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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

La Paz - The Ultimate South American Field Trip's our last stop. 357 days into our adventure...these world travelers are tired. We have seen so much. We booked Bolivia on recommendation of some other savvy explorers we had met along the way. La Paz is spread out before us in a surreal landscape as we venture in from the airport.  Holy Crap. This city is HUGE!  Its' immensity seems like perhaps too much to conquer in the final days of our adventure. How do we see all of THAT while also dealing with the effects of oxygen deprivation?  Perhaps a visit to Wikipedia and Trip Advisor would help us eat this elephant a bite at a time.

Fun facts on La Paz:
  • La Paz is the highest seat of government city in the world
  • El Alto International Airport is the highest international airport in the world (13,325 feet above mean sea level). Passengers may notice the drop in pressure when the aircraft doors are opened.
  • Water boils in La Paz at 88 °C (190 °F)
  • La Paz has the highest certified Olympic stadium. FIFA issued a rule forbidding the organization of official matches in stadiums with an altitude of more than 2,500 metres because players may be at greater health risk due to decreased oxygen pressure, but excluded La Paz's Hernando Siles Stadium from that regulation after intense lobbying by Bolivian authorities
  • The La Paz central bus station was designed by Gustav Eiffel who also built the Eiffel Tower
LaPaz bus station

Inhale.  Well, inhale really deeply because the air is so thin up here!  It is so dramatic that they even have a health rescue station at customs when you come into the airport.  Speaking of customs....we are on our 29th country and somehow we missed the Visa requirement for Bolivia.  Fail, Bangert's! No worries, we aren't getting sent back to Chile...all we need to do is fill out some forms and pay...What? Que? What? Que?  Did we hear that right??... $540US in fees!  Ah caray! (I got this word on my Spanish app...means "Oh WOW!")

The customs agent kindly directs Bill into the airport in search of a bank machine.  Show me the Money, Gringo! (It is all in response to reciprocal fees the US charges Bolivians to get into the States).

After several failed attempt to withdraw cash, a woman explains to Bill in Spanish that many of the machines are out of money and directs him to a good one.  Thank you, travel Angel and High School Spanish!  We believe we are in business and Bill arrives back to customs with his Boliviano Pesos in hand.  Uhhh....not so fast, Gringo....the Bolivian officials need US cash.  Heavy sigh.  More deep breaths trying to avoid the emergency rescue station....Bill heads back into the terminal looking for Cambio. (change/conversion) So after 30-40 minutes of unexpected drama, we are on our way. We have learned that problems happen and they get resolved. Just go with the flow.  And La Paz....really deep!!

Mario our taxi driver...spoke no English but we learned a lot from him. And his dashboard was really fuzzy.

We grab a taxi and head into La Paz. I cannot even begin to describe the scale of this city and how it blankets the mountains as far as the eye can see.  It was too hard to get pictures from the cab and frankly I was obsessed with absorbing the sites.  Travel fatigue is sucking us all in and the scene before us starts to look like an unconquerable destiny.  Conquistadors we are not, today.

We get to a very nice aparthotel in the central district and spend two days venturing out around the hotel...we visit one of the main squares...get out of breath easily and battle headaches.  Bill and I are a bit baffled and intimidated with how to tackle this beast. I can't convince any of my peeps to mountain bike with me on the El Camino de Muerte (the road of death) so we dig into our beloved TripAdvisor and we find Ben Montevilla of Banjo Tours. We had no idea,...we were heading on the Ultimate South American Field Trip.

Ben specializes in taking people to the "non-tourist" places.  This is RIGHT up our alley and we feel like we aren't going to fail La Paz after all.  We are contacting him late on Thursday and figure we won't get in quickly.  However, he ends up being available Friday afternoon...once again the travel God/Goddess smiles down on us and off we go.  Ben picks us up at 1:30p Friday afternoon.  He does not have his own vehicle...we are going to ride like the locals ride. Yea!!

We had been intrigued by the 1000's of mini-vans that fill the streets stuffed with locals jumping on and off and usually, the fare taker would be leaning out the side door yelling out their destinations. It was too daunting to tackle on our own but with our guide, Ben, we were set. For about .22 cents a person you could get from a point A to a point B.  With Ben picking the vans going in our desired direction, we were set.  What a great start to our experience.
Ben is on the right in glasses. You can see our Canadian companion's head in the right corner.

