Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Always Carry Sunscreen and an Umbrella: Bogota Days

I should definitely be writing about La Paz or Lima or the jungle, but I was struck with inspiration in Bogota on my favorite kind of warm overcast day, at a charming cafe, and I just wanted to write about the city!

Bogota, Colombia is wonderful.
I made the decision to spend four days there instead of trying to squeeze in 2 here and 2 in Medellin. I really loved my experience in the Colombian central mountainous region.

The title of this post comes from something my walking tour guide said - the weather here is so unpredictable and fast changing that a good Bogotano always carries both sunscreen and an umbrella. You really do need to wear sunscreen everyday, though. The sun easily penetrates the clouds and I ended up looking like a totally unsophisticated n00b with a rosy sunburn after my first day in the city. There aren't really seasons in Bogota. The city is up in the mountains at 2,644 m (8,675 ft), and the weather is mostly defined by cycles of rain and dryness.
how to dress for Bogota (joking -
within 5 mins of being outside
scarf and jacket were off)
"The driest months are December, January, July and August. The warmest month is March, bringing a maximum of 19.7 °C (67.5 °F). The coolest nights occur in January, with an average of 7.6 °C (45.7 °F) in the city; fog is very usual in early morning, 220 days per year, whilst clear sky sunny full days are quite unusual. The official highest temperature recorded within the city limits is 30.0 °C (86 °F), and the lowest temperature recorded is −7.1 °C (19 °F). The rainiest months are April, May, September, October and November, in which typical days are mostly overcast, with low clouds and some winds, bringing maximum temperatures of 18 °C (64 °F) and lows of 7 °C (45 °F)." - Wikipedia
Don't let this forecast scare you! Bring a jacket and closed toed shoes, and you can have a lovely time in Bogota. It's no Medellin, "city of eternal spring," but you can definitely work up some heat traipsing up and down the city's hills!

The people of my South American journey just keep getting more open the further north I go! Bolivians, as you may be aware, were as cold to me as the weather. Peruvians in Lima were helpful and kind but not necessarily friendly en masse. Peruvians in the small jungle city of Iquitos were outgoing and warm but not aggressive. As soon as I crossed the border into Colombia, to the jungle town of Leticia, I noticed the difference. *Post comparing Iquitos and Leticia coming soon!* I got the up-down looks, the stares, the comments, and by the time I got to Bogota it was in full swing. Bogotanos are charming and friendly. Despite the often chilly and drizzly weather, you can open them up easily with a big smile and an "Hola, !buenos dias! ?Como estas?" If you look confused, people will explain you anything from the type of fruit they're selling to the seasons (or lack thereof) of Bogota. They use cutesy names like mi amor, amorcito, and muñeca (doll). They always say good morning/day/evening, and you should greet them back! Except when the person greeting you is a guy driving slowly by in his car, or a pair of constructions working who whistle at you before saying it, or a creepy guy standing in the shadow of a doorway who whispers hermosa (beautiful) as you pass...those guys you can ignore. I think perhaps the more aggressive attention from men comes from the idea (see Narco Beauty below) that women are objects, not only according to men but according to women themselves who commoditize themselves, seeking a better life or in accordance with heavily prevalent standards of beauty. 
Bogotanos often get a reputation for being plain and boring compared to other parts of the country (and they may be relatively true), but compared to North Americans or western Europeans, they are full of energy, friendly to strangers, and most people are excited to strike up a conversation with a foreigner. 

A hot cup of aromatica is perfect on a cold Bogota night

Narco Beauty
We can't talk about Colombia without mentioning two of the most prevalent stereotypes: drugs and beautiful women. Colombian women are often characterized by their beauty - their voluptuous figures, their daring necklines, skin tight clothing, and the prevalence of plastic surgery. Stemming from the drug related violence of the 1970s and 1980s, a culture of narco beauty dominates the country's fashion and beauty industry. The drug lords who dominated the economy favored a certain kind of women - big boobs, fat booty, tiny waist, light skin. The women who gained the attention of traffickers were pampered and protected. At this time of violence and unpredictability and widespread poverty, this was a coveted prize. So women squeezed themselves into the standards of narco beauty in the hopes of achieving some degree of comfort or protection for themselves and their families.

