La Paz Part Two: Temporary Locals

After another grueling morning of intoxication recovery we finally dragged ourselves up in order to begin our La Paz experience anew. This was not too difficult as the Saturday market was on an alive with everything you could ever need. Mostly the Campesinos selling vegetables and a vast array of potatoes including dried potato called chuños or tunta in every size. We wandered around and generally took in what was going on in our new neighbourhood. Something Laura and I are very good at.

We ended up walking to a local restaurant in the market that was reminiscent of a car park with 5 levels and as usual arranged according to what is on offer and stomached coffee and an egg sandwich, but the hecticness of a weekend in La Paz took it out of us, it is really hot here, a dry heat as well, which dehydrates you and doesn´t combine with a hangover well. We headed back quickly and slept all afternoon. That evening we headed out to a tourist place to eat, had some wine and returned to bed. Day over.

On day 4 of La Paz we finally felt vaguely normal, especially after having a shower….

An interesting point here is that if you ever go to South America then generally the gas boilers are temperamental. Turn on the tap slowly and listen for the boiler firing up, do not turn the taps on full blast as the boiler doesn´t like it and will not heat up the water. This is the experience of 4 hostels and hostels now and so seems a universal law here. But anyway…

We headed out for a day sightseeing today to make up for the complete lack of previously. We first headed out of town to get a view over La Paz and visit a museum of a replica of Tiwanaku, as we were not planning to see it in the flesh, due to it being 72km away from the city. It was another beautiful day in La Paz and we took in the outskirts of the city, including the dusty, smoky roads, due to the poorly maintained exhaust systems of most vehicles here. The museum turned out to be in the middle of a roundabout and not really what you would call a “museum”. Either way it was good to see the stone replicas of what was an ancient civilisation that existed between 300AD and 1000AD as they had advanced crop production and a well developed society for that period of time.

Next we headed back towards the park, which was ultimately a lot of paths with some greenery on each side. The “Mirrador” or view point though was closed. This was an impressive building, modern, glass and curved forms that is devoid in the rest of the city. As it was closed you couldn´t get to the best view in town, but Laura pointed out that we could easily squeeze through the gate, which in retrospect was the poorest form of security ever. We had the place to ourselves and took in the full extent of La Paz, including Illampu the guardian mountain of the city. With photos both digital and in memory we headed back to the center to visit the San Fransisco church.

The church is an excellent example of colonial architecture with grand arches, ornate decorations of angels and floral designs surrounding the pillars and doorways. We were surprised at how well organised the church was for tourists, there was some kind of order and lots to see. We even managed to get out on the roof and walk under the bell tower. I was naughty and even gave the bell a little bit of a ring, which I have always wanted to do! The church was really spectacular and we learnt that La Paz was pretty much built around the church, as the Spanish invaders with any kind of wealth drew the native peasants around it. We also saw the crypt, although this was a very sterile crypt to what I have seen before and not too impressive, apart from the remains of many of the officers and leaders of the Peruvian war of independence.

Next was the Coca museum to learn about the history of the leaf that started its life as an indigenous pass time to become the world largest Illegal industry of cocaine, a drug that has been outcast by society and seemingly dragged coca with it. In its own right coca is barely stronger than coffee. It was banned by the church when the Spanish turned up, but realised that people using it worked harder and longer with no complaints and so taxed it and made it compulsory. Today chewing coca is banned, but no one enforces this rule. The whole of the countries political parties are centred around the banning of coca issue, something the latest government has retracted in the face of US pressure to ban “the stem of the cocaine industry”. Little appreciation goes to the fact that people here have been chewing coca for more than a thousand years and they have not had the problems that has been caused by the United States of America, in both their discovery and systematic use of cocaine. Coca Cola still uses coca in their drinks today ” as a flavouring”, but obviously had to remove the harder and addictive cocaine. I have been chewing coca now for 2 weeks intermittently when we have a long bus journey or when we have a long walk at altitude (coca is great for blood transportation to the muscles and alleviates the symptoms of altitude sickness).

After a full walking tour of the city and feeling content at our cultural effort we headed to Blue Note bar to have a drink. We managed to pick Babo up en route and the night started so well, with just a few lethal cuba libres. The bar is a cool place, but you get the impression that the owner doesn´t like posh people, nor french people, but owns a wine bar. This sums up the contradictions in La Paz to us.