Ben walked us by some of the major local sites like San Francisco square and the government buildings.  He even showed us a building marked with bullet holes from a civil war that took place less than 10 years ago in 2003.  They now proudly have their first Indigenous (Native Indian) President and things seem to have settled down.
Parliament Building

Government Building with bullet holes from 2003
La Paz street view

Indigenous the local clothing!

Indigenous women enjoying an ice cream on the square

OK...we've seen some of the normal tourist things...great warm up, now off for the real adventure. We hop in another van snuggled in with the locals and head off to see the largest coca leaf warehouse in Bolivia. Literally. The heart and soul of the Bolivian coca distribution network. Can you say Scarface?   It is the second largest provider of coca behind Peru. Welcome to our field trip, you want to see where cocaine comes from? "Say hello to my little friend."  It offered us great opportunities for discussion. That's what parents should do, right?

Coca is utilized for many products within Bolivia, however, our local fixer, Ben, shared that 40% of it ends up with the drug trade. The other 60% goes into medicinal products. He strolls into the warehouse with his Gringos in tow. I am expecting armed Latinos to rush us and start an immediate strip search.  Instead we see rooms full of huge bags of coca leaves with the coca farmers and their children hanging out.  I got one picture before I felt it was prudent to ask if it was OK to take them....answer...from Ben our guide....not such a good idea. So here is my one and only pic of the warehouse. It is just one room and certainly wasn't the best as far as quantity of coca leaves:
Each village/area had a room..this was sparse in quantity compared to others.
Notice the TV for when hanging out with the kids and your fellow farmers. 

It is fascinating to see the work of these farmers and to watch the women sorting through the leaves by size and quality.  I spy a child laying on a large sack of leaves taking a nap.  Ben, our guide not our son, negotiates with a woman to buy a small sack of coca leaves. She offers to sell him the whole 50lb bag (see pic of those sacks) and he moves on to another woman who is willing to sell him a small amount.   Our son, Ben, has been really struggling with altitude sickness and we are hoping to make some coca tea to help him.  

We venture out of the warehouse and pass many of the locals selling produce along the street and come upon the guy selling coca products. Coca is used for all types of medicinal purposes - headaches, hemorrhoids, stomach aches, ED (I think anyone who watches commercials at a football game knows what ED is).  We buy some coca tea and coca candy from him and some of the ash the locals use to put between the leaves when chewing them from a woman close by. The ash is from a particular tree that they have been using for this purpose for over 1000 years.

The Bolivian woman selling the ash you use when chewing coca leaves
The fruits of our shopping at the Coca Market.  A bag of coca leaves, coca caramels, coca tea and the ash for chewing.

Ben shares with us how the warehouse works and shows us where the trucks come to pick up the coca before traveling to towns and villages all over the country where they will go into production.  The government actually regulates the warehouse in an effort to have some control over the distribution of coca leaves. Wow. Interesting experience to share with your 12 year old twins.

After the coca warehouse it is off to an exclusive view. The taxis and vans do not go up this route so Ben has his father, Javier, pick us up in his taxi.  We all pile in and begin the climb up the mountain.  This road is so steep! Javier approaches most of it slowly and in first gear. We see many of the indigenous children out playing next to their houses that cling to the bedrock. Ben shares that when the rains come, these homes are often destroyed.  The higher up you live, the poorer you are.  Just the opposite of how we live in the States...where the views bring the premium prices and prestige.

Irregardless of the social implications, the views were unbelievable.  To see how they have built up this town high into the mountains is a site to behold. It looks surreal.

Probably one of our last family picks on our RTW adventure.

Look at the sky scrapers in the bottom left to get perspective. Crazy!

Homes barely clinging to the mountain side.

You would think with the cross and the view the tourists would be here. Very profound space.

So we keep breathing deep.  Son, Ben, is hanging in there with his altitude sickness.  We all head back into Javier's taxi for the continued ascent to the city known as El Alto.  They might as well call it "Planet El Alto" or maybe even "Middle Earth". This place is like nothing we have ever seen.  It is a fully Indigenous town at the top of the mountain covering a large flat area.  They are all dressed in their traditional Indigenous wear with their wide skirts, braids and bowler hats.  Many of them live here yet many others come in on treacherous bus rides from the jungle to bring their goods to market.

Walking through the market

Love the skirts and bowler hats
The loads the women carry on their backs are daunting.