“Contemporary society has told the woman that everything lies in her body. They themselves assume their role as an object … They want to have the body that is desired, otherwise it won’t have people providing them with economic prospects.”

Some examples of the influence of narco beauty standards:
  • Plastic surgery here is some of the cheapest in the world - a boob job can go for around $1000 - and it's both common among Colombians and for medical tourism.
  • In some cities (markedly Cali and Medellin) girls are gifted plastic surgery (generally breast implants) for their 15th birthday.
  • When a family has a beautiful daughter and "invests" in her beauty through surgeries and expensive clothing and makeup, they often expect a return by her marrying a wealthier man, raising the status of the family. In rural areas, it's still common that young brides have a bride price that is often paid in livestock.
  • Much more than in the US or other countries, "alternative" looking women are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to finding work. The definition of alternative is broader here, encompassing not only tattoos and piercings but also more natural looking women and women who don't take much interest in fashion or beauty.
  • A style of jeans called "sin bolsilllos" (without pockets) is very popular. These jeans don't have back pockets and often incorporate strategic shading to make the wearer's butt look as plump and perky as possible.

  • The commodotization of women and women's bodies makes many men feel like they have the right to common on women, to call out as they pass, and, in the extreme cases of actual drug traffickers, kidnap (or lure) women out of small towns and villages to be operated on and turned into their personal toy.
The women of Bogota are noticeably less influenced by these narco beauty standards than in other cities. As guerilla forces took over the jungles and farmland, many farmers were forced to either work for the guerillas or flee - and most who fled ended up in the capital. The outskirts of Bogota were soon choked with poor farmers and their families from all over the country, creating a more diverse and more practical city. A Bogotana friend of mine told me that women from the capital are often mocked for being too "simple" - not wearing enough makeup, not wearing fashionable enough clothing, not investing enough into their beauty. The excellent education (public and private) and greater number of professional and economic opportunities in this metropolis of 8-10 million people (number vary) also provides many women another option to prosperity than their bodies.

Bogota is a huge city and there are too many barrios (neighborhoods) to count, so I'll just mention a few here. The most popular barrios among tourists/ex-pats, and most accessible, are probably La Candelaria, Chapinero, and La Zona Rosa.

La Candelaria is basically the furthest south of the barrios (further south you have Tunjuelito, Usme, and San Cristobal - mostly poor residential neighborhoods). You can stroll up and down the hills of La Candelaria for hours. 
This is oldest part of the city, made obvious by its narrow cobblestone streets and colonial facades. The upper half of La Candelaria is stuffed with hostels, so this is where most backpackers stay. There are also several boutique hotels for the more discerning visitor. Here is where you'll find the Museo del Oro (the best gold museum in South America), several government buildings like the Palace of Justice that has been infamously blown up three times by guerillas, and the lively pedestrian section of Carrera 7 (or just la septima as the locals call it).
There are seemingly endless bars, restaurants, lounges, and boutiques, most pretty modern and nice - I wondered how they all could simultaneously stay in business. The entire barrio is covered in beautiful street art (learn about it before the new mayor power washes it all away on the Graffiti Tour if you can stomach being part of a 50 person tour with a microphoned guide - pics at the end of this post!). Even the amateur graffiti tags are usually a little bit artistic - nothing like the rough scrawls of, say, La Paz...

Plaza Bolivar in La Candelaria

A couple dancing the tango on Septima

Shoe shiners are the neighborhood gossips in Bogota

Street performers on Septima

View of Monserrate

a quiet morning

From La Candelaria, you can walk north (about an hour and a half, sort of interesting if you slide around the side roads but if you're on Carrera 7, which is the most direct route, it's mostly just concrete buildings and bus exhaust apart from the large, green Parque Nacional Enrique Olaya Herrera and the line of gorgeous European style houses right before it) to Chapinero

those unexpected European style houses
Parque Herrera

Chapinero is less about historical charm and more about trendy bars, impressive restaurants, and a hipster meets street kid vibe. If I lived in Bogota, I'd probably try to live here. It's really cool and definitely worth checking out. If you can go to one neighborhood outside La Candelaria, I recommend Chapinero.

