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Llama foetuses and cocaine: A stroll through La Paz, Bolivia

January 28, 2009

La Paz viewed from the poorer outlying suburb of El Alto

“See that corner right there? That’s where a bus ran off the road and crashed into the wall, and a tourist had his arm severed. HIS ARM! Can you believe it? On that corner!”

Jed, the over-eager American from Salt Lake City, in his comfortable shoes and mass-produced generic traveller pyjama pants, has told us this story three times already this morning. We are in La Paz, Bolivia, seeing the sights, and Jed is morbidly fixated on the severed arm. Maybe it’s the fact that the arm belonged to a tourist that has Jed feeling like he’s had a close brush with limblessness himself.

“Wait… maybe it was THIS corner. See? It looks like a bus crashed into that wall there. See all those flowers? Those are definitely for dead people from that bus crash.”

Jed has no idea what he’s talking about.

It’s true, though, that La Paz has a lot of street corners wreathed with flowers and mini shrines for those who don’t survive the dog-eat-dog frenetic traffic. The city, the highest capital in the world, sits at 3100-4000 metres above sea level. It is cradled by a bowl-shaped canyon, its geography reflecting social standing, like many South American cities, with the richest areas along the bottom, the poorer neighbourhoods teetering upwards, clinging to the side of the canyon, hoping to be able to climb down into affluence one day. The triple-peaked Illimani mountain soars above cloud level to the city’s south, like a benevolent squatting god.

The streets are steep, narrow, and winding, and just walking around can leave you short of breath – and that’s not even taking into account the thin air, or the smog. The streets are choked with traffic in all its tooting roaring glory. People dart in and out between the cars, and above our heads hundreds of illegal snarled black electricity lines obliterate the streetscape. Small children try to intimidate us into giving them money, and shoeshiners, all mysteriously clad in balaclavas, only their eyes visible, wander the city streets with their kits, offering even to shine the Havaiana-shod feet of tourists. There is a rumour that they’re former prisoners and killers who are hiding in plain sight. There is another rumour that they’re ashamed of the work they’re doing. That seems unlikely, as it is respectable work everywhere else in Latin America. We don’t understand.

The architecture is a hodgepodge of colonial Spanish and newly-built monstrosities with an eye to speed and convenience rather than aesthetics, extra levels added whenever extra money is scraped together, with that ugly brick façade that is representative of much low-level Latino building – none of it with permits, obviously.

“Hey! Hey, guys! I think maybe this is the corner the guy got his arm severed at! See these flowers and candles?”

We ditch Jed.

Dried llama foetuses at the witches' market

We go off in search of the Witches’ Market, where we find llama foetuses in jars and potions and powders claiming to cure all kinds of impotence, infertility, lost love and bad luck. The Coca Museum around the corner is one of the best I’ve visited. It traces the origins of the humble coca leaf, its cultural significance to Bolivians, and the way that the colonising Spanish and imperialist Americans have created a demand for cocaine that has forced the Bolivians into a deal with the devil, for which they are daily being punished. It’s always something.

Bolivia has the largest indigenous population in all of South America, evident everywhere you look. From the women in traditional dress — with their large skirts, layered beaded cardigans, mismatched knee-socks, long black braids and bowler hats — to the coca-leaf chewing men we see in a parade on the city’s outskirts, dressed like gangsters from a 1920s musical. They swig whisky straight from the bottle as they dance along mid-afternoon, followed by tubby men tottering under huge curling horns, droning out a song for Carnaval that we find ourselves still humming days later. You can see it in the broad round faces of people on the street, with their ruddy cheeks and large eyes. It is clear that we are in a country dominated by ancient culture and the ever-present Andes.

The people are not as immediately friendly as in neighbouring Peru. There is a reserve, a hesitation before smiling, that belies their difficult past and years of exploitation by invading forces.

A parade of traditionally-dressed Bolivians on the outskirts of La Paz. Also present: Giant tubas and copious amounts of whisky.

Andean culture has long featured the coca leaf, which is most often chewed and acts as a mild stimulant, suppressing hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. It is also used in traditional medicine, and to alleviate altitude sickness. However, given the poverty of Bolivia and the relentless demand for cocaine by the Western world, it comes as no surprise that the drug is an undercurrent present in all travellers’ circles.

We stay in a party hostel in La Paz known for its tolerant attitude towards drug use. The vast majority of the hostel’s guests are in a drug-tourism paradise, buying cocaine for $10-15 a gram and going wild like they could never afford to do back home. The San Pedro prison is a popular tour, where inmates show tourists around for about $50 per person, which culminates in the purchase of coke. The prison produces the majority of the city’s cocaine: another irony to which Bolivians seem to be immune.

There are underground coke bars scattered around the city, which do not officially exist but which any taxi driver can take you to. There, patrons order the number of lines they want and are served on a CD case in a mirrored garage somewhere under someone’s house. Tourists stay til midday getting high and yammering nonsense at one another, and sleep the rest of the day away. I meet three Canadian girls that have been in La Paz for two weeks but have never left the hostel during the day. Their food and drinks tab is colossal even given the favourable exchange rate, and they spend all night in the cocaine bars. Tourists outnumber Bolivians there ten to one.

It’s unfortunate, because Bolivia is one of the most interesting, contradictory countries I’ve visited. It is spectacularly beautiful, from the ancient Lake Titicaca where you can hike the islands, looking out to water that reaches the horizon from this millennia-old inland sea. The Andean region is cold and windswept and dramatically lovely, and the southern plains are something out of an old western. (Read about how I grappled with an uncooperative horse while on the trail of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the rainbow rock landscape of Tupiza.)

There is a strike, demonstration, or rally on every day that we are in La Paz, with unexpected explosions startling me at regular intervals, making me twitchier than I already am. I want to attribute it to the backfirings of cars, but I know better. The country is fiercely political. We crossed the border from Peru on a ‘dry’ weekend; a referendum was scheduled and it was impossible to buy alcohol, a measure implemented by the government to prevent violence. The hostels take advantage of the excuse for illicit parties, and it’s true – cheap cocktails do taste better when drinking them is against the law.

Bolivian political graffiti

La Paz is covered in beautiful political graffiti and murals, most of which exhort the people to VOTA SÍ A LA CONSTITUCIÓN. The country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, wants to alter the constitution so that land taken by wealthy European and mestizo settlers, particularly in the country’s south-east, would be redistributed. This had resulted in violent clashes a few months earlier, with some thirty villagers killed and piled onto a bus in the province of Santa Cruz. The thought of the bodies decomposing in the steamy jungle heat made my stomach turn.

“The roads were blocked off for days,” reported my friend, who had been trapped in the area and eventually hitchhiked out. Fortunately, the referendum is passed with an overwhelming YES vote and there is little to no violence.

Except, of course, for Jed’s bus crash.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. passive observer #

    This is brilliant Neda. The only thing you missed out was Jed’s impending bus crash which brought him speedily and limblessly into the welcomingly brutal hands of his own morbid destiny. But otherwise, a really good read.

    June 3, 2010
    • We met Jed on a bus crossing the border from Peru to Bolivia, a bus from which we had him thrown off as he was sitting in our assigned seats. This bus was later put on a raft powered by two outboard motors and sent out across the lake… Perhaps Jed is also celebrating his near escape from a potential drowning?

      June 3, 2010

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