La Paz, Bolivia

Trip Start Feb 03, 2006
Trip End May 09, 2006

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Thursday, March 30, 2006


Bolivia...Firstly, it is very isolated, and mountainous. It is a landlocked country, and due to its elevation and terrain it is mostly 'roadless'. Bolivia has the highest capital in the world, La Paz (officially Bolivia has two capitals, the other being Sucre, but that is historical, La Paz is really the acting capital of the country), at about 12,000 feet. I am a bit worried about altitude sickness, as it is quite common for those of us not used to such high altitude. The usual recommendation is to go slow, not too much exertion, and if possible, to acclimate slowly. Coming in by plane makes the transition difficult as I essentially will go right to the 12,000 feet level. And of course, I will go higher in the coming days. Oh well, we'll see.

Bolivia, unlike the other countries I have visited so far, is 70% native population, 25% is mixed race, and only 5% is white/European. The native population is Quechuas and Aymaras, I hope to find out more about these peoples as I spend time here. It is a fairly sparsely populated country, with about 8 million spread over about a million square kilometers. Less than 3% is arable. The median age of the population is 21. It is one of the poorest countries in South America.

Bolivia was named after Simon Bolivar, considered the George Washington of South America, who lead the fight for several countries to gain independence from Spain. He is known as "El Libertador", which explains why I have seen so many streets with this name on this continent.

Politically today, Bolivia is one of the least stable countries in South America, with the exception of Columbia and possibly Venezuela. Bolivia within the last few years has elected its first indigenous head of state, Evo Morales, winning by a landslide promising to improve the lot of the Bolivian people. He is not particularly fond of America, however, especially the US drug policy. Coca farming is centuries old here, the plant itself is considered sacred. Coca is used in tea and medicines and various other products, and Mr. Morales himself is said is a coca farmer. His outspoken views on U.S. coca eradication efforts have made him a hero in many parts of his country, where this crop is a very important commodity, and not so popular with the U.S. government. President Morales has declared "capitalism to be the worst enemy of humanity", his political party is "the Movement toward Socialism", and he has strengthened ties with Venezuela and Cuba. He believes that situations in his country are similar to apartheid, in terms of distribution of wealth, power and discrimination between white/Europeans and indigenous peoples.

Although things seem to have settled down, just a few years ago many protests, some dangerous, cut of many areas of the country, closed the airport, and found many road blockaded.


OK, now it is Mar 30, and I have been in La Paz for 2 days. Got off the airport, strode past the taxis that were charging $8 to $20 US and took a little minibus with the locals to within a block of my hotel, and it cost 75 cents. Unfortunately, I made up for that bit of thrifty by having my wallet pickpocketed within an hour of being in town. Lost about $150 in cash, plus all my credit cards (I know, why were they all in one place), etc... Fortunately, I had other money stored separately, so I am OK, at least for a while. But not a great way to start.

Still, had a great day of walking around town today. This is as third world as I've been in, with beggars, and shanties on the hills, and little market stalls everywhere, and lots of noise and people and dogs. But once over the fear of being pickpocketed, I had nothing left of them to take... it was fun to walk among all of it. I did not take many photos, but I'll post what I have soon. And I'll have more to write as I begin my journey out into the country side.

Day in La Paz
Met my new group. GAP, 12 people plus a guide (Ida), ages 20 to 30, then me. I'm the only American, the rest are from Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Kenya, Canada and Britain.
Had a fun day just walking around La Paz, walked for about 5 hours in this very high city. Lots of street stalls selling everything from apples to pencils to handwoven shawls to lightbulbs. Went past the witch's market, where they were selling all kinds of herbs and animal parts, including llama fetuses, dried. It turns out that these are buried under a house prior to it being built, for good luck in construction and harmony with nature. Even large commercial buildings need such an offering before the workers will being their tasks. However, the offering has to be more substantial. There is a place called the elephant graveyard, where people who are particularly down on their luck basically just drink themselves to death. No one cleans up after them, so the corpse lays where it falls. Somebody has the task of collecting one of these to bury beneath a large building before it is built. I am not making this up...

added Mar 31

La Paz is a very poor city, in a very poor country. I'm told the average income is a few hundred dollars a month. One thing that puzzled me as I walked around were boys who would come up and ask to shine your shoes. They carried around a little box for the person to rest their shoe one, and their brush and rags. But they all had dark ski masks on, so that you could only see their eyes. They looked like commandos, at the very least, it was a kind of scary look. Here's their story. This task is considered to be the lowest on the totem pole, to clean up another feet. But their families are so poor, that they need the money, but they are embarrassed about it, so they wear masks so no one will know who they are.
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