Highest capital city IN THE WORLD!
Well, sort of. Sucre still kinda is the capital in theory, with La Paz in practice. After a civil war which La Paz won, but left ceremonious capital rights to Sucre. All very odd, and reminds one that in this region, it wasn’t very long ago at all that there were civil wars, coups, and straight out wars. At this moment, there is talk of moving the capital ‘back’ to Sucre – and 2 million people turned out in La Paz to protest. That’s a lot. Apparently the location of Bolivia’s capital is twice as important as racial rights were in the United States of Seppo.
Anyway – I arrived in this highest ‘capital’ city IN THE WORLD! on 25 July, a couple of hours earlier than anticipated. Not sure what to do, walked into bus station. (Bus had stopped a block over from bus station, in very small dark side street.) Looked around, didn’t really find much to help my befuddled mind figure out what to do. Put on some more layers of clothing, then took first taxi driver to yell at me. He grins at his mates as I say ’sure’. I tell him to take me to the central plaza (my usual tactic when I have no idea what to do), and then pay him what I think was actually a fair rate, and walk around looking for accommodation. Everywhere has bolted down corrugated iron gates. Find a doorbell though, and press it. Answered, try to apologise for early hour, but get bed. Sleep, sweet. Then, up & about in La Paz. Am in the centre of the tourist district, one block away from the street known as “Gringo Alley”. So, not too hard to buy my quota of souvenirs. Then, find the Witches Market. Stalls with miniature statues, cigarettes, dandelions, and dried llama foetuses. Then, try to find the Coca Musuem. Fail, instead have afternoon lunch at small restaurant. Watch shoe-shine chaps do their job. Wearing balaclavas. Apparently a lot of them are uni students, trying to pay their way. And it wouldn’t do for somebody to turn up to their doctor and recognise that last year this doctor was shining their shoes. So – wear black balaclavas, in stinking hot sun, to protect their identity. For those who complain about the student loan system – try that for a day.
After a few cervezas (wanted to have enough so that I wouldn’t feel guilty about paying with a 100Bs bill), I return to the hostel. Chat to some french (a lot of french here, a LOT), then a german girl who is very keen on sharing my maté with me. A little too keen, but my general disinterest is enough without bringing out the girlfriend card. Bloody tall hot german girl – begone. Or maybe it was the fact that I’m leaving lipstick marks on my glasses and maté ’straw’. Lipstick marks OF BLOOD! Lips are extremely cracked, and bleeding ensues at any movement of the mouth. Anyway, then spent the night on the internet, trying to figure out what’s going to happen once Pen arrives, and then Ben. Ben, of course, was the difficult one. But once we figured out a scenario where neither of us has to make a decision in the immediate future, it was all sweet. But, it’s looking like I’ll be staying in this rather cheap continent for maybe a month longer than originally intended. Instead of spending a month in the most expensive continent in the world. Possibly a good choice, will depend on our success at finding coverage of that kiwi religion – the Rugby World Cup. I suspect that with my & Ben’s recently discovered disdain of the worth of cash, we’ll probably end up staying in some stupidly expensive hotel on the nights of each important game.
