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!


Football fever and Semana Santa

Semana Santa celebrations in La Paz

Semana Santa celebrations in La Paz

Semana Santa

During Bolivia’s Holy Week celebrations, I witnessed the largest of many Good Friday processions taking place in La Paz.  La Procesión del Santo Sepulcro spent three hours gradually winding its way through the city streets, eventually circling back to a downtown church.  Approximately 95% of Bolivians are Roman Catholic, thus it was no surprise to see the streets filled with onlookers.

The procession depicts the fall and rise of Jesus Christ and was a sorrowful, sombre spectacle, an act of mass mourning rather than celebration.  School groups marched in uniform, chanting Biblical passages led by one child with a megaphone, while crowds of locals followed behind carrying flickering candles.  Most dramatic of all were the robed figures, with their tall, pointed hoods, eerily reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.  (Apparently the costumes represent mourning and are entirely unrelated to the KKK).  These haunting figures move slowly and silently through the streets, carrying enormous wooden platforms displaying effigies of Jesus and Mary.

A striking, shocking sight to the uninitiated, I was prepared to be somewhat alarmed this time around, having witnessed larger and more intense Semana Santa processions (i.e. more hoods, plus clamouring, wailing crowds) in southern Spain many years ago.

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Live football

Despite hopes of attending a live football match during my trip to Argentina, I opted to wait until returning to Bolivia, where I was less likely to fall victim to outrageously inflated tourist prices.  It paid off, since Messi and his team visited La Paz the very next week for a World Cup qualifier.  I scored a third row seat for only $17, a fraction of the price I was offered in Buenos Aires.

Of the South American teams competing for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, Bolivia was trailing at second to bottom of the table while Argentina were flying high at the top.  Bolivia, however, possess the intriguing ‘altitude advantage’; visiting teams have to contend with adjusting to the dizzying heights of La Paz.

The packed stadium was a sea of bright red, yellow and green and the atmosphere electric.  Three sides of the stadium would chant in turn “BO, BO, BO!”, “LI, LI, LI!”, “VIA, VIA, VIA!” and then altogether “VIVA BOLIVIA!”.  The Chilean referee was subject to relentless abuse from the crowd, reflecting the increasingly strained relations between the two countries.  (I learned a whole host of new expletives which I’m not sure I’ll ever have an opportunity to use.)

Admittedly my support of Bolivia was dubious, since I was secretly hoping to see Messi score (he didn’t).  Whenever he would venture close to our section, there would be taunting cries of “Messi! La ALTURA!” (“the altitude!”).  Bolivia went 1-0 up in the first half, Argentina equalised just before half-time and despite many close calls, the match ended 1-1.  Polystyrene squares are sold for 1 Boliviano (15 cents/9p) as seat covers.  At the end of the match, thousands of these were hurled into the air from all sides of the stadium, falling like ungainly snowflakes onto the pitch.

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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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Potions, lotions and lucky llama foetuses at La Paz`s Witches` Market

Witches` market

Lucky llama foetus, anyone?

Last Saturday I took a stroll around La Paz`s Mercado de las Brujas (Witches` Market), marvelling at the unusual array of items on offer.  Nestled at the end of a narrow, cobbled street where tourist shops stock colourful alpaca hats, woollen jumpers and hand-woven bags, a cluster of small shops overflow with ingredients for Aymará rituals and witchcraft.  A pungent, unfamiliar smell greeted me upon entering, a musty mix of animal corpses and herbal remedies.

Here you can find potions, perfumes, incense, candles and powders for a whole host of afflictions and conditions.  Whether you`re battling to quit smoking, suffering from anxiety, in need of financial luck, looking for an aphrodisiac, seeking marital bliss or perhaps beyond that point and hoping to expedite separation…rest assured, a remedy awaits!  I even noticed a `love, sex and money` perfume, for those who prefer an Aymará all-in-one approach.

Most intriguing of all are the dried llama foetuses, reminiscent of the kind of extraterrestial creature about to burst forth from Sigourney Weaver`s stomach in the opening sequence of Aliens.  These poor critters sucuumbed to natural deaths in the womb and are traditionally buried under the foundations of new houses to bring about good luck and prosperity, as sacrificial offerings to the much venerated Pachamama (Mother Earth).  Baby llama corpses are also on display, strung up unceremoniously on hooks in every spare inch of ceiling space.  These perished at birth from the cold or other natural causes.

Brimming bowls of clay amuletos and talismans promote amongst others: health, love, intelligence, protection, happiness, wealth and longevity.  Pachamama charms and statues are available in all shapes and sizes.

7 year old Yessica, whose aunt owned the shop I ventured into, was a well-informed host, helpfully bringing me items and enthusiastically pointing out photo opportunities.  I took a shine to her after she asked my age and expressed disbelief upon hearing 32, announcing I looked jovencita and no more than 15.  (Exemplary customer service skills, I concluded.)

I bought a fridge magnet as a gesture of goodwill, too overwhelmed by the odours and options to make a more adventurous or authentic purchase (this time…).

La Paz`s Witches` Market

La Paz`s Witches` Market

Witches` market

Remedies for all manner of ailments & conditions

Remedies for all manner of ailments & conditions

`Separador` powder promises to help you ditch your partner

`Separadora` powder, a creative alternative to the abundant aphrodisiacs on offer

Witches` market

Dried llama foetus, anyone?

Dried llama foetuses

Llama corpses for luck

Llama corpses



(clockwise from top left) Tortoise amulet for `long life`, owl for `intelligence`, fist for `money`, couple for `love`, face for `happiness`

(clockwise from top left)                                   Amulets: Tortoise for longevity, owl for intelligence, fist for wealth, couple for love, face for happiness.

Pachamama / Mother Earth

Pachamama / Mother Earth statues

7 yr old Yessica

7 yr old Yessica, customer service extraordinaire

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`.

La Paz

One month in, I am settling into life in La Paz.  It is, of course, vastly different to life in Montreal, and there have been a whole array of things to adjust to since my arrival.  For one, altitude!  La Paz sits at 3660m above sea level, and with the airport located even higher in the city of El Alto, it is the only airport in the world where planes need to ascend in order to land.  For the first two days I felt short of breath, had a splitting headache, and pins and needles in my face and fingers.  All I experience now is a humbling inability to power-walk as I tend to do, since the remotest incline has me out of breath as if I`m running.

The initial spectacular, panoramic view of the city, as you descend from the dizzy heights of El Alto (4100m) is quite literally breathtaking.  La Paz sits in a canyon, with houses built into the slopes, spilling and spreading for miles, and the snow-capped Mount Illimani looming in the background.

A couple of facts:

– La Paz was originally known as La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz (the City of Our Lady of Peace).

– La Paz locals are known as paceños (peaceful ones).

– Bolivia technically has two capital cities: Sucre is the main, constitutional capital, while La Paz remains the administrative capital.