January 30 (Day 6)
Hola! We’re just leaving La Paz en route to Cochabamba (8 hours east) where we will be doing language school for a week and staying with a Bolivian family. We would have written sooner but for a series of unfortunate events that challenged us at the start of this trip. Without going into too much detail, both Quinn and Erik fell ill in Toronto before we left, with said flu expressing itself (pardon the pun) in Felix just as plane was descending into La Paz (at 3 a.m.), Jennie catching it 24 hours later, Erik’s flu morphing into full-blown influenza, our luggage not arriving until 48 hours after we did, the Acer netbook we bought for trip crashing and needing its hard drive replaced (giving us a new operating system and Office program that are in espanol) , and all of us struggling in one way or other with the sudden adjustment to this high altitude (headaches, dizziness, extreme fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, leg cramps …) ‘Nuff said. We’re on the up and up now, we hope.
We made our first attempt at getting to Cochabamba yesterday. Tried to get a taxi to take us to the bus station but they were all unavailable because the drivers were staging a one-day strike about something. Ran all the way to the bus station only to discover that all highways out of La Paz (maybe even in the country) were experiencing road blockades (“bloqueos” – a word I am sure we will come to be much more familiar with). Consequently, all inter-city bus travel was also suspended for the day. Emailed our Cochabamba hosts and they replied simply, “That’s Bolivia! See you tomorrow.”
It turned out not to be so bad, as we found ourselves a “hostal” closer to the bus station (the Bacoo), which turned out to be quite nice, and set off to see some of the things we’d been too sick to visit before. These included the “Witches’ Market”, a cobblestone pedestrian street lined with tiny shops that sell herbal remedies, tiny engraved stones, coca leaves & tea, trinkets, mounds of colourful tapestries, sweaters, bags, wall hangings etc in various traditional designs, and, most famously, dried llama fetuses. Should I say that again? Dried llama fetuses. You put them under the foundation of your house when you are building it, as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) in hopes that she will keep you safe and bring good luck. It’s not something we should try to bring back across Canadian customs. I don’t think Bolivians would appreciate tourists buying them as novelties anyway.
Next we toured the Museo de Coca (coca museum) where we learned about the various uses of coca, from the medicinal to the religious to the illicit (that is, its transformation into cocaine, which happens almost entirely outside of Bolivia). We saw a 12-foot-high wooden coca press that was made by a blind man without the use of any nails.
After a quick refreshment stop at the Angelo Colonial (this for the benefit of anyone who knows La Paz or happens to have a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Bolivia), we toured the San Francisco Cathedral. While admittedly not on par with the most stellar of its kind in Europe, it was pretty darn impressive, in its immensity and the height of its dome; in the many, many statues of saints, “proto-martyrs”, and Christ in various historical moments; in the gold-covered (or would it be painted?) stairs and chairs (the ones for priests – forgive my lack of proper vocabulary); and in the comportment of the many local worshippers there, some praying piously, some crying, and one even shaking a fist with his head bowed, occasionally wiping away tears. This was a particularly worthwhile visit for the kids, who have rarely, if ever, seen any church other than Nelson United. Surprisingly, the many graphic depictions of Christ at his crucifixion were almost as bloody as the Spanish-dubbed South African movie we’re now watching on the bus – “Death Race 3: Inferno”…
Driving along the rim of the bowl in which La Paz is nestled, we are at nearly 4000 metres elevation. Here, water boils at 85 degrees, and you have to boil it much longer to, say, cook an egg. It takes several days to get sufficiently acclimatized so that you are not out of breath from just walking a few blocks (even with coca tea). Granted, many blocks are pretty darn steep! Needless to say, the La Paz soccer team has an enviable advantage over all others; in fact, we read that teams from the lowlands who come up here to play a match consider it a suicide attempt.
