domingo, 19 de agosto de 2007

Independent woman?

Back in Sucre my visa was about to run out, at least that is what I thought. When I turned up I found out that it actually had run out and said the packed in, rather fierce police woman ‘I had to leave the country that same day.’ As luck would have it I somehow managed to get a sixty day extension without even having to pay. An error on their part, but one that saved me from getting the next flight over the border.

So here I am still, in Bolivia where I plan to be for a while longer. I really want to crack this freelancing thing because as difficult as it is… the dodgy phone lines, establishing yourself with people you have never met before in the UK or US… on this side it is easy and fascinating and tremendously rewarding. I have endless ideas and I am loving the experience. New places and people, things that make you feel like crying things that make you cringe.

I am getting drunk much less and am not really missing it. I am just not bored or around people I particularly want to get wasted with so I am not doing it. Clean living Kika. I have friends here but they are mainly the few journalists I like and respect and people that work for one organisation or another. There was one lovely French man I hung out with when it was kicking off in Sucre. He makes documentaries and shakes his head when he speaks English having spent too much time in India. Generally though I am on my own quite a lot, setting stories up, writing up notes, interviewing people, chasing up pitches and so on, taking it all in.

There is one friend mind you that I have been relying on and in some ways spending a fair amount of time with. He is someone that got in touch with me through facebook, and who I knew, not enough, about ten years ago. But he did the same thing as I am doing a while back, going away to Peru and setting himself up as a stringer, and despite the fact that we are very different, he just kind of gets me and he is a lovely lovely new friend.

It’s a very strange thing becoming friends with someone, essentially over email. But it has happened a fair bit since being away. It is as if the friends that know you well just kind of know you will be fine, and almost know what you are going through – give or take the details – because they know you. But there are others, people I knew but were not totally open with, who reading the blog and communicating over email start to reveal themselves more. And I am sure I do the same.

I spent a long while travelling with friends and I am now, about to be on my own again. And it’s funny but if you want to, cocooned in your little world of watching and writing I can actually be very quiet. I can actually go through the day without really having a conversation with anyone. Sometimes I like that. And sometimes it makes me feel incredibly lonely. And then something amazing happens or you meet someone wonderful and it’s all just fine.

I miss my friends. I miss easy conversation, where there is no need to win anyone over. I miss wine on a Tuesday with Sarah and Sarah or a hug off Therese at number 105. I miss creating scandal with the ladies when I go to London and Sunday afternoons under the duvet with the East London lovelies and Lee’s monkey suit humour. I miss my work friends too - having the piss ripped out of me. I miss my mums company in the kitchen, one of my most favourite places in the world, excepting my Abuelita’s cold stone balcony where I used to sit and draw. I miss my dad going on about politics, his face when he sees me for the first time in ages, like you would look at a smiling baby.

And then I miss basic silly stuff; like the radio and decent newspapers and breakfast news, as tripe as it can be, it reassures me that everything is ticking along in mundane normality. I miss British accents and British humour and I miss tuna steaks and a cup of tea.

What I don’t miss is, having to get up at the same time every day. I don’t miss twenty minute lunch breaks or soggy sandwiches from Tescos or Pret. I don’t miss grey skies or realising that three weeks have gone by and I can’t remember what I’ve done because I was doing the same thing every single day.

For all the highs and lows I have no regrets about this journey… still. I am constantly going to new places, not least in my head, and testing myself. My favourite fantasy is still coming through the Arrivals gate at Heathrow and seeing my mum and maybe (hint hint) a couple of girlfriends. But really, that just reminds me how lucky I am to have such brilliant people in my life.

The other sides to Bolivia

Santa Cruz

I was headed to Santa Cruz, a region that is the size of Germany and the richest part of Bolivia. I had been here before but the visit was so brief that I didn’t really get to know the place or appreciate why everyone said it was so different to the rest of the country.

The peg for my visit was a military and campesino parade the next day. Because Santa Cruz is the right’s stronghold, and because of bad feeling between el Oxidente and el Oriente and because of something that happened fifty years ago where Indigenous mercenaries came and raped and killed and so on… there were predictions of violence.

Maybe I wasn’t prepared for the Cruzeños. On my first night two lads responded with shock when I told them that I had been in La Paz and Sucre and no one had hurt me. ‘In some parts of the Oxidente they would look at you and because you are white they would kill you!’ They told me I should be careful at the march because people from the Oriente were savages… and then proceeded to divulge how certain radical groups were arming themselves and preparing to defend Santa Cruz when the time comes.

Another comment I remember is a taxi driver turning to me shiftily after a rant about the terrible dictatorial politics of the MAS and how Santa Cruz should be autonomous if not independent and said ‘the thing is, the President is an Indian.’ That is for a lot of people, the real issue.

As it happened the march went off without any trouble at all. It was quite a moving display of Bolivia’s diversity, with polished, uniformed men kicking their legs high as they filed forwards, and humble campesinos in traditional dress plodding forward in front of thousands. Ant these Cruzeños were the ones you don’t see so much. They came from the rural areas and the poorer urban areas and had darker skin.

Morales and his government called it a victory and said it put the right in Santa Cruz to shame. Meanwhile the Cruzeños, most of whom had not attended the march and carried on with their normal working day, said it was evidence of how hospitable the region was and that they had won because they had not responded to the provocation.

I was struck then by how desperate the media is here, especially television. There is one channel that broadcasts as though the country was in revolutionary Utopia and there really is nothing to worry about at all. On the other five channels they talk about crisis and are we headed for civil war and show pictures of previous violent troubles in 2003 in particular. I was interviewed as an international journalist too, by a television reporter whose questions were do pointed I felt more like a diplomat than a journalist, ‘how do you view the crisis Morales faces? What have his major errors been? You have just been in Sucre, were you shocked by the violence?’ and so on. I found this frustrating. How was I, or anyone else meant to get an idea of what was going on without real news, I mean, with only propaganda to rely on?

A very nice, though undoubtedly right leaning economist was my guide in Santa Cruz. I interviewed a lot of the key people here, because they don’t like to talk on the phone as there conversations may be recorded by the Government. They have some genuine concerns about the way the country is being run, and doubtless Morales has been shortsighted in addressing his base support and neglecting to the point of excluding people that do not fit in to this group and in particular the middle class. But what I noticed is that they repeated the same arguments I had heard from the youths and the taxi driver and on the television, just in slightly more sophisticated terms. And I felt as though there was a degree of protectionism and selfishness about their arguments too, and a definite disdain for those of a darker skin tone who live in the highlands or rural low lands.

