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, 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 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.


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