Los Imperdonables

Here’s a wonderful video form Amapola Media Studio.

“Developed in La Paz, Bolivia. Unforgiven, 50 places in La Paz you can not miss. Landscapes, typical food, extreme sports, nightlife, its people and its culture. A video from La Paz to La Paz, so that people can re-fall in love with their city and re-discover those places that had lost their sense of wonder.

Proyecto desarrollado en La Paz, Bolivia. Los Imperdonables, 50 lugares de La Paz que no te puedes perder. Paisajes, comida típica, deportes extremos, vida nocturna, su gente y su cultura. Un video de La Paz para La Paz, para que la gente pueda re-enamorarse de su ciudad y re-descubrir esos lugares que habían perdido su capacidad de asombro.”

I think I have just re-fallen in love with La Paz.

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Mi Teleferico

This month, La Paz opened the first phase of it’s new cable car commuter system. Once complete, it’s going to be the longest urban line in the world.

Whilst living in La Paz last year, I saw government ads with photo-shopped images of cable cars hovering inexplicably above the steep slopes of the city. It didn’t look very convincing. Most people told me that it was just another one of Evo Morales’s grand ideas, meant to distract people from the real issues. Others said that even if they did start building it, it would never get finished. Considering the fact that it took them 6 months to resurface the road outside my house, I was inclined to agree.

20140421-235243.jpgThis was four months into the job. It was at least better than the gaping six-foot hole that had been there for the past two months.

They also said that the bus drivers wouldn’t stand for it – after all, they would potentially lose revenue if people rode the Teleferico instead of the buses. And this being Bolivia, there’s nothing like a good protest to let the world know that you feel threatened. The image below (which comes from the news website noticiasfides.com) shows the federation of drivers dragging down a carriage while a startled condor watches them.

But just before I left La Paz last July, I heard from someone who had met an Austrian guy who worked for the company which was going to build the Teleferico. It was a friend of a friend. Really. And I started thinking, maybe it was actually going to happen.

And now, less than a year later, it has. I’m going to have to assume Austrian efficiency had something to do with it.

I’m pretty disappointed that I never got to ride on it. I mean, it’s bound to be the cheapest cable car in South America, and, if I do say so myself, probably the one with the most stunning (or, at least, unique) view. But I keep remembering some advice given to me by Gil, the friend we stayed with in Brazil: “You know how London has the London Eye? If you see something like that in South America, don’t go on it. For safety.”

Brunch in Sopocachi

Although it’s one of the wealthier districts in La Paz, Sopocachi’s restaurant prices aren’t too bad, especially when compared to the tourist spots around Sagarnaga. On 20 de Octubre, just by Plaza Avaroa are three places where you can satisfy your brunch fix. All of the following have indoor and outdoor seating.

Alexander’s

alexFor the best coffee in Bolivia, head to any one of the numerous Alexander’s locations, including El Alto airport. The Sopocachi branch is located directly across from Plaza Avaroa. The atmosphere can be a bit noisy and busy, with music videos on continual play on a large TV in the back. But if you can put up with the occasional 4 Non Blondes video, the menu contains creative and delicious choices, like the vegetarian Andina wrap, which contains quinoa and habas (fava beans) as well as a variety of smoothies and milkshakes. There are plenty of breakfast options such as pancakes and huevos rancheros, too.

Café La Terraza

terrazaLike Alexander’s, La Terraza is a local chain. If you’re really hungry, feast on the massive Desayuno Americano. There are breakfasts for smaller appetites (and wallets) as well. The menu also includes a host of sandwiches and paninis. The inauthentic Philly Steak is nevertheless tasty and good value for money. It comes with fries, too.

Blueberries

BlueberriesMy personal favorite brunch spot, Blueberries is cheaper than the above options and also has the most relaxing atmosphere. It gets busy in the afternoon, but before midday it’s a great place to hang out and read, work on your laptop, or pretend to work on your laptop while browsing facebook. If you’re a non-smoker, you’re in luck, because the non-smoking area is also the best place to sit, in the back with a glass roof by the garden. As for brunch, I recommend Desayuno a La Copa and Desayuno Panqueques. The former is a cheap and filling choice, which comes with eggs, juice, coffee or tea, toast and a croissant. The pancake breakfast comes with coffee or tea, juice, and pancakes topped with strawberry and banana slices.

Zoilo Flores 1334 to 20 de Octubre 2315

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Bolivia’s new tourism video

Have you seen this music video?

That’s La Paz, the train cemetery in Uyuni, the Salar, a mine in Potosí and Cerro Rico. With these locations, and the surreal characters, it’s a pretty good showcase for Bolivia (I like it better than this).

And in case you’re wondering, there really are kids that cute here, and also women who look like that. But they don’t sell raw hearts on the street. And traffic police aren’t as cool as this guy.

Read an interview about the making of the video here.

