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I’m preparing to spend my 26th birthday in Uruguay, which has me reflecting on past birthday locations, which have included Spain, Bolivia, Uruguay, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Virginia, and Hawaii.

One of my favorite memories comes from my 20th birthday in Copacabana, Bolivia, which featured a silent vodka purchase, stumbling into an international volleyball match, and being charged to use the shower by a ten-year-old.

Copacabana, Bolivia is a small, dusty town with the best access to Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna in Lake Titicaca. I arrived by bus from Puno, Peru with Sam, Jen, and Hayley, three friends from my study abroad program that summer.

The first thing we noticed was how run down the town was. We had all been traveling in Peru for over a month, but Bolivia was a whole new level of poverty.

We headed to the hostel mentioned in the guide book to check in as evening fell and to prepare for a night out to celebrate my 20th birthday.

Upon ringing the door bell, we were greeted by a small boy who looked like he was 10 years old, but may have been as old as 15. He was in charge of the hostel, which was completely empty, and showed us to a room with four beds and pointed out the shower. He also collected the nightly rate of 15 bolivianos, which was less than $2 per person.

He quickly disappeared up the stairs to where he seemed to live and the girls took the first turn in the shower. They came back in 15 minutes a little shaken.

“That little kid was waiting outside the shower and told us that we owe him 30 bolivianos for using the shower.”

We were all puzzled, since we’d stayed in hostels and never once had to pay a separate fee to shower. I spoke the best Spanish, so I went upstairs to talk to the 10-year-old hostellier.

“Yes, in Bolivia, you pay a separate shower fee at hostels,” he asserted.

“I don’t believe that. I’ll go ask the hostel I saw down the street.”

“Go ahead,” he said. “They’ll tell you about the shower fee.”

Before walking down the street, I grabbed a small bag from our room, so I could pretend like I was a new person contemplating checking in to the hostel down the street when I asked about whether shower fees were common in Bolivia. (Sometimes I overplan unnecessarily elaborate backstories.)

When I walked in to the next hostel I asked the nightly rate (also 15 bolivianos). “Does that include access to the shower?”

“Of course,” said the adult hostellier.

“The cost of the night always includes access to a shower in Bolivia, right?” I pressed.

“Of course.”

I headed back to my original hostel and informed the 10-year-old kid of my research. He shrugged and closed his door like no scam had been attempted. I couldn’t be mad at the kid at all. I was mostly impressed that he seemed to be running a hostel on his own and attempting to bilk unsuspecting tourists out of an extra $4.

I went back to our room and everyone had now showered except for me. The girls were getting ready, and Sam had nothing to do. We all wanted to get some vodka and Tampico–no judgements, we were 20–from the kiosk across the street, but only Sam was available and his Spanish was almost non-existent.

Like a lot of people are, he was a bit shy about speaking Spanish because of his beginner level, so I came up with the only plan I could think of for him to get the supplies without having to speak.

I wrote him a note in Spanish:

“I am deaf and mute. I would like one liter of the cheapest vodka, two liters of Tampico, and four disposable cups. Thanks.”

The note worked like a charm, and I got out of the shower to my favorite South American cocktail at the time.

After a few drinks, we headed out to a forgettable Italian restaurant. On the way back to the hostel, we heard commotion from a local gym. As the only apparent excitement in town, we had to check it out.

Inside there was a volleyball match with a hundred fans in the stands. It’s still a great mystery exactly what match we stumbled into. A spectator told me that it was Peru versus Cuba, which was strange because we were in Bolivia. Of course, national volleyball teams might travel for a match, but the players on the court seemed like beginners, so they were hopefully not the national teams.

To add to the confusion, kids played soccer on mini-goals on each end of the volleyball court with their soccer balls occasionally squirting onto the volleyball court, and no one seemed to mind.

We stayed for twenty minutes and went along with the crowd’s support for Peru–always root along with the crowd at South American sporting events. Then we joined in the mini-soccer games at the end of the court before calling it a night.

My 20th birthday wasn’t that dream birthday that you plan for months. It just kind of unfolded with friends, drinks, and strange happenings that I could only experience in Copacabana, Bolivia. In other words, it was a typical day traveling and the best kind of birthday.

Epilogue

We got back to the hostel a little past 10 PM, and the boy opened the door for us. As the others went upstairs, he pulled me aside.

“The hostel has a 10 PM curfew. There’s a 20 boliviano fee for coming in past 10 PM.”

Nice try, kid!

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