Easter in La Paz

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Hostal Senorial

Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, April 16, 2006

All buses from Sucre to La Paz travel through the night; there are inexplicably no morning departures. Generally I donīt sleep well on buses so I am not looking forward to this 12 hour jaunt through the night. However we have bought the best (most expensive) tickets possible on a bus with just 3 īcamaī seats per row (120 Bolivianos or GBP9.00).

We squeeze on to one of the little Japanese 'micro' buses in town (1.20 Bolivianos or GBP0.09) that drives uphill to the bus terminal in Sucre. We jump off and hand in our backpacks to the office where we bought the bus tickets and we are given a baggage-receipt in return. Through the milling crowds we find our way to the bus, pay the pointless bus terminal tax (2.5 Bolivianos or GBP0.18), and claim our comfortable seats. In the meantime, from the backdoor of the ticket office, staff are lowering luggage by rope into the bus; one of the strangest methods Iīve seen in South America.

The bus drives all the way around Sucre; its really too big for most of the streets it drives on. Other drivers look annoyed and disconcerted as they reverse out of the way to let us pass on tight corners.

Soon we realise that the route to La Paz involves backtracking to Potosi first. The road is narrow and twisting and as night falls everyone on the bus is feeling sick. Its not helped by the fact that its far too hot on the bus and there is no air ventillation. The man sitting behind Rachel throws up regularly at 15 minute intervals.

After 2 hours or so, we stop at one of those roadside services that reminds me of the squalorous holes buses used to stop in in China. There are numerous of street vendors selling an array of unnappealing snacks from little roadside shacks. There is a restaurant selling unpalatable greasy food. There are toilets that make it preferable to quietly piss your pants, rather than enter them.

Whilst waiting around we say hello to a friendly American girl who offers us a combined sickness and sleeping pill. We almost grab them out of her hand with excitment. Anything to help pass this hour of darkness.

Rachel sleeps like a baby for the rest of the journey. I spend a few hours in a pleasant trance listening to the MP3 player before finally nodding off.

With the first faint grey light of the morning the bus descents from the altiplano into a steep sided valley covered in houses; this is La Paz. Supposedly the highest capital city in the world. But we know better: its not the capital - Sucre is; and its not the highest town - Potosi is much higher. So La Paz, what is your claim to fame?

Rachel is up-tight because she thinks we are going to get mugged the moment we step out of the bus. I try to convince her that we should walk the half kilometre downhill to our hostel. We take a taxi for the 5 minute journey and it costs 10 Bolivianos (about GBP 0.70).

Hostal Senorial is a large mansion with 15 foot high ceilings, wooden flooring, and a somewhat dank, slightly depressing ambience. We donīt really take time to look at our room or negotiate the price (80 Bolivianos or GBP6.00 per room per night). Instead we crash out for a couple of hours extra sleep.

We get up at 11 am and wander round town a bit. Its grey, cloudy, and feels cold; a shock to the system as weīve experienced nothing but sunny days for a couple of weeks. We find a Musical Instrument Museum, and amuse ourselves for about half an hour playing as many instruments as possible. Other museums all seem to be closed.

In the afternoon, Rachel goes to mass at 3pm as its Good Friday. She comes back at 5pm telling me that women were dressed in black veils and wailing in the packed church. She says we should go outside immediately to see a procession that is wending through town.

Just a stones-throw from our hostel we have a birdseye view of the Good Friday celebration as it progresses through the steep narrow steets of La Paz. Leading the procession there are three military motorcyclists dressed in white, riding white Harleys. Following them are three priests; two bearing candles, and one a sceptre. A military band, dressed in white, and playing a slow mournful march, sets the pace. Behind them are about 20 hooded pall bearers, carrying a lifesize scene of Jesus being sentenced by Pontius Pilate. The pall bearers look like members of the klu klux klan. Three bishops dressed in red cassocks follow solemnly behind.

Other statues depicting Jesusīs last hours pass before us carried aloft by the same frighteningly hooded carriers. Each is preceded by a miltary, police, or other state musicians. We see the statue of a Jesus bearing his cross; behind him there are lots of women dressed in black emotionally chanting from the rosary. Hankerchiefs and other objects are held up to the drooping hand of Christ to be blessed.

After the statue of Jesus on the cross we see a group of important well-dressed people, surrounded by machine-gun totting military, and black-suited security personel with earpieces whispering on mouthpieces to each other. Carefully guarded, El President of Bolivia and his head honchos pass us by.

A very bloody Jesus in a glass tomb passes by and we see some miltary big-wigs marching along behind. Compared to the average Bolivian, the top brass are much taller, and have paler skin. Their faces have not the slightest hint of a smile, and they look like people with serious responsibility. Perhaps they are thinking about the next military coup, or how they can maintain their prestige and wealth in such a poor country.

