Monday, May 2, 2016

Nine things I learned about La Paz

1. There is only one La Paz in all of Bolivia.

This one came as a shocker. I had boarded an 8pm bus from Uyuni-La Paz and was set to arrive twelve hours later, at 8am. Yet, it was 4am and I had been woken up and asked to get off the bus. It was a local bus, which makes a couple of stops so obviously there was a misunderstanding.

Me: No, I'm going to La Paz
Driver: This is La Paz
Me: (looking at my watch, then at my cell phone, confirming it is in fact 4am and thinking I may have gotten on the wrong bus). Is there another La Paz?
Driver: (getting a little exasperated) No, this is the only La Paz.
Me: (confused and certain that if I get off the bus, I will be stuck in the off-brand city of La Pez) Are you sure? I'm not supposed to be in La Paz for 4 more hours.
Driver: Señora, there was no traffic. We are early. There is only one La Paz in all of Bolivia. Please, you need to get off this bus.
2.  The meeting spot for the excellent Red Cap walking tour,  Plaza San Pedro,  is across from one of the strangest prisons I've ever heard of.  The inmates have to pay to be there, both an entrance fee and a monthly payment.  If they don't have the money, they must work to pay off their debts. In order to do that, they have established all sorts of private enterprises within the walls.  There are restaurants, convenience stores, tailors and (in the least shocking twist possible) cocaine processing plants. And not just any cocaine, the purest in all of the land, or so sayeth the author of the book Marching Powder.  (note: It's a crappy site but click on that link and follow the arrows to see pics from inside the prison, it's nuts!)

Author Rusty Young was not an actual inmate but he befriended one, Thomas McFadden, when he took a tour of the prison.  As in, you as a tourist, could walk over to the gate and negotiate the price for an inmate to show you around the prison.  This was done, somewhat legally, up until some years back when officials realized it was probably not the best idea to have backpackers mingling with inmates and they "banned" the practice.  It still happens and thus led to one of the strongest cautions provided during our less-criminal walking tour. We were even asked to repeat it back to the guide "Do not take the prison tour."  Recently, a British tourist chose to disregard this advice.  He found himself a guide, went inside and midway through the tour found himself without said guide.  The guy had disappeared. When the Brit tried to bring this tour to an early conclusion, he was unable to prove to the guards that he was not a prisoner or explain why he had violated the ban and entered if he wasn't. $500 and a couple of months later, the British embassy was finally able to get him out.  I simply didn't have that kind of time so no tour for me.

Although, the tours may have ended- more or less- the cocaine production continues.  The raw materials are generally smuggled in by family members, who live inside the prison with their incarcerated loved ones but are free to come and go- I told you this place was nutty.  The finished product generally leaves by more unsavory means.  Since you have babies living in the prison, you also have dirty diapers. The cocaine is wrapped inside of a dirty diaper and tossed over the wall into the square where a person who has clearly made some poor life choices is waiting to go pick it up.

There is talk that this now infamous prison is going to be shut down and the inmates moved but on this particular day, it appeared to be very open for business.

San Pedro Square, right across from the prison.
3.  Forget Target.  Everything you need is available in the outdoor markets.

And not just fruits, veggies and AA batteries, you could also purchase love, revenge or just really strong boners.  Or at least, potions and amulets that promise those things.  In addition to the weekly produce market, we were led through the Witches' Market which aims to cure all that ails you.

One of the more disturbing products on display were dead llama fetuses. The belief is that if you are building a new home, you need to make an offering to Pacha Mama, mother Earth, first.  For whatever reason, she has a thing for dead baby llamas so the person attempting to build will begin the process by burying the fetus on the grounds.  According to our guide, the bigger the building, the bigger the offering so if you see a skyscraper, odds are that a homeless person was lured there, drugged and buried alive to appease PM.  This practice sounds like an urban legend but apparently it has been borne out by recent excavations. And as much as Pacha Mama likes Bolivian hobos, her favorite delicacy is the more fair-skinned specimens aka tourists, so caution #2: Do not pass out on the street. Do not take drinks from strangers.  Fair enough.

