Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bolivia March 16

La Paz March 16, 2008

La Paz March 8, 2008
On Palm Sunday we took a sightseeing bus trip around La Paz. Every church was bustling with activity. In front and on the steps, ladies were selling elaborately braided palm fronds, people were dressed in their very best clothes and everywhere there was a feeling of excitement.

Buses leave Uyuni every day but the best one, the luxury bus leaves four times per week for La Paz. Trains leave for Oruru twice a week where travelers must then transfer to a bus for La Paz. The books warn travelers that during the transfer many items are stolen. Not a selling point to visiting Oruru at this time. We had arrived in Uyuni on Thursday and the luxury bus leaves on Friday, so we bought tickets for the 10 hour trip leaving at 8 pm. Todo Turisismo buses are clean, toilets are the best we’ve seen and the dinner of fried chicken and French fries was good. During the coldest part of the trip the heaters came on. Since the bus was only half full, we got to use an empty pair of seats and I almost got a full night’s sleep. Ted, however, too large to lie down, didn’t.
Our bus guide first described the layout of the city, built in a 5 km. wide volcanic crater with very few level streets, which we had already figured out. The wealthier citizens live at the lower and flatter areas and the poorer ones live on the steep upper streets most of which are cobbled or even dirt.

For the first six hours of the trip, the bus traveled on the typical dirt road, reaching pavement only at Oruru. On the dirt road the bus bounced around so much, coats dropped from the overhead storage. I had taken off my shoes and for a short stop along the way, had to get down on my knees and search for them, eventually finding one about three seats forward and the other four seats back. At Oruru we stopped for about 20 minutes while driver and steward were changed. It was raining and cold.
In the very center of La Paz is a hill at the top of which one can get a panoramic view of the city spread out below and climbing up the sides of the crater. Above the crater rim looms the glacier covered Volcano Illimani, almost 22,000 ft. high, and scattered around the city below are numerous high rises sprouting like tall weeds among the lower buildings which cover the city.

Upon arriving in La Paz, which at first glance appears to be all up or down hills, it was raining. On the way to the hostel we saw Indian women setting up stalls, hanging up clothes or setting out shoes and wares for what we discovered was a daily morning market on Illampu Street. Since we had been unable to reserve a room ahead of time, we were anxious about finding one, especially as the bus arrived at 6:30 a.m. still dark. But we were lucky and found one at the first place we stopped.La Paz has many lovely colonial style buildings characterized by carved facades and painted in bright, gay colors. The central square is surrounded by official buildings, the largest of which is the neo-classical cathedral which we plan to visit on Easter Sunday.

A city of a million and a half people, built in the crater of a volcano, its cobbled streets run up or down with only a handful of more or less level ones. The highest capital in the world, 13,000 feet above sea level, it is cold. Our first hotel was cold with saggy beds, extra charges for everything and not a good place for us to spend three weeks. We planned to stay here for three weeks to explore, get some laundry done and acclimate before heading to Peru. So the next day we looked at six or seven other hotels. We found the Hotel Alem, with a large room on a busy street that would suit our purposes. Unfortunately, the street is nearly vertical and the hotel, like most of the budget accommodations, is also unheated. The next day we bought a small heater and made life so much better, though, still not completely acclimated, we still get easily fatigued doing anything at all, let alone climb up and down the street.
Bolivia had at one time, a sea coast and was about three times bigger than today. But, like Paraguay, its larger neighboring countries had whittled it down. Chile took the sea coast, which had been the route to transporting silver to Spain.

Luckily, our street, Sagarnaga, is a major tourist area filled with souvenir shops, Alpaca clothing stores, tourist agencies, internets, and restaurants; dozens of them all side by side on both sides of a street not much more than a single vehicle wide. The line of cars, trucks, and busses passes by all day but, also luckily, the cross traffic is so heavy, that they are slow and often stalled so it’s not too hard to cross the street.
La Paz had been a major stopping point on the silver route. After gaining independence, 175 years ago, Bolivia has had 175 presidents, all corrupt with one serving 30 years in jail for his creative accounting. Another gave away a large parcel of land to a Chilean general in return for a horse. Finally a few years ago, Chile ceded a small access path to the sea to Bolivia.

