De vez en cuando….en La Paz
Why in the hell Bolivia? Well, why not. When I did my round the world jollies three years ago now (how time flies), I managed to get to Ecuador, Peru and Brazil but missed out all the countries in between. So a few weeks ago, accompanied by a close friend who used to live there, I ventured deep into South America and up into the fabled capital city of Bolivia; Nuestra Senora de La Paz.
Firstly can I just debunk a real myth here; it ain’t always summer in South America. The place was f**cking freezing. Not just cold cold, it was the swearing kind of cold. Let me qualify this.
Antarctic cold is -26 degrees or something, snowing constantly, things freeze bla bla and you compensate by wearing seven layers of clothing as well as untold types of specialist gear (I’ve never been anywhere that cold, so please allow some poetic licence).
La Paz cold is between 5-10 degrees celcius. Not so bad, you wear a few layers, a scarf, boots ye kno. But the thing is, step out of shade into sunshine during the day (and the sun is a real bitch that high up) and you’ll find yourself feeling like its 23 degrees and getting a bad case of prickly heat. Don’t think about disrobing too much though, the oxygen is so thin at that altitude that the heat only exists when you stand directly in sunlight.
Add to that the fact that I suffered altitude sickness from day one and basically was breathing like I had a pulmonary disease after taking 3 steps and what you get is a lil black chick who proved that black folk don’t belong at altitude!
(As a sidebar, I’ll add that I only saw my first Afro-Bolivian when we took a daytrip to warmer and lower climes to a town called Coroico. Much more civilised temperatures.)
We were fortunate enough to get free accommodation with friends for our ten day stay; the apartment had the most beautiful views of the city, facing away from the sun, meaning it was colder inside than outside. They don’t really do central heating, the old school adobe houses that capture and retain heat don’t seem to have competition in modern high rises like the one our apartment was in…its cold outside, cold inside, cold everywhere.
Aside from the cold, La Paz is one of the weirdest and most amazing places I’ve ever been to. As a city, I don’t know anywhere that has views the way La Paz has.
Imagine a flat plane, totally flat, the kind where you see things hundreds of miles away (the Altiplano) and then imagine a valley within that plane (surrounded by a growing area called El Alto), with hills and crazy cliff drops, inclines and peaks with a pretty modern city built right into the heart of it and you have La Paz.
Everywhere you look there is a view, either of Illimani, the most popular local mountain or houses built at what the heck angles or bits of uninhabitable rock that look like the moon. Needless to say, my camera had much to consume.
Foodwise (gotta mention the eating), I wasn’t particularly blown away, BUT, (its a big but) I discovered one snack that my heart will long for forever. Saltenas. Beautiful little pastries filled with chicken, meat or veg and the sweetest savoury sauce ever. The mouth dribbles in memory….
Another interesting bit about this place has to be the return of the indigenous people to places of prominence and power. Like most of South America there is a large Indian population (although not as large as it possibly should be) as well as the natural mix occurring with the white population.
Five years ago, they gained their first indigenous president Evo Morales and he is now into his second term. The economic and cultural change that followed Evo’s rise resulted in an increase in the Aymaran population living in La Paz, as well as an increase in people choosing to wear supposedly traditional dress, known as Cholos (the men) or Cholitas (the women).
They’re everywhere, old, young, in shops, as street vendors, bus conductors you name it. Because of the traditional nature of their clothes, you might be inclined to think them poor….do not be fooled. They’re just as likely as anyone else to be affluent, sometimes deceptively so.
One thing that’s clear is the obvious contrast between Cholos/Cholitas and everyone else. They are all generally Aymara people (although in Coroico there were black Cholitas), most Bolivians I found were friendly, but the Cholos and Cholitas basically are practicing active prejudice towards anyone non Aymaran…even other Bolivians. It’s not outright outspoken prejudice, just that quiet, weird lack of acknowledgement…quite odd.
Anyhoo, enough of the cultural lecture, I laughed, I clubbed, I drank, I danced to salsa, bought an awful lot of leather bags and whatnot. I also ate Llama for the first time, pretty decent meat I tell ya.
Would I go back? Yes, but I probably wouldn’t stay in La Paz too long, the weirdness of the place eventually gets to you, but I’ve got an itch to explore the rest of that pretty awesome country, so watch this space!
On the way home, we spent five days back in Rio (I LOVE Brazil), the only thing is, those five days coincided with the ten days of crap weather Rio has a year. Go figure, this time, clearly the beach wasn’t ready for me!