There is racism on both sides. I have heard people in the Oxidente talk about white ruling class and how they want to take all the wealth for themselves and so forth. These people really do not understand each other, and that is a problem in a country as diverse as Bolivia. There are 36 different Indigenous nationalities here, that have different customs and traditions. Then there are Mestizos and people of European ancestry, then there are the poor, the rich, the rural farmers, the tropical farmers, the highlanders, the Pacenos (people from la Paz) the Chucisaqeños (from Sucre) the Cambas (from Santa Cruz), the people who want more autonomy, the people who want revolution… I could go on. This country is divided and those divisions are not showing any signs of disappearing.
I feel frustrated sometimes about how people do not work together for the good of their country or their political movement. So for example there are members of the MAS in the Constituent Assembly supporting the Sucre campaign, even though their leader wants it left to one side to be worked out later. This is a developing country, and I guess politics and structures are still part of what is lacking and what will come in time.

The whole capital issue is just bizarre to me. When you ask people why they want the capital here they say, ‘because it should be ours and we will get more money and more work in the region’, and when I say ‘yes but wouldn’t you still have to pay for all the problems caused by moving from La Paz and wouldn’t that cost La Paz too’ they say ‘La Paz has had its turn. I can understand people wanting to decentralise, La Paz has perhaps had all of the power for too long. But moving the capital is like bulldozing a part of the same country and economy… I am not sure if I am explaining myself well, but what I means to say is that Bolivia is divided and everyone seems to be fighting for their piece of the cake without thinking of the bigger picture. How can a country as weak as Bolivia even begin to get stronger when its people are so busy fighting amongst themselves?

Last week Morales tried to force the Constituent Assembly to leave this issue to one side. In a vote the majority of MAS members decided the Capitalia was not an issue they were going to deal with. People are furious about the way the decision was taken and there have been mass demonstrations in Sucre, hunger strikes, tyres and dolls representing Morales burnt in the street. And when you hear the campaign protagonists they recite the same arguments as I heard in Santa Cruz, about how we must defend democracy and how Evo Morales is a dictator and so on. And there are the banners saying ‘Santa Cruz is with you Sucre’ or ‘Beni gives you its support.’
It is clear to me that this issue has been more or less planted by the right and is part of a strategy to block the Assembly and ultimately bring Morales and his government down. Maybe that is just the way politics works, but I am still struggling to understand why ordinary people support the campaign, and do not see that they are being manipulated. And I don’t mean to get annoyed, because I realise that as a journalist I must be independent, despite the directions people here try and pull me in. But it just seems to me there are much bigger problems in Bolivia and much more interesting things to criticise Morales about.

The weekend with Che

There was some relief though. Having had some interest from a Newspaper about a story relating to Che Guevara, I had contacted the Che Foundation and headed to Vallegrande where Che died, for the weekend. With me, was Chato Peredo, a former guerrilla fighter and the brother of Inti and Coco who fought directly with Che. I knew I would like him when, ten minutes into our three hour journey he put Harry Belafonte on. Chato made us stop for sweet biscuits, wore an old army jacket and asked me which George Orwell books I had read. I liked him a lot, a felt at home.

The weekend was inspiring. Chato had great stories to tell about being arrested and hunted down by the dictatorship, about his brothers and the few times he saw Che. And all over town locals had something to say, pictures in their homes, little alters. They sit mass for Che her, he is like a Saint and people believe he performs miracles. And I am not exaggerating when I say that you can definitely see Che’s face and distinctive hat in the hills near La Higuera, where he was assassinated.

In the hospital where his body was taken and washed there are now Cuban doctors working, as part of Cuban-Bolivian cooperation. The laundry room is full of graffiti that has been left there as an expression of the people. It is true too that in the photo taken in there, Che looks alive, or as locals say ‘like Christ.’ Whatever he was certainly a man with great ideas, courage and am I allowed to say this… good looks. I did have to check myself with all these pictures of him in the villages. ‘Think about the state of the world and Che’s legacy woman not what lovely eyes he had you superficial eeejut.’

Maybe that is where I have been going wrong in my love life… looking for Che who is a) dead and b) probably horrendously high maintenance. Stop now Kika, you are Chepheming.

The next chapter...

Happy on my birthday

I spent the morning reading birthday messages (thank you) and talking to my mum on the phone, which nearly made me cry again until Matthews turned up with lovely presents and cake. We played a game that consisted of asking strangers what we should do next. The first directed us to a very lovely restaurant where I was treated to lunch. The second told us where to go for shopping, with great ice cream en route. The third told us where to go for a good coffee. We went out that night for food drink and then dare I say it ended up at Vivienne's. It was Dave’s last night and it was open late OK? And from now on, no more.

I was sorry to see Maz Matthews go but the lovely Diego complete with sweet tooth and DVD collection was a much needed landing pad, staying for three weeks in my little flat in La Paz.

When Matthews left it was the end of an era really, the back packing travelling era. Ever since then I have been a foreign journalist experiencing very different but equally brilliant adventures.

July in the capitals

I spent July getting ready to work and sorting myself out, pulling the stories I had already been working on together, researching new stories and giving Diego pep talks over red wine and chocolate.

There were a few big events mind you. A bit of drama over the lap top, which was eventually fixed and returned, after a bit of Kika kicking.

Then there was the march for the capital in La Paz. This is becoming one of the biggest issues for Morales and his government, threatening to scupper the work of the Constituent Assembly, which was formed to come up with a new constitution. Bolivia has two capitals at the moment.
The legislative seat and therefore official capital is Sucre. But the Government sits in La Paz. Sucre used to be the capital, and historically it has always had a claim, if such a thing exists, to the capital. But La Paz is where everything is based, the ministries, the NGOs, the Embassies, and all of the businesses and individuals who life off that.

I hope I am not over stepping the mark by saying it would simply not be possible to move everything to Sucre, not least because of the enormous cost. It would be like moving London to Edinburgh. And really, a lot of the people, involved in this campaign know that. The issue was planted as one for the Constituent Assembly to deal with, despite the fact that it is a hugely sensitive issue that once caused civil war in Bolivia. Remember too that the Constituent Assembly is not like Parliament, it is made up of almost ordinary people, chosen by their various political groups or social movements as representatives.

People in La Paz were (and are) seriously worried and so two million of them took to the streets. There were marches that felt different to the norm. You loose track of who is marching and for what, and actually people power can be a bit of a pain in the arse. The stoppages can paralyse the city or at least slow things down, and companies have moved to other cities because it is such a barrier to their everyday business. But on this occasion, the city was unified.