Just across the street is our favorite restaurant, called 100% Organic, which serves up delicious soups and great sandwiches as well as huge entrees of steaks, chops, and chicken. They also have Llama steaks, which taste mostly like barbecue sauce.
Another great feature of the restaurant is that it’s heated. Next door to that is a Cuban restaurant, also pretty good, which offers live Cuban music on Thursday nights. Also heated. A couple of Pizza and Pasta joints are also quite close, but they aren’t heated, and with ambient temperatures in the 60’s, eating there can be uncomfortable. There’s also a decent Chinese restaurant in the area, and most incredible of all, an Israeli joint usually packed with kids on their travels after having just gotten out of the Israeli army. There are more Israelis here than we saw even in Buenos Aires and signs in Hebrew are to be seen everywhere in the neighborhood. In fact, every where in South America, we’ve seen many Israeli kids. Hebrew signs are all over in even the smallest towns. One Brazilian lady on seeing a world map for the first time and seeing how small Israel is, exclaimed “No wonder there are so many Israeli travelers. There isn’t enough room for you all to stay there.”
Bolivia remains the poorest nation in South America, though it is rich in oil and natural gas. For whatever misplaced reasons, the government will simply not allow this natural wealth to flow out of the country, though it could make them wealthy. The result is widespread poverty, ignorance, and disease. More than half the population of 9 million claims to be indigenous Indians and the average mother has 5 children. In fact, 42% of the population is under 14 years of age, a time bomb which will explode eventually. Political and social unrest is rife. In the week we have been here, we have seen 4 major demonstrations, the largest of which by the miners, managed to make the city’s already huge traffic problem even worse.

There’s also a Turkish Bath and pool in the area. Ted checked it out today and decided that it would probably be a great place to pick up some kind of infection or other.
Bad as it is, the economic situation is not dire due to the underground economy based on the cultivation of coca, though the US government has been pressuring Bolivia to crack down. For awhile, the government was paying the farmers $2500 per hectare not to grow the crop. What happened was that the government nearly went broke when the farmers added more hectares in order to claim they stopped the growing and collect the bribe. Of course, they continued to grow coca as well, which paid considerably more than $2500 per hectare. The net result is that the coca growing regions have come under the control of drug cartels supported by various armed guerrilla organizations and violence has become a standard practice, a la Colombia. Just another example of the US’s totally stupid drug war.

Illampu, the main street in the area, only a half a block up the mountainside from our hotel, is the site of a morning market, which extends well into the afternoon. People, mostly women, set up booths along the sidewalks selling everything from fruits and nuts to eggs, clothing, watches, CDs and DVDs, and just about anything else you could possibly think of. It’s an amazingly colorful affair, though the sidewalks are so crowded that it’s easier to walk in the street. Our hotel includes a breakfast of juice, rolls, and coffee, but we found an ancient Indian woman selling eggs on the street, so every few days we buy a dozen and the hotel cook scrambles them up for us in the morning.
We also learned about Bolivia’s most interesting fashion. Sometime in the late 1800’s an English hatter imported hundreds of Bowler hats into La Paz. The hats were too small for the gentlemen of La Paz so he convinced the female Spanish aristocracy that wearing Bowler hats was the latest thing in European fashion. And as the Indian women copied the gentry in fashion, the Bowler hat craze took off. Bowler hats, usually two sizes too small, are still a common sight among the Indian women of Bolivia. Today, the hat worn on a slant signifies a single woman or worn straight means a married one. The long full skirts worn by the Spanish ladies and adopted by the Indian women, have over the years, been shortened until they are now mid-calf with over 7 yards of fabric and the shawls of Spain are still seen everywhere usually matching the skirts.

