La Paz, Bolivia

16 – 21 Jan 2005

As far as I can tell there are three different types of hotels in South America. You’ve got basic – i.e. backpacker hotels. When I see the word backpacker, that should be a clue that something is wrong and I should move one. Then you’ve got the very nice, top end hotels. I don’t even stay in these if I can help it, unless I do what I did in Puno. Then there are mid range hotels. These have generally been very good, and relatively cheap. Oddly, the cheapest place I’ve stayed in – La Paz – had the most expensive mid range hotel ($20/US.) Arequipa was $18, Cusco was $16.

The hotel we stumbled upon in La Paz is pretty basic, and frankly I don’t like it. It’s at best OK, but I feel the need to spend more money, and so I go looking for hotels. Down the street from my Monday morning hotel was a very nice, westernized coffee shop. I stop in and have a very nice capuccino and an American Breakfast (which means three eggs, cooked very well.) Service is a little slow, which is OK with me – I’m reading up on La Paz, and playing Solitaire. Always with the Solitaire. Outside the window of the coffee shop, I see a whole bunch of cops dressed in riot gear. Eventually I find out why – while I’m eating I see that some sort of protest is going on. I see it going by outside, so I figure it is probably best to get far away from there. I pay as quick as I can, but when I leave I find that I’m right in the middle of it. Granted, as protest go, it’s not that bad – it seems to be mainly natively dressed older women (much better than say, soccer hooligans), but just the same I want to be far away. So, I high tail it out of there, towards where my next hotel is supposed to be. I can’t find my second choice, so I go with my third – – Hostal Naira and it was fine, if a little expensive. It had all the things that I wanted – central location, lots’ of hot water, comfortable bed and seemingly secure (how can you ever tell that though?)

I’m feeling pretty bad, so I don’t do much today, but I did have one goal in mind for the day, and for La Paz. What I need to do is get a Brazilian Visa, and that means finding the Brazilian Consulate. There is a main street that seems to be the heart of La Paz, and I take it the entire way down. The street is kind of interesting in that changes names about four times in about three miles. On my way towards the Consulate, the road splits, with each direction being a different street. I don’t catch that the first time, but after a couple of kilometers I do, and drop down to the other street. I don’t know it at the time, but I miss the Consulate by about two blocks. Once I find the correct street, I see a lot of consulates and embassies, including a huge US embassy. Thinking I’m on the right street I keep going until it’s clearly not Embassy Row any more, and turn around. On the way back, I find the Brazilian Ambassadors residence, and the guards out front point me the correct location (it’s near the Radisson hotel.) Coming back that way, I get there to find it’s closed. Of course, there isn’t any information about hours or anything else, so I find another entrance to the office building and ask the security guard. Apparently it’s closed for Siesta. I’m in the depths of my sickness, so I figure its time for my Siesta too. I make my way back to my hotel (and pass yet another protest, this one blocking one way of the main street – its divided) and sleep for a while, and awake feeling somewhat better, but I don’t go back to the Embassy. The rest of the day I find an internet cafe, cruise the web for a while and eventually grab some food and go to sleep too late. While watching TV again, I notice that yet another road is blocked. The road south – AKA, the most dangerous road in the world is blocked. on Friday the road into the city from the North, the one I was on, was blocked. Apparently there are also some sorts of protest or riots in Santa Cruz, the “official” capital (in reality, everything is in La Paz except for the supreme court, which is in Santa Cruz.)

The next morning, Tuesday, I head downstairs and grab a coffee at the cafe on the first floor. This is probably the worst day of my being sick, and I feel horrible. As Barry White sings, at 9 a.m. “I’m gonna love you a long time, girl”, next to me sit a Wisconsin woman and her husband who initially annoy me. She comments on remarks made by another american tourist about the war being waged for the wrong reasons (which people with the fact agree. Something like 60 percent of people who voted for he who will not be named thought there were ties between Al Queda and Hussien, and thought we’d already found weapons of mass destruction. Both are false, yet presented as reasons for the war by you know who.) I already don’t like her, feel like hell, but then she comes over and says “you read english – do you speak english too? Initially I was kind of annoyed by her, but then I realized that she is buzzing on Coca tea. She just got in, and isn’t feeling well, so she starts in on the Coca, and kept at it. And she’s buzzing about 90 miles an hour. She’s asking me where to find leaves you can trust, and how you chew it, etc. Eventually she starts asking me if it’s OK to bring coca tea into the US. The little devil on my right shoulder wanted to tell her “Sure, bring all you can carry. They don’t care.” The devil on the other shoulder wanted to tell her she could but she’d have to carry it where the sun don’t shine. I don’t know why she thinks I’m an expert on US Coca importation. Her husband has successfully tuner her out. I’m hoping my hacking and coughing will stop her, but it doesn’t – eventually her husband takes her away as they start their sure to be interesting day.