Chapinero at night

A young guy selling his work on the street in Chapinero

Continuing north a bit, there is La Zona Rosa. One of the hottest spots for Bogota nightlife, I went out here and had a blast. Make sure you look sharp, though, because most of the bars and clubs here are more on the preppy side. The nightlife people watching is also excellent. If you're in the mood to shop, there are two large malls here - Andino and Atlantis.

Even more north (yes, this city goes on forever) is Usaquen. Lots of expats live in swanky apartments up here. There is also apparently a cool market on Sundays that you should try to hit if you're in town. Usaquen used to be a separate village and it still has a quaint villagey feel.

Bonus Points
You'll see everywhere written "Bogotá, D.C." I came up with dozens of potential things that the D.C. could stand for - District of Columbia (hell, I don't know why Washington DC is called that, why couldn't another American city have the same moniker?), Bogota D(epartament), of C(olombia), something to do with colonial times, something to do with the civil war? The reality is that D.C. is Distrito Capital (capital district) which really makes plenty of sense.

As with most countries, people here run on their own schedule. "Colombian time" is usually 10-15 mins late. I had a hair appointment at 11, my stylist arrived at 11:20. I was supposed to meet a Colombian friend at 7, and I was running late - I arrived at 7:10 and she hadn't even texted me to ask where I was. The free walking tours always start late as a courtesy to those running on Colombian time.

A phrase you'll here a lot on the street is "a la orden" literally "to the order" and better translated as "at your command." It's used in the military and by vendors of all sorts. If you walk by anyone selling something, chances are they'll shout an a la orden to you as a way to invite you into their business and show that they are ready to assist you with fulfilling your gastronomical or material desires "con gusto." It's so common that people don't really consider their words when they say it, but as my walking tour guide explained, the roots of the phrase go back to the colonial masters of Colombia's indigenous and mestizo population. Another rather subservient phrase your might hear is "para servirle" - to serve you/at your service.

and finally, some pics from the graffiti tour: 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Another OMG Horrible Day - Jungle Edition

Friends, Romans, lend me your ears.

What follows is a story of horror, fear, defeat, and triumph. 
This is a story of perseverance in the face of adversity.
What follows is mostly me being overdramatic...
but it really did suck at the time, so here's my story:

I love Lima. 
Lima is a beautiful city, vibrant and diverse from the glitzy neighborhoods of Miraflores and San Isidro to the hip casual vibe of Barranco to the lovely and well preserved UNESCO heritage site of the historic center, to the gritty place-you-don't-want-to-get-lost-so-of-course-I-got-lost-there La Victoria. Since I visited Peru for the first time two years ago, I have had a special place in my heart for the country. The food is out of this world delicious. The people are friendly but not overly pushy. The diversity of ethnic groups, and blend of Spanish colonialism with pre-Colombian indigenous culture, is endlessly fascinating (I love the stories of the last years of the Inca Empire - check out Turn Right at Machu Picchu). The landscapes from the Andes mountains to the cliffs of the Pacific coast are stunning, matchless.

Credit: Unofficial Networks
Credit: Travelanders.com

When I came back to Peru this year, I entered through Bolivia, around Lake Titicaca. While the Lake is gorgeous and definitely worth a visit, I really had a rough time in Bolivia...so when I crossed the border and could immediately feel the difference (perhaps influenced by my preconceived biases), I felt as if Peru was my sanctuary. What I have come to realize, however, is that while I really do prefer Peru to Bolivia, and Lima is a little slice of South American heaven, I can run into some rough situations in Peru as well.

Case in point - my first night in Iquitos.

