Bolivia…

The topic of our conversation happened to be about ´change.´  We all concluded that exchanging larger denominations had been a problem for us at various stages on our journey – especially in Bolivia.  During a transaction, quite frequently, a random vendor would plead for smaller notes or exact change and in the event that this was not available a request from a third party would become necessary; or at the very worst, the possibility of the transaction being completely nullified!

As we discussed this situation over our standardized plates of runny eggs and stale bread – being served up at this local cafe catering mostly to foreigners – we couldn´t help but notice the commotion from across our table.  A middle aged lady of Chilean background (we later found out) sprung up like a tightly wound jack in the box & raucously stormed over to our table.  Our breakfast now included a side of rant that edged out everything else on our plates.  For the next minute and a half we listened to how rude we were to suggest any kind of ´change´take place in this part of the world.  It was very candidly pointed out that culture from our far off lands was corrupt/bankrupt of morals and any form of decency.

She would have continued on but I just had to put an end to this immediately:  

“Excuse me.  I think you misunderstood our conversation.  We’re having difficulty exchanging these bank notes (which I now held in my hand) for smaller bills and coins. We just want to change some money. Is that okay?

For a brief moment in time there was a silence so intense…a pin drop would have felt like an atomic bomb.

Admittedly, the lady was more than apologetic for having misinterpreted our conversation in the most obnoxious way possible.  It must have also hit her at some point that it was a little more than rude on her part to have eavesdropped and hijacked our ´private´ conversation – especially under false pretences.  Anyhow, we quickly accepted her apology and out the door she went.

We laughed about what had happened over such a nondescript banal conversation.  We couldn´t help but wonder what kind of experiences she had accumulated in the past to possess such a loaded gun in her mind. I personally used to have this Utopian ideal that travel brings cultures and people closer together while fostering mutual understanding, but sometimes I wonder if the opposite is true – that in certain select cases it pushes us further apart.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Angie Orth September 21, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Priceless! I’ve met many folks during my travels who have a “loaded gun” of things to say about Westerners. We’re not all Jersey Shore, ya know? It’s definitely a challenge to combat the MTV image!

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Nomadic Samuel September 21, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Thanks Angie, if only they could see my dwindling bank account funds…LOL

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Micamyx|Senyorita September 21, 2011 at 3:05 pm

That was intense then I saw that cute little piggy LOL :P

Anyway, maybe that lady encountered a lot of rude experiences that why she can’t help but butt in the conversation. I also had the same misconception when I encounter *toot* here in the Philippines. It’s hard to generalize though.

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Nomadic Samuel September 21, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Thanks Mica, the pig definitely was placed ‘strategically’ to cool things down a bit :P

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Phil September 21, 2011 at 3:42 pm

haha, great story. I’ve definitely experienced those moments of huge misinterpretation. Love the photos!

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Nomadic Samuel September 21, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Thanks Phil! It was just so unexpected we were all literally in shock nearly :P Lago Titicaca is gorgeous place to visit – highly recommend it :)

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Mark Wiens September 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Wow, that’s quite a reaction, but interesting. Sometimes it can really be best to wait a while, think about it, and feel out a situation before jumping in on something. Glad everything turned out alright in the end!

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Nomadic Samuel September 21, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Hey Mark, I couldn’t agree with you more. In cases where I’ve overreacted to something I’ve always felt the same way and regretted I had not played things out a little more cool.

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Cathy Sweeney September 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm

There’s actually a lot to think about here — misunderstandings, perceptions, and human nature. I do wonder what caused such a severe reaction from the woman about “change” (the way she understood you to mean it). It seems like you handled the situation very well.

I also have to say that your photos are wonderful — love the one of the flowers in the foreground.

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Nomadic Samuel September 21, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Cathy, it does involve quite a complex situation. Lake Titicaca is such a gorgeous place to visit. As much as I loved it on the Bolivian side, I equally recommend checking it out from Peru as well :)

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Christy @ Ordinary Traveler September 21, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Haha… At first I was confused about what type of change you were referring to, so I guess I can understand her confusion. I can’t believe someone reacted so emotionally to people talking at another table. Funny story though.