I have the same goals at hand, plus I want to book a tour to some ruins nearby. I find a travel agent recommended by my Rough Guide and book my tour for the following day – Wednesday. It’s about $15/US, which like most of Bolivia, is cheap. I jet on down to Consulate, and talk to someone and find out what I need. It’s a pain for me, but I guess the US is a pain for most of the world. Brazil, however, is alone in doing to Americans what American does to the rest of the world. I think I may eventually get fingerprinted if news reports are right (just like we do to everybody else.) The worst part is that I have to pay $100/US to apply for a visa – easily the most expensive country for a Brazilian Visa. $100 isn’t a lot of money for me, but for someone from Brazil, it’s a lot of money, and a much more onerous restriction. I’m somewhat thankful it isn’t higher. In addition to the money I also have to fill out another form that I imagine is taken directly from the US Visa application form. This is a separate form that is only for Americans, and it ask a whole bunch of silly questions that I know we ask, including the classic ” Do I intend to partake in terrorist activities while in the US.” Too bad we didn’t have that before 9/11. It sure would have stopped those terrorist.

I need to get some pictures taken for the visa, get a few photocopies and deposit my $100 into Banco de Brazil. I leave, and head towards the bank. Everything goes smoothly, if somewhat slowly – most notably it takes me about 20 minutes to get my pictures. I rush back to the consulate, and end up missing it by eight minutes. Damnit!! It takes two days to get the visa, and I can’t come back until Thursday (Wednesday I’m on a tour), which means I can’t pick up my Visa until the following Monday, and am probably stuck in this boring town until at least then. I don’t have much of a choice, so I head back downtown and grab a bite to eat. I go back to my hotel for a short while, until I’m feeling a little better. There are a lot of people selling stuff on the streets here, and a ton of shops and markets to explore. Specifically I’d like to see a market that is supposed to have a a bunch of local herbs and witching supplies.

While walking along, I did come across one really interesting site. It was off the main drag, but still near the heart of town. It was a store selling huge stacks of money, including stack after stack of three inch thick bundles of $100 bills. There were equally large stacks of other money I didn’t recognize. There was a pretty strong temptation to see just how much that stack of money cost, but I resisted. I couldn’t imagine any good coming from it, and I’m too pretty for prison. Next door to the money store was an Adult Theater, which was the first one I’d seen in Latin America. There was a great sign out front, but I didn’t want to flash an expensive camera (or even my cheap one) in this apparently seedy part of town. A little later, and the target of my walk today, was a prison in La Paz. Apparently they took an entire city block and turned it into a prison. I guess inside there, you can live as well as you can on the outside if you have money. My tour book is mixed on if you can take a tour or not, and well, I’m too pretty even to tour a prison.

Eventually I found an internet cafe where I could plug my laptop in, and life was good. After some time online, I found a really cheap place to eat. It was right around the corner from my hotel, and it was essentially a chicken breast and wing and some fries – the total was about $1.50. La Paz is a pretty cheap place. Back to my hotel, I watched some more TV, and found out a couple of things about LP. First – they don’t have any problem showing women in thong bikinis on TV (including one woman who flashed what part of her backside you couldn’t see.) On two separate shows, they had these quite pretty girls going down a runway. I never figured out if there was a contest going on, or if it is part of a series. Each girl came out, the crowd hoots and then the next girl comes out. One of the two runways was shown on two separate news programs. Second – there isn’t a lot of TV in Bolivia. It appears that there are a lot of public access TV shows, and a lot of news shows. There are a couple of TV series shot in, and set in Mexico. But most of the stuff looked like it could have been shot with handled video cameras. Oh – and the road south is still blocked. And there are still protest in Santa Cruz.