Iquitos is a really cool town. With a population of 400,000 people but no roads connecting it with the rest of the continent, it has been called one of the world's most remote cities and "the world's largest city than cannot be reached by road." I flew in on a bumpy old commuter plane from Lima, landed at 5:40 pm, and was first struck by the heat. After the mildness of grey skied Lima (66 F/19 C), Iquitos felt downright steamy at 88 F/31 C. The humidity is, in fact much higher in Lima right now - 76% to Iquitos' 58% - but this is certainly a sticky, sweaty place. To compliment the weather, the airport is right of the edge of the jungle, and passengers disembark from their planes onto a tarmac neighboring a dense cluster of vine choked trees with a couple of jungle shanties thrown in. The sun was just starting to skim the treetops in a pink and gold sunset, and I was immediately overwhelmed with my excitement to be in this city on the edge of the Amazon!

sunset at Iquitos airport

I was met at the airport by my host. Let's call him Jon. We met through Workaway, which is a website designed to connect travelers (generally long term backpackers) with people who need an extra hand at their farm/hostel/bar, etc. You generally give 4-5 hours of work a day in exchange for a place to sleep, and sometimes also food. I had never used the site before, and after paying the $30 membership fee I was frustrated to find that most hosts had a minimum stay of something like 2 weeks! My total trip is only a month, which I thought was pretty long, but is really nothing compared to some of these Europeans going through all of South America in 3 months, 6 months, a year. So, I found Jon's hostel, and he said they would take me! So I felt satisfied with my set up, and put it out of my mind for the next couple weeks until I actually arrived in Iquitos. Now, it's definitely my fault that I didn't independently investigate the hostel, and just went off the pictures and description on Workaway, but it was really not what I was expecting.

I had been imagining Iquitos to be full of the colonial romance of the rubber barons, straight from the pages of my favorite young adult Amazon romance novel, set in Manaus. The times, however, have definitely changed. The streets of Iquitos are crowded with loud mototaxis (a centaur-like combination of Motorcyle and rickshaw) that spew emissions with no filter and ignore any remnants of roadway paint that might still be clinging to the cracked and potholed pavement. The people are dressed much too casually for a romance novel - in cut off shorts and tube tops and foam platform heels. Couples ride on scooters with an infant wedged them, guys in jeans shorts and fanny packs swerve past each other, sometimes blaring the latest reggaeton track from the back of their motorbike. Every single building we passed on the way from the airport to the hostel was miserably run down except for one shiny, white-tiled, air-conditioned pharmacy.

from the back of a mototaxi

We pulled up to the hostel, and the last shreds of illusion I was clinging to faded away. It was a typical building, maybe painted green at one point. The front room was rented out to a tour agency, and long narrow hallway stretched back through the building. The hallway was lined with doors - the guest rooms - and opened at the end to another room, where two hammocks hung in front of a bar and kitchenette. Behind that was an outdoor courtyard space with more hammocks. Spartan, dirty, full of cobwebs and insects, and deeply embedded with the unmistakable scent of hairy hippie armpit. Jon let me choose my bed from the two top bunks in room number 2. I pick the one with the least mysterious black pouches suspended in cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. I dropped my bags and quickly returned to the common area, forcing myself to put out of my mind images of spiders crawling through my hair as I slept (if you don't know me - I'm super scared of spiders, and insects were my biggest fear coming to Iquitos).

The hostel was nearly full - clearly it is livable! Long term travelers stay in places like this all time time. It's normal to smell bad and not shave your legs for a week and wear the same bathing suit top and sarong everyday. This is what real backpacking is all about! The community of travelers, the casualness of the common area, the spontaneity of everyone who comes and goes at their will instead of on the strict schedule of an office worker with 10 vacation days saved up. I've rarely and barely done this. I'm not the typical party hostel traveler. When I travel alone - I generally stay alone! I've never glommed onto a pair or group for a few days. I've never been part of the ebb and flow that the serious travel communities is made of. Yes, I travel a lot, but in a lot of ways I don't really fit into the mainstream young long term backpacker culture. This culture is particularly prevalent in South America, I've noticed, as the circuit is packed with wandering Europeans in their early/mid-twenties. I've grown really accustomed to hearing Spanish with a German accent.