We walked a long way through La Paz to El Alto and wherever we went it felt the same, there was an atmosphere of togetherness. As we neared El Alto we hopped onto a truck, and stood like cattle in the back trying not to fall over. There must have been a hundred people up there, with Diego and me the only foreigners.

In El Alto the make up of the march was humbler than in the centre, with people spilling down from the hills and carrying banners. I talked to people about why they were demonstrating and the answer always related to their children and their work. In Sucre it’s a different story.

To Sucre

Sucre is where I am now, it having taken me two months to write this bloody update. I am staying at the house of a Dutch friend, Gert, who I got to know because of the laptop issue. I feel very lucky because the house is beautiful. It is colonial style with white walls and wooden staircase, that looks out onto an open court yard full of flowers, where I am now sitting at a wooden table, the sun on my back, eating sweet cucumber (a fruit they have here) and sipping yerba mate with a few coca leaves thrown in for good measure. Honestly I look like I should be writing a book on yoga or wholemeal sex or something.

I was really glad to get back to Sucre. It is a very manageable sized place and I quickly found out about a meeting of ten thousand indigenous campesinos a day after my arrival. It was then that I realised that this issue of the capitalia is serious.

All these people, chewing coca, dressed in what to me looked like traditional dress but to them is everyday garb, in a massive sports stadium, all there to defend the Assembly and the Constitution. ‘They want to destroy our President, our Assembly, our Constitution.’ People shouted from the stage. ‘After 500 years of marginalisation, abuse, of not being included they want to deny us again but we will not let them’.

It was good to meet them and hear them because after that the stage was dominated by Morales’ critics in Sucre. He arrived to mark Independence Day, looking much less relaxed than the last time I saw him. Here those fighting for the Capitalia wear leather jackets and sunglasses. They are more middle class and very oh but very well organised.

On Independence Day Morales asked that a banner be removed, a stupid mistake that resulted in a heavy hand police man hitting the person in question, who then made a run for it. The angry shouts got louder ‘we want the capital’ and ‘Evo is a dictator.’ They stood behind the barriers, some distance from where Morales was addressing the nation.
In the street a little television for the benefit of journalists, who were not allowed into the hall where Morales was speaking, crackled with the sound of him pleading for unity. I left early to catch a flight to Santa Cruz and on the radio, you could hear the people’s cries even as Morales spoke.

Ayahuasca and other adventures with Maz Matthews

Green gold

By this time Maz and I were in need of some r and r so we headed to the Yungas. Most gringos only visit the Yungas and Corocio by accident. They either pass through there on the long bus ride to the Rurrenabaque and the Amazon or they take the death road bike trip, which leads to Coroico and then go directly back to La Paz.

You may have seen pictures of the Death Road or, as others call it, the world’s most Dangerous Road, trucks falling off the side, cars in near misses and such like. Actually it is officially the most dangerous road in the world, and hundreds of people have died travelling along it. Until recently Paceños wouldn’t go to Coroico because the journey was so perilous… It is literally like a knife edge. Apparently you descend some, not sure how many but a few thousand metres, at a speed that you can hardly control, and there is nothing, no barrier, no sloping hill, nada to stop you from plunging into the pit of the valley alone.

Last November they opened a new road, so the most dangerous road isn’t as dangerous as it was. But you still won’t catch me on it in a hurry... I guess I am just not an adrenalin junkie. I like sitting on the bus, watching the view unravel outside. Maybe listening to music; maybe just listening to the sounds of other people’s chatter.

But actually this journey wasn’t quite so romantic. Matthews and I managed to get onto a little white heaving micro bus and aside from it breaking down and me getting bitten by more sand flies, we were sharing a three man seat, made for midgets (and Matthew is over six foot tall) with a man, his weepy eye, his little girl and a chicken.

It was worth it though. The Yungas is a very well kept secret and one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have visited. We were lazy this time around, but later I came back again for a music festival and to write a travel piece. Something had caught my imagination the first time around; the gaping valley, so lush and green, with beautiful, undeveloped walks, and wild flowers and birds.

When you examine the hills you see coca fields spread out like a patchwork. The locals are quick to tell you that this coca is not used to make cocaine. The Yungas is a traditional coca growing region, since the time of the Incas. So this is not like the Chapare region in Bolivia where there was a mass eradication programme some years ago, which by the way did not achieve any reduction in the amount of cocaine produced but did see many people impoverished and displaced.

Now some of the (US) NGOs working in the area say that over production of coca is damaging the environment. I guess that over production of anything would have that affect, but in general terms, when it comes to coca, I think the world has got it badly wrong.

That’s a pretty big statement. And maybe I am in no position to speak about this, I know I will sound like a hypocrite, but the whole coca issue has really caught me.

I knew very little about the coca leaf before I came to Bolivia. I guess I knew it alleviated altitude sickness if taken in tea or chewed. But the coca leaf is so much more.

This powerful leaf is a friend to Indigenous people in the Andes. It has medicinal, nutritional and spiritual significance.

It relieves hunger and exhaustion and helps the brain absorb oxygen so helping you think more clearly. It has been used to help ease rheumatism, muscular pains, nervousness, asthma, blood pressure, prostate troubles, warts, dandruff… the list goes on. It is currency in business, as means to welcoming people and showing friendship. More than this it is sacred, used in rituals, celebrations and ceremonies. It represents reciprocity and a connection with the pachamama, one woman told me, when you chew coca you are never alone, you are always connected with the mother earth.

There is a legend in Amayra tradition that says the coca leaf was discovered when Khun, g-d of lightening, thunder and snow, angry at people because of their lack of respect, for their home near Lake Titicaca, banished them to a nomadic life, hiding their return route. To survive they ate forest plants and that is how they discovered the coca bush. Chewing on the coca leaf, their hunger and tiredness disappeared and they managed to find their way home.

Coca is definitely not cocaine. No one has ever died from chewing the coca leaf. In its natural form coca makes you strong and for Bolivia’s poor it is a means of survival.

But what do the clever civilised democratic Westerners do? We take it, in huge quantities, extract the alkaloids that make cocaine cocaine, mix it with 41 other chemicals which include things like petrol, and sell it by the gram so it can be snorted off toilet seats or smoked through cans. At best it leaves you smiling inanely, talking shit and staying in bed on Sunday. At worst it robs every bit of nutrition and motivation from your being, leaves you paranoid and lonely.

We turned something that is sacred and gives life into meaningless poison. And I don’t mean to sound like a sanctimonious dick head, this is just what my thinking has come to, I am not judging anyone or anything.

