miércoles, 23 de abril de 2008

Something Else: Bolivia, part 1

Bolivia is, truly, something else.

But before I get into that I would like to nominate myself for the award of worst blogger ever. I mean seriously. It’s been months. All of you dedicated readers have lost your faith, and for that I apologize. I’m going to start this up again. And I really do want to inform you about Carnival, how I became a Uruguayan rock star, and other tales, but that will have to be later. Now I will tell you how I came to be a coca growing farmer in the Bolivian lowlands, because that’s what’s on my mind.

My three peaceful and accommodated months in Uruguay were a respite from the journey that is to follow – the pace of my journey has changed dramatically. After spending a couple of days in Buenos Aires, I flew to Sao Paolo, Brazil to meet my pops and drop off my luggage, and three days later I landed ABOVE the clouds, into the impossible mountain fantasy world that is Bolivia. I decided sort of last minutely, against all possible odds (read: having to apply for a visa like any South American dose to get to the US), to make a short trip to the poorest South American nation to take a listen to the saya afroboliviana, and to be a little hardcore again after three months of languishing in delicious first world excesses.

I’ve been feeling quite a bit like some international man of mystery these days, or some jet setting famous person, hopping from country to country a couple of days at a time. Sao Paolo is a shocking and incomprehensible place. It’s one of the biggest cities in the world, some 25 million people, and buzzes like some science fiction nightmare, endless towering skyscrapers as far as the horizon in ever-stranger shapes and clapboard shantytowns creeping through like kudzu, clinging to spare spaces, hoping to be invisible. Traffic moves at a standstill day in and out, a cloud of smog hovers above the city at all times, and it all just makes you tired. The amount of wealth that is in that city is just staggering, there is no place in Latin America with so much stuff, and in the fashionable Jardins district you might as well be in Beverly Hills. Of course the favelas are never too far away. It’s a strange place, and I’m sure it has its pleasures, but it seems so inherently un-Brazilian, un-caipirinha and invisible-bathing-suit and un-unapologetically insane, that I can’t wrap my mind around it.

La Paz is a dream world in a different way. The city, which is the highest large city in the world at 12000 something feet, started out in a broad valley in the cruel Andean altiplano, has since sprawled up the sides of the mountains that surround the city, the little brick houses clinging to steep hillsides looking like shining stalactites in every direction. The Bolivian tourism association advertises the country with the vomit-worthy catchphrase “where the authentic still exists”, but for those of us who kind of get off on going back to a time before the shoppingmallification of the universe, they kind of have a point – Bolivia is, basically, really hardcore. It is the most indigenous country in the Americas, with some 60% of people pure blooded Aymara, Quechua, or one of endless other tribes, large swaths of the population don’t even speak any Spanish, and life outside the city in many ways goes on as it did in pre-Incan days.

La Paz is an incredible place because modernity lives side by side with the ancient, briefcase toting businessmen hustle by wrinkled witches selling dried llama fetuses, and nobody blinks an eye. Old colonial glory, soaring skyscrapers, and tin huts all compete for eye space and it all kind of fits in, in a way. The most characteristic Bolivian character, by far, is the chola, or traditional indigenous woman- mouths full of gold, these ladies of deceivingly small girth wear countless layers of patterned skirts, scarfs, and a comically small, high bowler hat pinned to a head of long tough braids- these incredibly tough mamacitas line the sidewalks of the entire city hawking every possible product imaginable, and occasionally throwing a rock at a tourist who dares to take a picture of their ancient glory. But, especially now with the pro-indigenous socialist government of rabble-rouser Evo Morales, being chola is kind of hip in its own way, and the Aymara ladies of the aliplano villages and La Paz shanties wear their top hats with pride, even the youngest of generations.

I’ve said this about a lot of places, but I think I’ve never seen a place with as much bustle as La Paz, even if Santo Domingo wins for the hustle. The streets are just clogged with celphoning mestizos, llama toting cholas, lost gringos, every which kind of vehicle flying in every direction town impossibly steep hills, it’s a functioning madness, but the conspicuous lack of traffic lights that makes crossing the street and exercise in blind faith. This has led, though, to what I think is probably the best-conceived social program in the world- the government has hired people to dress in zebra costumes and dance in intersections to direct traffic during rush hour. Swear to pachamama.

The other drastic change in my lifestyle was rapid reinsertion to the international traveller scene – my first week in La Paz I was staying in a place called Loki Hostel, and its just absurd, hundreds of beautiful young Europeans drinking cocktails day in day out in a bar swanky enough for your local bohemian hood, mostly in Bolivia to go dance at all-gringo clubs and go on three day coke binges in the cities many barely-concealed drug dens, and really I cant help but being a little disgusted by it all, and remember to feel lucky that I managed to avoid the gringo trail almost entirely on this trip. At the same time, I’ve met a lot of great people, and had some quality hippy sing-along, and finally adapted to remembering how to speak English, but I was kind of freaked out for a moment.

The other shocking random tidbit is that there about 300 Israelis currently in La Paz, which has become one of the biggest post-army backpacking destinations, leading to a whole industry of countless falafel restaurants, Israeli-specific hotels and bars, just to cater to the masses. I now have entirely new concepts about how one should dance to electronic, just watch some wilding Israelis. And those of you who know me intimately know about my very intimate relationship with falafel. But it’s another element in the mind-blowing bizarreness of this place.

Part two and pictures to be added tomarrow!

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