LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE ROOMFUL OF TRAVELERS WATCHING AMERICAN REALITY TV
BY ANNA VODICKA
I have forgotten a great deal since 2006, but not the looks on your faces when I entered the hostel common room. In recent years, the memory has resurfaced with frequency. Haunted may be too strong a word—though I was fresh from the mercado de las brujas, the Witches’ Market, that day, bag full of potions, mouth full of coca leaves for the altitude. My pulse throbbed from the steep climbs of La Paz and the heady scents and visions of the market: medicinal herbs, pots of feathers and glassy-eyed frogs, dried llama fetuses tied up with string, and vials of elixirs to ward off illness and debt, to bring love, prosperity, health, fortune.
You circled around the TV in bean bags and a sunken couch, deep in discussion until I walked in and silence fell like a spell cast on the room.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
You turned to me, all eight or ten of you, a local Bolivian desk clerk, a Romanian couple, a few Israelis post-mandatory service, faces from across the globe reflecting disbelief, grief, confusion, disgust, demand for an explanation.
A Polish girl, the other solo female traveler among us, broke the silence.
“Is it true? Is this what it’s really like?”
It was Ivanka I saw first, or someone who looked like Ivanka, as rich girls on reality shows did in the early aughts—platinum blondes in designer bikinis with untraceable accents, who were enrolled in private boarding schools or universities, but appeared already to be working professionals, employed in some hazy combination of model-actress-socialite, trailed always by cameras. In 2006, they were all Paris or Nicole or Ivanka to me, though I was an unreliable source on the subject, didn’t own a TV, didn’t pay attention. I felt a special disorientation before reality shows, a phenomenon critics promised wouldn’t last.
In this episode, the rich girls in bikinis were washing cars. Or play-acting washing cars. There were hoses and buckets of soapy water. There was a line of Hummers and Ferraris parked alongside a pool alongside a mansion alongside fountains and manicured hedges. But the girls concentrated primarily on the positions of their bodies before the camera. They sprayed each other, straddled the hoods of their boyfriend’s sports cars, held hoses to the sky like so much shook champagne. Occasionally, someone held a hose limply in the direction of a vehicle, laughed when they ruined the leather interior, but—perhaps the biggest spectacle, from the perspective of anyone in land-locked Bolivia—they mostly let the water run.
“This? No, no,” I said. “I mean…yes. But…no.”
“Most Americans are not like this. No one has this much money. This isn’t real!”
“It isn’t real?” An Israeli guy pointed me again to the screen as if I had missed it. “It’s happening.”
You nodded in collective agreement. Who could refute the evidence, the scene before our eyes? This image we projected to the world, to Bolivia, land of the Water Wars, of the world’s largest salt flat and the highest-from-sea-level city. Bolivia, where foreign gold mines sucked the land dry from below, and the sun baked it close from above, and the earth was cracked and fissured, exposed riverbeds rippling like all the water that wasn’t there. It made me thirsty just to look at it.
My throat went dry. I flashed back to high school, Ivanka seductively pouting across the pages of Seventeen, she and Paris and Nicole as much a mystery to me and my rural Midwestern girlfriends as we would have been to them. None of us had ever seen New York.
And yet I simmered in guilt at the memory of long, hot showers, divine steam fogging over my reflection in the mirror.
I felt suddenly like a reluctant and ill-equipped ambassador, naive and fumbling as a babe, though I was a freshly minted college grad, old enough to know…what? The Real World? Too-much-tuition’s-worth of Latin American literature? I barely felt qualified for my actual job, freelance copywriting for a healthcare marketing firm (a field that sounded suddenly ridiculous in Spanish, in countries where healthcare is a human right), let alone the role of national spokesperson. Alone, abroad, during the War on Terror, I was dodging questions about my President, working hard to mask my easy, credulous smile, my calcium-rich bones, straight from America’s Dairyland.
I’d considered pinning a Canadian flag to my backpack—a tip from my fellow Americans. Before I left home, I’d made several trips to the salon to dye my naturally light blonde hair a less conspicuous dark brown. The joke of the Fates or the brujas was on me: as soon as I hit the high-altitude Andes, the sun bleached every strand a raging bright orange. That’s how I passed through South America: drafting convincing prose about advancements in robotic surgery, birthing centers and microdermabrasion, with my head on fire.
Is this what it’s really like?
A couple of Canadians looked guilty by association. Some of you grew so disgusted you turned to leave, and I couldn’t blame you. I myself was searching frantically for a fire escape.
To my relief, one of you reached for the remote. With the click of the Power button, the show was over.
I made a fast exit for my $3 bunk, though I can’t say I slept that night, something gnawing at me beyond the usual discomforts of the shared dorm room. We parted ways the next day, all of us heading, eventually, toward some idea of home.
But I remembered you years later, when a real-life Ivanka breezed past me in an airport, full makeup, hair smoothed professionally in place, as if she’d just wrapped a photo shoot. She retreated to a private lounge, a boxy room of floor-to-ceiling glass. Bored, I settled in to watch with everyone else, suddenly more interested in the manicured life behind the glass than the messy world of connections and departures behind me.
I thought of you in 2010, when Bolivia signed into historic law the Rights of Mother Earth, “a living dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”
And again in 2017, when Bolivia suffered its worst drought in decades—residents allowed to fill two jugs a day, every 3-4 days—and my country elected a reality TV star to its highest office, a man who boasts of plating his bathroom fixtures in gold.
Is this real? You ask, we ask.
They say that after a rain, a glassy surface of water settles over Bolivia’s salt flats, converting the land into the world’s largest mirror. I imagine the brujas, with their black braids and bowler hats, have something to do with this, holding a looking glass to the world. It takes a courage I didn’t have to gaze into it, past the easy mirage of beauty or ugliness, a princess or a hag, to something real, something wounded, wrapped in great complexity and excruciating discomfort. I want to try again, with you. To practice looking in the mirror. To practice staying in the room.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Vodicka’s essays and travel writing have appeared in AFAR, Brevity, Guernica, Harvard Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Longreads, Paste, Lonely Planet’s An Innocent Abroad, and Best Women's Travel Writing 2017, and earned residency fellowships to Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. She teaches creative writing at Seattle's Hugo House and to women incarcerated at the King County Jail. Find her at www.annavodicka.com or on Twitter @AnnaVodicka.
Header photograph by David Wall.