Shoe shiners and zebras on the streets of La Paz

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Lustrabotas

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!

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Melting glaciers, llama love and hanging effigies

PampalaramaA little while ago I took a hike up to Glacial Khuno Tinkuta, which is situated in Pampalarama, an hour and a half`s drive from La Paz.  Sitting at 5000m above sea level, the glacier was a short hike but a strenuous one nonetheless due to the altitude.  Almost immediately I was out of breath (which I initially attributed to over-consumption of potatoes) and developed a persistent headache, which meant for a slow climb. The landscape was fairly barren and except for a lone shepherd, my friend and I did not encounter a single person on the trails.  Herds of llama and alpaca grazed in the lower slopes, generously obliging my frenzy of photo-taking.

According to recent studies, Andean glaciers have shrunk by as much as 50% since the 1970s.  The nearby peak of Chacaltaya used to be home to the world`s highest ski resort, before its glacier rapidly melted over the years, disappearing entirely in 2009.  Glaciers act as a vital source of water for thousands of Bolivia`s inhabitants in El Alto and the Altiplano, as well as supplying hydro-power.  As a poor, landlocked country, the impact of climate change is felt more than ever and sadly the future looks bleak with Bolivia`s few remaining glaciers receding fast.

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Journeying back into La Paz, we wove our way along steeply sloping cobbled streets in the outskirts of the city.  Several Guy Fawkes-like effigies were strung up on telegraph poles, a sight I was curious about, having noticed them often in El Alto.  As it turns out, these hanging dummies are warnings for rateros (thieves) and potential criminals, in areas where crime is rife.  Often they are hung with accompanying signs, macabre messages professing that captured thieves will be lynched and/or burned alive.  It is perhaps indicative of a lack of faith in the judicial system and local police force (considered to be somewhat corrupt and inefficient), that residents claim to resort to `community justice`, prepared to take matters into their own hands.

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Stay tuned for an upcoming coffee-related post, before I head to Buenos Aires on holiday next week!

Big hopes riding on small goods

Ekeko, household God of abundance

Ekeko, household God of abundance

With its roots in ancient Aymará traditions, the annual Alasitas festival was originally held in September (Bolivian springtime) in order for farmers to ensure a bountiful harvest.  Nowadays, the festival begins on January 24th and runs for three weeks or so.  Alasitas means `buy from me` in Aymará, and is celebrated with a huge fair in La Paz where everyone buys miniature representations of their wishes and aspirations for the coming year.  These items are offered to Ekeko (`dwarf` in Aymará) who is the household God of abundance.  Statues of the diminutive, rosy-cheeked, mustachioed Ekeko are laden with offerings of money, alcohol and cigarettes to keep him satisfied and benevolent.

Typically, Bolivians rush to the crowded fair at noon on the first day of the festival, clamouring to make their purchases and to have them blessed by a yatiri (witch doctor).  The blessings are a mystical, aromatic affair, with much murmuring and the spilling of alcohol and scattering of flower petals, amidst billowing clouds of incense.

The variety of objects on offer is remarkable, but by far the most popular item is the tiny replica currency – Bolivianos and dollars – to ensure a prosperous year.  Merchants wave wads of mini bank notes at the hordes of passers-by, shouting out tantalizing offers such as `un peso para mil dólares americanos!` (1 boliviano for US $1000).

Stalls overflow with miniature handcrafted hens and roosters (for those seeking a romantic partner), replica passports, visas and suitcases for those wishing to travel, toy cars and houses, construction materials and tools, diplomas and job contracts, certificates of marriage, divorce, birth and death(!), and tiny doll`s house sized packages of flour, rice and all manner of food products to ensure an abundance of food in the house.

I settled on a job contract, a certificate of good health, money and a driver`s licence.  (Ekeko will have his work cut out, since that very night I dreamt I ran over two people while driving a bus.)

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Houses and land are up for grabs, as well as bags of cement and other construction materials and tools

Houses and land are up for grabs, as well as bags of cement and other construction materials and tools

Hens and roosters for those looking for love

Hens and roosters for those looking for love

University diplomas & degrees, job contracts, certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce

University diplomas & degrees, job contracts, certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce

Skulls feature during some blessings

Skulls feature during some blessings

A yatiri, blessing my purchases

A yatiri, blessing my purchases

Mini versions of national newspapers are released during the first day of Alasitas, containign satirical and comical articles

Mini versions of national newspapers are released during the first day of Alasitas, containing satirical and comical articles

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Burning brakes and bat caves

Gruta de San Pedro

I escaped the hustle and bustle of La Paz for a weekend sojourn to Sorata just before New Year.  Sorata is a picturesque town perched in the valley beneath Mount llampu and Ancohuma, in the Las Yungas region (where Caranavi is also located).  Back in colonial days it provided access to the Amazon Basin, as well as the goldmines and rubber plantations of the Alto Beni.  These days, Sorata is a popular retreat for Bolivians and travellers alike, the idyllic setting acting as a base camp for hiking and mountain-biking trails.

The 3.5hr journey involved yet more hair-raising twisting trails with steep drops.  As we wound our way down the valley towards the town, the minibus I was travelling in began to emit a strong smell of burning (I suspect from overworked brakes) and I breathed a big sigh of relief when we arrived.

La Gruta de San Pedro (San Pedro cave) is a 5-6 hr round-trip hike from the town and is approximately 400m deep.  It houses bats as well as a large enclosed lagoon that can be crossed by pedal boat.  I`m quite fond of bats, and thus endured the oppressive humidity to watch them flitting and squeaking above, while unsuccessfully trying to photograph them.