La Paz and San Francisco: a completely uncalled for comparison

There’s no real reason that I’m comparing these two unrelated cities, except that we just got back from five days in San Francisco and, being that we flew there and back rather than slowly travelling over a series of days or weeks, the culture shock was pretty strong. We also met up with our old housemate from La Paz, and the conversation naturally turned to comparisons. So, here are some unqualified generalizations.

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Cars and driving
Seat belts. They’re in every car. I didn’t even notice when we took a taxi for the first time – I just automatically assumed there wouldn’t be one as I’ve only been in one taxi with a seatbelt in La Paz. Not only are vehicles safer, but drivers are far more respectful of rules and pedestrians. They actually stop at red lights in San Francisco! Crossing the road was a piece of cake once I realized that drivers would actually give way to me instead of speeding up or beeping their horn in some weird intimidation attempt. It was so much more relaxing to walk about San Francisco than La Paz.

Streets
The urban density of San Francisco is 6,632.9/km2, whereas La Paz is only 1,861.2/km2, but you would never guess this when walking around. The streets in San Francisco are huge, with multiple lanes of traffic and really wide pavements, giving the illusion of spaciousness. In La Paz, many streets are single lanes and pavements are sometimes non-existent. You’re constantly surrounded by people and traffic and bottlenecks of both vehicles and pedestrians are common. It’s also really hard to get an unrestricted view since the city is built in a valley and everywhere you look there are buildings rising up the hillside around you. I’m actually quite at home in dense urban environments so the spaciousness of San Francisco took some getting used to (in fact the ‘bigness’ of the USA in general always surprises me).

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People on the streets
Despite me saying that San Francisco has lots of space, the streets are still busy all the time (though slightly less busy on a Sunday morning). This is pretty similar to La Paz. Both cities have street vendors, but they sell different things. In La Paz, you can buy anything on the street; mobile phones, fruit, stationary, tights, empanadas, magazines…they’re all sold from tiny stalls or mobile carts and can be found on every street corner throughout the day. In San Francisco, most vendors sell food and drinks at peak hours to commuters. There are specialized markets selling organic produce or arts & crafts, but you have to go to a particular place if you want to buy these things, whereas in La Paz you can guarantee to pass a stall selling what you need while on your way to somewhere else.

Buskers, on the other hand, are all over the place in San Francisco. And not just a guy with an acoustic guitar, but whole bands with full drum kits and amps! I also heard live music from different venues as I walked past in the afternoon. This is a city that loves music! Of course, there is live music in La Paz too, but not on the streets. The only people I see playing music outside are campesinos – they come from the countryside to La Paz and sometimes end up making a living from begging – or blind people. In both instances, money is given as charity and the music is a secondary thing.

Which brings me to the third point; homelessness. There are plenty of homeless people in La Paz. Most are women, sometimes with kids, who come to the city looking for something better than the life they left in the countryside. There are also some old people, perhaps unable to work anymore. They beg from passersby, who often give them money or food, and they generally act in a very humble way. Like most big cities, there are also drunks and drug users (almost always men and young boys). I see them mostly passed out or in their own substance-addled world. I never feel threatened by them. But in San Francisco I saw some clearly disturbed people; the kind who have arguments with invisible opponents in the middle of the sidewalk or who ramble incoherently. I had forgotten how many ‘crazies’ there are in cities of America or Europe. I’ve also never been asked for money for ‘hangover beer’ or weed, but that happened in San Francisco.

However, the thing that surprised me the most were the number of homeless people who seemed relatively new to this lifestyle. They were ‘normal’ people. They had once had jobs and a home.They had pet dogs with them. Some had prams and shopping carts full of possessions (more than I probably own right now). Perhaps this is a reflection of the current economic situation. Having not lived in the West for several years, I haven’t been as aware of these things as I maybe should be.

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Environment
I was told that the weather in San Francisco is a little like La Paz, as in it never gets very cold or very warm. You need to take a jacket when you go out in both cities as the weather can change quite quickly. It’s true, I did need a jacket when the sea breeze blew in, but I was able to wear a t-shirt for most of the day (although apparently the weather was exceptionally nice for this time of the year in San Francisco). On even the warmest day in La Paz, when you feel the sun burning your skin and searing your eyes, if you step into the shade you’ll feel a chill. I actively seek out the sunny spots to walk in because it gets too cold in the shadows. This temperature diversity is what happens at an altitude of thousands of meters. Considering this, I can’t understand how I got sunburned in San Francisco. I suppose it was the reflection off the water and the silver skyscrapers, plus the big open spaces ideal for strolling. These are all lacking in La Paz. Hills, however, are not. Sorry San Francisco, but you’re really not that hilly. I think the reputation is undeserved. There are some steep hills, but most the city seems to be flat or only gently sloping. In La Paz, you’re hard pressed to find somewhere that isn’t on a hill. The Prado, running down the middle of the city, is the only flat street in the centre of town. Everything else slopes up from here (or down, depending on which direction you’re traveling). So not only am I super fit from walking around La Paz for ten months, I also have way more red blood cells than I would if I lived at sea level, which means I’m practically superhuman. I was up Telegraph Hill without even pausing for breath, while others took slow steps. It’s too bad this effect doesn’t last long, but at least I’m able to acclimatize easier now I’m back in La Paz.