In general, I’d say we were pleasantly surprised by La Paz, having been told it wouldn’t be the most pleasant or interesting place. The grinding poverty of many residents is definitely apparent, but you get the feeling that Bolivians are really working hard to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There is also considerable diversity from one neighbourhood to another: some buildings are painfully rundown, with crumbling walls, broken windows, peeling paint, and even chunks of roof missing, while others have been either beautifully restored or quite recently constructed. Significant wealth is apparent in some parts of town – especially Zona Sur – and in some people, judging by how they are dressed (or by the fact that they are driving private cars, which used to be very rare, but seems much less so now). I believe that much of this wealth comes from the Oriente (eastern part of the country) where oil and gas was discovered some years ago (10? 15?) Here in La Paz, despite the poverty and decrepit state of some buildings, the streets and sidewalks are, for the most part, remarkably clean. There are people sweeping the streets everywhere, and the children look clean, well-dressed and well cared-for (in contrast to some places I’ve been). There are also an impressive number of green parks and squares and other public gathering places, as well as wide pedestrian-only overpasses above the main street.
On our third day we managed to take a double-decker sightseeing bus for a tour around the more middle-class and wealthier areas of the city, as well as to the Valley of the Moon, just above La Paz, where the land consists of oddly weathered and bizarre rock forms and deep stalagmites extending across an area of several square kilometres. No matter, they still found a way to construct a grassy soccer field here (see photo) – we have no idea how.
Signs and billboards here are very interesting (those I understand). Some are promoting progressive attitudes about things like single-parent families or homosexuality, while others are highly political – e.g., pro-constitutional reform (there was a new constitution adopted in 2009) or anti-imperialism (see photo). Images of Che Guevara abound, on billboards, in the form of statues, or even in patterns planted into grass, which is kind of odd, considering that Che’s short history in Bolivia was a rather sorry one. In short, he failed utterly, partly because he forgot to inquire about whether they’d already had a peasant revolution (they had, about 15 years earlier), and he overlooked the fact that almost none of the peasants spoke Spanish, though they spoke about 36 other languages. It must have been like herding cats. In any case, hardly anyone joined him. And then he died. (summarily executed by CIA-assisted Bolivian government forces)
The weather is pleasant, if sometimes cool (though that will definitely not be the case at lower altitudes). This being summer, there is usually one period of rain (often a thunderstorm) per day, but it rarely lasts more than an hour. When the sun is out, it is STRONG! We have been told that sun strength is measured on an international scale ranging from 1 to 16, but that La Paz is rated 17 or 18! Also as a result of the altitude, the blue of the sky is deeper than we have ever seen before and the white of the clouds that much more white too.
The food has been, well, to be honest, not always the best. It might be because we are in the city, and our experience is very limited as of yet, but so far we’ve encountered an over-abundance of fried things – e.g., chicken or “carne”(beef), very often topped with a fried egg or fried cheese, and accompanied by fried potatoes. We like the deep-fried saltenas (pastry filled with meat and vegetables), but it’s hard to stomach them for three meals a day. (Side note: We are still trying to figure out the difference between saltenas and empanadas and tucumanas. Some of the things we are calling saltenas come with surprises in them – like a boiled egg yolk or a whole olive or raisins – so they’re probably called something else.) We look forward to seeing what else we’ll find on the menu in other parts of the country.
The kids are doing really well and have weathered our various little storms to date with aplomb. They are keen to start language school, if a little intimidated by the thought of one-on-one instruction. They have already ordered food for themselves in restaurants in Spanish. They are somewhat surprised to find themselves at the taller end of the spectrum, relative to their peers here. Forget peers; we’ve seen tiny indigenous women who are literally no taller than Felix, and he’s only 4’3”.
Not counting sickness, their most stressful moment was probably just as this bus was departing. Having been told that there were bathrooms on the buses but “no foncionne” (ever) I had gone to the bathroom for one last time in the station, running all the way, since I knew the bus would soon depart. I figured it probably wouldn’t leave right on time, plus I was hurrying, but it was all the way at the other end of the station, and then I had to buy a ticket to use it! Meanwhile, the bus was pulling away. Several times, the driver tried to leave and Erik tried desperately to explain and ask that he wait for me. He even stood in the open door, then got right off, then, when he saw me coming, jumped back on and yelled at the top of his lungs for me to RUN FASTER! The bus was moving, and the door half-closed, when I reached in and grabbed the handrail and jumped on. Erik was furious with me. It almost makes up for last night when he ordered an anis (aperitif) in a restaurant and we sipped half of it before remembering that we aren’t to ever drink water (it came with ice cubes). Sure hope the Hep A vaccine is effective.
And so we adventure onward, learning as we go. We’d love to hear your news too, and are happy to receive emails, but can’t promise replies. We’ll write again soon – from Cochabamba.