….only in Bolivia!

” …people will travel 10000 miles to observe wonderful people that they ignore back home…” Helen War

While this quote may be true for most places around the world, it is definitely not the case for La Paz!

The seven days spent between Christmas and New Years will, without doubt, forever be ingrained into my mind, since this truly bizarre city has been the birthplace of some of the most insane situations I have ever experienced.

It’s for this very reason that I am finding this particular leg of our adventure the hardest to capture in words, fearing that my limited writing ability will simply not do the time spent here justice.

I suppose a good place to start would be the most spectacular setting of Bolivia’s de facto capital. Arriving via the El Alto suburb, I could see why some would argue that the city is simply a poverty plagued sprawl of muddy streets and unfinished buildings designed by what must be ‘Micky Mouse’ architects trapped in 80’s – Which to be fair, wasn’t a groundbreaking decade for the human race in terms of producing architecture of any real beauty.

However, once you get past the sea of migrants (from the countryside) setting up market stalls along the street side (which I am sure also double up as their primary residence) and the unkempt children playing in potholes, you can truly appreciate the unique geological position of the city.

Standing at the edge of the canyon on one of the many miradores (view points) the earth simply drops away revealing the sprawling city, which fills the bowl and climbs the walls of the gapping canyon – which at night is even more spectacular. To add to the intensity of the landscape, on a clear day the snowcapped triple peak of Illimani towers over 6402m in the background giving the hustle and bustle a strange sense of tranquility.

Now that I have set the scene, I am simply going to list out the many weird and wacky things often forcing you to use the phrase, “only in Bolivia”

1. Bolivians interesting take on Zebra crossings

2. Counterfeit money being sold in the open, often ending up in circulation. It’s typical for gringos to receive fake money back as change; this of course happened to us but we were lucky enough to get rid of it in a taxi.

This is allowed because they use the counterfeit money as offerings to the earth god which is particularly important on New Years Eve.

3. San Pedro Prison

For those of you who have read or heard of the book ‘Marching Powder’ by Rusty Young, you will understand why Andre and I attempted to get into the prison for the so called ‘tours’ that the inmates are allowed to run by paying off corrupt police.

In order not to ruin it for those that have not read the book, all I will say is that this prison is probably the best representation of the many contradictions that make Bolivia what it is today.

We had heard that you simply had to sit in front of the prison and wait for someone to approach you. It would then be possible to negotiate a deal to get you on the visitors list for the day.

Inside San Pedro prison there are no guards. Inmates don’t wear uniforms. They hold the keys to their own cells (that they would have had to buy). Their wives, children and pets can stay with them. Infact it is more like a city within a city that is also home to some of the biggest drug lords in Bolivia!

After waiting for over two hours, there were what we felt to be two real moments when it looked as if we were going to be able to get in. There were a number of shifty looking characters lingering around the gate speaking with the police guards, two of which, on separate occasions appeared to be talking about us and looking round before walking past our bench. Given that we had heard that we would be approached we decided to simply stay put thinking that one would eventually approach us.

Unfortunately this didn’t happen for us and we left feeling some what disillusioned by the whole experience, although upon reflection it was quite amusing staking the place out and attempting to find someone to cut us a deal.

4. Witches Market (Mercado de Hechiceria)

As with every city/town there are many markets selling everything from fruit and veg to cheap electronics (often stolen!). However, there was one particular market that is definitely worthy of the ‘…only found in Bolivia’status; this is the witches market.

The majority of the merchandise is simply herbs and folk remedies, however there is one particular item that lives up to the image depicted in horror films; llama foetus!

We were told that they are used by most as a sign of good luck, requiring the buyer to bury the foetus as an offering to Pachamama (Earth God); this is often done when opening a new business or building a new home. For more wealthier Bolivians they would be expected to sacrifice a fully functioning llama!

As you can imagine a baby llama was not something we were interested in buying, however we did manage to spend a little fortune (by Bolivian standards) on loads of gifts, consisting mainly of llama wool.

Whilst we may not have spent much in sterling terms, we are without question paying the price given that we are now schlepping all this around for the next 4 months!

Mercado Lanza and Camacho are the main fruit and veg markets which unlike other places we have been to in Bolivia are actually outside making for some great shots.

It’s also where we tried a banana that has been crossed with a red apple, making the strangest taste.

5. Dirty shoes?

Shoe shine boys are common across the whole of South America, used by all of the locals…even if they are wearing trainers! The difference with the ones in La Paz is that they look like masked bandits!

We later found out that they wear the balaclavas to avoid social stigma, as many are working hard to support families or pay their way through school.

6. Fighting Cholitas

Unfortunately we were too hung over from NYE to make the weekly wrestling match between the local women dressed in traditional wear.

As you can see from the clip below it puts any preconceived notion of the women being reserved and guarded completely out of the window, making me reassess my impression of the women here and their role in Bolivian society.

Although I have focused on the weird and wonderful parts of La Paz, it does offer the same things as another capital city. We were pleasantly surprised by the Museo Nacional del Arte, which houses some great (and some not so great) pieces from Bolivian artists.

We had attempted to buy a copy of this picture for our new place back in Berlin but it was too expensive. Andre has decided that copying it, is going to be one of my many projects when in Berlin! Well I have started writing so why not painting as well…my my what is to become of me!

This particular image jumped out at me since I didn{t quite understand why a picture of Che Guevara was in the national musem. After some research I found out that he was actaully assainated her in La Paz with the help of the Americans. He had smuggled his way into Bolivia under the disguise as Uruguayan businessman to start a revolt against the US backed regime. Supposedly the Americans wanted him alive, however the Bolivia guard who killed him had lost many friends in the fighting as so shot him from the neck down to have a slow and painful death. He died on October 9th 1967.


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