Obviously, most of the coca grown in Bolivia is not for traditional uses. It is mainly for the drugs trade. Bolivia wants coca taken off the UNs list of controlled substances so that they can sell the teas and coca products to other parts of the world. At the moment though that looks unlikely, and Bolivia is likely to be punished for Europe and America’s habit.

Sorry, I got a little caught up in that there. But anyhow, they do grow a lot of coca in the Yungas as well as mandarins, bananas and avocados.

The first time round we were pretty lazy, just doing a couple of treks and sitting and readying by the pool, which looked out onto this amazing view. Second time around I was alone so ended up doing much more. I visited a animal refuge where a very alpha cappuccino monkey had gotten free and was terrorising the other animals. There was also a poor macaw there, with no mate and few feathers owing to anxiety. Bless. I ate in kitchens and large dining halls with the rabble, plates of tender chicken and rice with banana in place of bread and a passion fruit juice to wash it down. Those set lunches tend to cost less than fifty pence, and so far I have had no complaints whatsoever in terms of things repeating… and all that after being warned not to eat salad here because it is cultivated in human…. Err need I say more? I doubt that’s true. Everyone I have spoken to says they were warned about Bolivian food and haven’t had a bad meal yet.


When we got back to La Paz from Coroico I went to meet lovely Dave Ford who happened to be in town. You have to give this bundle of love credit. He is all American and completely breaking the mould, a much bigger feat for an American than a European, only 16 per cent of US citizens have passports I think.

We had an intense couple of beers in which he almost convinced me to take part in, as oppose to just writing about the ayahuasca ceremony he was going to in a couple of days.

Still undecided I went back to meet Matthews and head to Tewanku for the Aymara New Year. We wrapped up warm (woolly tights and three jumpers warm), brought whiskey and got on the bus.

When we arrived the village streets were full of people and fires burning. We danced and drunk under the stars and I kissed an Italian who looked a bit like Che Guevara. Or at least he had the same hat. Then we watched people lift their hands to the sun as it rose and dance to welcome the New Year in. We ate spicy sausages from the street and came home smelling of smoke and booze.


We had it must be said, drank a lot. And for a moment that was a good enough reason for us to decide not to take part in the Ayahuasca ceremony, but that didn’t last long.

Having been a cynical old cow, something was pulling me into this Ayahuasca ceremony. Partly it was Dave Ford telling me all about it, someone I really like and respect you know. Partly it was because I wanted to write about it and partly it was my own curiosity and an inexplicable urge to get closer to Ayahuasca.

I will never forget the journey to the Alkamari retreat. We really didn’t know where we were going; just that it was somewhere near the mountains just out of La Paz. And then fairly suddenly I just absolutely knew I was taking part. I turned to Matthews and said; ‘I am going to do it. I’m going to do the ceremony’. He looked at me, fear pulling the colour from his face and said, ‘OK’. It was a slow OK, the kind that means ‘I guess I am too, and I am petrified but I’m with you.’

The taxi got lost on the way to Alkamari, and I was impatient. I just wanted to get there. And then we were there, looking out on these arched buildings, almost in the middle of nowhere, with the backdrop of Illimaini, the mountain that I later found out symbolises strength.

Inside there were sweet wooden bunk beds and coloured blankets over neatly made beds. Big tall welcoming Dave Ford greeted us and introduced us to other people. All the same I spotted Matthews and his angst; All coiled up, standing outside and smoking, like a tormented film star. I think I have said it before, but he has a habit of looking like he has been plucked out of a magazine, even when he is shitting himself.

Tim, the Shaman or rather healer as he prefers to be described (you only get to be a shaman when you are super wise and experienced and about a hundred and ten) was preoccupied organising things, and he looked delighted and unsurprised at my decision.

I thought I would have more time to suss the whole thing out but before I could really get my bearings we were being told to dress warm and bring blankets and pillows. Some were typical backpacker types from Australia, others were Bolivians. There was a lot of deep breathing. Everyone was a little tense.

We trudged out of the main retreat over the grass, wrapped in our blankets and carrying our torches towards the hut like building where the ceremony was taking place.

The hut was dark and felt kind of remote and mystical, a bit like a cave. Inside the bench curved around the walls of the room and a fire burnt, making it smoky. I sat down and looked around, cynical preconceptions darting through my mind. It looked like a cult with these strange ornaments and objects and instruments in the middle of the room. And the candles. All these candles. Take it all in, I thought to myself. You don’t know what you are going to write but I am sure it is all good material.

And then I turned to the man sitting next to me, a tall well built alpha type. He had just had a massage. When I asked why, he said he had been at work all day and needed to relax. Where had he been working? Oh the embassy. ‘The em-ba-ssy is here’ I repeated in an I would raise my eyebrow if I could kind of way. To which he responded, I am here as a person. And that was my turning point; I was there as a person really too.

There were things I deeply wanted to understand, things I wanted to get through. If Dave Ford rated this guy, and so did all of these other nice looking people, maybe I should too. So I put my faith in Tim and in Ayahuasca and prayed that I ayahuasca would be good to me.

Below our feet there were plastic bowls or half bottles, intended for us to be sick in. Tim explained that some people would have an elated ecstatic experience, others might have quite a hard time both physically and mentally, they might reach a sort of hell and either come through to a better experience or not. And some would feel nothing. He said the medicine, ayahuasca, would decide.

We were told it was an idea to have a question in mind for ayahuasca, and I had a couple. Whatever happened, he said, there was no leaving. You just had to sit through it. If you needed the toilet you should go quickly and come back and try not to disturb people. He said it was important that we tried not to make too much noise as others would be very conscious of it but that at certain points people might want to laugh or cry or sing, and we should just get that over with naturally. He said we were here to work. Ayahuasca he told us is a powerful medicine, made from a vine and plants. But no one had ever died from taking it and he would guide us with music and tobacco and perfume.

His voice was so strange and yet so soft. He rolled his rs and sounded like a pigeon cooing. There was the tiniest hint of fear too, as if he was somehow humble in front of this powerful medicine. There was only a faint sound of the wind and outside and our quiet apprehension.

As I went up to drink a first cup my mind was still in overdrive; there was still a little voice saying ‘mate this is weird! Mate, basically you are going to sit here with a bunch of strangers, throwing up and tripping your nuts off.

Ayahuasca tasted acidic, like wine that had been fermented with herbal tea and gravel. Tim had said that some people would be affected within fifteen minutes, and that for others it would take longer. I think I started to feel the effects within the first few minutes. It almost makes me tingle just thinking about it.

