‘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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  1. 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

  2. says: Angela

    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..

    1. 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.

  3. says: Kaitlin

    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!

    1. 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 🙂

      1. says: Larry Snook

        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.

    1. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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 🙂

  5. says: Mark Wiens

    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!

  6. That was intense then I saw that cute little piggy LOL 😛

    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.

  7. says: Angie Orth

    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!