Although it's not my scene, as established, I can be flexible! I can adapt! So I decided to embrace the lifestyle for the first time and enjoy the hostel culture. I took a seat at the bar, and Jon and I crushed 4 cans of Cristal (Peruvian beer) and talked about our families, careers, traveling, and Peru. Then we went and got awesome street hamburgers a few blocks away and I got my taste of Iquitos nightlife (dog fights, mototaxis, and more skin showing). Jon and I had good conversation, and I got to practice my Spanish. We got back to the hostel and that's when things started to go awry. 

Workaway hostel common area
As soon as we walked in, the guy from the tour agency grabbed Jon and started telling him about some important issue. I only caught snippets of this whole drama, and it was in fast Spanish, but what seems to have been happening was 6 people were coming to stay at the hostel. But there were only 3 available beds by Jon's count. Then someone who I thought was a hostel guest (there with her husband and 5 year old daughter, but like I said, the hostel culture is really friendly and fluid) came up and started helping Jon rearrange some sleeping arrangements and showing how it could work out. One other guest offered to sleep in one of the hammocks in the common area. During this whole time no one is telling me anything. The woman keeps referring to "la senorita" (that's me) but I couldn't really tell what she was saying...Jon looks confused and overwhelmed.

Eventually the commotion dies down and the woman and tour agency man leave. I figured everything was sorted and if I needed to do anything, someone would have told me. It was almost 11 pm, and I was supposed to be at "reception" at 6 am, so I decided to head to bed. But Jon stopped me. He said they are still working out some logistics and if I want to sleep now, I can't sleep in that bunk, but I can sleep in his bed. In his room. I was really confused. We were speaking English at this point and Jon's is not good. He said he would be out at clubs, partying (aka not using his bed) so I could sleep in his bed. He didn't say where he would sleep...was he not planning on sleeping? A hammock? My original bunk once they got the logistics sorted? A friend's couch? 

My biggest concern was that he would roll into the hostel drunk at 3 am, forget I was using his bed, come into his room and we would just end up sharing his bed. Maybe under other circumstances I could have coped with this possibility - maybe if I was single and attracted to Jon (travel culture is well known for road hookups anyway), maybe if the room was clean and lovely, maybe if there was AC...but no. The room was messy and filthy. The bed was a thin mattress pad over a metal frame with a fitted sheet half stretched over it. The stench of armpit was stronger here. The light fixture was coated with two inches of dust and spiderwebs. A pair of boxers hung on the back of a chair. I couldn't do it. I was having flashbacks to the time in Armenia when I was couch surfing and my host somehow ended up in the same bed as me (after a night of heavy drinking) and I kept poking me all night and telling me my skin was softer than Armenian girls...I wasn't going to be polite and timid and let that happen again. I wanted to be tough and deal with an uncomfortable situation (the grossness of the hostel) in a mature, cool way. But it was just too much.

There wasn't much objection when I suggested that maybe it would be best for me to find other accommodations. He said there was a hostel nearby that probably had a private room available. He walked me to the corner to point my way, and suddenly, like he just remembered it existed, offered me to stay in his other apartment in town (what?? there's another apartment??). I just shook my head no. I had firmly made up my mind. It wasn't going to work out.

I started walking the "about 6 blocks" towards this other hostel, scanning the signs above the doors for its name or the Chinese restaurant that was supposedly across the street. I don't know how many blocks I went, but it seemed like enough, and the street was totally dark - no businesses open. During this whole time I was texting Bacho (my boyfriend, who currently lives in Holland), telling him my saga. He quickly started sending me Booking.com links to affordable, clean looking hostels in Iquitos. I clicked the first one, and quickly decided to book it. Private room, private bathroom, decent price, didn't need a credit card to book. Within 5 mins I was in a mototaxi headed to the new hostel. 

