Entry #064: Sunday, March 2, 2014 (La Paz, Bolivia)

Hola from Bolivia! Yes, as should be no surprise to anyone at this point, I'm in another country! But hey, maybe I'll have two full entries in this one before I move onto the next! Dare to dream. In any case, I've only been in Bolivia a short while, but it's been a pretty enjoyable little while. And there's been some unexpected elements to it, namely how planned it's been. Though, um, not by me. You'll understand before too long.

So, back in Santiago, I had to wake up at 7am or so to make sure I was ready for my 8am pickup. As I was getting my stuff together, I found that I had, in addition to the 5,000 pesos I had saved for the shuttle ride, an extra 2,000 peso note. I shrugged it off, and then went downstairs to wait. While it was technically before breakfast was supposed to be served, I was given some food and drink, which was much appreciated. A short while after finishing, the shuttle arrived. As I was heading outside, the receptionist noted that I hadn't paid yet. I should have been expecting it, but I was kind of hoping that they had charged the credit card I made the reservation with. (Actually, no, I was kind of hoping it was an oversight and I'd get the whole shebang for free.) I went into the shuttle, where another guy was waiting (presumably with an early flight, hence me having to get to the airport four hours before my own). We drove to the airport, and I found out why the universe conspired to leave that 2,000 peso bill in my pocket - the price was 5,700 pesos, not 5,000. I have no idea what would have happened if I didn't have enough, but thankfully that was a non-issue. A couple minutes later, I was dropped off in front of the terminal, and happily found that I was able to use the self-check-in machines to get my boarding pass. I looked at my seat number: 1A. Could the flight have been oversold? Did I get first class or something? It was a long shot, but hey, something to maybe look forward to. I walked to the international terminal, but the lady at the immigration desk turned me away. "You have to go to the domestic terminal," she told me. Considering my ticket said it was a direct flight from Santiago to La Paz, I was more than a little confused. Still, I went to that side, and breezed through what seemed to be the most lax security I've ever seen. Like, the guard even told me while I was mid-guzzle that I could bring my half-full water bottle through. Once through, I used all but 61 pesos ($0.11) to buy some Mentos and a mini candy bar. I had actually wanted to get a tea at a cafe with the money I had, but I was literally just 9 pesos short. I then got to my gate, sat down, saw that the flight was delayed for a bit, and then spent some time on my computer, mostly doing some photo filtering.

When it was finally time to board, I got on and saw that seat 1A was, indeed, not first class. It just had a little more legroom, which I guess I can't gripe about. I also learned that the flight was not direct to La Paz. In fact, we'd first be stopping at a coastal Chilean city called Iquique, which would actually be the majority of the flight. So we flew for about three hours or so. Not much to mention about the flight; there was a light snack (like, a fruit cup and that's it), I dozed off for a portion of it while listening to mellow music, and we arrived at Iquique. While we were able to leave our luggage on the plane (which felt strangely satisfying), we ourselves had to get out to go to immigration whilst the plane refueled. Being near the front of the plane, I was quickly able to get to the immigration desk, where I got my exit stamps, and...and then I didn't know where to go next. I tried asking a worker, who yelled and tried taking my passport away from me. I yanked it back from him and went back up to the desk. The lady told me I could just go back to the gate I had just come from. So I did just that, and waited to be boarded again. The second leg of the flight proved to be very short - I would barely even say it was 45 minutes. Along the way, I was handed a couple of forms that I had to fill out for immigration, customs, etc. Then, when I actually got to the immigration desk and they saw that I didn't have a visa, they moved me to another desk and gave me another two forms to fill out. A couple girls (also American) were standing near me, and I found it quaint that I'd filled out enough of these that I could tell them which forms to ignore. After handing in the paperwork (and paying $135 of my emergency cash - which was actually better than the $160 I had read the cost to be online), I got my 5-year visa and was on my way. Well, not quite; I was chosen to have my bag screened by customs, and...oh, wait, it's already done? Yeah, the lady opened my bag, and then almost immediately closed it again, seemingly satisfied. Well, with that, I was on my way.

