Wednesday, August 3, 2011

La Paz and the Bolivian vibe

Although this post is nominally about La Paz, in the week I have spent here I haven’t really done much that is noteworthy, unless eating delicious street food, battling to organise activities and doing the Gringo tourist shopping thing counts as noteworthy. Oh yeah, and all while atrociously hung-over because La Paz is a bit like that. So instead of boring/disgusting you with repetitive tales of drunken debauchery (I’m sure that’s something Mum doesn’t need to hear about, hi Mum!), I’m going to talk a bit about the city and Bolivia in general and why this place is so fuckin’ sweet.

First up though, here’s La Paz:

 And one at night:


Now that’s out of the way, Bolivia. The place is awesome. I would recommend it to all of my friends and even some people who I don’t really like very much, as long as they were going to splash around some cash these ways. But not a lot of cash because this place is cheap. Like, too cheap to describe or even really comprehend. I know people go on about it a bit but it’s one of the most obvious and relevant factors to the average Gringo traveller. This is great for the traveller but has the associated problems you would expect when considering the country as a whole. Anyway, a room costs six to ten NZ dollars a night. Activities which would cost hundreds at home can be done for a fraction of the price. A meal can be as little as $2.50.

Speaking of food, the street vendors are great. There are many delicious treats available at every corner. Readily available are hanberguesas, salchipapas (fries with slices of sausage and mayo and ketchup on top), choripan (delicious sausage in a bun), empanadas, tucamanas (big empanadas) and pancho (hot dogs). For around 10 Bolivianos you can get a sit down lunch with a hearty soup, a main of carne or pollo con arroz (beef or chicken with rice), and some fruit for dessert. The food is a bit hit and miss though, with most Gringo’s generally getting a trippy tummy at some stage while living the Bolivian dream.

But that’s okay, because there are pharmacies absolutely everywhere. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that there is likely to be a pharmacy within 100m of you at all times. Like everything else, pharmaceuticals are ridiculously cheap. The restrictions for over the counter medicines are relaxed to say the least. Travellers commonly buy valium over the counter to take before long cold overnight bus rides. As long as you know the chemical name and have the fortitude to persist with your request you can normally get the pharmacist to understand what you are after.

As a Gringo you can expect to get the jerk around a fair bit though. A lot of the time I think I am being "Gringo taxed". It wouldn't be so bad if my Espanol was up to par but I am sure that all Gringos over here get the shaft sometimes. Also, when you arrange a tour, expect to be fed some Bolivian lies. Often advertised parts of the tour just won't happen, and they often won't give you the full picture. It's best to just assume you will get 'mas o menos' what is advertised. And this isn't something unique to tours - Gringos get told Bolivian lies in a huge range of interesting situations. 


 The other annoyance for the average traveller is Bolivians relaxed approach to timekeeping and punctuality. Buses often leave more than an hour after schedule and always arrive at least two hours later than expected. Also, a 20 hour bus here will not have a toilet, it will not have heating, and you will not be fed. All you can guarantee is that it will be overcrowded and a bit miserable.

Stolen from the internet because I'm too
 scared to point my camera at locals
when I can't explain why.
At least it will be interesting when you arrive at your destination. Bolivian cities are a frenzy of rule-less mayhem on all sides. The driving is truly manic (and the roads often dirt or badly paved with whatever stones can be found, even mid-city), there are people everywhere walking at an idle, and the sidewalks are crammed with street stalls selling just about anything. It’s worth people watching as well just to look at what the locals are wearing: the women in particular often dress in a specific local style which includes a colourful blanket slung over their back and a little bowler-style hat up top.

Just make sure you don’t go for your walk on a Sunday, because everything will be closed. Best to try and avoid shopping between 1 and 3pm too or you’re likely to get stung by siesta (although this is not so bad in the bigger cities).

While you’re looking around, keep an ear out for the local music, and tell me if you can differentiate any of the songs because I sure as hell can’t. I guess it’s a bit like when you start listening to drum and bass – it all sounds pretty similar until you get the ear. Fortunately, there is a lot less reggaeton up these ways when compared to Chile or Argentina.

Probably the best part about Bolivia is the huge range of outdoor activities or adventure activities easily and cheaply available. Mountaineering, mountain biking, canyoning, trekking, ziplines, rafting, jungle adventures, 4x4 tours, and many more are all easily available within a few hours of La Paz. The guides have also all been really good in my experience, and the equipment up to the job. If you head these ways, get amongst.

My last observation about Bolivia is that it is generally inhabited by very happy people, despite the problems the country has. Almost everyone I have met has been very helpful towards this most Gringo if Gringos, with a willingness to go out of their way to sort me out. They also love to share a joke as long as it can be translated across languages. Most seem happy in their job, especially the guides I have met. The children are always smiling. I haven’t been exposed to any crime yet (touch wood) but have been treated with more honesty than I would expect in some situations (like when I don’t understand how much things cost and hand over too much, they make sure I pay the right amount).

So that’s Bolivia. You have to take it as it comes, but as long as you have an open mind and a fairly high tolerance for getting out of your comfort zone you can have the time of your life here.

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