Babo is an interesting character. He has a bad cocaine habit like most people he seems to know do and needs a few lines to wake up in the morning. The owners of the hotel seem to tolerate him as he has been here for 6 months, despite apparently getting kicked out and banned from 2 hotels previously. He tells us that he owns a flat in his native Belgium, but has been stitched up by most tenants so he has no money to return to Belgium, while his visa has expired and is actually fake due to corruption of the Bolivian immigration. He continually tells us horror stories of people being kidnapped and beaten up for money after catching fake taxis (a real problem in the capital). He jumps up regularly at his phone ringing when there is no one there and twitches a lot, moving non stop while telling us endless stories of India and La Paz, our two points of commonality.

It is interesting to hear and then meet his friends and “acquaintances”, all of whom where cocaine addicts and “on the take”. There are numerous tales of each other stitching each other up over borrowing money and giving each other lines of cocaine that are not replaced. They are bitter, hardened people. They have met the worst people in the city, drug dealers, “base whores”, been carted around in dodgy taxis to find their next wrap of coke that has not been mixed with speed and other crapper, cheaper drugs. What was particularly stark was the comparison of these guys and their use of what they say is the best cocaine in the world (I would not be surprised given that most of the plant to make it grows here and grows here the best). It supports the argument to ban coca, but I feel for the indigenous people who have to suffer stupid drug addicts who have more money than sense. The night continued and Laura and I´s Spanish is improving enough to have long conversations with barely little explanation of what we are trying to say. As the cuba libres flowed we vaguely learnt a Bolivian dice game before I had to take Laura back to the hotel. Night abruptly over.

The next day we were on another “non day”, where we needed recovery. We decided to go to the English pub for an emergency English fry up, but as we would have expected it was rubbish, over priced and crap. The beans were some kind of weird mutant bean with sauce that tasted nothing familiar, which is what we were in need of. Dejected we headed out to catch up on our blog and that evening decided to make up for breakfast with a steak! Yes this is the way to blow a budget and not be in control of your finances. Unsurprisingly it starts with alcohol. Either way the steak and ribs we ended up having was ace and in terms of UK prices ace (total of 12 pounds including a b0ottle of wine for us both). In the middle of dinner it started thundering and then began to snow heavily as we headed back in urnest to the hotel. A stark reminder that we are high in the atmosphere and that the day sun can burn, while you can be snowed upon in the evening.

The following day we had decided to have a real blow out seeing as we were doing so well in that department anyway and went to the only spa in La Paz, in a 5 star hotel called “The President”. The jacuzzi was not working to my disappointment, so we negotiated the daily rate to 40 Bs (4 pounds). We pretty much had the whole p’lace to ourselves and so sauna´d, steam roomed and swam until we couldn´t anymore. The view through the glass ceiling was spectacular and it was great to have a broad experience through 5 stardom luxury, to the drug addict world of the streets and the gringo/ backpacker trail. To finish things off we went back to the steak house for a cheaper burger. Another mammoth storm erupted with lightning pulsing through the sky every second horizontally and driving hail so hard that it started coming through the window. We made our way back when things had eased off and the waterfall cascading down the steps to our street was not going to carry us off and did the budget to realise we were spending 20 pounds a day, double what we need to, worryingly in the cheapest country in South America.

The next day babo said he was finally leaving. His ex girlfriend from a while back had wired him 3000 Bs (300 pounds) to get out and although he wasn´t convinced that he would get out without being thrown into jail, we said our goodbyes, just after he tried to sell us a photocopied book for double the price “as a donation”. We strolled about and went for a ubiquitous almuerzo (lunch menu) for 10 bs (1 pound) and were served the standardised menu, which today was meat and quinua soup and fried chicken with rice and fried potatoes. Today´s “postre” or dessert was fruit salad, far better than the (literally) cinnamon water we had the other day. The interesting point of this was that everything in an almuerzo is meat related and so being vegetarian in Bolivia is expensive as you have to buy a la carte, at least 3 times more expensive. We also realised we needed out of this city before it broke us or our budget and made plans to bail the next day.

The next day soon came and we had a final breakfast of strong coffee, fried eggs and stale bread rolls before setting off to the bus station in a taxi, admiring the colonial architecture and protruding spanish style balconies intermingled with Bolivian ladies wearning bowler hats way too small for them and more grimey concrete buildings. We easily secured a ticket to Oruro and it left before we could even pick up some snacks for the journey, for the non princely sum of 20 Bs each (2 pounds) for a 7 hour journey.

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1 comment

    • Laura //Belgium on 03/07/2011 at 15:29

    Please contact me about Babo (La Paz)
    I am his mother and want to find him, maybe he is dead already.
    We didn’t hear from him since january.
    How can I get in touch with Alistair Williams? (E.mail?)

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