Shortly after stepping into the arrivals area, I saw a guy holding a sign with my name on it. I walked up and shook his hand. This was Orlando, who was hired to be my guide. Now, I don't know if I've brought this up before (and I don't have Internet connection while writing this paragraph, so screw checking), but my father, having been the president of a preeminent importer of quinoa from Bolivia, knows folks in Bolivia, and after telling these folks about my plans to come into the country, they decided to set me up with some activities, and that included a guide from the company that all the stuff was booked through. Considering the fact that the extent of my request was to the effect of "Got any suggestions for cool things to do?", this was fairly extravagant. The company, though, apparently mostly services French patrons, and so Orlando told me point blank that he speaks better French than English. That didn't help either of us, and so since then, it's turned into this weird thing where we occasionally speak English and occasionally speak Spanish, depending on what we're both more comfortable with at the moment. Thankfully, the Bolivian accent is much, much easier to comprehend than either Argentine or Chilean. I also met Roger, who would be my driver, and who spoke hardly a word of English at all.

After getting some money from an ATM (and a bit miffed that I got large denominations [100 bolivianos] in a country where I knew I'd only need small amounts), we got int eh van and drove to La Paz. We stopped along the way to look at a view of the city. Now, I have an admission: I do nearly no research on the places I go. With the exception of booking transport, hotels, and the odd big activity, I don't look into it much. One of the advantages of this is that you can often be pleasantly surprised. Like La Paz, for example. I had no idea at all that La Paz was so goddamn beautiful. Just looking at this sweeping vista of this olden city, with snow-capped peaks in the background...it took my breath away (that, and the lack of oxygen). Then, as we continued down into the city proper, Orlando gave me my itinerary. That's how you know this thing was all-out. And damn, I was booked until the 5th. There were multiple mornings where I'd have to wake up considerably earlier than I'd ever like, and three different cities I'd be sleeping in through, like, five days. It was almost overwhelming. It also made me a bit concerned that I wouldn't have much time to see La Paz itself. But in any case, I took the itinerary, and we got into the city. Thanks to traffic, it was a pretty slow drive to the hotel, but we eventually made it. And to my surprise (partially because I booked it myself), it was a legit hotel. I think I've been staying in hostels and the like so long, I forgot that legit hotels were a thing. I gave my thanks to Orlando and Roger for the day, and got myself settled in.

Before long, I decided to go on a walk out and about town. As I was doing so, there's a few things that stood out to me. First off, I really like La Paz. I really do. It reminded me of both Marrakech and Kathmandu (for different, subtle reasons that I can't really express in words), but seemed a bit more real than each. And by "real", I mean that...I dunno, the people don't dress or act a certain way because it's what the tourists want (which is how I felt the snake charmers in Marrakech were, for instance). Rather, all the people wearing traditional clothing did so because, well, that's what they did. Those little hats the women wear - oh God, do I love those little hats - are just normal fare for them. Also, this may be a result of the seemingly poor diet I've come to notice here, but many folks - in particular the older women - seem like they're built to survive winter. And by that I mean they're fat, yet hardy. And something about that combination just seems authentic. As I mentioned before, their Spanish is much easier to understand than in other countries I've been in, and just being able to look up and see the mountains in the distance is such a pleasant surprise each time. So yeah, I was immediately charmed by La Paz.

Since we were in the Carnaval time (though there was no official celebration happening in La Paz proper), the multitudinous street vendors on the side of every road were selling party stuff. With all the costumes, I can imagine this time of year being like their Halloween. Also being sold were festively-colored candies and coffee beans, as well as silly string and other stuff. The town was alive with activity, I can tell you that. I walked around - no easy feat in a 4,000-meter-above-sea-level town with lots of hills that I had just arrived in from a place that was significantly below that height - and I walked through more stands than I could shake a stick at. And they were from everything, from fruits to pirated  DVDs and games to lingerie. But it was the street food that really perked my imagination. It's no secret I love street food, because it's usually a good combination of tasty and (more important to me) cheap. There were drinks, chicken, sandwiches, fruit concoctions, all sorts of stuff. The problem was, it was all cheap, and I just had these huge 100 boliviano notes. Nobody would want to take those. So, I wanted to make my priority for my first night to be to break up my large bills into smaller bills. I accomplished this early in the evening in a convenience store by buying some water. And even though the guy had a permanent brick-and-mortar place, he still gave me the stink-eye for using such a big bill. All I could do was shrug and say it was the smallest I had. Later on, I decided to go to a cafe for dinner. I saw a place called Cafe Luna early on, which seemed interesting, so I tried finding it again. While going up and down the hills at my normal pace was making me a bit lightheaded, I did eventually find the place. I was tempted to get a llama fillet - just to see - but it was pricey enough that I'd get hardly any change out of the deal. Instead, I just go a hamburger and a cup of mate de coca (the most traditional type of mate they had). Now, I had seen stands selling the same kind of yuerba mate cups they had in Argentina, so that's what I thought I was getting. No, it was just herbal tea, using coca leaves (yes, those coca leaves). While waiting for my food, I languidly impressed a couple German girls a table over by running my hand over a candle at my table.