As it began to affect me I could feel the fear in me swelling. This, I now understand is normal. My head felt heavy and I closed my eyes. All I saw was swirling colours in black and pushes of red and a rush of happiness.

Part of me was terrified, that feeling of becoming out of control and wanting it to stop. Normally it makes me take some clothes off and crash in a corner somewhere. Here too I was physically uncomfortable, hot and then shivering, sighing and then breathless. I couldn’t get comfortable because I was fighting it.

I saw swirling colours and heard music in the background, strange enchanting alien music. To put it bluntly I was completely out of it, and I was well aware of it. But I was still battling to keep control; and part of that related to my bladder. I needed the toilet badly. The room was dark with music and the sound of some people retching others moaning. Could I make it outside? Maybe the fresh air would do me goof. But the whole experience was far more difficult than I had expected.

Outside everything was alive; the grass, the wind, don’t even talk to me about the stars. I started to move towards the toilets and every step was a thousand layers of echo. I couldn’t make out where the toilet was and outside I felt, like the enormity of everything, like never before. There was to be no peeing for Kika. It just was not something I was able to accommodate.

I headed back to the hut, stumbling and accidentally flashing the light at people as I went. I honestly do not think I would have found my seat had it not been for the Embassy man next to me, let’s call him H, who was for some reason up and was able to gently guide me back to my seat like a friendly bear. At that point, I had no doubt who was in charge. It was not me, it was clearly ayahuasca.

Ever the geek, I sat back, my head flopping to one side and said in a little voice in my head, ‘Ok Ayahuasca, I get it. You call the shots here. But I really can not manage to go to the toilet and I do not want to piss myself. So please can we make a deal, I will go all out tomorrow, and as much as I can tonight, but please let me keep control of my bladder.’ You will be pleased to hear that Ayahuasca seemed to honour our agreement.

What happened next was simply exquisite. First, I was a little sick, which came as a massive relief. After that I was in some sort of a coma, just letting whatever thoughts and images come into my mind come and go. I saw a lot of patterns and shapes. And I saw faces. In particular I saw the face of a person I had wanted to get over for a long time. And I kept hearing, it doesn’t matter and the voice of my Abuelita, so clear it was as if she was there soothing me.

What I experienced is really hard to explain. All I know is that it felt like I went deep into the core of my being, right to the truth and to the part of me that knows but is so often quiet in the face of uncertainty and insecurity. And I made sense of a whole lot of things. As the experience came to an end what I remember most is this beautiful sense of being well and happy in myself.

I treasured the music; it was so helpful to me. Tim played all sorts of instruments, some sort of a harp, a flute, drums I think. And he sang, each note feeling like a precious gift. He moved around us, singing and blowing tobacco and perfume at us through his mouth and hands I think, so that it felt like rain. With ayahuasca you become ultra sensitive and so the scent of lavender or the warmth of tobacco (also a very mystical plant) can be very powerful. I sighed a lot. I know that much because H told me later that, at one point he had to check himself and then decided the sound effects were quite pleasant really!

The other thing I remember is feeling very grateful towards Tim. He felt like a shepherd, making us safe, guiding us, and working like a bastard. It is hard work all that blowing and singing, it made him a bit sick at times… imagine perfume in your mouth and tobacco… There were twenty of us too, all very different ranging from the embassy man to someone that worked for Microsoft, to a healer and a student and three guys who had just left the navy. I felt huge admiration, respect and affection for Tim.

You know as the experience is coming to an end. You know because you start to wake up from your coma, as if from a magical dream in which you were really alive. It felt warm and as though we had all come through. I am aware that all this sounds hippie dippie but you know me… first one to be cynical about something like this, but it really was something else.

There were some hugs and some exchanges about what people had been through and we headed back to the lodge. A couple of people had felt absolutely nothing despite taking three cups. Others had had really intense experiences, having as Tim said, done the mental work of years in just a few hours.

I felt truly happy and relaxed and most of all I felt the relief of something, or someone having left me. Quite amazing but the whole truth is that that person, whose heart I broke, who hurt me back, who made me sad and angry and obsessive, with whom I made a mess, was gone. The hurt that was so painful and addictive and hard to let go of had disappeared, like a switch being turned off. And it has not been turned on again since.

Still hallucinating, I could not sleep. In the morning another new experience, the sweat lodge at dawn.
In bikinis and towels we headed towards where the hut was and stripped by a fire. I had no idea what would happen next. We entered a sort of tent with hot rocks in the middle, like a sort of outdoor sauna. All twenty of us were squashed in there, sweaty leg against sweaty arm. Oils, at least I think they were oils, were used, and I smelt banana and coconut and aruda. The rocks kept coming and the steam grew thicker. Tim recited thanks to the pachamama and we all gave thanks… I know it sounds cultish now but really it wasn’t and what I liked was that whatever Tim said seemed to go along with the basic philosophy of being a good human being. So it didn’t matter that there was someone there who was Christian and me Jewish and someone else who was atheist and a Bolivian healer and so on… it was all just very human.

When we came out we lay on the grass, the sun now having come up, and I felt cleansed. Cold water was tipped on us and there was hot cinnamon tea and then breakfast.

I had not slept and had eaten and drunk very little, but I wasn’t finished. Having been unsure of whether I would even stay for one ceremony I was now getting ready to go on a six hour hike and had agreed with Matthews that we would stay for the whole four day retreat, and do a second ceremony.

Some people left after breakfast and before the hike. The remainders were the people I would get to know well and who, without exception, I have a lot of love for. There was of course Dave Ford, Maz, H and me, who you already know, plus Diego, the lovely American dred lock jungle guide and fairly devout Christian (I say that only because I love all those contradictions and they are what make Diego Diego… as well as the way he says exact -tly), and then Mel the lovely smily American flower child, and Julian the Brit from Torquee, who had helped and sung beautifully in the ceremony and is on the way to being a Shaman or healer as well.

I know ayahuasca is not a drug because somehow I had the energy and the clarity to do that hike, and believe me it was tough going. We were climbing all the time at high altitude, and I felt unsteady with Julian helping me along. We were going to a very spiritual part of the mountain, from where you could see all of La Paz, to make an offering. When we got there I sat at the top for a while. I do not know what made me stay there, as the rest went a little way down and sat on a flat rock. But I stayed there for a few minutes and just let the tears roll down my cheeks; once more, just so glad to be alive.