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Mercado Rodriguez

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Vast, winding and sloping, Mercado Rodriguez is a network of cobblestone streets where everyday items such as vegetables, spices, meat, kitchen utensils, clothes and toys can be found. There’s also quite a nice collection of health food shops, selling whole wheat bread, herbal supplements, quinoa powders, cereals and so on.

This is a real market, not a phony witches market for tourists, so keep in mind that vendors may not appreciate you getting in their face with your giant camera. Still, it’s a great place for a stroll, and a good opportunity to see the kind of things normal Bolivians buy and sell. People are usually friendly if you treat them with respect, so don’t be that gringo who haggles aggressively over every penny. Everything is cheap as it is, and in my experience, I’ve never been ripped off.

Location Mercado Rodriguez begins at the intersection of Zoilo Flores and Admirante Grau in la Zona de San Pedro, one block from the Plaza San Pedro (also sometimes called Plaza Sucre).

Opening hours The streets are closed off to cars on Saturdays and Sundays, and the market is busiest on Saturdays around mid-day. Don’t bother coming super early, as La Paz is cold in the morning and it doesn’t really get going until at least 9.

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Street Art in Sopocachi

All over La Paz you can find graffiti, mostly consisting of political slogans or tags, scribbled haphazardly over every available surface. Among and beside these are works of beauty, whimsy, surrealism and child-like humor: in European, indigenous, American and intergalactic styles.

The relatively wealthy neighborhood of Sopocachi is a mix of cultures, diverse cafés and restaurants, and quirky shops. This is the perfect setting for an original mix of fantastically colorful street art, some commissioned, some not.

Most of these works are found on Calle Ecuador and 20 de Octubre. Also, the tunnel connecting Sopocachi and San Pedro is a continuously changing mural that’s worth a look, despite the dust and smog from the zooming cars.

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Chifa Dragon

Living in Bolivia (and traveling in South America), the one thing that I really feel homesick for is Asian food and food culture. I miss varied and hygienic street food. I miss being able to get something to eat at all hours of the day or night. I miss dumplings.

So when I want a little bit of Asia, I go to Chifa Dragon.

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The food itself is more like western-Chinese than Asian-Chinese style; a bit greasy and heavy on meat, but still delicious (there’s also more vegetables than you might find in a typical Bolivian plate of meat and rice). Although you’ll be served by a cholita, there are Chinese people working here (better still, I’ve seen Chinese people eating here – always a good sign). A nice reminder of my time in Taiwan, it serves tofu stir-fry and a whole chicken foot in your soup bowl. If you’re lucky, they’ll be showing an 80s movie on TV (notice the Karate Kid II in the picture above) or a Latin telenovela.

It’s open pretty much all the time – even Sundays – and if you like eating in a restaurant with no pretension about it being anything but a functional place to get sustenance, then this is the place for you.

A big plate of rice and/or noodles with stir-fried meat (chicken, pork or beef) and vegetables costs 22-25 Bolivianos. Other, more expensive, dishes are available a la carte.

Address: Calle Almirante Grau (the block between Calle Illampu and Calle Zoilo Flores), San Pedro, La Paz

After some more Asian food? Try Corea Town and Vinapho.

Alasitas

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I bite into the puffed, greasy, savory, syrupy concoction of a pastel, and look at the little man on the counter. He’s surrounded by wads of dollar bills and Bolivianos, packets of cigarettes and a brazier. He’s wearing a green, knitted hat with ear flaps and peaked pilot’s hat. He has a cigarette butt hanging from his lips, his face blackened from years of smoking. His shiny, plastic eyes stare unblinkingly at the crowds that walk by.

He is Ekeko.

The height of the Alasitas festival takes place on January 24th, at midday. People buy miniatures of things they would like in the coming year and have them blessed by an Aymara holy person and also, sometimes, a Catholic priest. Dollars, Euros and Bolivianos. Houses, cars, business premises. Husbands and wives, or babies. Boxes of food, bottles of beer and building materials. Degrees, land decrees and marriage or divorce certificates. Roosters, frogs and snakes (signifying a mate, good luck and el zodiaco chino). Everything in miniature.

As I went to work that day, I saw stalls set up on street corners and smoke rising from braziers. Alcohol was spilled, flower petals sprinkled and incantations spoken. At my clients’ office I was given 2,550 Bolivianos, €7,300 and $4,900 in miniature bills (the smallest were just 2cm across). No one could explain clearly whether you were meant to give what you hoped to get, or what you thought the recipient should have. I noticed that the unmarried secretary had been given quite a collection of roosters over the years.

Ekeko watches over Alasitas, receiving offerings in return for bestowing prosperity. Made of stone, mud and gold, in a pre-colonial, pre-Incan form, he received miniatures too. Now he sits in plastic and ceramic, inhaling the greasy fumes of frying pasteles.