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Bolivia - Beautifully Bizarre

The streets of La Paz are eerie at four o’clock in the morning, and I hurriedly lead the kids through them, past sleeping bodies sprawled in dark corners, toward the centre of town where I hope it’s brighter.

I hate arriving at a city in the dark. Daylight’s hard enough to navigate in when in an unfamiliar place, but darkness brings anxiety and exacerbates the uncertainty I always feel when I arrive somewhere new. But…I’m mama bear today, not just responsible for myself, but also for my kids. And so, I tamp down my nerves and lead my babies down the street.

I’d ignored the calls of the taxi drivers back at the terminal, hoping to find a hostel close to the bus terminal, but after a couple of kilometres without seeing any hotels, I begin wishing I’d been more organized for a night arrival. The city centre’s much brighter as hoped, but it’s only from the traffic, heavy even at this hour. No lit windows or signs on the dark structures behind the sidewalk that offer hope of a bed for the night. This time, I calmly wake the kids and herd them off the bus, telling them we need to take a little boat across the lake before us and let the bus cross on a barge. They’re completely confused and not quite awake but follow me groggily.

They follow me as I confidently, this time, walk to the ticket booth at the top of the dock to buy our fares, then again, down to the small boat at the end of the wharf. We grab seats where we can amongst the passengers scrambling to do the same, and then we’re off, motoring slowly across to the other side of the lake - a quick five-minute ride.

After disembarking and walking up the dock to the small pueblo, we look back across the lake and see our bus being loaded on to a big barge to make the trip over.

“I need to pee, mom,” says Kajsa. Though I remember where the baños were, from the last time I was here, I don’t think we have time to get there and back before our bus rejoins us. “I have to go too. Let’s just go up the street and find somewhere to go,” I suggest to her. It’s dark and her full bladder elicits her quick agreement. We walk up the hill until we see a relatively quiet, dark-ish spot then squat, not too far apart, but not too close, less comfortable with intruding on each other’s pee breaks than the locals are. Someone walks by and glances at us. I giggle to myself noting that I’m not even phased by the intrusion. Eight months of backpacking has dulled my shyness about bodily functions.

And now we’re wandering aimlessly through the darkened streets of La Paz, our bags feeling heavier by the second. Kajsa’s making sad noises, moaning and sighing, readjusting her heavy pack on her back. Maybe we should just go to my old hostel? Yeah, it’s a long ways away - at the other end of the city – but at least I know where it is, and I know the kids will love it…and its breakfasts. Though I’d walk if it was just me, I know Kajsa’s poor back won’t make the long trek, and so I hail a taxi.

In ten minutes we pull up to the door to my old ‘home.’ I herd my sleepy children through the gate and ring the bell shortly, cringing at the loud noise it makes in the silent night. A long five minutes later, the door opens a scant few inches, and a drowsy woman peers out at us.

Buenas dias, señora. Lo siento mucho, pero tiene camas?” I ask, looking at her apologetically, hoping with all my heart she’ll say yes, we have beds.

They don't but after looking at our devastated faces, she manages to find a dorm whose patrons haven't yet arrived.

Gracias!” Kajsa says to the woman, brave enough in her happiness to say a word in Spanish.

We're led upstairs and into a dark dormitory, quiet other than the soft snores emanating from a few beds. We collapse on the bunks she points out and crawl in without undressing, beds, thoroughly exhausted from the past hours.

Breakfast at Hostel Pirwa, as I expected, reinvigorates all of us. Kajsa, the biggest ‘foodie’ among us, is especially thrilled.

With no sign of last night’s exhaustion, her eyes shine happily as she moves around the room filling her plate with the free and ample breakfast.

Our stomachs sated, we make our way back into the city, no longer dark and scary, but bright and bustling. The street scene quickly engrosses Kajsa and Josh. It’s hard to find anything familiar in this craziest of cities, but unfamiliarity equals fascination.

Across the city, XX street takes us past wall-to-wall shops with colourful, woven bags and wall hangings, and a plethora of goods spilling out of the doorways, pulling cries of glee from Kajsa and Josh as they find yet another bizarre gift to take home to their friends.

I pull the kids over to El Mercado de las Brujas, the witches’ market, where local witch doctors sell all manner of potions and spells.