At the start of the second ceremony, I still felt scared, though less uncomfortable. H was extremely sick and at one point I had to break the rules and just pat him on the back. I don’t know why but it just felt like he needed it.

I remember the so many colours at first and then frustration. Come on I kept saying to myself, I want to have another intenmazing experience. It was only when I stopped fighting and trying to control it that things really started to happen.

This time it was less hard work. Pure loveliness. I saw Che Guevara’s face and a lion. I felt my tummy and how warm it was and had a sense of how I need to take better care of myself. Best of all I saw my friends. What I wanted to know this time related to all the ‘am I doing the right thing? Will I be ok? Can I make it? Questions. What I saw was the belief in my friend’s eyes, Rachel and Sian and Amy and Claire and Sarah and all sorts of people smiling with me or laughing and saying of course you will be OK. And I saw my dad showing off about me in the pub with his friends, and admitting he worried, but being happy and proud that his daughter was and is living life. And I saw my mum with her lovely warm wise eyes saying ‘you know I think you’re the bolocks Lo’. Lots of things… things I will not bore you with and that I can not do justice to. All I know is that Ayahuasca brings you to your subconscious truth and makes you feel that truth in all of its profundity, at that moment and beyond.

People’s experiences were very different. On the first night one girl had spent the whole time riding on the dog from the never ending story and playing in a Nintendo game. Someone else had seen a winged angel towering over him, someone else had seen G-d.

I still feel so grateful to Tim for the two ceremonies and for what he taught me and showed me, maybe without realising it. He is by the way coming to England, looking for people who are interested in the work he does and for places to stay while he is visiting. So if you want to meet this wonderful man… you now have the chance.

All this happened just days before my birthday, so it was doubly fantastic; I felt very happy and sorted and also had met a whole bunch of people I was really happy to be around on the big day.

Good friends and bitchin' flies

To the jungle

With our fortunes told and our lungs in need of some fresh air we headed to Rurrenabaque, aboard a little plane that looked like it had been put together with sticky tape. I felt nervous taking off from such a height but I soon got lost in the view. We passed the dusty brown planes of the pampas, came frighteningly close to snow capped mountains and saw lush green jungle in the distance. But when we stepped off the plane, it was proper warm air that greeted us.

Once a sleepy little village, Rurranabaque has been waking up to tourism and is now a jumping point for tours and trips, with companies promising monkeys and anacondas to try and win the tourists over.

First we were heading to Chalalan Eco lodge in the jungle. A friend of mine had recommended this place and it is international renowned for being beautiful and ethical; run and owned by the local Quechua Tacana community. Second, we were going to look up a Shaman that Dave Ford does earth (the American I met when my computer was assaulted in Sucre) had put me in touch with. We had heard from Dave, Susana and Ken about Ayahuasca, a jungle medicine used in shamanistic ceremonies to help people deal with their demons and let’s face it… we all have our demons right? Having read up about ayahuasca, we knew that the experience would be intense. Most people vomit and hallucinate and come to face to face with their insecurities. It has been used in treating people with addiction and mental health problems… though I am still waiting to hear what my dad has to say about it (he being a shrink as oppose to someone with mental health problems).

Like the rest I was prepared to put my life, or at least my mental health, in the hands of this Shaman for a few hours in an effort to be better. What I hadn’t realised was that I still had my cynical, defensive armour on, so when we arrived at the office, to see a short queue of tourists and be told that there had been an… err double booking with some evangelical Christians; I got a face on.

When you decide to experiment with something that is as far from your day to day reality as shamanistic rituals and ayahuasca, I guess being a bit distrustful is natural right? Or maybe I was just a judgemental bitch, but when I saw the tourists and listened to the two staff members, who were younger than me (how very dare they) and heard that they had double booked my mental well being (I am such a dick)… well I went into moody, cynical overdrive.

Maz and I headed back to the others and pronounced the whole thing a waste of time, clearly a tourist trap, bunch of jokers, disgrace to the pachamama. It was made worse when we saw the girl who had broken the double booking news to us and the shaman at the airport. He, Belgian, 25, with sun glasses too big for his face and a sort of floppy rock star hair cut, had been meant to perform our ceremony? Hah! A lucky escape I considered arrogantly.

I feel embarrassed owning up to all this now because that man, Tim, is one of the most astonishingly talented, gentle, brilliant people I have ever met. It is thanks only to journalistic curiosity - I still wanted to write about this ayahuasca thing - that I exchanged numbers with him and ended up on a retreat with him later.

Chalalan Eco Lodge

In a little wooden boat we headed up stream with our guide, Sergio, a well mannered local who spoke today’s version of ‘learnt it from a book’ English, in other words he had learnt it from a CD.

Along the banks we searched for signs of life. There are jaguar, puma, monkeys, tapier, wild pigs, macaws here but they’re all very good at not being seen. The water was a thick blue, rippling as our boat ploughed through the occasional rapids. All the way, Sergio feeding me inspiration, for a story on trouble in the jungle.

Madidi National Park is truly beautiful and at Chalalan they’ve got a very good thing going. The lodge was set up by the community of San Jose de Uchupiamonas, who have exchanged hunting and logging for sustainable tourism with the help of Conservation International. The village has benefited; some more than others maybe, and the lodge, which charges almost European prices, is turning over a very healthy profit.

National parks have always been controversial in Bolivia with many poorer farmers and people from the highlands questioning how much they benefit ordinary Bolivians. What they see is land that could be used for agriculture, and natural resources that haven’t yet been exploited.

As travellers, Chalalan probably wasn’t suited to us. We were greeted after nature trails with fresh papaya juice on a silver tray and ate three course meals at long tables in somewhat uncomfortable calm. But we did witness a tarantula on a night walk, swinging squirrel monkeys, the golden palace titi monkey, (named after a Canadian casino, whose owner bought the naming rights at a charity auction huh), macaws, butterflies and a baby Cayman in the reeds in the lake.

We visited Sergio’s village too, where people played music, cooked and danced for our enjoyment. At first I think we all felt a bit uncomfortable, but we saw it came from their interest in us and a desire to win our support in their fight to keep the park safe.

Sometimes as a tourist you want an organic experience but actually what you do is put expectations on realities without appreciating them for what they are…. Just like the shaman, who I had expected to be dark skinned with a long beard, people in this village wore jeans and were unsure why their day to day life was of interest to us. But it was a really interesting experience, people were very kind and it felt like a long way from anywhere I knew before.

I felt really relaxed at Chalalan. What I loved most was the noses of jungle frogs, so tiny but so loud and the roaring bark of the red howler monkeys as well as the flapping sounds of birds in the trees.

