A click as the apartment building door closes behind me, and I’m out on the street with the dog from Autopartes Lopez barking at me for no reason. I run across the cobble-stone road to get away from it, and wonder if it spends all night outside in the cold. That’s probably why it’s so grumpy. Even though all the shutters are still down, I smile at the sign for Jhoncar, another spare parts shop, and imagine the cartoon crocodile bodybuilder tearing up that dog instead of a tyre.
At the corner sits the sandwich lady, slicing tomatoes in one hand as she prepares her wares to sell to morning commuters. She’s bundled up against the cold in shawls and layers of skirts and I know I must look woefully unprepared for the 3°C temperature. But later in the day it’s going to be T-shirt weather and I’m willing to sacrifice some warmth now in order to not carry my coat around later. I make do with a scarf wrapped around my neck, which also acts as a shield against the traffic fumes that chug out into the cold, dry air.
Turning again at Plaza San Pedro (from here it’s one long, straight walk), I pass San Pedro Church with its ornate sandy-coloured, stone-carved exterior, and a hand-stenciled sign for Alcohólicos Anónimos. A man opens the entrance to the Hotel Osira next door (which I remember serves a nice set lunch) and shakes out his broom. A shoeshiner walking past offers his services and I glance behind me for a second as he sits in front of the extended, leather clad foot and begins taking out his polish.
The prison rests on the opposite side of the street; tall, windowless, leaking some kind of liquid from its lower parts. With watchtowers at its corners, it looks like a medieval castle, but one that would wash away in the rain. The straw and mud facade on the side facing Avenida 20 de Octubre looks so flimsy to me. I think of all the prisoners inside escaping through a hole in the wall after a storm, carrying their huge stereos that I’ve seen relatives bringing them as gifts, and their cocaine processing equipment that apparently keeps them employed, even behind bars.
On the corner, a man is washing the paintings on the ugly pebble-dash surface of Animalandia (a vet, pet shop and dog hairdresser all in one). From the nursery opposite, a scarily deformed Dora the Explorer and Spongebob wave at passersby – clearly Animalandia employed the better muralist. Ahead a woman pours api and quinoa milk into small plastic bags, straws sticking out the top, to sell to people in a hurry. Those with more time can stand and drink from dubiously cleaned glasses. My favourite piece of graffiti looks down on us; a pigeon lying as if on a dissection table, chest opened with delicate organs and bones exposed. It’s so much more beautiful than the real pigeons that run between our feet to peck at pastel and salteña crumbs, too lazy or too hungry to even fly away until people step into them.
The streets are getting busier and I have to stop and wait for a chance to run across the roads in between taxis and microbuses full of people. I sidestep and try to ignore the man slumped in the doorstep, rocking himself, with a pile of fresh vomit at his feet. Two paces ahead a well-manicured father tries to flag down a taxi while his equally well-dressed son stands daydreaming. His perfect little uniform is the same grey-black colour of the greasy stains left from rubbish bags piled in the street every evening
As I keep hurrying, I get stuck behind a cholita moving slowly. Her long black plaits are caught under the stripy pink and purple cloth that ties a baby to her back. The too-small bowler hat rests miraculously on her head, as with each step her pea-green, satiny skirt swishes and a toddler is pulled along by her free hand. I lose patience and step into the road to go around her. Though from behind her dumpy shape had made me think she was old, I see she’s not much more than a teenager.
I stride across yet another road (and you have to stride here otherwise you’ll never make it if you wait politely for traffic to stop for you). The pavement in this spot, where Avenida 20 de Octubre meets Calle Ecuador, is particularly treacherous. The slope, combined with the age-worn smoothness of the paving slabs, sends me slipping every time. I’ve gotten used to it now and know exactly where to tread if I want to slide but not fall. The guy in front isn’t as aware as me and he stumbles momentarily.
A puff of exhaust makes my nose tickle. I know I need to blow it but I don’t have any tissue and I hope I can last until I reach work. I’m just passing the flamboyantly baroque building of Mujeres Creando, an anarchist-feminist group, which houses a radio station, cafe and hostel for women. The shabby, deep pink building always seems to have sunlight on it at this time of the morning, and the giant painted woman on the facade glitters in her silvery nakedness.
The pavement here is less steep and less worn down. Sopocachi is full of fancy restaurants and cafes (by Bolivian standards). I pass Sweet Shop Chocolaterie, Swiss Fondue and Ja Ron (with a logo very reminiscent of Hard Rock Cafe). For some reason the Cuisinart shop sells office chairs and a single box of gold Christmas baubles, in addition to some expensive outdoor barbecue sets.
I see the metal gate across the road, open and waiting for me. As I press the doorbell to be buzzed in, I feel in my bag for my thermos. It’s one of those days – days that don’t even give me enough time to eat properly – so coca tea is going to get me through until this evening when I head back up the hill to San Pedro.