Bolivia, then back

It seems like a very long time ago now, but just a few weeks ago I finished the trip in Bolivia. After leaving Puno and hopping over a hectic border crossing, we stopped briefly at Tihuanacu, an archaeological site and home to the Subterranean Temple and the Kalasasaya, pre-Inca ruins of comparable importance in Bolivia to Machu Picchu in Peru. As in Peru, these ruins are being restored as best they can when the Spanish took many of the stones that made them to build churches. The old saying ‘you can’t unbake a cake’ comes into mind here – stones from temples now forming the foundations of churches, material being recycled and moved around, the very reason for the stones moving around being part of the history of the place. The deterioration of a place becomes part of what gives it character and tells its story, like the lines on the face of a loved one as they grow old – here at Tihuanacu, the tree-engulfed temples of Angkor, the crumbling sections of the Great Wall of China. When restoration work goes too far, to continue with the analogy of a human face, the result is invariably a dodgy facelift.

My first view of La Paz was the most impressive – from above, as the bus crested the hills surrounding the city. La Paz sits in a valley like a giant goldfish bowl, home to over two million people, the houses clinging to every single available piece of land, right up the sides of the hills. A quarter of the entire population of Bolivia are estimated to live here – in La Paz itself, and El Alto, the overspill city on a plain above the valley. We stayed at the Hotel Senorial Montero, a grand name for a fairly grand if cavernously empty hotel that towered over the slightly ropey part of town it sat in, a huge glass front springing from the top of a colonial era building on Plaza Alonzo de Mendoza. I say the area was ropey because the security guard wore a bullet-proof vest.

Apart from the bullet-proof vest, Plaza Alonzo de Mendoza was patrolled by characters I’d recognise anywhere – I’ve seen them in many of the cities I’ve been to on the trip, as well as London, Leeds and Ipswich. I don’t know if they have a name but I’ll call them Skinnylegs. Without wanting to generalise, these guys are usually using some sort of substance or alcohol – you can see it in the drawn, almost cadaverous faces and wild, staring eyes. There’s this and the very skinny legs, usually wrapped in very tight jeans, usually with white trainers at the end. That’s the Skinnylegs bit. Finally, they’re always in a hurry – where to, I don’t know, but I’m almost certain that trouble happens when they get there. Watch out for them next time you go shopping. No really, watch out.

La Paz felt safe and generally relaxed, but with a busy energy to the place right up to last thing at night, all the more so for Bolivia being in the midst of presidential election fever and the run-up to Christmas. Market stalls were selling Christmas decorations by the bundle – beeping, flashing lights, cribs, Jesus and Mary statuettes, full-on nativity scenes, sweets, baubles and tinsel were all being snapped up from stalls run by the women with the big hats and the bigger hips. La Paz did at least manage to avoid festooning the streets with crap lights and playing ‘So here it is, Merry Christmas’ at full blast from every shop front. There may have been an Andean equivalent (‘Tan aqui­ esta, Feliz Navidad’?) but I didn’t notice it. The Witch’s Market in La Paz featured dozens of stalls all selling various strange statues and souvenirs, llama foetuses hanging morbidly from the displays, offering good luck and protection if thrown underneath a new house or burnt with herbs.

Walking through the streets of La Paz was a great experience in sensory overload the like of which I hadn’t experienced in a while. Crowds move slowly up the hills, pouring around market stalls selling everything from chewing gum to shoes, snack packs of Oreo cookies to CDs – everything in La Paz is for sale right on the streets. Cars and vans casually push past and through the crows, teenagers leaning precariously out of the vans to shout their destination to anyone who wants to get aboard – public transportation in La Paz is mainly by small Toyota vans packed to the gills with Bolivians. A walk back to the hotel one night took us through the middle of dozens of table football games, the air filled with the sound of hundreds of little players rattling around on spinning metal rods. This is the first fully electronics-free amusement arcade I’d ever seen – fantastic. The area of town around the church of San Francisco in the center was a sharp contrast to uptown, with expensive, touristy bars like Mongos, and the embassy district. Every city I’ve seen has had an embassy district that was so well insulated from the rest of the city, I’m sure you have to walk a while outside to remind yourself where you are.

A daylit corridor
Iglesia San Francisco

The Iglesia San Francisco (yes, another one) in La Paz had a great surprise in store – a fascinating exhibition on Anne Frank. I never knew much about Anne Frank, but the exhibition had a complete history of her time hiding in a loft in Amsterdam, up to her death from typhus in a concentration camp in 1945, complete with masses of photography, and diagrams of the house where Anne and her family hid. It seemed a little bit incongruous to be learning about a Jewish girl hiding in Holland in a church in South America, but there we have it. The church was also a great maze of silent corridors and narrow staircases, with various paintings and statues hidden away in corners, carved wood jostling with brightly painted walls, and the occasional hideously kitsch neon-haloed Jesus or Mary. While I can’t stand what they stand for, there are very few other places that are as interesting to wander around as big old churches.

