Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bolivia March 23

Easter in La Paz March 23, 2008

La Paz March 8, 2008
The whole Easter week, Semana Santa, is a very big occasion in Latin American countries. All week long, people go to their churches and many offices are closed. Flowers are brought in from all over the country and many pilgrims flock to sacred places, some asking for miracles and some for favors. Many take miniatures of items, like cars or houses, asking for a blessing and hoping for the real thing in the coming year. Animals are blessed and services continue.

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.
On Easter Sunday we wandered around the San Francisco church, the oldest and most beautiful in La Paz. Outside in the huge courtyard, vendors were selling traditional Easter candies, heavy on the chocolate eggs of various sizes from tiny to Ostrich sized. Everyone was dressed in their Easter finest. Inside the church, at the end of the mass, the congregation began to sing “When the Saints go Marching In.”, though the words were not the same as the familiar version from New Orleans. There was even a song sung to the melody of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”. Even the dogs were dressed up to parade around the large courtyard, and the smallest children were having a good time trying to catch the pigeons. There were also a few beggars, but not as many as we would have thought. There was a general feeling of excitement and the whole spectacle was very colorful.

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.
This year Easter fell on March 23 which is also the anniversary of Bolivia’s defeat by Chile in the War of the Pacific in 1883 which resulted in Bolivia losing her access to the sea. Strangely enough, the defeat is remembered annually as the Dia del Mar with military parades and ceremonies. Just down the street from the San Francisco Church, on La Paz’s main boulevard, is the monument to the unknown soldier, marked by a tall obelisk. Here, crowds gathered to watch several marching bands as well as troops of soldiers marching in the uniform of 1883. There was also a parade of the Bolivian SWAT troops marching in their olive drab camouflage outfits; nowhere near as colorful, but a lot more intimidating. All these parades were ultimately heading up the hill to the city’s main square lined by the Cathedral and various government buildings. We were still suffering from the effects of the high altitude and decided not to follow them up.

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.
Bolivia’s most colorful Semana Santa celebration is at Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We had planned to go up there for the weekend, but Ted’s Video camera was on the fritz and in the shop, so we decided to simply wait a while to make the trip.

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.
Among some of the interesting sights in La Paz is the Street of Ghosts. The story is that when the Spanish were building homes they used the bones of dead Indians in the foundations. Subsequent residents complained that they were being haunted, so the city counsel ordered the installation of a green cross on one of the walls. It must have worked because today elderly citizens sit in the sun without any celestial visitors.

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.
Another fun sight is the school children’s pedestrian traffic guards, dressed in zebra suits. They prance their charges across the streets, amusing both walkers and drivers.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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 loss of appetite. A real shame where food is plentiful, good and cheap.

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.

La Paz has hundreds of shoe shine men and boys, most wearing ski masks and looking a bit scary. For about a dime, they will shine your shoes. One day while visiting the cathedral park, two young boys asked to polish my shoes. Cathy, our guide also got hers polished. Then it was up to Ted to choose one of the boys to polish his. Being an equal opportunity employer; he gave one shoe each to both boys. At first, they were confused but with laughter from some of the onlookers, they bent to the job and were rewarded with a dime for each shoe.

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