Meandering through the markets we receive some scrutiny from the locals as this is not a place that tourists visit.  Ben introduces us to two new fruits one of which is called "Tuna". It is spikey and fleshy and has seeds similar to a pomegranate.  The other looks like an angular banana and is a favorite of has a taste like a pear/banana combination.  It has seeds in it that you actually don't eat. They are large and purple and brown in color.    The market is fascinating to experience and we are thrilled with our day.

Who knew Ben had another surprise up his sleeve. The next stop in our stroll is to the Mercado de Brujas.  The Market of Witches. We are learning that the Indigenous are very superstitious and work hard to please Pachamama (Mother Earth) as well as to bring good fortune to their lives while warding off evil.  The stalls of the witches market are filled with a variety of candles, incense, llama fetuses (yes - lots of them) and an assortment of other "goodies" to influence the spirit in their lives.

Llama fetuses - to be burned in a fire and then buried on site before building a home.  

An assortment of candles, incense, candies and other notions to honor Pachamama at the Witches Market.
This is very interesting to absorb. Our guide's intimate knowledge of the customs really brings this to life for us.  The offerings to Pachamama are created for various events in life. Birth, death, marriage, building a home, etc.  I end up buying one for "Trabajo"  I will bring this home to our fire pit in the states and offer it up to Pachamama in prayer for good jobs to come our way in support of our family.
The offering is full of candy, wax pieces, salt and one nut you are supposed to crack before burning.

You arrange the pieces on top of a fire on a slab of round cardboard in a pleasing circle. Got it!

Next stop, the Shaman area which looks a bit like what I would dub: Shaman Row.  The road is bordered by two rows of buildings housing small sheds where each Shaman sets up shop. There appear to be over 100 of them in business which is a tribute to their importance in the Indigenous culture. Our guide Ben worked very hard to find the "right" shaman. One of his favorites was occupied so he continued until he felt we had the "right" one.
Shaman Row. Notice the small fire pits for offerings to Pachamama/God.

Ben Montevilla looking for the "right" Shaman.

Shaman Marketing - Amauta was engaged when we went by her place.

Ben asks us if we would like our coca leaves read. SURE!  How many people do we know will ever have their coca leaves read by an Indigenous Shaman in the mountains of Bolivia?  Our Shaman was in room 101...good number, right? He is quite a nice gentleman.  Bill and the kids and I step into his small quarters to experience what the Shaman has to say.  The walls are a soft green adorned with pictures of Jesus and Mary. He takes a handful of coca leaves and has each of us blow on his hands. He then slowly lets them fall to his table.

All in all things are looking good for the Bangert's.  We have had some good luck he says. Well, no disrespect, Mr. Shaman but the fact we have traveled the world together for a year took a bit of suerte. (luck)  Just saying.  He also read in the leaves to give me direction on which job of the two I have under consideration I would be best suited for. We will see if I agree after formal interviews in a few weeks. ;-)  We also asked him if the kids' current school was the best choice for them and he advised that the leaves said otherwise. Perhaps Walnut Hills is in their future?? Again...we will see how that shakes out when we get home.  Ben would be mortified to leave Madeira. All in all it was a fabulous adventure.

Lo and behold after our reading, he asked us if we would like to see the secret in his back room.  Well, SURE, why not...he seemed like a nice enough guy and we didn't suspect we were going to be fed to the natives.  We stepped into a very small back room that had a simple mattress and a door in the back.  Our guide reaches out and opens the door and we are blown away with a collective GASP!  The back door drops right off the mountain in a view that looks like something you would find in a Tim Burton movie.

Holy Pachamama!!
 It was amazing to say the least.  With the rainy season upon them, I will pray that our dear Shaman stays rooted to the side of the mountain.  Wow...what a wonderful, out of the ordinary day.

The buses lined up for the trip back to the jungle.
Off we go towards the vans that will take us back to town. We pass the buses lined up to take the farmers back to their villages...on the road down the treacherous back side of the mountain to the jungle.  We will hop in our van with half a dozen Pacenas and pay our twenty two cents each to return to the city of La Paz.

Unexpectedly on our drive down the hill, much to my delight, we are passing the local cemetery.  I get the added thrill of  seeing the style of the local cemetery.....without having the kids roll their eyes at me. Muh-hahahah. Bonus!

We breath deeply with a sigh of satisfaction, La Paz all around us...knowing we have just had the Ultimate South American Field Trip.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the mention. It feels great to know you had a good time in La Paz. Hope you are well wherever in the world you are now. Ben, La Paz.