I must have looked as hot and tired and frustrated as I felt, because when I arrived a nice old lady gave me a bottle of cold water and had me sit down to wait for the owner to emerge (it was about 11 pm at this point). He informed me that they didn't have a record of my booking, and couldn't in fact because the hostel was full...turns out, Bacho had searched for "today" his time, which was already "tomorrow" my time, so I had made the booking for the next day! I stupidly hadn't checked the dates before booking...the owner helped me find another place nearish by on Booking.com, that had an available room for that night. I said hasta manana and trudged on to the OK Hostel (not a great name...). When I got there, however, they said they didn't have any rooms available, despite Booking.com showing several I could book! The 15 year old kid at the front desk just shook his head "sorry" with a weird sort of pity smile, and I walked out. I sat on the sidewalk outside with my pile of bags and collected myself. 

hallway pool

Tired and fully out of patience, I did another search on Booking, this time in the $50-100 range (instead of just sorted with lowest price first). I ended up finding a hotel (an actual hotel!) with a twin bed for $30. I booked it. I arrived at Hotel Golden Star with low expectations, just hoping they actually had a room available. Although the floors were lined with huge dead horseflies and they weirdly had a pool in the second floor hallway...the place was clean, had AC, a TV, and wifi (that night, at least). I finally flopped into bed around 12:30 am and let the stress fade away.

Lessons learned:
  • Do your research (or probably just don't use Workaway)
  • Know your limits and stick to them
  • It's okay to say no
  • A phone with a data connection can save your butt

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

La Paz Grows on You

Day 2 and the best of Day 1:
Starting to Acclimate Physically and Socially

I have had no time to write! Well actually, more like I have had no energy with the cold and my sickness, I have not had the patience to deal with painfully slow Internet connections (seriously, no network in this country can sustain fast speeds for more than like an hour). So, now I'm on day 8, but here is a little retrospective on the positives of my first few days in Bolivia.

Waiting at the gate with me in the Bogota airport was a tiny old woman wearing traditional indigenous clothing (layered mid-calf skirts, colorful shawl, bowler hat). My first, ignorant, reaction was that she was probably a poor villager...man, was I surprised when I boarded the plane and saw her with her super wrinkly, adorable husband sitting in first class!
So who are these women? In Bolivia, they're called cholas or cholitas - indigenous Aymara or Quecha women who, proud of their heritage, dress in a distinctive way. The outfit developed in  colonial times, when Spanish invaders forced local women to dress in the popular Spanish styles of the time. Mestizo women also began adopting the dress in order to open doors to rise in social status. As Spanish and European continental styles changed throughout the centuries, the cholitas' style did not. Instead, it became more entrenched, more elaborate, and more competitive.

Puno, Peru (technically)
From top to bottom: little bowler hats called borsalinas, black hair usually in two long braids down the back, tied together at the bottom (women often use hair extensions or other additions), gold jewelry (for the wealthy ones, and really the cholita culture is all about competition, one-upping each other, showing off wealth - many even put gold in their teeth to show their status!), elaborate shawls with fringe or lace detailing, sometimes a heavy knit cardigan or an full apron for the working women, heavy multi-layered mid-calf skirts that are often pleated, shiny, or patterned - the petticoats under the skirt emphasize the wearer's womanly, child bearing hips, and finally a pair of open toed flats or low pumps (even in the winter). Especially among working women, the look is often finished with a bright blanket slung across the back to carry everything from potatoes to babies. A note on the borsalina - the color and height varies according to personal styles, but in some regions its placement on the head signals that the wearer is either married (straight on the head) or on the market (cocked to one side).