The cave`s guide was 15 year old Janet, who explained she was taking her turn in the local community giving guided tours and that it was helpful she could add to her mother`s income.  In flip flops and armed with a small torch, she admitted to finding it spooky when alone in between visits, particularly when the string of electric lightbulbs fail, leaving her in complete darkness.  Children seem to be well and truly incorporated into family and community labour here.  During dinner in the town`s market-place, my waiter was 11 year old Imanol, who single-handedly served the restaurant in between watching cartoons.

Sorata

Sorata

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Blurry bats

Blurry bats

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Sorata in the distance

Sorata in the distance

Look out for Bolivia in the media over the next couple of days:

UK folks:
‘World`s Most Dangerous Roads’ – Wednesday 9th January, 9.30pm on BBC Two
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pw3yx

Canadian friends:
David Suzuki`s ‘The Nature of Things’- Thursday 10th January, 8pm on CBC-TV
http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episode/david-suzukis-andean-adventure.html

Both shows feature the spectacular Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni.  I just spent the weekend visiting the Salar – stay tuned for a full report!

Caranavi, coffee capital of Bolivia

Coffee, long before it ends up in your cup

My destination after braving Death Road was Caranavi, coffee capital of Bolivia.  This was to be my first trip to the coffee production zone and my objective was two-fold.  The first goal was to accompany a visiting Canadian coffee roaster, providing logistical support and translation throughout the trip.  The second was to meet coffee farmers and scope out the various coffee communities in order to better understand the producers` needs for the marketing aspect of my role.

Las Yungas

The town of Caranavi is located in Las Yungas, which is a transitional area between the highlands (La Paz) and the tropical lowlands of the Amazon basin.  An entirely different climate than in La Paz, it was steaming hot and humid.  Most of the coffee producers live within the surrounding jungle area, a bumpy, dusty ride up into the hills.

I found myself content to be in the tropics, far from the traffic and pollution of La Paz  and it was sensory overload of the best kind.  Incredible panoramas greeted us everytime we jolted to a halt (transporting up to 4 passengers in the car boot at any time).  Sprawling hills of lush green vegetation spread for miles.

Coffee colonies, coca fields and fruit trees abound, boasting bananas, mangoes, avocados, mandarins, limes, oranges and papayas.  Butterflies of electric blue, violet and yellow are bigger than birds.  The air is heavy and humid, smelling of fruit and earth, and filled with the constant buzzing and chirping of birds and insects.  It was worth the unnerving journey, without a doubt.

Las Yungas

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Cemetery celebrations on La Isla del Sol

* monster post – you might want to put the kettle on…

November 1st was Todos Santos/El Dia de los Muertos (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead).  That meant a long weekend and I seized the opportunity to travel to La Isla del Sol.  This is an island on Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest altitude lake, which borders both Bolivia and Peru.

By incredible luck, I travelled with a delightful Bolivian family, who took me entirely under their wing and ensured I had an experience vastly different than travelling as a lone tourist.  After daily greetings with Rosa, the office cleaning lady and her 8 yr old son, José Luis, it transpired we were all heading to La Isla del Sol for the holiday weekend and suddenly I had instant travel companions.

We left at 4am (not my ideal departure time but well worth it for the good company) and travelled by taxi, minibus, boat, another minibus and finally another boat.  The final stretch of the journey involved catching a lancha (motorboat) from the town of Copacabana to the island.  As I was about to pay the tourist fee of 20 Bolivianos ($3) for the 2hr journey, Rosa intervened and sternly told the boatman “No es turista!  Es familia!”, ensuring I paid the half-price ‘community’ fee.  We were only just becoming acquainted at this point, but it was one of many remarkably generous gestures on the family`s part.  They insisted upon hosting me at Rosa`s father’s house and shared absolutely everything with me – I truly couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.

The family

Our group consisted of Rosa and her children Patricia and José Luis, Rosa`s sister Marcela and her children Omar and Monica (who is one of my colleagues, a nice surprise discovered en route), another sister Ericka and myself.

Marcela and Rosa, in their traditional Cholita dress

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Daily life

I wake to the sound of a hundred stray dogs barking, the noise of traffic (one of four rush hours) and the relentless cry of the local newspaper man touting El Diario (or rather “El Diaaaaaariiiiiiooooo!”).  At night, the sounds are the same, except that the newspaper man is replaced by a neighbourhood guard and his whistle.

View from my bedroom window

My work day runs from 8.30am-noon and from 2.30pm-7pm.  That makes for a 2.5hr lunchbreak, which is taking some getting used to!  Most people head home for lunch almuerzo (hence the 4 rush hours) which is the main meal of the day.  Breakfast and dinner are very light, often consisting of little more than a bread roll, but a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack are also common.  Already the local pastelería (cake shop) has begun gifting me cookies as appreciation for loyalty, which can only be a good thing.

Work is going well so far. FONCRESOL`s La Paz office has 10 employees and I am slowly getting to know my colleagues, making a start on my mandate and adapting to the different pace of work.  (My boss Gustavo took me for ceviche (raw seafood) and beer at 11am last Tuesday.)  This coming weekend I will make my first trip out to the coffee production zone which will help me get to grips with my fairly ambitious work-plan.

FONCRESOL`s office

My host family/guest-house set up is convenient and comfortable.  I pay a daily fee for my room, lunch and laundry (a luxury indeed).  Three generations of the family live under the same roof (common for young couples/families to reside with the husband`s parents), and so I find myself adapting from living alone to now sharing a bathroom with 6 or more people, depending on how many other guests are present.  The family`s housekeeper, Petronila, is Aymará (an indigenous group that makes up about 25% of the population).

My host family`s house

Petro, grinding hot peppers and tomatoes to make `llajhua`, a spicy salsa. The impressive outdoor mortar and pestle is called a `batan`.