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Getting sucked in to La Paz

September 28, 2009

There’s something about La Paz. It seems to be the perfect place to take a few days to relax in the middle of a long trip. In my hostel, half the people sleep all day, party all night. Or at the very least, sleep in, head out into the city, come back, relax, go online, watch a movie, take a nap, go back into the city, repeat. That’s kind of how I’ve been going about it. Up at nine or ten, walk around La Paz, come back and get online for a bit, go back out into La Paz, come back and have some dinner, a beer, talk to some people, then go to bed. I suppose the hostel has something to do with it, what with all the amenities to encourage spending time just relaxing here! It’s so easy to get sucked in!

But it’s more than just a rest stop for me in La Paz. For some reason, I really like this city. And I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think part of it is just how incredibly different it is from what I expected. I just really expected to hate it, to be in and out. I expected a big, dirty, frustrating city. And that’s just not La Paz at all.

Yesterday started out pretty gloomy. I was having trouble meeting anyone or feeling connected to anyone, and so I was feeling really lonely and missing Oscar and my friends and family a lot. I even went so far as too look up prices to fly to Sweden for a week (way too much)!

Finally I dragged myself out of the hostel, determined to at least do something in the city. I came across a small festival which I think was dedicated to disabled people. There was a small stage where they started playing “Thriller” and a bunch of people dressed like monsters started dancing. At first I thought they just had bad rhythm, but when they finished everyone “clapped” by waving their hands in the air — sign language style — so I figure they were deaf people dancing. It was really interesting, and it just made me think about how similar we all are, no matter where we are in the world. The festival reminded me so much of all the different fairs we have at home, the tons of ones I worked at the summer I worked at Sun News. And all the couples and families strolling around, kids eating ice cream and playing on the blow up toys…it all felt so familiar and so much like home.

After that I headed up further to Plaza Sucre, where the San Pedro prison is. Again it was quite different from the guidebook’s description of a nice place with well-tended gardens! It felt very dismal and sad up there. It wasn’t well cared for at all, and everyone sitting around the plaza, minus a few kids running around playing, seemed to have a sad aura to them. Of course, my own mood may have influenced my perceptions. I felt for everyone there, felt the feeling hanging in the air. There was a girl standing in front of the prison crying, and I thought how she probably had a father/brother/boyfriend in prison, how she was crying because she had to be separated from someone she loved. I felt kind of connected in that moment, because that was how I felt at the time.

I of course didn’t want to continue to feel that depressing atmosphere, so I headed back toward the festival and decided to splurge on lunch at a guidebook-recommended restaurant called Eli’s. The place was super crowded with locals, so I figured it must be good. They stuck me in a tiny corner table in the back by the bathroom, the only place available, and I decided to soothe my homesickness with an order of burger, fries, a Coke and a chocolate milkshake. The place was sort of 50’s diner themed, with pink walls and framed black and white photos of old movie stars hanging everywhere. The meal was exactly as it would be at such a themed restaurant at home — not that great, but satisfying nonetheless.

Yuen and I wearing our masks at Cholitas Wrestling

Yuen and I wearing our masks at Cholitas Wrestling

Feeling more rejuvenated, I headed back to the hostel to meet Yuen, an English girl I’d met the night before, to go to this Cholita’s Wrestling show. With a cab it took us probably more than 20 minutes to climb all the way from the center of La Paz (basically the bottom of the city) to El Alto, way at the top. The views were incredible from there though! The show was a real riot. It was basically an amateur Spanish version of the WWF/WWE. Hilarious!

They had various fighters, the guys were all in masks and dressed in crazy (usually spandex-y!) costumes. They had “Mortis,” a skeleton, Aqua Man, and a whole variety of others.  They also had two cholitas, or traditional Bolivian women, who fought as well a couple times. The punches and such were always very obviously fake and they always had crazy overreactions of pain! It was so funny.

Some cholitas and other fighters battling it out

Some cholitas and other fighters battling it out

They did do some interesting moves though, a lot of slamming each other down, jumping from the top of the ring, wrapping their legs around the other’s neck, and then double flipping each other down. I took some videos that can be seen on youtube: here, here, here, and here.

There I also met a few guys from Hawaii who were (like everyone else I meet, it seems!) doing the same trip as me, but reversed. They gave me some advice about Peru and such, and it was nice to meet some people that I got along well with. Of course they were staying at another hostel and leaving to go south in Bolivia the next day, but still some friendship and some entertaining wrestling served to boost my mood.