The last set of pall bearers carry a huge statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a halo of silver. Behind her are more women in black chanting.

Rachel and I look at each other amazed at this facinating display of Church and State. I imagine that opportunities for progression in Bolivian government might be limited for a non-catholic.

Next day the headlines in the newspapers say that a miracle occured because the statue of Jesus bearing the cross was shedding tears. There are several close-up photographs and an entire front page spread to proove it. Bolivians love a miracle.

That evening Rachel and I wander down the main street, Prada, looking for a place to eat. It seems everything is closed up for Good Friday, apart from the plethora of places selling ice cream in the cold evening drizzle.

Eventually we find a street that seems to be abuzz with life and it transpires we have found the main gringo zone. We bump into Swiss friends Roland and Chantal who take us to a busy and cozy restaurant. The food tastes good but the MSG in it keeps us awake that night.

We change rooms in the morning because apart from the MSG overdose, the bed is falling apart and bedding for a single bed does not work well on a 'matrimonio'. And the room smells.

On Saturday we search for companies to take us on the recommended 3-day Choro trek which descends to the jungle behind La Paz. In the end we give up because despite offering transport, tents, guides, porters, and food for a reasonable USD$95 per person, no one has sleeping bags or mats. We could probably hunt for someone to rent us the missing camping equipment, but the forecast around La Paz is rain for the next three years, so we decide to go to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca on Monday instead.

We unnexpectedly meet up with Paul and Verity and enjoy a good old-fashioned British moan about Bolivia and La Paz over a bowl of soup in the Cocaine Museum. By the end of the meal we are all feeling better.

We wander up and down through the various marklets in town soaking up the atmosphere of the city. Most of the stall-holders are women in bowler hats wearing a thick colourful shoulder scarfs, and a flared pleated dresses. There are stalls selling coca leaves, and macabre dried llama foetuses. There are brightly coloured textiles and woollens wherever we look.

That evening Rachel and I wander down Prada again considering the possibility of going to see a film in one of the cinemas. Ice Age II, and Memoirs of a Geisha in Spanish are not appealing enough to tempt us.

We spot a Chinese restaurant and dive in from the rain to warm familiar surroundings where, despite the menu designed to cause maximum confusion (requiring the intervention of a Swiss customer to help us), we order a couple of tasty dishes, rice and tea for a total of 40 Bolivianos (about GBP3.00).

We walk back through the gringo zone and see a bar called the Sun and the Moon, where we stop in for a drink. The bustling bar is run by a Dutchman and has a menu in Spanish, English, and Dutch. To my surprise, it is full of 18-20 year old British, all dressed up for a night out of the town. Feeling my age, I persuade Rachel to drink up and we make a sharp exit.

On Easter Sunday morning Rachel and I decide to go to the main cathedral in town. We are surprised to find that its relatively empty. Rachel says Bolivians are religious and superstitous but they donīt attend church much. In the vast interior space of the church the thin ampified voice of the priest is lost in a reverberation of echos. Outside, after mass, a long queue of people shake hands with, and throw white confetti over, some new converts to catholicism. The old ladies dressed in traditional clothing stand in shock, heads drowned in white, on the steps of the Cathedral.

We eat lunch in the Five star Hotel Presidential, and enjoy the good food and attentive staff. After paying for it (68 Bolivianos or about GBP5.00 for both) we take the elevator up to the 15th floor to enjoy the views of the city. We decide to explore further.

Outside the hotel we jump on Bus 'M' for an unofficial tour of the city (1 Boliviano or GBP 0.07 to get on the bus). The ancient American dodge grinds up the steep streets of La Paz in the dull afternoon drizzle, never exceeding 10 km/h. Unlike Sucre, the town seems really run down and in a poor state of repair. There are market stalls everywhere selling exactly the same goods as their neighbour. As the bus climbs we can see more of the city where buildings fill every available space in a huge U-shaped valley.

A lady gets on wearing a plastic bag over her top hat to protect it from the rain. We pass through some wealthier neighbourhoods and people with lighter skin and western clothing get on. The tour compounds my growing feeling that La Paz is an unattractive city with not much to offer.

After an hour and a half of crawling through La Pazīs streets we get off and head back to gringo zone to find some coffee. Rachel has a tasty hot chocolate but my coffee tastes bitter and thin. The owner asks me proudly what I think of the coffee as I leave and I have to tell him in my best Spanish that it was disgusting, and his 'Machina' is out of adjustment.

We buy our tickets for Copacabana on the peaceful shores of Lake Titicaca and dream of pleasant surroundings and warm sunshine on our faces.
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