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Bolivia II - La Paz

La Paz
My first impression of La Paz, population  just under a million and at 3632 m the highest Capital city in the world, was not a particularly happy one. There was hardly a scrap of green to be seen. Rubbish lined the roadsides and the rivers looked and smelled like open sewers. Stray dogs roamed the streets picking at rubbish  and as we entered the town proper I could see a body (a dummy fortunately) hanging from a power pole. I couldn't believe that there were less than a million people here. Perhaps it was because most of their houses were crammed into the valley or perched on impossible slopes and you could see them all at a single glance.

First impressions
Impossible traffic jams presided over by female officers in orange and black cheerleader uniforms
Things did improve once I  had spent a bit of time there, though not all of it was enjoyable. The slight headache and sniffle I'd had in Copacabana turned into the worst cold I had ever had and I ended up having to spend several days in bed. In fact, they called ours "The Dorm of Doom" because five of the six occupants had the 'flu and  we were all coughing and snuffling our way through boxes of tissues while everyone else partied on in the Irish bar. They should have put a plague cross on the door.

When I felt a little better, I did one of the Red Hat town tours. These are excellent and nominally free, but you are expected to tip. We met up outside San Pedro Prison - quite an institution with the two thousand prisoners buying and renting out cells, conducting various other forms of free enterprise and  pretty well managing themselves. In consequence only twenty -five perimeter guards are needed, though the inmates aren't really hard core criminals -usually only prisoners on remand, small time crooks and politicicans who have been caught accepting bribes and the like. Alas, tours are no longer encouraged. As Maya, our guide pointed out, "It's easy to get in, but hard to get out." She made no bones about  the corruption that goes on -how much money you have determines not only the quality of your cell, but how soon your case is heard - and explained other aspects of the local justice system including what was behind the dummy on the power pole.

Both Maya (right in red) and her off  -sider Delia ? spoke excellent English

In some communities where they don't have sufficient policing or they don't trust the police to act on their behalf, the local people do a sort of Neighbourhood Watch with everyone keeping an eye out for their neighbour. The dummy is a warning that  community justice is active here and that's what they'll do to transgressors and thieves. Our own Neighbourhood Watch could learn a thing or two from here. I'm sure it would be much more effective than those nice little signs.

We then proceeded on to the market, some of the churches and Murillo Plaza where we learned  a bit about Bolivia's turbulent political history. You could still see the bullet holes from the last confrontation in 2003 between the military and the police in which 60 people were killed and thousands wounded. They were protesting about the then president selling their gas to Chile when they needed it themselves for cooking and heating. He then absconded to the U.S. A. taking the country's wealth with him and was replaced in 2005 by the popular and democratically elected Evan Morales who still rules today.

Plaza Murillo had more pigeons than I have ever seen. The presidential palace is the salmon coloured building and the parliament is on the left. It has also seen its share of action
[By the way, you can click on any of these pictures to enlarge them]

The beautiful coloured flags which hang over the parliament and the presidential palace are also interesting. The do not indicate gay pride, which seems to have taken over the design, but the 38 tribes which make up Bolivia. For this reason it has recently changed it's name from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia..

Another intriguing part of the tour was the visit to the Witches' Market which shows how strong the old beliefs are beneath the veneer of Catholicism. You can buy lotions and potions and amulets for every purpose - good marks, getting a job, catching a man,* as well as a good supply of llama foetuses for putting under the foundations of new houses. Without such ceremonies the builders will not start work because they believe that Pacha Mama - the earth mother will not smile upon their endeavours. Rumour has it that in the bad old days large buildings required human sacrifices before their foundations could be laid, but this practice seems to have fallen by the wayside. You will be pleased to know that no llamas are harmed in this process. Having no shelter in these harsh climes, Llama foetuses are easy to come by. Nor can the llamas carry twins to term and thus many are spontaneously aborted for this reason.

Lotions, potions and amulets at the Witches' Market
 * Should have bought some of these - but thought the white powder wouldn't make it through customs
..and a supply of llama foetuses

On Tuesdays and Thursdays every good Bolivian still performs Challah, a ritual giving thanks for past good fortune or to request favour for future endeavours
We also found out about how the bowler hats came to be a fashion item. There are conflicting stories. The one we heard was that when Bolivians saw high status Europeans wearing them when they came to put in a railway in the 1920s, they wanted them too, but the first consignment was too small, so an enterprising soul decided to make them a fashion item by passing them on to the women. They became so popular that even when the Italian factory that made them closed its doors there, it still kept a factory in Bolivia. Women wear them proudly and the angle on the head indicates the marital status of the wearer. Straight means married and settled while wearing it at a rakish angle means flirty, single or widowed.

Speaking of fashion, being plump is considered desirable in Bolivia as it indicates strength and child bearing capabilities. The full skirt or polera is worn to highlight this. Women do carry enormous enormous loads in those shawls on their backs - potatoes, even bricks, not just children. Although our guide said that it keeps their backs straight, I saw quite a few older women bent almost double from carrying such loads.

Women shopping in more sensible headwear though the bowlers do look very elegant. I was told that every woman has a Borsaline bowler somewhere. See them in action in the link above

We also learned about correct etiquette in the market - how to get a good deal from your casera by going to the same person each time and sharing a bit of gossip. Such relationships are handed on from generation to generation. We were shown where to get wholesome food, fine handcrafts and where the good bars were.

As well as getting my new glasses - not glam but robust and indestructible, I did a few day trips on the local buses as they ground their way up and down the precipitous hills. The above clip is from the Mirador Kille Kille as indeed it would have, had I walked it. Be warned, it's screechy, possibly because of the gale that was blowing there.
My next effort was to the the Valley of the Moon. Unfortunately as in Mittad del Mundo, the bus driver  forgot to let me out and I ended up at the zoo and the national park. It was a public holiday, so most of La Paz was there too and the views from thiis place were not unlike the valley of the moon anyway, as you can see in the second shot below, so I wasn't too disappointed.

Bolivians appreciate a good barbie too

Eroded hillsides near the Valley of the Moon


Getting into the spirit of things I sat down at one of the outside tables and ordered a soup. At least I thought I did, butl the waiter brought some chicken, chips, rice, a piece of corn and a piece of cheese. At least it was edible, not like the character in a National Lampoon who asks the waiter "What's that?" and is told," The fried telephone book you ordered, Sir."