I laugh at the kids' faces when they see llama fetuses hanging for sale, waiting for new home builders to buy and bury them in their houses' foundations to bring luck and prosperity to the family.

I'd cringed in disgust as well, but after seeing a few, I've become immune to the horror my kids are now expressing.

More dead creatures lie inside the shops. It’s August and the month when animals are used in ceremonies held by the indigenous Aymara people to honour Pachamama, the earth mother. Dried snakes, frogs and turtles gaze up at us from every table.

Covering an entire wall, are packets of herbs, offering cures for diabetes, kidney trouble, matters of the heart and, oh so important to Latinos, better sex. It’s hard to decide between a love potion (Kajsa and I are both single), or a curse (to hex Kajsa’s last nasty boyfriend).

We head up to the nearby Museo de Coca on Calle Linares. Coca, we discover there, has been central to indigenous culture for more than three thousand years and is still used extensively in ceremonies and rituals. Vendors throughout the continent sell bags of the leaves from large barrels.

Coca leaves have been rolled into small balls and stuck in cheeks for hundreds of years, allowing one generation after to another to experience the benefits that the leaves' juices gives. Over time, it was discovered that a little lime mixed in, sped up absorption of the substance into the bloodstream.

Historically, and likely even now, the coca leaf is relied on by the poor to stave off hunger pains. Those enslaved by Spanish conquistadores to laboriously build their grand cities and mine their silver, chewed leaves constantly to keep their strength and spirits up through that hellish existence.

Nowadays, Bolivians, Peruvians and Colombians, the majority of users, use the plant to invigorate their sex lives, calm their upset stomachs, and dull their toothaches. A handy plant to be sure. Tourists, not used to travelling in high elevation cities like La Paz, which is 3500 metres above sea level, are encouraged to chew the leaves to help with elevation sickness.

In 1855, the simple coca leaf began its ascent to its dangerous successor. A German chemist had managed to extract a substance from the leaves that caused physiological changes in humans. It was called ‘cocaine.’ A few years later, that alkaloid was further tested by an Italian doctor intrigued by the indigenous peoples’ incessant use of coca leaves. He discovered the alkaloid had an amazing ability to cure ‘furry morning tongue,’ to whiten stained teeth and to decrease the release of gas, undoubtedly to the joy of farters everywhere. Another brilliant chemist added the coca leaves to wine and quickly became a successful vintner and beverage producer. One of his products was called ‘Coca Cola.’ The original recipe in 1886 called for a ‘pinch of coca leaves.’

In 1879, and surely considered a terrible discovery in hindsight, cocaine was seen to help with morphine addiction, and after that, to offer recreational benefits. In his 1884 paper called ‘Űber Coca,‘ Freud wrote that cocaine caused ‘exhilaration and lasting euphoria, an increase of self-control, vitality and capacity for work, all without any feeling of being under the influence of a drug.’ Who wouldn’t want some of that? Not surprisingly, cocaine became extremely popular. By the early twentieth century, U.S. pharmacies sold cocaine in tiny five and ten cent boxes. Workers up and down the Mississippi River started their days with it, and white employers encouraged their black labourers to buy it, recognizing its effect on production. In World War I soldiers were provided with ‘pep pills’ laced with cocaine.

Our very educational visit ends with a cup of coca tea and a coca cookie at the tiny café in the back of the museo. No buzz, sadly.

So,we 'get high' in a different way. La Paz is the host of the longest and highest urban gondola system in the world. It runs three miles-long cables across the huge city to move its people across the noisy four-laned mess of traffic jams that would be their only alternative.

The bright yellow cars glide through the air above us, reminding me of my plan. We find the station easily by following the gondola cable. The building is bustling with people, but the transportation system is very efficient and we’re soon flying across the blue sky. We’re stunned silent as we pass over dilapidated shacks, their flat rooftops laden with clotheslines hung with billowing sheets and faded materials.

The impoverished residential section transitions to tall, modern buildings at the outskirts of downtown which line the narrow river winding through the city. Though heart-wrenching to see the poverty over great swaths of the city, the vastness and beauty of La Paz is an incredible sight from the air.

Its an awesome way to say goodbye to La Paz. We head to the bus terminal to catch a night bus to Uyuni and our next four-day adventure.

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Jul 02, 2021

🙂 you have me wanting to take off to see another part of this world we live in. Thanks for giving some insight into what awaits all of the armchair travellers out there.

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