Sunday, December 04, 2005

La Paz .. first impressions.. and a wee bit more!

Left Cuenca today for La Paz....ahh, the lovely 9 hour bus journey.. with the usual suspects selling everything under the sun.. from the chickens - this time inside the bus, to deep fried patatas, chocolate cookies, silver necklaces, coconuts, icecream, sausages and chips, and of course a fabulous new eye cream made out of carrot juice.... seriously its big business on the buses!

First impressions of La Paz, which is the worlds highest capital city with a population of 1.5 million people, are that it is a very big city and its very, very busy with people everywhere. The outer area of La Paz is called El Alto, once a suburb but now Latin America´s fastest growing city. Basically, the city of La Paz, found below El Alto, is a huge crater, 5km from rim to rim, and people have built houses, in the valley of the crater and all the way around and up.. no photo can really show this but i took a shot at it...

The people here look like they have a much harder life than in Ecuador. Bolivia is the third poorest country in the western world, behind Haiti and Nicaragua, and in a way you can see it in the people and the city of La Paz, with 50% of the population being indigenous. There are some wonderful buildings, but some parts look like they are crumbling around you, and there are many more poor people here, with women who look like grandmas but are probably much younger than me, lining the streets, breast feeding their babies, unfortunately all looking like they are in need of a good meal...
Some of the women who dress in the traditional clothes look quite different to those in Ecuador and Peru. They are a little bigger and taller too with bowler hats instead of panama ones, and their skirts are longer with more petticoats.. apparantly if they get new ones, they just add them to whatever ones they are wearing, as its a sort of pride thing, to show how many they have...
You can feel a certain tension here - part of it might be just big city, but part of it is due to the upcoming elections. Our hotel is right next to the Plaza de Murillo, which has all the government buildings around it, and hence, lotsa security. I have developed a scary new crush .. on men with big guns and wearing hard core uniforms.. Some of the police here look like they are out of Terminator. And there are sooo many different kinds of police - SWAT, Turista, Transit, regular city police, im slightly worried about this new found penchant but hopefully it will dissipate with time... or else im joining the NRA when i get home! Oh dear, i dont think that will ever happen, so never fear!

Visited the Coca Museum here. Really interesting as it showcases the history of the coca leaf, and how it plays such a spiritual part of Andean peoples lives.. e.g. when you get married, you get a house and a coca field and it grows with your family, so everyone has enough coca to help them work hard....It was the evil Western world, beginning with the Spanish in the 1500´s, who made the Andean people have to pay for the coca leaves, which they needed, cos the Spanish worked them so hard in the mines, and the countryside! It also highlighted the rapid growth of cocaine as an illicit drug. Did you know Sigmund Freud was the first Western person to try cocaine.. .he later contracted nasal cancer! AND did you know that Coca-Cola did indeed used to contain cocaine extracts. The company bought over 204 tonnes of coca leaves in 1985 and still buy the leaves today.. Coca-Cola no longer contains cocaine but it does use the coca leaf to flavor the soda to this day! Only 36 countries can grow cocaine legally and Peru, Bolivi and Columbia are not on that comprehensive list the United Nations agreed upon.. hmmmn jobs for the boys or what!!!

An interesting dynamic in the streets here that i hadnt seen before. There are many many shoe shine boys AKA lustrabotes in La Paz - all of them wearing balaclavas to hide their faces. Apparantly its a bit of a local stigma doing this job in La Paz, yet they are working very hard to support their families or pay their way through school....

Visited the outside of the infamous San Pedro prison. Its famous because the more money you have, the better life you have inside. There is a famous book ¨Marching Powder¨that chronicles an Australian writers interviews with a British prisoner. Dominique was thinking about trying to get a tour - this used to be possible a few years ago but as the tourist guy told us it is ¨muy pelligroso¨ AKA very dangerous as the prisoners are free to roam around the prison and not in cells. After 5 mins looking at these poor people, i knew there was no way i could go inside, and later Dominique decided the same...although I would have been so impressed-amazed if she had actually gone in....

We were lucky enough to catch up with my friend Lois´s sister Sue and her husband Evan, while they were in La Paz. They live in Cochabamba, another large city 9 hours away by bus, although it took them 14 hours to get to La Paz due to road blockades by protesters along the route! Sue and Evan are part of the Maryknoll Brothers and Fathers missionary group, which originates in the US and has groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Sue and Evan are lay missionaries working directly with the poor in Cochabamba. I hadnt met them before and wasnt sure what to expect, i mean would they be really good, holy people perhaps, what would we chat about maybe! Well - they were two of the best people i have ever met! As soon as we arrived, it was tumbler after tumbler of wine- apparantly the last few days had been party time at the house they were staying so Sue was taking it a little easy the night we arrived!!! Absolute inspiration i have to say. They are very much regular people, and very fun people at that, but it is so incredible the work they do, and how humble they are about it. We also met a bunch of their colleagues who were in town for their annual meeting. They too were brilliant and they work in El Alto, where there is much poverty...We went out for something to eat and had a great conversation about the upcoming elections, with Sue and Even explaining some of the intracacies to us.

So that´s La Paz in a nutshell... a great city... a high city... oh yes and they have the cutest buses ...wouldnt you agree!


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