The Pampas

Luxury as we were to find out is a sweet complaint compared to the squalor of our pampas tour. We left direct for the pampas in a van that broke down three times along the dusty road. A journey that should have taken three hours took seven. Still this meant we travelled to the lodge in a little dugout canoe as the sun set; dream like.

At the so called lodge, mosquito nets were tatty and tinged with graffiti and dead bugs and a mouse ran across one of the nets, when we came back after supper. But then, maybe that’s how it should be in the jungle right?

We headed out the next morning with our guide, a man somehow gangster like, who showed little regard for the environment and a total lack of enthusiasm when we asked about what we were seeing. He was quite the opposite of diligent little Sergio, but his job was much easier; you couldn’t miss the wildlife here.

We swam with pink dolphins in Parana infested waters which we later tried to catch on spikes (I failed predictably; too impatient), came within inches of a cayman , fed squirrel monkeys banana, spotted turtles and perching toucans and even stopped for beer.

Dirty, smelly and half drunk, we headed back to Rurrenabaque. I haven’t mentioned them yet, but by this point the sand fly bites I’d acquired whilst crossing a river a few days before, at Madidi, were becoming intolerably itchy. I literally pulled up my trousers to cross the river and swarms of these tiny harmless looking bastard things attacked my legs and arms. I didn’t notice at first. Initially they come up as tiny blood red pricks. But later they began to swell and ooze nastiness. They looked like big red sores; I tried to count them and stopped after sixty. The worst thing about them is that they just don’t stop itching.


We returned to La Paz perhaps with heavy hearts. We probably had started to annoy each other by this stage, but still we had all become very close and were about to part company. Precious pretty P was going home to London after almost three months travelling with me. Roller disco had a fierce schedule to keep up with if she was going to make it to Costa Rica in time, and the Spaniard was headed for Colombia. Maz Matthews had decided to stay another week for my birthday (bless him).

It felt quite strange when we woke up, obviously after a heavy night again, and found they were gone.

This is La Paz

Life at the time of writing

The sun has been shining in La Paz today but it’s freezing cold. July is the coldest month in La Paz but a taxi driver told me it gets warmer from here on in and today I believe him.

There is a Peruvian festival in the main square near to where I live in Soppocachi. Three over excited men, the same ones as in the salsa club last night, were jostling on stage and singing when I was down there. I was meant to be settling down to write my blog in an internet café, but the sun shined beckoned so I sat eating sea food listening to wrinkly Bolivian ladies slag off the Argentines and thinking how I’d be on the grass drinking beer if one of my girlfriends was here.

I rejected an offer to have my shoes shined by a street kid in a balaclava; I was after all wearing walking hiking boots (as usual yes I am a geek, but seriously I fly in those boots). Up the hill towards home, feeling like the air was getting thinner and the oxygen being pulled out of my being, like I was climbing a staircase. I passed the woman selling mandarins and avocados on the street, navigated five locks and finally I was home. (It feels strange saying home… this is a temporary home. But anywhere I lay my head for more than a few days is home.)

Is that what daily life is like for me at the moment? Kind of. It changes from day today. July has been a month of slumber and sorting, but don’t worry I am not going to recite my list of things to do. There is plenty to tell.

I am renting a little apartment for two hundred and twenty dollars a month. That’s pricey for La Paz but I’m paying for the neighbourhood. Soppocachi is central without having that dirty Soho feel that other parts of central La Paz have. It isn’t the posh part of the town, but it is kind of bohemian European… I mean you can buy dried mango here you know?

Rich people live in la Zona Sur; the southernmost and lowest part of La Paz where the climate is warmer and the altitude doesn’t kick your ass as much. Poor people live in El Alto, once a shantytown looking down on the great canyon that is La Paz’s, it is now Bolivia’s fastest growing city. It’s so high that when we first visited Pretty P could actually feel her self getting increasingly sick as we climbed to the top.

Peace in La Paz

I haven’t suffered too badly with altitude sickness. At first I sucked on coca sweets and drank a lot of coca tea. This is recommended by everyone and anyone, including the US embassy (despite their government’s anti coca policies). And it really helps, just a few leaves in your mouth with a little dried banana or bicarbonate of soda or some other stuff that tastes like sweet chalk.

Altitude sickness, if you get it bad, gives you nose bleeds, sickness, feverishness and commonly you feel like your head is about to explode. You feel emotional, disorientated, can’t think straight whilst at the same time having very little energy.

I didn’t suffer too badly with the altitude but I still felt rather alarmed by La Paz, at first. It is a surreal barmy relentless place, like nowhere on earth. For ages, my mum’s been asking me ‘is it foreign?’ For the first time I can respond with a resounding yes in La Paz, it feels like you’ve landed on the moon; The grey, blue haze, the smell of incense and smoke and the people who like they are from another time on another planet.

At night the lights of all the little houses and buildings look like jewels studded into the side of the mountain. It feels like the wild overgrown garden of a totally mad, fascinating, clever woman; full of trash and treasure. It is captivating, eerie and exhausting.

From dawn you see traders in the street, women sitting in aprons, their long plats draping in front of them, or younger girls in puffer jackets behind their stalls. They sell fruit, nuts and beans, potatoes, raw meat, plastic dinosaurs, stockings, party decorations, little pastry parcel snacks, lipsticks, hair clips, batteries… anything and everything, sold anywhere. And then there are the big markets, where you find streets of kitchen wear, or electrical goods, or coats or trainers.

The La Paz life happens on the street. People are closed here, more quiet, something to do with Aymara culture maybe or a distrust of strangers. But they still change nappies, sleep, piss, eat (with tin plates and knives and forks), kiss and make up and even shower in the street (OK I have only seen that once, but it made an impression since he was starkers).

I guess a lot of this is because people don’t have much money here, so you change your baby in the street or piss there because you have no other choice than to be at work, and there is no childminder or kindergarten.

Having to climb so much in La Paz, did I mention it is the highest capital in the world? You notice the smells; raw meat, mandarins, incense, corn and sometimes but only sometimes delicious fresh bread and cakes. Buses chuck out thick plumes of grey smog from their flagging exhaust pipes. Pass one of these as you’re trudging up hill and it’s choking.

You get used to seeing the traditionally dressed Cholitas, bowler hats, layered skirts, long hair, and nutty wrinkled skin. Some have poor teeth, the richer women gold teeth. Some are poor and others carry briefcases, in Evo Morales’ Bolivia you’d expect that right? I love watching them run with all their layers of skirt and sturdy bodies, perhaps chasing after a bus or crossing the road ahead of an oncoming taxi. They’ll wave a hand and appear to be bobbing and waddling, like spinning tops coming to a halt. Someone should devote a cartoon to them… Super Chola, I can see it now.