An indigenous family at the bus terminal in La Paz

To continue the thread of Bolivian women, let's talk about the Witches Market (Mercado de Las Brujas) for a minute. First - the so called Witches Market is a small area of a couple blocks of Calle Jiminez and Linares, between Sagarnaga and Santa Cruz avenues. It's not a big enclosed market like Lanza, it's just a string of stores run by "witches" selling ingredients for ceremonies and traditional medicinal remedies (which really means a lot of boxes of virility powders from Asia) and also tons of souvenirs. Second - the term "witches" (brujas in Spanish) is neither accurate nor particularly well liked by the practitioners of pre-Colombian indigenous spirituality themselves. The preferred term is Yatiri.


llama fetus with a scarf

Some facts:
  • Yatiris are ritual practitioners, healers, and spiritual leaders in the Aymara community. 
  • A yatiri can be a man or a woman, of any age.
  • A person cannot just decide they want to become a yatiri, they must be chosen. Traditionally, the way a person knows they have been chosen by the gods to be a yatiri is that that person is struck by lightning! Which is actually not so rare in the Bolivian highlands with frequent electrical storms and mineral rich soil. A child or grandchild of someone struck by lightning may also become a yatiri. If you (okay, not you, but a Bolivian/Aymara person...) ask a yatiri if they have been struck, they will often show you their scars.
  • The most common ingredient in a yatiri ceremony/ritual is coca leaves. The most shocking to foreigners is llama fetuses...these are buried under the cornerstone of a new house being built. The idea is to ask the earth (pachamama) for permission/forgiveness for destroying a piece of her in order to build the house by giving a piece of nature back. And don't worry, llama aren't given abortions in order to bless houses - as I was told, llamas frequently have multiple pregnancies but can only carry one baby to term, so the unlucky fetuses miscarry and just sort of fall out...so when you're walking in a llama area, it's not that uncommon to find a shriveled llama fetus, of varying age/size, and if you come across one, you must bring it to the nearest yatiri.
  • Bolivians are pretty superstitious people, with such a large portion of the population indigenous or of indigenous descent, the blend of traditional spirituality with colonial Catholicism creates a fascinating landscape of rituals and beliefs.

While Bolivians are generally not very receptive to foreigners, and in my experience, is not a culture with hospitality at its core, I saw a touching personal moment at the airport. A Bolivian folk dance troupe was leaving to go somewhere, probably to perform, dressed in matching sweatsuits and scrunchies. One girl hugged her mother tightly at the bottom of the escalator, reluctantly stepped backward onto the escalator and as she floated upward, reached an arm out with tears in her eyes and choked out "te amo mucho" (I love you very much).

ice cream in the sun in Plaza Murillo
It is still really cold...but not so bad in the sun. If I sleep in (which is tough in sheets that feel grimy and with a headache that starts pounding everyday around 4 am), and go to bed early, the winter bites less. I sat outside on the steps in beautiful Plaza Murillo, around which the main La Paz government buildings are clustered, eating an ice cream cone and watching kids play with (and freak out about) the flocks of pigeons in the plaza. During the walking tour I took (absolutely fantastic, highly recommend Hanaq Pacha!), we stopped in Plaza Murillo to talk about the country's political history and present. Some stand out facts:
Gualberto Villarroel's hanging post and bust
  • Evo Morales is the country's first indigenous president, and the indigenous population (~55-60% of the country) and much of the mestizo (mixed indigenous and European heritage) are thrilled. While Evo has done a lot to develop the country and stabilize the economy, there is a large and vocal opposition. A recent referendum asking whether Morales' party should be allowed to run for an (unconstitutional) 4th term split the country in half. Graffiti covers every spare surface in La Paz, and many highway-side walls, and much of it is encouraging people to vote either si (yes to stability) or no (Evo must go). Despite the results of the Feb 2016 referendum to amend the constitution just barely going against the president (51% to 49%), Morales has declared he will run again in 2019 anyway.
  • Bolivia's last president to actually live in the presidential palace on Plaza Murillo was Gualberto Villarroel. In 1946, the palace was attacked in the middle of the night by a crowd of angry anti-government protestors. Despite quickly resigning, Villarroel was assassinated by the mob, his body thrown of the window into the square, and brutally hung by a light pole just outside his home. The light pole is still there today, along with a small bust of the president whose death is now considered to have been a tragedy and whose political legacy mainly centers around his attempts at reform. 
  • Behind the current regal, colonial style presidential palace (which today is where the day to day business of ruling is done), a 29-story skyscraper (skyreacher?) is under construction. It is to be the "Great House of the People" - the new presidential palace which, along with government offices, will "include a heliport, a centre for indigenous ceremonies and a 1,000-seat auditorium." Many Bolivians see it as the quintessential example of socialist government in name only, that has lost its focus on the people who live largely in poverty and underdevelopment.
We were also lucky enough to be there when an honor guard took down the many flags flying in the square, accompanied by a shaky and off key trumpeter...