After finishing my meal and getting my change, I walked back to the hotel. Along the way, I tried getting a SIM card, but it seemed like everyone only had regular-sized ones; no micros. A shame. (Still, considering how well I managed in Chile without one, I think I'll be fine here.) I also stopped at one of the stands that was selling little bags of roundish, nubbed things that were colored pink and white. I asked how much they were. 4 bolivianos, they told me (it's roughly 7 to a dollar). Thinking they were something like candy-covered honey-roasted peanuts, I bought a pack, and tried some when I got back to the room. Nope, just pure sugar, through and through. (I later found out by asking Roger that they're called, simply enough, "confetti," because you can throw them during celebrations.) I got some work done for the night, made a few phone calls, and then went to bed.

I had been warned by multiple sources that, because of the high elevation and relative lack of oxygen, I might find myself waking up multiple times through the night. As it happened, I ended up only waking up once before my alarm went off. One thing that I definitely think was a result of the elevation was the fact that I had a very vivid and evocative dream...which I now cannot remember. I only think this because the last time I had such vivid dreams were back on the Everest Base Camp trek. Anyway, when I finally did wake up for real - at 5:30 - I got up, packed only a few necessary things into my backpack (I was paying for that night in the La Paz hotel anyway; I might as well use it for storage), and headed downstairs. To my amusement, the big metal shutter on the front of the entrance way was closed shut, but thankfully it had a little door I could pop out of. I waited for a little bit before Roger came over and took me to the van. I got in, and after Orlando arrived, we were on our way. I tried to get a little extra rest on the ride, but the sun was just starting to come up, and worse, there was so little legroom in the van that I really couldn't get comfortable enough to sleep. At around 8am, we swung by some roadsider to get some breakfast. Both Orlando and Roger got this thing which included a thin steak, an egg, rice, and onions. I didn't want rice, so I ordered something similar, except that it was served with "French fries". Surely, I thought to myself, it actually means hashbrowns. Who would want french fries for breakfast? Well, someone must, because they were actually French fries. It was then that I really started understanding why it seemed like there were so many overweight folks.

We soon left the restaurant, and continued on the way. While driving, we passed by some quinoa plants (that were in such small clusters that I have to imagine them being natural). I asked Orlando what the general consensus among Bolivian people was on the rise of quinoa exports, and he said it was great, since Bolivia really doesn't have that much to offer the world, trade-wise. So, selling quinoa has been good for them. We also talked a bit about my work, which veered a bit into video games in general. Apparently, Roger not only plays games, but enjoys fighting games, and is in fact one of the top King of Fighters players in La Paz. (I got a small chuckle out of this, because KOF is notoriously stereotyped as being enjoyed by Mexicans and Latin Americans.) I said we needed to play each other before I left. Then, without even really forcing it, I dozed off a bit, but woke up slightly before entering Oruro. As we passed the toll booth and drove in, Orlando told me that the town has pretty much nothing going for it, except for Carnaval (that's how they spell it), the main day of which was this day. Lucky timing, no?

