domingo, 19 de agosto de 2007

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.

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