But, babbling. Onto 26 July. Woken up by the hostel workers doing their job. Although I’m not too sure on the rational behind cleaning the shower at 8am. I get up, book a nice touristy tourist tour to Tiahuanaco. (Tiwanaku for those who call Beijing ‘Peking’, etc). Then, buy a token purchase from a stall at the Witches Market, then ask if I can take a photo. She seems stoked, even poses for me, waits while I realise my batteries are flat, then demands to see the photo, giggles, and recommends 2pm as a better time for the sun position. Onwards, today I find the Coca Museum. Very very small/cramped (whole thing in the size of one double bedroom in an old NZ house), but well executed. Exhibits have explanations in spanish, but they have booklets in various languages with translations. The museum seems torn between explaining that there is nothing wrong with the coca plant, and heaps right with it – and with toeing the government line (which is in turn toeing the seppo government line for money – which I always thought was actual gifted money, but is in reality loans. Thanks, America.) Of course, they have to what they have to do to get funding – both the Bolivian government, and the museum itself. Explains the history of coca before colonisation, and since. Before colonisation – a beautiful thing. Effective anaesthetic for Incans doing brain surgery. Effective nutrition for workers. All good. Colonisation. Effective nutrition and “at least I have coca” for slaves under spanish/catholic rule. Catholics figure that something this miraculous must be the work of the devil. (Alanis would call that ironic. She´d be wrong, but…) Catholic church condemns the coca leaf. Makes it a sin. Spanish royalty figure out that their slaves work much harder and longer hours when chewing it. ‘Ask’ the catholic church to reconsider, which it does, and imposes a tax on it instead. To this day, the miners in Potosi spend 15% of their income on coca leaves – as it is proven to make it easier for people working hard labour to do so for longer periods. Oops, am in danger of ranting. A very little more of the stuff I found interesting though. I think it said every anaesthetic, or something like that, is cocaine-based. Sigmund Freud was the first casual cocaine user. Got himself nasal cancer. Coca Cola really did originally contain cocaine. And was a copy-cat product after a french wine. Which was awarded medals and accolades by seppo presidents & christian popes. Cocaine used much in medicine & other products. Acclaimed by scientists. Then, one scientist says that it causes mental retardation and poverty in South America. Just when south american countries producing it were booming. United Nation condemns it. South american countries slide into poverty. Seppos stay the most powerful country IN THE WORLD! 36 countries now have an annual quota of cocaine they’re allowed to produce. New Zealand is one – can produce 17kg, from memory. Not one south american country is in that list. America, of course, has the biggest quota. And I think the company given most of that quota is a subsidiary of CocaCola.
After the museum, went to the adjacent restaurant. Set meal for 20Bs/NZ$3.50. (I’ve read one other person’s travel website where they keep saying how cheap stuff is in their native currency, and I didn’t like it. But, Bolivia is awesome, and I can’t help myself.) Set meal – soup, main, desert. Soup – garlic soup. Only heard that garlic soup existed about a year ago, and have been dying to try it since. Lived up to expectations. Llama steak, filling. Chocolate mousse – long missed. Waddle out door, and use a couple of blocks downhill to gather momentum for uphill. Unfortunately main road is in the valley, so momentum lost. Up the other hill then, in high altitude (highest ‘capital’ city IN THE WORLD!), rather puffed after one block. A few blocks later, find another plaza. Again, only in Bolivia, immaculately maintained. This one with hundreds of pigeons, and vendors selling birdfood. Kinda like Zhongwei in China, but the pigeons weren’t quite so friendly. Possibly due to the kids here enjoying chasing/scaring them, rather than being tranquil Zen babies in China. Heaps of colonial government buildings surrounding square, and a few oversized flags. Nothing I would call “giant” though – so a little disappointed. Soldiers guarding one building wearing uniforms from the war of independence. Including weapons & bedrolls on back. Apparently there are very modern & heavily guards backing them up subtly. Also, sitting on steps was Ben. Seriously, it was Ben. If he wasn’t sitting with a girl I didn’t recognise, I would have stormed over to confront him. Instead onwards to artisan market. One stall with stuff made from salt – cut from salt flats I assume. Tempted, but not sure of the longevity. Back to hostel, heaps of barber shops nearby – all yell at me wanting to shave me. Decline, but store possibility in mind for later. Book mountain bikle ride down the most dangerous road IN THE WORLD for day after tomorrow. Death Road. Tourist died doing it very recently. Same company, I hear rumours of later. Then, nothing to do. Try to play music through TV in common area. Fail. Walk, eat at dodgy little fish ‘restaurant’. Awful looking ‘potato’ with it, which I skip. Therefore small dinner. Back to hostel, buying bottle of wine on the way. Get to chatting with an australian guy & girl. Start playing cards with them and frenchman. Start winning, so can’t leave, even after finishing wine. Open bottle of coca liqor (spelt that way – I figure I got the liquor and not the liquer I wanted), and drink that with cocacola. First time I’ve drunk that in ages, but – as mentioned last update, wanted to try and replicate the original product. Turn down invitation to go into town with australians, as have early start for Tiahuanaco tomorrow. Australian girl talks in very loud voice about how they were asked to leave the common room last night. Soon after, we’re asked to leave. She doesn’t seem to understand why. Guy australian gets rather het up about John Howard. Then, they leave for town, and I go for my early night. 2am.