Because the streets were so crowded, Orlando and I had to hop out and walk the remainder of our way to the hotel. Or wait, rather. See, the hotel was right at the main plaza, and was thus right in the middle of the the Carnaval parade's path. And, at 11am (the drive over took roughly five hours, due to traffic an construction work), the parade was already in progress. So people couldn't just go into that area. They had to wait in a line for occasional breaks in the parade that they could walk through. So, we stood there, making only minute progress, for what could have easily been a half-hour or more, all while watching people who were completely drunk before noon stumble around. And when I finally got to the front, I couldn't go further, because I didn't have a ticket. It was a hell of a paradox: my ticket was in the hotel, but I needed that ticket to get to the hotel. And the police/security guards were in no way understanding. So, Orlando, who had his own separate ticket - went to the hotel and got mine. I was finally able to make it through, and checked in. Upon checking in, I got a nifty, bright orange poncho. The reason for this is not because it was raining (in fact, it was really sunny and hot), but because wherever you look, there are people with cans of what looks at first to be silly string, but is actually a kind of soap-foam. And they were shoot it everywhere, at everyone. It doesn't matter if you're young or old, it doesn't matter how nice your clothes or camera are, it doesn't matter if you have the means to defend yourself or not - you will get squirted. So a poncho was a nice bonus. I then went up to my room. The room itself was nothing to write home about, but it had a pretty good view of the Carnaval, so that was also nice.

After setting all my stuff down, I went downstairs, and was led to the special section of the bleachers where the guests of the hotel were staying, right in front. It was so exclusive, that even during the times when the bleachers were near-empty, nobody else was allowed to sit there. It was even a bit of an awkward experience for me, because the people sitting there didn't seem terribly friendly and willing to move to let me get up. In any case, once I did sit down, I was able to watch the big parade that was the crux of the Carnaval. Here's a brief description. Basically, there was a long parade route though the city, and people dressed up to go down it. There were several different...themes, I guess you could say. There were folks dressed up in colorful cowboy-ish clothing, there were folks dressed up as traditional natives, there were folks dressed up as what looked like old warlords and wizards, there was one lamentable group that dressed up in blackface, there were folks dressed up as monster bears (in fact, "El Oso" seemed really popular), and there were folks dressed up as, flat out, demons. It almost seemed fetishistic towards demons, which made it seem a bit odd, since these folks were walking in between cars that, regardless of all other decorations, had a statue/doll of the Virgin Mary, and because the parade ended in the cities church. In any case, between every so many groups - and Lord, there were hundreds of groups - there was a marching band, playing music that was unfamiliar to me, but familiar enough to the locals that they were able to sing along. All of the people in the parade were either doing choreographed dance routines (presumably every 100 feet or so), or were just marching along semi-rhythmically. And I didn't envy them. Even though Bolivia is supposed to be a bit of a chilly place, it was pretty damn hot in Oruro. So whenever the whole parade stopped - usually to let a group of people cross the street - you'd see paraders stopping and drinking. And not just water. There were plenty of cases where a guy in costume was downing a beer. I especially found it jarring when a musician was just completely ignoring their duties to drink.

And it wasn't just them. I was well aware that drinking would be a big part of the whole deal, but man were people drunk. There is a Bolivian beer company called Paceña, and apparently about 1/5 of their yearly sales comes from Carnaval. (Later in the day, I saw dozens, dozens of bags that were six feet tall and four feet wide, filled to overflowing with beer cans - crushed beer cans.) Everywhere you looked, people were either drinking beer or selling beer. I found it a little off-putting to see little toddlers yelling "Cerveza fria! Cerveza fria!" while holding a couple cans. And those weren't the only cans being sold in large quantities. I mentioned that soap-foam before. Well, it was everywhere. Most people had one or two cans of it, and nobody was safe from being attacked. A lot of people liked hitting me because, of course, I'm a gringo, but just as often, they liked pretending to hit me with it to laugh at me when I flinch (and of course I'm going to flinch when you stick something up to my eye). But more than that, people liked attacking other people who had the stuff. At one point, a toddler shot a pathetic little string of foam at this one guy in the bleachers. The guy then whistled, and he and about four friends started spraying this kid nonstop. The kids mother tried to protect him by using her butt as a shield, but he already looked like a snowman at that point. Other stuff I saw was people passing out and urinating everywhere. One guy, maybe 20 years old, was urinating off the top of the bleachers. I looked down and saw that the urine was falling on the steps to my hotel. I made a note of that for later.