Bolivian women adopted wearing Bowler hats sometime ago. I don’t know why but they look so charming, perched on top of their heads, usually 2 sizes too small, much in the manner of vaudeville comedians of nearly a century ago. When it rains, they cover the felt hats with plastic bags. The women all seem to be as wide as they are tall but I think that is because they are wearing everything they own in order to stay warm. Most wear colorful shawls, tied in front and holding bundles of goods or babies, and their voluminous skirts( made with 7 yards of fabric) are color matched to the shawls and embroidered with shiny thread and glitter in the sun, when there is sun, which is very rare. On the other hand, the men dress in western clothes, very drab.
Women wear their hair in long braids tied together in the back with some sort of tassel that makes the braids about six inches longer. Modern girls are choosing to wear their hair loose or tied in pony tails. Some are even cutting it short. That coupled with blue jeans, IPODs and tennis shoes make them blend in with girls anywhere in the world.

On our tour we had been introduced to coca leaves. Sucking on the folded leaves is said to relieve altitude problems. Also, drinking coca tea. However during the first night here, I suffered paralysis of the left side of my face and left arm. Gladly, that seems to be passing and I don’t have to look like a bad Halloween mask forever; another side effect of altitude. Another is lossAfter touring the major downtown area, our bus then turned to the southern route where the very wealthy have built. The upper part of La Paz is at an average altitude of 12,000 ft., the highest capitol in the world. The southern part of the city is almost 3,000 feet lower, and considerably warmer. Here, the houses are built on very strong and expensive foundations because there is no bed-rock, only clay which has a tendency to slip when wet. Sometimes the cost of appetite. A real shame where food is plentiful, goodthe foundation is many times the cost of the house, which can be several hundred thousand dollars and cheapmore.

While in Africa, we saw a program about the pygmy armadillo, a rare and furry little thing. The show claimed that they only occurred in the desert near Mendoza, Argentina which is known as the wine growing region of Argentina. Since we have seen wine regions around the world, we didn’t stop in Mendoza on our way to Chile. But while in San Pedro de Atacama, we spotted the mummy of a pygmy armadillo in a small grocery store, high on a shelf. Now in La Paz, the hotel across the street has one in the reception area. They were kind enough to show it to us, a cute little thing with lots of fur on its belly and on its back. I did get some pictures and found out it is common around the area, the mummy is supposed to bring good luck.
It is very picturesque with modern subdivisions perched below towering cliffs of multicolored rock. Try to imagine a city built in the Painted Desert of Arizona and you begin to get the picture.

Just outside of this area is the“Moon Valley”, a strange place where the clay has been eroded by rain, leaving a large dry mud pile, characterized by weird stalagmitic shapes, some reaching heights of 20 ft. or more. A few cacti have taken hold on some of the piles. Today the area is a national park with a small entrance fee.

From there, we returned to our starting point at the Plaza Isobel La Catolica, named for the Spanish Queen who funded Columbus’ voyage and was therefore, at least symbolically, responsible for everything that has happened since concerning the New World and the fate of its indigenous people.

We returned to our hotel via taxi. Taxis in La Paz are the cheapest we’ve encountered anywhere in the world. They are not metered, but one can travel for long distances for little more than a dollar. We have continued to be surprised by the low fares which make bargaining superfluous.

On another day we walked the two blocks to the “Witch’s Market” where we found the “rare and elusive” pygmy armadillo for sale. At least a dozen of them. For less than $20. Some had been stuffed but others still had the insides and smelled like decay. Not very pleasant. Hundreds of dried fetal llamas for sale, some with fur, most without. Other potions for love, health, happiness are on display. One woman insisted for 15 cents, that we buy a “travelers” good luck rock. Herbal medicines advertise cures for any human ills. A disturbing sight was the furs of several small wild cats from the Amazon Basin. They may bring good luck to the buyers but they certainly bring bad luck to the wild cats of Bolivia. Once we actually saw a dried Jaguar skin hanging outside a shop.

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