I flew out of La Paz the day before the presidential election – a day before all of the shouting slogans over megaphones, flag waving and non-stop TV adverts from candidates came to a crescendo. The winner was Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, the first to become president in Bolivia – in the run-up to the election, his face (huge smile, more teeth than five Davina McCalls) was to be seen all over the city on posters and flyers, along with that of Jorge Quiroga (aka Tuto), his main opponent. Morales’ party is called MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), where ‘Mas’ is Spanish for ‘More’. Quiroga’s party is called PODEMOS (Poder Democratico y Social), where Podemos means ‘We can’. This emotive use of acronyms got me thinking to what the UK’s party names could stand for – but I didn’t get too much further than ‘Lucky Anthony Blair Obfuscates Unctuously and Repeatedly’. And apart from being smart-arsed, it just isn’t very catchy.

Everyone I spoke to in Bolivia had an opinion on the candidates for president – they’re much more likely to have a strong opinion here than we are in the apathetic UK, when gunfire is still ringing in people’s ears from protests in the last few years, the last few presidents have never made it to the end of their terms, corruption is rife, and hot topics include how to deal with Bolivia’s natural gas resources, and whether or not to ban and destroy the coca leaf, a crop which has a long tradition in the Andes but which has obvious connections to the narcotics trade. Depending on who you spoke to, Jorge Quiroga’s campaign was funded by the US who wanted leverage in this part of the world, he was corrupt, or Morales was a drugs baron who favoured coca growing because he was building cocaine processing plants all over Bolivia, and he was corrupt. More often than not, all of the candidates were corrupt, and Bolivia was buggered whoever won.

Before leaving Bolivia I took a three-day trip to Uyuni, to see the Salar salt flat and the train graveyard – a mind-bogglingly beautiful pure white expanse of nothingness, followed by a mess of rusting hulks.

From Bolivia, it took six flights in four days to get back to the UK – I hardly touched the ground the whole way. I had no choice but to go through a rather scary country on the way back, a heavily armed fundamentalist autocracy with a government-controlled media and miasmatic corruption. That’s the USA, kids, hope you got the joke*. The security checks at Lima airport before boarding the plane for Miami were quite something. I think my backpack was x-rayed about five times. I then had to open it in the presence of a security official, who ascertained that my head torch was not a terrorist device, shortly before she accidentally broke it. All people queuing to check in their baggage had to stand in front of a little lecturn-like table and answer a series of questions from an American Airlines staff member – the questions were about such things as had I packed my bag myself and what was the purpose of my visit to the USA. I felt like the next question would be something like “At any time in the last month have you used the word ‘Jihad’ or ‘Infidel’?”, or “When packing your bag, were you or any person present with you chanting in Arabic?”.

This didn’t finish when I got to Miami. A customs official the size of a fridge freezer looked at me with the utmost suspicion and something resembling loathing because I hadn’t put where I would be staying in Miami on my customs form. I tried to explain that it was because I was there for one night and didn’t have anywhere booked, but his response was “You gotta understand, you haven’t put anything here, you could, you know….”. I could what? Bomb Miami? Because I hadn’t booked a hotel? Surely terrorists book hotels, they’re organised fellows aren’t they? I thought better of actually vocalising this for fear of being carted off to a small room and being given a body cavity search by a women called Lurleen with a tazer gun and bosoms like two fully inflated Volvo airbags.

After a very comfortable night in the Hilton hotel in Miami, my one and only real hotel splurge for the year, I took a flight the next day to a scrotum-tighteningly cold New York, where I stayed in a truly crappy hotel to bring myself back to reality before catching the flight to London the next day. I knew I was on a BA flight because the stewardesses were such miserable po-faced tarts. My first night in the UK was spent at the Thistle hotel at Heathrow, listening to a paraletic group of nazis whose every other word was ‘f**k’, and drinking a bad pint of Stella. Ah, home, sweet home.

So now I’m back, and getting back into whatever passes for real life. It’s all been very strange. I’ll keep you posted.

* I liked every American I met on the trip – open-minded, intelligent, and friendly, and acutely aware of people’s perception of the US. One girl wore a T-Shirt with an apology and the statement ‘I didn’t vote for him’ in several languages.