4.  Speaking of boners, the US is being kind of a dick to Bolivia.  US born Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was twice elected President of Bolivia.  During his second term, he decided to tax the already low salaries of the working poor and also to export gas through the country's nemesis, Chile. The military, who were very well paid, backed Gonzi.  The police, who weren't (and even had to purchase their own uniforms) were opposed.  Both sides took up positions in Plaza Trujillo, a main square that house's the President's office and administrative buildings and began firing at each other.  Many civilians were killed in the cross-fire and the bullet holes are still visible in the facade of one building.

Taking note that open gunfights rarely lead to high approval ratings, Gonzi made a stop at the National Bank of Bolivia, took everything he (and his military) could get their greedy hands on, boarded a flight for the US and never looked back.

He is responsible for many deaths, he fleeced his country's bank, yet he is living comfortably in Maryland and here is the kicker..since he is a US citizen and has not committed crimes in the US, the country refuses to extradite him.  I wonder if I too have complete immunity to do what I want while abroad.

Counter-Clockwise: Meant to remind people not to repeat the mistakes of the past

5. If you think Bolivian prisons are unusual, wait until you hear about the funerary practices. Once again, there is an entrance fee following by annual payments to maintain a space in the mausoleum. The Aymara people believe that their loved ones linger around this realm for five years, so during that time the living make the annual payments, bring gifts (ie: food, wine and trinkets) for the departed and continue to commune with them.  At year 5 + one day, it is time to let them go on to where ever it is that these well-fed and drunk spirits need to go.  The gifts and the payments to the cemetery cease. No money = no space.  The remains soon get evicted from their resting place and thrown into a communal pile, which is fine with the families because the spirit is no longer there.

And then you get to the weird part... There is a black market for those abandoned skulls (just the skulls, the femur trade is pretty weak).  The people who purchase these relics are looking for their very own ñatita, who will look over their home and keep their family safe. The ñatita is compensated for her protection with a place of honor within the home and a steady stream of offerings. Once a year, there is a festival where they will get dolled up and in the past, they would be brought to this cemetery. The sheer number of candles, offerings and smoking ñatitas (note: they all smoke cigarettes because why not?) got to be too much and the celebrations now that place at home.

"Are you looking for Tia Dora?  Walk until you get to the mural of the lady pleasuring herself and make a left. You can't miss her."

6.  El Alto, which is the poorer section of the city is now linked to the center of town by a cable car. Three different cable car lines have been introduced by the current President to link the different social classes and to cut down on traffic and pollution.

On Thursdays and Sundays, this area is home to the largest flea market in all of South America. Whatever your heart desires, legal or not, you will find it here at a fraction of what you would pay anywhere else.  We were advised to hide our cameras and phones so I have no pics but even if I had, there would have been no way to capture the sheer scale of this thing.

This is also the home to the more "authentic" witches' market, where shaman who have gotten their power by virtue of being struck by lightening, (I know that sounds like one of my usual exaggerations but that is straight legit one of the requirements for becoming a shaman) read coca leaves and performs spells.

Once the spell has been performed, it must be ritually burned, so there are grills a-burning all up and down the street.

7.  Cholita Wrestling.  It is a thing and it is AWESOME.

The undercard match was all male and they did their best to be entertaining.

But, c'mon, they did not stand a chance. The main attraction was the Cholitas, or Aymara women in traditional dress, carrying out all the finest lucha libre trope.

There was the heroine, a petite girl named La Simpatica, and the villain, a girthier gal, who went around "tricking" male spectators into kissing her on the mouth.

There were crooked officials, conveniently placed chairs and plenty of crowd interaction.  In short, it was the magnificent!!!

8.  The Church of San Francisco is built in a style known as Baroque Mestizo, where the ornamentation is a combination of christian and indigenous motifs.

It is possible to tour the old Franciscan quarters and view the rooms where they lived, where they used to make wine and where they would be locked into solitary confinement, often for years at a time, when they decided they no longer wanted to be monks because, you know, free will.

9.  Two days is not nearly enough time.   I was finally used to the altitude.  Coca tea and I had a good thing going.  The people were great.  The only La Paz in all of Bolivia was a great city, worthy of at least 4-5 days.  Or maybe more, if you plan to tour the prison.

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