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La Paz, Bolivia – Bizarre and Wonderful

By Jennifer Jedda

La Paz! I have been here now for a little over 24 hours, and I can’t help but be captured by how interesting, albeit a bit bizarre, this Bolivian capital is.

On my flight out of Miami I worked myself into such a frenzy about altitude sickness, or “soroche” – I am over 12,000 feet in the air in this town! -, that I refused all the free wine on the flight! (Check my pulse, right?!) Possible symptoms of nausea, dizziness, severe headache and upset stomach that would lead to wasted time in a hotel bed kept me ordering club sodas so that I would be well hydrated once landing in a part of our world where oxygen is at a premium.  Turns out my body has handled the thinner air like a pro.  I did have a small headache for about 12 hours, but that was the extent of my “sickness” so far. However, taking stairs or climbing a hill is a different story! By the time I climb one flight of stairs I am so out of breath one would think I carried an elephant up with me too.  There is an ongoing sensation when breathing that I am not getting enough air…I am happy that at home I live at sea level. :)

My walking tour by Red C&P tours began in Plaza San Pedro. Our guides, Amanda and Dani, said they chose that plaza as the meeting spot because it is next to the famous San Pedro Prison.

This prison (which looks itty bitty to me) houses 2500 inmates…and their families! Huh!? Once arrested on charges like drug possession, corruption and theft, prisoners are sent to San Pedro to await trail (which could take years).  Although it isn’t their choice to enter they must pay a fee to get in and then they are charged a monthly rent to stay. Depending on what one can afford, an inmate can rent small cells that bunk 5 – 6 other shady characters or opt for a more private and luxurious suite equipped with jacuzzi, plasma tvs and all! Inside the prison it is a working community with the same businesses and services seen anywhere else in town (nothing is provided to the prisoners…not even food).  These businesses are started by the prisoners to pay their rent.  If one was a doctor on the outside, he might run a medical practice on the inside.  Restaurant and cafe owners are said to make the most money…the legitimate way.  Since many of the inmates are in on drug charges and 80% of prisoners are addicts, drug sales are another way of covering rent costs.  It is said the cheapest and purist cocaine in Bolivia is made in this prison.  Tourists use to be able to do overnight tours of San Pedro prison, but policeman locking tourists in cells and demanding $5000 before they were released along with other horrible acts made the government put a stop to this a few years ago.  It is said that one can still get a tour of this low security prison (understatement of the year), but it is completely at one’s own risk and don’t look to your embassy for help if you end up being a new rent-paying resident.

After being befuddled by the bizarreness of San Pedro prison, it was time to head to the bountiful markets of La Paz.  The street in the above pic had vendors that specialized in fresh baked breads.  I wondered how I would ever chose which “casera” to buy from, but Dani informed me that if I lived in La Paz I would have a favorite casera that my family would have gone to for, in some cases, generations.  There is a deep loyalty built between families and their “special lady” (casera).  If one breaks this loyalty before the casera’s death she will “hate them forever.”

La Paz is a town of around 2.5 million yet there are only about 23 grocery stores in the city.  This is because there is such a strong tradition of going to the markets to buy all the needed fruit, veggies, fish, meat, potatoes (around 400 varieties just in the La Paz region!) and breads.  If you want to buy Parmigiano Reggiano then you go to the grocery store – for everything else including the latest gossip, visit your caseras.

Cholitas, or native Aymara women, are the main vendors in the market place. These indigenous women are usually dressed in their traditional garb which includes the bola hat, layers and layers of skirts and a mantilla (shawl).

The bola hat does appear to be the most useless feature of the ensemble as it is so small  that it can’t even keep sun out of the cholita’s eyes.  BUT according to WHO health research (or some acronym organization), these bolas that are perfectly balanced on their heads (no pins are used to keep them in place) help them maintain excellent posture which in turn causes the blood to circulate well within the body.  There are few heart, lung, kidney and liver problems in the culture because of it!  I have my bola on order!

The bola also indicates the relationship status of a cholita. A bola sitting straight on top of the head means she is married, to the side or none at all means she is single and ready to mingle!

The layers of skirts are used to make the cholita look as if she has big hips which is supremely attractive to the cholito men (lots of babies means early retirement as the kids will be sent to work instead) :). The more sturdy and strong the cholita, the more alluring to the cholito…and a big juicy calf muscle will really send him spiraling!

(Side Note – there are fireworks sounding outside my window right now….a sign that some La Paz citizens are engaged in one of their favorite pastimes, a strike.)

So the country is 80% Catholic, but some traditions die hard and hundreds of years of worshiping “pacha mama” (mother earth) and other native idols isn’t going away just because the Spaniards built a few churches. In most cases the Bolivian people believe in both religions and therefore practice both.  For potions, sacrifices and other goods required to appease the traditional gods, the locals head for the witch market in La Paz.  Dried llama fetuses, dried toads, herbs, sugar candies, alcohol and other mysterious goods can all be found in this small section of town.  August is the month to pay special homage to pacha mama.  Many “mesas” can be found with include all of pacha mama’s favorite things (alcohol, sweets, apparently dead baby llamas, etc).  These are bought and then burnt in a rituals to show appreciation to her.

After the tour my new friend, Ricardo from Brazil, and I headed to do some shopping.  It was his last day in Bolivia so authentic alpaca sweaters and scarves were on his “must buy” list for family and girlfriend.  We found a reputable brand (a lot of alpaca that is said to be pure instead contains llama and/or synthetics) and he made the sales ladies’ day!  In this picture they are hand removing all the tassels from a scarf he bought for his brother who is currently living in Germany. What respectable man would wear tassels on his scarf!?

Ricardo – engineer, triathelete, mountain climber, stellar dinner companion, good dessert picker, and all around good guy – was a wonderful addition to my first day in La Paz. All the best, my new friend!

The minute I thought I had seen most of the craziest things in this city is the moment I ran into this “zebra.”  Endorsed by the government, these “zebras” are put all over the city to remind people to walk in the zebra cross walk.  They are the happiest people on the planet from what I can tell and apparently effective.  I suppose though I wouldn’t forget to cross with caution if this friendly striped spectacle was there to remind me…although they still need a few more zebras to really drive that message home here. :)

Ah, La Paz. Wonderful and Bizarre.


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