The next day is Wednesday, and I’m off to see the Ruins at Tiahuanaco (unless the road is blocked.) I don’t have a lot of time, so I just grab a quick cup of coffee, and run into my coca fiend friend again. She starts asking me more about coca, and about bringing it into the US. Again I tell her it’s a bad idea, we’ve got a zero tolerance policy, etc. Then she ask me “how do you know so much about coca.” I just say – “I’ve been familiar with it for long time.” hoping to be mysterious enough to get her to leave me alone. A day later she ask me if I work for the government. I laugh and say “that’s not how I know about it.”

The ruins at Tiahuanaco were pretty cool. It was founded about three thousand years ago, lasted almost a thousand years and at it’s peak had 50,000 people living there. The ruins themselves were pretty basic, but you could see the potential. When it comes to ruins, Mexico has done by far the best job of restoring them. But then again, they are also the richest country I’ve been in ( I imagine Brazil is richer, mainly because it’s 170 million people vs 100 for Mexico, but I don’t know about the standard of living or income.) About the time we get there, it starts raining, and raining hard. Our first two stops on the tour are museums, which are pretty interesting, and a good place to be in the rain. By the time we’ve seen the two museums, the clay ground outside is very wet and slippery. It’s still raining, and quite cold. I’m wearing my down jacket underneath my rain jacket and my hat, and I’m still very cold. I’m thinking this is the very last place I should be right now. The rain is keeping me from getting very many pictures, but I do manage to get a few (and get my camera wet in the process. Eventually, because I’m trying to blow the rain drops off the lens, the camera stops working. I have my fear that my camera is ruined, so I stop taking pictures for a long while. Eventually it starts working again. After lunch, it stopped raining, and we visited one more ruin and got some decent picture, but mainly of flowers.

While we are walking around in the museum, and outside, this german guy pulls a Canon 20D with a 75-300/IS lens out of his camera bag. Once I stop drooling, I start talking to him, and he’s a very nice guy. We talk cameras for a while, then come to find out he rides a BMW 1200GS (the new improved version of my bike.) He’s been hiking around Argentina and Bolivia for a couple of weeks, and has some stories about Patagonia. We ended up hanging out for the rest of the trip, which was pretty nice. I still wasn’t feeling good, so conversation didn’t come easily, but I had a really good time talking to him. We exchanged e-mails, and I hope to be able to keep in touch with him, or at least see his pictures. He had some very, very good pictures on his camera, and was a very interesting guy.

On the trip there, the woman giving the tour gave some very interesting tidbits to our tour. La Paz was originally founded north of where it is now, then moved to it’s current location. That town is quite small, but up on a plateau and quite a few miles from where the city is now. Bolivia has 8 million people. Of those 8 million, 1 million live in La Paz, and another 1 million live in a city on the Plateau just outside of La Paz. It’s called El Alto. Another 1 million live in Santa Cruz, and most of the rest live in a few other cities. The countryside of Bolivia is pretty sparse, and very mountainous.

Being in the rain and mud as long as I was made for some filthy clothes and shoes, and for a very cold Greg. Back at the hotel, I took a very long, very hot shower and changed into my clean pair of pants. I went downstairs to the Coffee shop on the first floor of the hotel and had a couple of grande espressos and a slice of pie, and tried to catch up on e-mail and my post (this post, when complete, will bring me completely up to date. Oh what Joy it will be.) Then to the internet cafe until time to eat. Notice a pattern? yup, a pattern of boredom.

Thursday is the big day. I have copies copied, my pictures taken, and my money paid. I get there shortly after they open and turn everything in. The only flaw is that they need to keep my passport until I get my Visa (on Monday.) My original idea was to take a plane to Potosi and see the mine nearby. But, can I fly without a passport? I don’t know. So plan B would be to fly to Santiago and get the Visa there, but I’d have to pay another $100 and deal with this hassle again. So what do I do – something different, of course. I decide to skip Chile, since I want to go to Brazil , and frankly, my time is running out.

