I get the impression La Paz is a bit like marmite – whilst I love the city and its none stop hustle and bustle, for Oscar its incessant pungent smells brought a less favourable view. It is true that it smells like rotting eggs mixed with open sewers more often than not, but for me this just adds to its extraordinary level of uniqueness. We both agree that we have never been anywhere similar to La Paz, it has an insane level of movement with terrible overcrowding, mixed in with thick smog and visible pollution. On top of all those things is a rustic and homegrown feel to both the people and the businesses in operation. Its more focussed on selling herbs and medicines or small business than big corporations. Most of the population wear traditional dress day to day and seem to believe in ‘witchcraft’.
We explored the ‘witch’ market with great hilarity and interest as we both saw herbal remedies we could see working – coco leaves are widely used to combat altitude sickness – to the incredulity of a lama fetus ever adding anything to our wellbeing! We also saw a wide range of suspicious looking oils and drinks with ingredients including things like Camen oil!
On our first night we went to watch the Cholitas wrestling which was the most bizarre Sunday evening we have had in a while. It was WWE style wrestling with women dressed in traditional clothes, they were actually pretty good and even got to tour the US last year. The cholitas got the audience very involved spitting water and coke at us, throwing the opponents into us and chasing each other around the rickety stadium all evening. It was pretty surreal and we got given popcorn and souvenirs whilst we watched!
Another aspect of La Paz we both enjoyed and that was finally finding some semi-decent food. For the past several weeks we have been enjoying (?) starchy, heavy, tasteless food and so when we found some chicken and rice with a satay sauce it was like heaven. All the way through lunch we couldn’t stop saying how good it was – it retrospect it was an average meal in the UK but to us it was amazing! The good food was on a roll with the next day us finding a great vegan restaurant full of quinoa and fresh vegetables, I even found a some humous!
Unfortunately even the vegetables couldn’t fight off the effects of the levels of pollution and smog we were walking through all day and Oscar got quite ill. We think it was a mixture of the dirt and also the altitude and so with that in mind we set off again, this time for Cusco in Peru. We had quite the adventurous 15 hour bus ride as we left at 06:30 and were straight away met with a series of road blocks. The protests are surrounding tax within Bolivia with the people believing that they are too high. As a result all the roads in and out of La Paz are being blocked each day with rocks and burning tyres. The foreign office did warn of this however, the last report on the FCO website had been ten days previous and so we set off confident that we would make it to Peru.
The first blockade we were met with caused only a short delay and once we had bribed the men with both money and a bottle of coca cola we were able to pass, after some creative driving to avoid several further blockades we met our longest delay. It started with protestors throwing rocks at our bus windows and cracking the drivers window and one passenger window. This made us stop the bus and the driver informed us we would not be able to pass until 16:00 – this was eight hours away! Luckily for all of us on board a Brazilian passenger then spent the next two hours talking to the protestors finally resulting in us buying two large bottles of coca cola and being able to pass the blockade of rocks and burning tyres unharmed. At the next blockade they already had coca cola and so we were able to keep driving until the final blockade where we only had to hand over a bottle and we were finally on our way with no further stops!
It is crazy to think what you can negotiate with – that these protestors were not there for money (they wouldn’t accept a monetary bribe) all they wanted to let us pass was a drink. I am not sure why it was coca cola exactly – there is tonnes of it for sale all over La Paz and not at a crazy price at all, maybe it is just on the principle that that is what they wanted to drink and they would no be seen taking money to be allowed to pass the blockades.
It is obvious from our short time in La Paz that the country has some serious issues, every single day that we were there we saw a large scale protest going through the centre of the city. The biggest we saw involved all the women and some men from the countryside who have now migrated to El Alto which is the huge suburb and very poor area bordering La Paz. The march went on for hours with countless people joining in, we can’t be 100% certain what the protest was really about but from locals that we asked we have pieced together some of the issues. The women were angry about a law the government are trying to pass meaning that all street sellers (there are a lot of them) would have to be registered. This in turn seems to then impact on families as the government would be able to see how many members of the same family are in La Paz/ El Alto. I am not sure what the over arching negative impact of that is – whether there are regulations on migration or if there is some sort of mafia family running all the street stalls! Either way the number of protests was staggering and we hope that the government is listening.