27 July – wake up on time. Which is lucky, because another way Bolivia outshines other south american countries thus far is it’s actual adherence to times/schedules. Guide arrives, suggests I need warmer clothing. I climb the two flights of stairs to my room. High altitude, rather puffed. Back down. Guide suggests jacket, as may be windy. Back up, puffed again. Highest ‘capital’ city IN THE WORLD. Back down. Guide suggests sunglasses. You get the picture. Then, we walk to another tour agency, to whom I assume the hostel’s tour agency had fobbed me off to, being the only one who’d booked the tour. Wait, then get on minibus. Pick up a few others around town – then head out of town. Guide counts heads, checks lists. Looks worried. Then, seems to figure it’s too late. Gives some fairly informative talk. Hills planted with eucalyptus, because they grow fast. Informative, but boring. A few obviously well-used jokes thrown in. Artificial forest. But trees aren’t plastic. Eucalyptus, but no koalas. Etc. Stop at the highest point of road on way to Tiahuanaco, nice enough view – but nothing special. Just the Andes in the distance. Onwards, Tiahuanaco. Very hungry, buy chocolate bars for breakfast. Museum – some cool stuff, but no photos allowed. Dozens of skulls – most deformed. Children of priests were destined to become priests, so immediately after birth, planks of wood were strapped to their skulls, to force their skulls to grow into a certain shape. Tall and thin. Also, a display of a Tiahuanacon mummy. In a flax-type bag, with only face showing. Some other stuff. Proud of the state of the technology, etc. Pottery showing faces which seem to signify contact with civilizations from other continents.
Then – the actual ruins. Main pyramid is still being dug up. Luckily not as much to dig up as there should be, as the spaniards dismantled the top two levels in order to use the bricks for building a nearby town. Nice work, europeans. But, kinda cool to see an archeological site in the midst of work. A couple of points reminded one very much of Indiana Jones, just before he tricked a chap into being dismantled by an aeroplane propeller. Guide explains how the gate & a statue were used as a calendar. Some of it I believe, other bits I’m not sure on. Her credibility was a little damaged after she explained that her grandfather founded the 1 million population city just above La Paz. And lived to 150. A lot of guides seem to be related to very important people. Have lunch at nearby restaurant, then – instead of going to 2nd part of the site – bus heads back to La Paz. Oh well, main bit was kind of interesting, I gather the other part was just houses. I’ve been meaning to ask if there is a good spot to see the city of La Paz, and it’s setting. On the way back, the bus stops at just such a spot. Awesome. City of 1 million in a hole. And it is referred to as just that… “The Hole” – for the main city. With big mountains surrounding it. Highest ‘capital’ city IN THE WORLD! Back to hostel, buy a thimble, then use some internet. Wrote the last update, then read The Onion for a while. Perhaps a little too long, as I left the internet cafe, and for a moment after getting onto the street – was actually surprised to find myself in La Paz. Highest ‘capital’ city … you know. Try to find a store to sell me a bottle of wine. Fail. Instead, go to very overpriced restaurant. NZ$10 for a main. Salmon trout. Back to hostel, just in time to go to bed at a reasonable hour, ready for a descent down the most dangerous road IN THE WORLD tomorrow.