This was a pretty big realization for me. My flight out of Buenos Aires is the 24th of February. I hadn’t planned on going to Brazil, but since Simone is there, I guess I’m having to change my plans. The week of Carnival, in Sao Paulo, is the first week of February. The week before she doesn’t have class at University, so she’ll have time to pick me up at the airport, which makes me happy, and we’ll be able to do some things together. To fit this in means I’m going to have to get rid of Chile from my plans. I’m OK with that. If you can’t be flexible, then traveling isn’t for you. Now that I’m seeing the end, I’m both happy and sad. It will be good to get my life back on track, and see if I can make the things happen that I want and need to happen. I haven’t thought too much about such things lately, but now I guess I need to start facing them.

On my way back from the embassy, without passport, I decide to see if I can fly to Potosi. The travel agent I used last time told me there were only flights on Tuesday and Friday. So, Friday it is. BUT, the flight on Friday is cancelled, but I can fly to Sucre, and take a three hour bus ride to Potosi. I book the flight, make a few phone calls, and head back to my hotel. I’m not really interested in doing much more in La Paz. Frankly, once you get away from all the protest, there isn’t a lot to see or do. At least it’s cheap. So I book my ticket, and decide to head to Sucre – the flight is at a decent hour for once.

That night I head to a steak place listed in my Rough Guide. There must be a lot of places that exist solely because of these travel guides. For not the first time, I walk into a restaurant, and I’m the only one there. Eventually other travelers enter, but for the balance of the night it’s just these two table. Service is good, but it’s easily the most expensive place I’ve eaten in La Paz by far. My steak, which was very good, and Argentinean, and the half bottle of wine I got (Argentinean again) came to, with tip, to 130 Bolivars, or $16.25. It’s too much money when I ate an entire dinner for less than two dollars before. It was good – very, very good but I won’t do it again. As I’m leaving the waiter, who was somewhat odd, tells me something from across the room. I don’t know exactly what he was saying, but I caught the word “bonita”, which means beautiful. I don’t know what he’s talking about, but there wasn’t anything beautiful there – just me. It made me nervous, so I gulped my wine and left quickly. Back to the hotel, with the door securely locked, and more protest on TV. This would be relevant later.

The next morning, Friday, I get up and head to the airport. I’m feeling better than I had in a while, even though I’ve still got some congestion. I forgot that wine has sulfites in it, which sometimes causes problems with allergies. I get to the airport a little later than I thought I should, but it ended up being OK. At 9:30 a.m. I check in and am told that the flight won’t be at 10:30, as originally planned, but instead at 3:10 p.m. My first reaction is to get upset, but then I realized there wasn’t anything I could do about it, so I might as well use that time to catch up on my La Paz entry. I wonder what step that is on a 12 step program. I hope it’s 9 or 10.

So that’s what I do. When I sit down, I notice my elderly coca friend, who I’ve kind of taken a shinning to now. She lives in Wisconsin, but taught school for many years, then moved to Counseling. Since I’m finally feeling human again, I’m enjoying her company, but it only last about 10 minutes before she and her husband catch their flight. As I’m sitting there typing away, I notice that there are more and more people, for more and more flight, congregating. I don’s speak any spanish, but I eventually figure out that there are a lot of strikes in Santa Cruz, including one at the airport. Have you noticed a theme? Apparently a lot of people are upset about the President, and are trying to get him to step down. This is how they got rid of the last president. There are strikes almost every day, including a few that have turned violent, and a few others that were tear gassed. The strike at the airport is supposed to be over before too long, so I wait. And wait. Eventually I decide that I don’t want to fly to Sucre anymore. My worst case scenario would be getting stuck in Sucre and having to take a bus back, or somehow not getting back until Wednesday or Thursday. So I decide to go back to La Paz, and try to fly to Sao Paulo on Monday.

This plan works out pretty well. I’m able to get my money back, and I get a flight to Sao Paulo on Tuesday, on Vartig. It’s a brazilian carrier, and shouldn’t depend on other Bolivian airports. There wasn’t enough time between the consulate opening and my flight on Monday, but that’s OK. I’m currently back at my hotel, same room, nursing some bruises and having an espresso grande, waiting for the skies to clear.