And then there are the shoe shiners, like the one I mentioned above. When I asked my paceño (La Paz) friend, Rafael, why they hid their faces, he said mostly it is because they are ashamed. Sometimes it is because of the scars on their faces. Another friend told me that some say it is their rejection of a world that rejects them; exclusion is met with exclusion. Mostly they are kids of between ten and fifteen. They hang out in groups, hunched but ready to run at any moment.

I was surprised at how little begging there is in La Paz. I have been to richer countries where you are constantly hustled and hassled. Not here. Maybe the Bolivians are too proud, or poverty is found more in rural no-mans lands. Those who beg are often old men and women, who, with outstretched hand make a wailing moaning plea for ‘un peso’. Then there are the mothers who sit with their ragged, sometimes barefoot children, with snotty noses and dirty faces, asking for change by the cash points.

Then there is the witches market, where you can buy love potions, cacti, and burnt offerings for the Pachamama (mother earth). There are little jars with symbolic charms and shells inside, llama foetus, skulls, clay animals and ornaments all of which are supposed to bring luck or fortune or cure illness and broken hearts. P bought me a couple of charms for luck on my travels and in particular to try and bring about better laptop days, though the woman, with her apron and missing teeth, looked puzzled when I asked for a charm that would make my computer better.

Gran Poder

Despite having very little, people here spend a lot on their festival regalia. We were in La Paz for the city’s biggest festival, Gran Poder. It began at eight AM and ended at about eleven, with the audience drunk and those in the parade now wearing trainers and chewing coca to stay awake.

When I first woke I looked out of the women and saw a stream of women in layered pink frilly skirts and bowler hats twirling down the road. They looked like escaped cake decorations.

We found our seats and watched as long legged women in short skirts, drag queen boots and head dresses clicked their hips left right, smiling at their audience like real life manikins. There were men in masks, and feathered head dresses, roomy silk trousers and embroidered waistcoats. The older women flashed their layered skits and smiled as the crowds clapped and threw confetti. All the costumes are hand made and symbolic. Some in the parade were meant to represent the Spanish, and how ugly they became, suffering altitude. They didn’t chew so much coca those Spaniards, they thought it was a beastly habit. Other costumes symbolised great Aymara heroes or the enslaved.

Bolivians are very proud of their traditions and heritage. I have had a few conversations with people trying to figure out why this is. Maybe when you are from a nation that has been so badly treated by other nations; the Spanish, the Chileans, the Peruvians, the US… and Bolivia’s own historical line of corrupt leaders, you hold onto what you can trust. What is yours and can neither be understood nor stolen.

Ken, Susana and the walrus

By the end, and don’t get me wrong it was awesome, I was ready for a change of scenery. We had gotten talking to people sat near to us, who included a Spanish woman called Susana and her Bristol boyfriend, Ken (a most unlikely Ken ever). They joined our merry band as did a less welcome drunk welsh man complete with a chip factory on his shoulder. We ended up calling him the walrus because of his peculiar circus conductor moustache.

P, Maz, Roller Disco, David and our new friends are all very good open types, but this guy just seemed intent on trying to offend, which in my case meant coming onto me in a very aggressive and persistent way. When we got back from our night out, and I feigned tiredness and went off to bed with (gay) Maz, I had an unwelcome surprise.

Three knocks at the door, in the darkness I inched forward to identify the visitor and met the gaze of the walrus. ‘If there’s no chance of sex with you, how about a threesome?’ he said to my utter disbelief. ‘Are you mad? I’m going to sleep’ was all I could muster.

We did have a fun night though, going from an overpriced deserted guide book bar to the seediest pit I have ever had the misfortune to enter. Apparently we hit Vivienne’s too early. The tourists and twisters get there after four when, by law the rest of La Paz’s clubs clear out. How it manages to stay open… the stuff that goes on there… I do not know. The cover is that it is a strip joint, though I would pay for the people in there to keep their clothes on not take them off.

Vivianne herself looks like a horror story. Whatever she’s on it seems to have eaten away at every bit of nutrition and goodness to leave a rotting sagging, starved skeleton. The plastic surgery and thick, cracked, seeping mask of makeup doesn’t help either. Her cronies are thin smoky eyed young women, older hobbling addicts and watchful men who smoke in sordid corners. We hurried out there, but I am afraid to say I would be back there in the future again.

El Alto

We were about to leave for the jungle, but before that we headed to El Alto. People go to El Alto for the dirt cheap markets and the fortune tellers. It’s chaotic with cholitas clambering onto white micro buses, boys hanging from the doors shouting out destinations, people carrying heavy boxes and the sticky smell of fried chicken.

The fortune teller’s street was a long strip of blue wooden cabins with numbers painted clumsily on the doors. Outside were ash piles and the still burning remains of offerings. In the Smokey haze there were watchful eyes of men in thick jumpers, woolly hats and badly fitting suit jackets; women with tired eyes sat on stools chewing over what they saw.

I had to translate for everyone as the clairvoyants, one with a shelf of human skeletons in his hut, told our fortunes. A lot of it was intuitive guess work. But where Matthews went the man seemed intent on telling him he was going to have ill health and needed to pay fifty dollars for a pachamama offering. Matthews didn’t want to and the man refused to shake his hand when he left.

Elsewhere people didn’t seem to want to deal with us. We couldn’t understand why but I guess they are used to the consuming tourists who show little appreciation for their culture and want to pay the minimum for five minutes insight. Perhaps we were cheapening the whole experience or maybe it’s a harmless fun. Later a Bolivian girl called Mabel told me there are good and money grabbing clairvoyants. Just like anywhere else. Not that I ever got ripped off at Goose fair mind… Rosa Lee who thought my sister was a boy. Brilliant.

But El Alto is much more than fortune tellers, markets and mayhem. This is where Aymara militants led by Tupac Katari and Bartolina set up their head quarters in 1781, it was the stage for the national revolution being won in the 1950s and black October in 2003, when 67 people were killed and three hundred injured in Bolivia’s first gas war.

El Alto is where the forbidden takes place and people don’t ask questions. I got that sense even before we met some local gay guys who told us that El Alto is where undercover gay clubs, dark rooms, and secret sex clubs are located. Being gay in Bolivia is still broadly speaking, unacceptable and an excuse for discrimination and exclusion.