28 July – Up at 7. Drink coca maté while waiting for other byklists to turn up. Eventually – one frenchman, three irish guys, one english girl turn up. We have breakfast, and one irish guy pulls out. Sick, he reckons. Sick to the stomach of fear, I reckon. Try on our bykling gear, then into minibus. Pick up a woman & two kids – turn out to be family of guide. Little girl is shy, but with my winning way I eventually win her over. She’s poking her tongue out at me with gusto by the end of the day. Drive up to the top of the range. Altitude 4,700 metres. Onto bikes, and down the road. First bit is tarseal, and the guide figures us out. We promise we can go faster. Some of us do. Eventually we get to the turn-off for the actual Death Road. All gravel and dirt from here, at times very thing, very bumpy, and very slippery. And the road rules change – on Death Road people drive on the left side. So drivers can see the edge easier. Which means we have to ride close to the edge. And if a car/truck comes up, we have to get off, and hold bikes out over cliff to give them room. Sweet. After a couple of stops, the others realise that I’m the fastest (most foolhardy) of the tourists, and there is no more of the subtle jostling for the first position behind the guide. Make it to the bottom. We’re warned about a couple of speed bumps at the bottom. Unfortunately, I’m following the guide so closely, and quickly, that the first I notice of the speed bump is when the guide and his bike are flying. I don’t have any time to slow down, as recommended – so I try the flying approach also. Land just in time for the second speed bump, and stay with the tried and proven method. Skid into a halt, and order a cerveza. Others arrive a while later, and after we’ve all had a cerveza, into the bus for a ride up the hill to a township. Go to a hotel where we’re promised showers and lunch. Then we discover the showers aren’t working. Others lie around pool, without actually getting in – while I go to inspect the drinks list. A bottle of chilled cold wine. Others eventually join me, and we have our lunch. A buffet lunch – buffet consisting of one meat option, and one vegetarian option. Couple of hours later, back onto bus. We’re expecting a nice smooth ride up the new road – but soon discover we’re going back up Death Road. Maybe the new road is a toll road? So – I stay awake until we get to the top, and we’re back on relatively safe ground. Back to the hostel – and I go find a bottle of wine. Break the hostel’s corkscrew trying to open it. Eventually find another, and sit on the couch to enjoy some vino. Then stand up immediately, and borrow a cushion from another chair – as double padding is certainly needed. Drink my wine, get my free t-shirt (opted against the design with a skull on the front), and CD with photos taken by guide/bus-driver. Arse is bruised. Hands are bruised. Cracked lips certainly aren’t getting any better.
29 July – don’t sleep in as much as I’d hoped. But, not as tired as I expected either. Bykling is easy. Walk to bus station, past armed guards who’ve blocked the road. Was waiting to be yelled at, or shot – but no such luck. Ask around for buses to Chile. All either leave early morning, or lunchtime – arriving fairly late at night. Decide to postpone decision until last possible moment. Walk back to hostel, via restaurant for lunch, and markets. Lots of markets in La Paz, including, I believe, the largest market IN THE WORLD! 30 city blocks, or some such. Arsetralian girl I met the other day had been there, and bought 7 pairs of shoes/boots. For not very much at all.
Back at hostel, brew up a yerba/coca maté combination – and sit in common area researching options for the two weeks between Pen arriving, and Ben arriving. Then, decide to go for a shave. But, nobody yells at me to come into their store, so keep walking. Instead, go to a cuban restaurant. Is gringo-priced, but I’m willing to pay the extra tonight. Then, figure out the prices in NZ$, and feel guilty at thinking it’s overpriced. Take the waiter’s suggestions for food & drink – both excellent. Then, walk back to hostel. This time, a barber spots me, and beckons me in. Sweet. Sit down, and get myself shaved. Have to hold myself back from smirking the entire time – both to be polite, and because there is a very sharp razor blade on my face – and staying perfectly still seems a good idea. Back to hostel, bottle of wine, listen to french jibber-jabber, and try to finish off all my coca leaves & yerba mate – as coca definitely isn’t allowed into Chile, and I believe yerba won’t be either (no fruits or vegetables at all). Succeed in finishing yerba, but have to leave half a bag of coca leaves behind.