Shoe shiners and zebras on the streets of La Paz

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Every day, thousands of lustrabotas (shoe shiners) line the streets of La Paz, squatting on stools, clutching their wooden boxes and touting for customers.  Most are male and although there are some older men, many are adolescents and children as young as 8 years old.  These men and boys wear baseballs caps and cover their faces with woollen balaclavas or ski masks, concealing their identity due to the shame and social stigma surrounding their trade.  

Lustrabotas are often presumed to be petty criminals or addicts and are harshly discriminated against, thus they prefer to remain anonymous than to risk being recognised by peers, neighbours or teachers.  For some shoe shiners it may be their only means for scraping together a living, while others are in school or university.  Having your shoes shined here can cost as little as 2.5 Bolivianos (36 cents/24p).

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Edgar, who generously answered my questions and shined my boots

Edgar, who generously answered my questions and shined my boots

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Traffic zebras

To describe traffic in La Paz as chaotic is an understatement.  It is akin to the madness of rush hour in Bangkok or Kathmandu.  Due to the customary 2.5 hour almuerzo (lunch break), there are actually several rush hours per day, and the traffic doesn’t seem to be much calmer in between.  Trufis (minibuses) and cars cram the streets, cutting each other off, honking impatiently and pumping black clouds of fumes.  If there are lanes, they are not used, and if there are traffic rules, nobody is paying them any attention.  Crossing the road is a feat not for the faint-hearted.

Cue La Paz’s troupe of dancing cebras (zebras).  In the heart of the city centre, youths in zebra costumes guide traffic and usher pedestrians across the road.  Armed with flags,  the cebras dance, skip, and comically express their dismay at those who do not respect the crossings, wringing their hands and shaking their heads mournfully.  

This creative road safety initiative began in 2001 as a means to educate and sensitize the public to respect the zebra crossings.  It is also part of a social program that aims to help under-privileged youth by providing them with employment.  In contrast to lustrabotas, these cebras are popular with locals.

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Street-side vendors

Another frequent sight in La Paz are these street-side vendors.  Resembling miniature sidewalk dépanneurs, they sell everything from snacks to toiletries and also double as public phone booths.  Often staffed by a knitting cholita, it is not uncommon to see a toddler playing in a cardboard box at her feet.

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Tomorrow spells the arrival of four Canadian coffee roasters, a much-anticipated week-long visit that I will be facilitating.  Stay tuned!

8 thoughts on “Shoe shiners and zebras on the streets of La Paz

  1. At least the shoe shiners are trying to earn a living rather than stealing or just begging. Enjoy your trip to Caranavi (Death Road aside)!

  2. Nice piece and stunning boots. I like to polish shoes and boots and thankfully I am immune to any deleterious social stigma. Seriously though, it is not the same as having to do it. Unfortunately I am not so good at washing my boots and trekking poles toward the end of the trail!

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