I stayed out there for a few hours, and then went up to the hotel (watching my step) to get some lunch. It was a small buffet deal, fine but nothing too special. At least I was able to sit at a table where I still had a window view of the parade. Afterward, I went down and started watching again. I asked a security guard where we were in the program. He pointed to my brochure and showed me that we were now in the middle of Group 2...of 6. And indeed, as time ticked on, the whole deal honestly started to wear a bit thin. Yes, I realize I there's a reason that people get drunk (it can take away the tedium), but setting that aside, there's only so long that a thing can really be interesting for. Like, consider the Rose Parade. That thing lasts three, maybe four, hours. You know how antsy you get by the end of it? Well, imagine that feeling, but knowing you're not even halfway done. I tried amusing myself by people-watching (one of my favorite things was spotting the paraders who were absolutely not enjoying themselves), but that could only go so far. I decided to head out to walk around and maybe get a snack. As I was heading out, Orlando (who was sitting in the nearby bleachers, as he wasn't allowed in the hotel's), asked me if everything was alright. I said it was, and I was just going out and about. He volunteered to come with me, which wasn't really what I was looking for, but I genuinely think Orlando felt that I was more of a fragile tourist. He didn't realize I've been walking around foreign streets for nearly a year now. Anyway, we walked and talked, with him asking me what I do for fun if I don't drink or anything like that. I gave some trite answers, but it actually made me think about it. (My inner conclusion in the end is I just do whatever I want that fits my fun moods at the moment, which may or may not seem fun to others.) He also mentioned that there were lots of "chicas lindas" (lovely girls), and that a lot of them would be drunk come nightfall. I wasn't a bit fan of the connotation there.

After getting a quick snack, I went to the bleachers and continued watching. Having seen that there was not much going on outside the parade, and having heard the same five or so songs played over and over and over, I was really starting to get a bit bored. So bored, in fact, that when a number of police started hopping the fence to take away some troublemakers, I was actually hoping something would happen that would cause a huge conflict. Like, I didn't want anyone to die or get seriously hurt, but I wanted there to be some panic, and maybe get knocked once myself with a baton in a case of mistaken identity before heading into the safety of my hotel. I was aware even then how terrible of a thought this was, but I was just looking for anything to spice up what had become a fairly tedious and repetitive parade. I eventually went back up to the hotel to have some tea, and again watched from the window. I actually enjoyed this much more. You could still see everything, could still hear the music carefully, but if there was a person who spoke eloquent English with me, and we were just sitting there, watching the parade while chatting over tea, that would have been perfect. After staying up for as long as I felt comfortable, I went downstairs and continued watching.

I stayed out there until there was a lull in the parade; enough that it seemed as though it may be coming to its conclusion. I went to Orlando - who was busy drinking and chatting up some girls who were closer to my age then his - and told him that I was going out again, to not worry about me, to meet me in the hotel the next morning, and to enjoy his night. I then went out and walked around. While there were the aforementioned huge bags of beer cans, there were still countless others lining the streets, along with other trash of all shapes and sizes. And the smell of urine was pretty ubiquitous. I made it a rule to not step in any liquid that I couldn't identify, and I found that served me pretty well. I was still in a search to break some large notes, so I went into a small restaurant to get a pretty small dinner and break a hundred. The joke was on me, though, as they wouldn't accept anything above 50's. Even though I didn't even eat much, I felt quite full, and while I enjoyed walking around all the little street food vendors selling food I would have rather eaten than what I actually did, I really only felt it in me to get a small desert, which ended up being a chocolate-covered marshmallow for desert.

But yeah, other than getting food and watching people either walk back (in costume from the parade) or just make asses of themselves, there wasn't a whole lot to do. And apparently, all most people do is get drunk until they can't do any more. So I decided to head back to the hotel. On the way, I saw Orlando, still sitting in the same seat he was in when I left a long while before. He tried to get me to sit down with him and his new acquaintances, but I refused, lying that I had a phone call to make. In reality, I just really wasn't in the mood. Now, even though I drink, I don't mind being with inebriated friends. But I'm not so keen on spending time with drunk strangers, especially when they don't speak my language. There's just not much appeal there. Instead, I went back to my hotel room and relaxed a bit. I also did some writing once the music died down. I thought the Carnaval was over for the night. But then, inexplicably at about 11:30, it started up again. Looking out the window, I saw that people were parading again. I was confused until the next morning, when I found out the sad truth: at some point, a temporary overpass had collapsed, killing four people and seriously injuring a number of others. As such, the Carnaval kind of stopped for a couple hours, either for mourning purposes or just to clean things up. But at 11:30, everything was back up and running, as if nothing had ever happened. The show must go on, I suppose.