Bolivia is obsessed with getting it's sea coast back,
which it lost to Chile in the 1880s war - it has now
taken the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague

Plaza Murillo
Plaza Murillo
A chola and her kid (grandkid? super hard to tell how old these women are...)
selling snacks in Plaza Murillo

I was super excited to find out that they have marshrutki here too!! I'm well prepared for this mode of transportation haha Really, there are two types - the "mini-bus" which is just like an Eastern European marshrutka, and the "carry" which is smaller. There are so many systems of public transport/ride sharing - the mini-buses; carrys; bigger buses that resemble Panama's old diablo rojo buses; official municipal buses - the old style which are shaky and belch black smoke, and the new style which look nice but I rarely saw; large, old, lumbering long distance buses; newer long distance buses that are usually double-decker and, when aimed at tourists (the word touristico will generally be written somewhere on the side), can be pretty nice, and of course taxis.

 I rode the mini-buses a couple times. They're slow and their routes are confusing, but the system works the same as marshrutki. The biggest differences are the constant honking - the horn is used to say hello to a friend, to warn other cars the bus is about to stop, to ask a pedestrian if he wants to get on, to tell pedestrians to get out of the road - and the rider etiquette. When you get on, it's typical to greet the other passengers with a "buenas time of day". Also, it's okay to bring your dog if you want.

One endearing aspect of Bolivian culture (and I haven't found many), is the tendency to add 'ito' to everything. The Spanish diminutive ending is given to everything - tabletita (medicine tablet), aguita (water), bolsito (bag), amigita (friend), mesita (table). It lends an air of sweetness to most conversations, but it also makes people's rudeness sting a bit more when their speech is 'ito'-free...

I've been pleasantly surprised at the few people I have seen smoking on the streets. There also aren't many (any?) ads for cigarettes. Indigenous culture is strong here - maybe they reject smoking as not part of native culture? Maybe people get their fix in other ways (coca leaves are legal and popular here). Or maybe the high altitude and thin air of the Bolivian highlands just make filling your lungs with tar pretty impractical.

There are so many happy looking families. Cholitas playing with their small children or grandchildren, parents strolling with kids (although strollers themselves are really rare due to the sorry conditions of roads/sidewalks). Infants are often nothing more than a bundle of cloth, wrapped tightly to protect against the cold and probably air pollution, held in the backpack-blankets of cholitas or in the arms of young women. There are also lots of teenagers hugging and kissing on the streets the way teenagers do, which I find really cute - a favorite move is for a girl and guy to hug, and the guy walk the girl slowly backward along the sidewalk while kissing and laughing - I only saw one couple trip while doing this!

it's funny how kids are the same everywhere,
but adults can be so incredibly different...

the most delightful thing about La Paz has to be the zebras
In a brilliant flash of public policy insight, the La Paz city council runs a program where they hire students (usually in the last years of high school or first year of university) part time to dress up in cute zebra costumes and act as sort of traffic cops. The costumes remind drivers to stop at zebra crossings (those white stripes on the road marking pedestrian crossings - most of the world calls these 'zebras') and remind pedestrians to cross at zebra crossings. They roam in little packs, dancing and waving and helping older people cross - it's adorable and fun and effective! Apparently many Paceños (residents of La Paz) respect these young people more than the actual police who are generally known to be corrupt.