La Paz, Tentatively

La Paz appears to be a city where you either sink or swim. Bolivia’s capital is frenetic. The snarling, gnarled streets are crawling with people, with traffic, with ad-hoc market stalls selling sunglasses, underwear, toothpaste, fire extinguishers, toilet seats, soup, you name it. Juice is pressed, fish are gutted and tripe is sliced. Car horns blare and people shout. If you look up, you’ll see electricity pylons wrapped in an unholy tangle of cables, spreading every which way out along the streets.

The clock in the main square is anticlockwise – a deliberate metaphor for Bolivia’s desire to embrace its differences from Europe and America and proudly declare its place in the Southern Hemisphere (where water goes down the plughole the other way, so why shouldn’t clocks?).

I’m grateful for my Spanish here. It would be a tough city to navigate without it. Tourism hasn’t overwhelmed the streets and, whilst there are areas littered with tour companies, it can be hard to get a meal or a bus ticket without a grasp of the language.

Many people come here to see San Pedro prison and take one of the famous tours of the institution built to house 500 people that today contains over 2,000. A unbelievable economy flourishes within the prison. Inmates must buy their own cells and often bring their entire families to live with them. Some cells are basic, but if you have the cash and the contacts, you could find yourself whiling away your sentence with a hot tub and a plasma screen TV. However, the enterprising inmate who used to run the tours and made them famous has since been released and is no longer providing the service. The ‘tours’ nowadays are little more than an exercise in extortion of unwitting tourists. The advice was clear: do NOT take a prison tour.

Another draw for tourists is the Witches’ Market where you can buy love potions and curses and weird and wonderful lucky charms. Perhaps it’ll be a desiccated llama foetus that takes your fancy – there are plenty of those. Pacenos (or people from La Paz) are a superstitious bunch and before starting construction of a new building, a llama foetus will always be placed in the foundations as an offering to Pachamama. The bigger the building, the larger the sacrifice required. Rumour has it that, with particularly ambitious constructions, sacrificial offerings may take a larger, more human form…

Or maybe its the Cholitas you’ll come to see. Once a stigmatised group in society, the indigenous women in traditional dress are becoming more visible and now have their own magazine, modelling agency and even wrestling night (video game coming soon). Dressed in thick wide skirts, their hair in two long plaits, they’re most well known for the curious bowler hats perched atop their heads. The hats may seem to be incongruous with their traditional dress, and indeed they are. The style comes from the days when the British arrived in Bolivia to build a railway, complete with their Chaplinesque hats. One day their hat supplier changed, and the hats started being shipped in a much smaller size. Not wanting to wear them themselves, the men found a market for the small hats among the local women – potentially helped along by a rather tall tale that they were all the rage with European women. And so, the tradition of wearing what appears to be a slightly too small bowler hat still continues to this day.

I’ve tried to keep my head above the proverbial water in this city, but I’m not convinced I’ve made the most of it. Constant worry about my possessions and a rumbling malaise caused most likely by altitude has meant that I haven’t ventured too far from the comfort zone of my hostel and surrounding streets. For now, I’m waiting to get my bus onto genteel Sucre, but I’ve put a pin in La Paz and hope to return in future with some brave companions to explore properly.

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