At about midnight, I was feeling really tired, and when I noticed that there was a string of eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee in a previous paragraph, I knew it was time to go to sleep. And I was able to fall asleep pretty quickly. The problem was staying asleep. See, one of the problems with this hotel being in the center of the plaza, in the middle of the parade route was that...well, that it's in the middle of the plaza, in the middle of the parade route. And the parade - and the big marching band music - never stopped. Never. So I could barely get any shut-eye, and before I knew it, the sun was coming up. So I was pretty groggy when my alarm finally got me up from bed. I quickly got my stuff packed, and went downstairs to have breakfast. It was a pretty carb-heavy buffet (featuring no less than 11 types of breads), but the couple of items I got were pretty good. I then went down to the lobby, where I saw Orlando, his bloodshot eyes betraying his hangover. He also noted that he never managed to find a hotel to stay at (and I don't remember what he said he actually did). I checked out, and then waited for about ten minutes for their terrible WiFi to work in order for them to properly find out the payment details (since I wasn't paying). I then saw that the price was more than 3,800 bolivianos. I knew that this was partially because they weren't offering single-night options - you had to get a special three-day Carnaval package - but still, Jesus! That was like, more than $500. It was a really generous gift that was given to me, though I have to say, that particular hotel would never be worth that kind of price in the best of times. Seemed like a bit of a racket, to be honest.

We left the hotel, and walked past the stands. The parade was still going on, with more groups dancing through to the sound of marching bands, but the stands were relatively empty (and of those that were in attendance, a number were sleeping in their seats). We then got out to the streets and made our way to meet Roger and the van. I got in a back seat - I made sure to tell the other two that it was because of legroom, not because of my feelings towards them - and tried to get some extra rest to make up for what I didn't get that night. It proved remarkably difficult once we got on the open road, however, as potholes and other construction elements hit the van so much that I literally got some airtime with each bump. Not conducive to sleep, I can tell you that. I know I got a little bit, though, since at one point I woke up, thinking that I was still in the hotel and had woken up super late. For the rest of the ride, I just listened to some music and watched the beautiful landscape fly by once again.

We ended up reaching La Paz at about noon exactly (meaning the ride back was about an hour faster than the one to Oruro). Orlando and Roger dropped me off at the hotel, and then left, presumably to go get some sleep. I went into the hotel, was amused at the fact that they suspiciously asked to see my key, dropped off my stuff in my room, and then went out. I had gotten a flyer in the lobby for a free walking tour at 2pm, but first wanted to get some lunch. And since I now had enough sufficiently small notes, I now wanted to get some street food. But now I suddenly couldn't find any. No little chicken roasting on mini-spits, no portable pizza ovens, no lomito tables. I was genuinely confused. So, I just walked around. I ended up getting to a produce market, where there were blocks and blocks of people - well, old women - selling fruits and vegetables. It made me genuinely wonder why I never saw any fruits or vegetables in any food you could actually purchase. Like, if you're not cooking for yourself, it can be really difficult to eat even remotely healthy. Anyway, I continued for some time until I reached an empanada stand. I asked how much they were, but they literally just placed one in my gesticulating hand before answering me. I'll admit, it's a smart tactic. So, I was somewhat forced to buy the 6 boliviano empanada, but it was just as well, since it was one of the tastiest empanadas I've had in all of South America, if not just taking top spot. And being as stuffed as it was, filled me up pretty well. I then continued to where the walking tour met up, but I still had plenty of time, so just explored the area. I went up to a girl at a juice cart and asked for an orange juice (for 4 bolivianos). She just took a couple oranges, peeled them, juiced them, and gave me the cup. Can't ask for anything fresher. Man, it was just really satisfying. I then continued going around the area, but it seemed to be a relatively residential area with not much to see or do, so I just walked back to the plaza.