When I got back to the hostel I met a couple French girls and a Swiss guy and we had a few drinks and talked. The girls are moving on to Titicaca in a few days as well, so I may meet up with them again. They went to bed and I stayed talking with the Swiss guy, David, who was going to Rurrenabaque the next morning (along with Ray as well). At this point I had decided not to go anymore, because I was stressed about it and didn’t want to go alone.

David convinced me that I should just get up at four in the morning and go with them to the airport and see if I could get on their flight and then on their tour to the pampas with them. I decided to go for it, and was really excited about it. Of course, my alarm clock didn’t go off this morning and so when I did finally wake up it was much too late and I’d missed them and the flight! Very upsetting. Now I’m back up in the air, thinking I will save the money and not do Rurre now, since I have been to the jungle before in Peru and I saw most of the animals they will see there or in Iguazu, and that way I will have some more money to be able to do the Galapagos in Nov/Dec.

Today was to be my day of relaxing in La Paz. I decided to do some shopping since everything is so cheap here. I wanted to pick up a few gifts for people, and I desperately wanted a new shirt to wear — it gets tiring wearing the same four shirts over and over again, especially when you’re down to only, say, two, and you’re in one place for more than two days!

I went back to the Witches (Brujas) Market and was happy to find that there was more there than had met the eye on my first visit. A woman invited me into her shop and inside I could see all the things the guidebook had promised: llama fetuses of all sizes, potions of all kinds (mostly for increasing sexual purposes — all with Fabio/romance novel cover -like pictures on the front! haha). Unfortunately, it started to pour rain and shopping became a little less fun.

When the rain finally let up, and after I had spent some time wandering and eating in a restaurant trying to rid myself of a migraine, I summoned the strength to re-enter the market again. It was different from the other day, and at first seemed small and disappointing. But after more and more walking, I got deep into it and was surrounded by stalls selling everything under the sun. It reminded me again a lot of the markets in Southeast Asia, and made me a bit reminiscent for them. I’d have to say that in general, while the people here are friendly, they are a bit less friendly, or at least a bit more cold and standoffish, than those in Asia. In the end, I found a stall with a nice woman selling shirts. They were all really cute and I ended up splurging 100 Bolivianos on two nice shirts, instead of just picking up a cheap Bolivian souvenir shirt like I’d originally planned. It’s nice to have something new to wear, though!

San Francisco cathedral

San Francisco cathedral

Of course, I was super lost at that point, but that is another great thing about La Paz. First, I know that if I can spot the San Francisco cathedral I just need to get there and I will know where I am and how to get back to my hostel. Second, wherever you are in La Paz, you know you just need to walk downhill to get to the center. So I just started walking down, then started to see some other foreigners (I was the only one deep in the market!) which was obviously a sign that I was getting close, then I could spot the cathedral and it was smooth sailing from there. It’s always nice when I can get lost in a city, get to see some cool places that many people don’t get out to, and then still easily find my way back to somewhere familiar. Another positive point for La Paz!

I feel like I could go on forever about La Paz, and Bolivia in general. At first I hated it because I had split off from Natalie and had trouble meeting people so I felt incredibly lonely. But even now I am still very solo and haven’t made any consistent acquaintances, but despite it all I still really like Bolivia. And there is something to be said for being solo. You really take in everything you see when you’re walking around alone. And being on your own you can also just stick around and do as much as or as little as you want, without worrying about your travel partner wanting to hurry on somewhere else or wanting to do this or that. I have had a lot more time to think about all that I see, to really appreciate all the little things here, to reflect on how it all relates to me and my own experiences at home and in other places. And of course there are some very interesting oddities about La Paz and Bolivia as well, such as the group of people I saw walking around dressed in zebra costumes earlier today, or the constant protests and festivals that are always going on everywhere.

While it’s not as “bad” as I expected, it is still a tough country overall, especially in getting to and getting around, and to be completely honest with myself, I’m not sure if it’s one I’ll ever come back to. But it is also not a place to be missed. So if you’re on the fence about visiting Bolivia (and of course it’s a greater commitment if you’re North American and have to drop $135 to enter), I’d say definitely go for it. And take your time, relax, because the beauty of Bolivia is that it’s not all rushed and intense, it’s laidback and a great place to stretch for a while.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark Taft permalink
    September 29, 2009 10:59 am

    Sounds like some very interesting experiences. I have been to markets like the one you describe in many parts of the world. Always interesting to explore more deeply than the average tourist to discover some of the local flavor. Must say I never imagined you at a WWE match – particularly a Bolivian one!

    Love Dad


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