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Nomadic Samuel September 21, 2011 at 10:35 pm

LOL, I guess it would be easy to pick-up a few words, such as ‘change’ and misinterpret things. I suppose I just find it odd somebody would feel it is his/her business to get involved in a such a private conversation. If I was sitting next to a group and overheard them complaining about life in Canada I wouldn’t feel offended nor would I feel the need to straighten them out.

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Raymond @ Man On The Lam September 22, 2011 at 4:30 pm

I love stories like these. Some nosey Nellie with nothing better to do. Bet she didn’t tell any of her friends. :)

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Nomadic Samuel September 23, 2011 at 2:23 am

LOL, I wouldn’t imagine she did!

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Stephanie - The Travel Chica September 23, 2011 at 2:13 am

I should probably say something profound, but I just wanted to tell you that I love the picture of that little pig.

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Nomadic Samuel September 23, 2011 at 2:17 am

It is a cute pig :)

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Kaitlin September 23, 2011 at 9:46 pm

This is an excellent story. Turns an uncomfortable little mishap into a thought-provoking anecdote. Maybe what travelers need are not utopian ideals about mutual understanding, but the ability to ask good questions about mutual misunderstandings. :)

Thanks for your great storytelling!

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Nomadic Samuel September 26, 2011 at 6:50 am

Kaitlin, I think you’re right. It’s often small misunderstandings that can lead to bigger problems. I can honestly think of a million ways she could have handled this better but ultimately she decided to yell first and ask questions later. I’ve also been guilty of overreacting before as well in different situations. Maybe she was just having a horrible day and this was her breaking point. I guess I’ll never know :)

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Larry Snook December 11, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Was she a red head too? I look forward to reading more of your adventures. Your a wonderfull writer. Well back to my more genric but also pleasing life. I miss you bud.

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Nomadic Samuel December 12, 2011 at 12:03 am

Buddy! It’s been a while! She wasn’t although maybe she hates gingers :P I crave the normal life at times. I’d love to catch up sometime :)

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Technosyncratic September 25, 2011 at 2:34 pm

I’ve never really thought about it before, but how strange that the word “change” refers to these two very different things! Oh, language…..

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Nomadic Samuel September 26, 2011 at 6:44 am

Yeah, talk about being misinterpreted!!!

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Angela September 26, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Maybe the lady was not referring to rude travelers she had met on her way, maybe, you said she was of Chilean background and of a certain age, so probably she was bitter as she experienced the horrible Pinochet dictatorship… Of course this wouldn’t justify her reaction to your (private) conversation, but you never know what goes on in people’s mind..

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Nomadic Samuel September 27, 2011 at 7:08 am

Angela, I agree with what you’re saying. I honestly have no idea what she has experienced in her lifetime. Events certainly do shape individuals and sometimes they come out of it a stronger person and other times quite bitter.

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Dave Scott (OldDrfish) October 5, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Great story & stunning photo’s , thanks for sharing Samuel. It’s easy enough to get our wires crossed & upset people from our own culture who speak the same lingo, so it’s not surprising that tourist unwittingly put their foot in it sometimes with the locals.
Take care on you’re travels – Dave S

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Nomadic Samuel October 9, 2011 at 3:55 am

Thanks Dave, it is very easy to get communication signals crossed while travelling.

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Caz Makepeace October 13, 2011 at 3:02 am

Great story!! She must have felt so small. if you are going to be eavesdropping best to stay quiet in the background

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Nomadic Samuel November 5, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Caz, I think we’ve all put our foot in our mouths before at times but that was certainly a case I won’t ever forget! :P

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A Lady in London November 14, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Great story. Misinterpretations are such a integral part of travel, aren’t they? I love the photos, too!

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Nomadic Samuel November 30, 2011 at 4:55 pm

They certainly are! As awkward as these moments are at the time they certainly make for a good story afterwards :)

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