When I got there, I found the guides for the walking tour. Interestingly, neither of them was Bolivian, or even from the western hemisphere (one was English, the other Australian). They waited for some time, but in the end, the only people on the tour were myself and a German girl. It was apparently one of their smallest groups ever, likely due to Carnaval. So, after applying some complimentary sunblock (as it was really hot and sunny), we were on our way. Here's a couple of the interesting things we learned about:

  • The San Pedro prison, a prison where everything on the inside is basically run by the inmates, and has a weird mix of homeliness (wives and children can apparently live inside the prison with their husbands/fathers) and complete corruption (partially because the police in Bolivia are pretty well on the take). There's apparently a book about an English drug trafficker who was imprisoned in there and then started bringing people in on tours, called Marching Powder. It's apparently banned in Bolivia because it presents their police in a negative light (that is to say, exposes them).
  • The old women with the hats are called "cholitas", and apparently the reason they seemed as fat and hardy as I mentioned before is because that's what they want. They want to seem like good stock that can produce many children that'll be able to work on the farms for their husbands. And the hats? Just a fashion statement (and with the more well-to-do ladies, an expensive one; an actual leather bowler hat from Italy, where they were originally imported from, can cost $600). But other than fashion, they serve absolutely no practical function.
  • While the majority of natives identify as Catholic, it's actually a weird crossbreed of Catholicism and traditional Aymara religious beliefs. (Apparently this is because the Spanish knew that actual conversion would be difficult, and so decided to meld the two together. Take what you can get, I suppose.) As a consequence, there are a lot of superstitions that go around, including sacrifices that need to the goddess Pachamama whenever a building is constructed. Items for such sacrifices can be purchased at a place called the "Witches Market", which was actually just outside my hotel. This gave me a bit more understanding why I was seeing dried out llama fetus carcasses hanging up everywhere.
We continued the tour through the local Carnaval, which seemed much more tame than the one in Oruro, but still, we got blasted by soap-foam cans and Super-Soakers. (The guides had enough foresight to supply us with ponchos beforehand.) I didn't mind the attacks, so long as they didn't mess up my camera, but man, I have a hard time believing there's not someone out there who just gets pissed off whenever he becomes the target of one of these fairly harmless attacks. We then went through some other markets, and I got some fresh strawberry-banana juice, and after a brief stop in the political center of town, we went to the top of a tall hotel, where we had amazing views of the whole city as the end point of the trip. We were also in the headquarters of a rappelling company that would let you rappel down the building for 100 bolivianos (~$14). No matter how you slice it, that's a good deal, so I decided to take advantage of it. They also offered a couple things I've never done before: first, you could rappel face-down, and then you could do a twenty-meter free fall near the bottom. So, I got suited up in a jumpsuit that made me looked like an escaped convict (I could have dressed as Spider-Man, but I think Spider-Man is terrible), and then went to the window. I actually started out going down pretty fine. However, at some point, gravity started getting all wacky, and my legs just kept trying to come out from under me, making it a challenge to keep myself perpendicular to the building. It wasn't scary, it was just awkward. (It also makes you realize why you never would do that in a rappelling situation that actually mattered.) As for the free fall, that part was just fun. So yeah, definitely a fun little surprise.

Afterward, I checked my watch, and saw that it was still too early for dinner, so I decided to head back to the hotel. Since I passed straight through the Carnaval area, I got hit a few more times with jets of foam (and unfortunately, this time I didn't have my poncho; my goggles, though, worked admirably). When I got back in, I started doing a little bit of writing, and then realized that I could hear both moderately heavy rain and thunder outside. I pitied all the poor fools out in the parade, but I'm sure it didn't stop them at all. I then decided to get some laundry done, but saw that my second pair of pants was missing it's waist button. Oh, no! Thankfully, the company had the foresight to include a replacement on the tag, and I had the foresight to have a sewing kit, so all was well. It was now dinnertime, so I went outside. The rain had stopped, but it's evidence was still fairly visible. I made a brief stop in a travel agency to check my bus options to Puno (where she appreciated that I was trying to practice my Spanish), and then went into a nearby pizza place. I wanted to get this blog entry done, and I also have to wake up at 4am tomorrow, so I didn't want to waste time trying to find something nice. On the way into the restaurant, there were a couple of teens totally making out. And once I got my pizza, they were still at it (and this was, like, 15 minutes later). I got back to my room, ate (and I have to admit, it was delicious, and probably one of the better vegetarian options I've ever seen - broccoli, peppers, mushrooms, palm hearts, artichokes, and olives), and then continued my writing.

As I said before, I have a full schedule here, though a bit of it won't be in La Paz. I was considering for some time to increase my time here by a day, and spend one fewer days in Puno, but I think I might just stick with my original schedule, and just hope to see as much as I can. But hey, at least I'm enjoying what I've seen so far!

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