“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!””
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
FROM PUNO, WE JUMPED on a bus eastwards towards La Paz in Bolivia. The border crossing from Peru to Bolivia was an unexpected eye-opener. Our bus had just tourists on board and the actual point of crossing itself was six hours‟ drive from any form of civilisation on either side at the border. On the Peruvian side, an American couple got into a heated argument with some workers at a currency exchange; they felt their travellers‟ checks had been short-changed and the language barrier was just making people angrier. The American woman was screaming, “Thieves! They stole my money!” The team of Peruvian cashiers just shrugged i.e. “This crazy Gringo doesn‟t understand the exchange rate/doesn‟t understand the commission charge/didn‟t count her money properly etc.!” Take your pick! The police got involved and took the locals‟ side. Grant and I just looked at each other and thought 30USD just wasn‟t worth arguing about; we were in a town in the middle of nowhere where the few people that live here are going to look after each other; you‟re not going to get „justice‟ here even if you are in the right. We got our exit stamps, with Grant having to pay a 5 USD „fee‟ for his Peruvian visa being slightly illegible, and walked through „no-man‟s land‟ through a huge arch to the Bolivian lines and boarded our bus again towards Copacabana. The bus was about to drive off when a girl ran beside it waving her arms; it was lucky for this girl that she wasn‟t a minute later or she‟d have been stranded without her belongings in a godforsaken border town with little visible signs of law. She explained that, as an American passport-holder, she‟d had to pay 134 US dollars for a Bolivian visa. She didn‟t know about the cost beforehand and didn‟t have it on her so she had to change some travellers‟ cheques at heavily discounted prices. What do you do in a place like that?! We wondered what the US had done to Bolivia to warrant Bolivia charging US citizens 134USD for a visa that cost me and Grant nothing. No matter; we had arrived in Bolivia.
Bolivia is a landlocked country with all the accompanying insecurity that must entail (although, somewhat incredibly, Bolivia has a navy which operates on landlocked Lake Titicaca!); it‟s surrounded by Peru to the west, by Chile to the south-west, by Paraguay and Argentina to the south, and by Brazil to the east and to the north. At just over 9m people, it‟s not that populous a country, with around 30% Quechua-speaking and around 25% Aymara-speaking Amerindians, 30% mestizo, and 15% whites.
After a brief stop-over in Copacabana on the Bolivian shores of Lake Titicaca, our bus came into La Paz in the late afternoon from high above the city. From this mountain approach, we saw just how massive La Paz really was; it seemed to sprawl out forever. On the recommendation of our friend Emma from the Inca Trail, we stayed at the Wild Rover hostel, housed in an imposing building that was rumoured to have once been a Presidential residence. From being the finest house in the land to now serving as a series of dormitories packing in a disparate and desperate group of travellers; what a stunning collapse in social status! It was our first time in a dormitory and, in our room of six, we met Emma, a girl from Sydney, who wanted to come with us to Uyuni and the Salt Flats to the south. She‟d actually met us the previous night when she‟d been woken up by Grant‟s incessant snoring. She didn‟t have earplugs; an amateur mistake! The Wild Rover turned out to be a party hostel; the bar was always full of Brits and Irish people just getting drunk and staying together. What‟s the point of coming out to the other side of the world and just doing exactly what you normally do every weekend? At least go and have a wander outside; you never know what you might find!
La Paz is the administrative capital of Bolivia. At around 3,600m above sea level, it‟s the highest capital city in the world; the altitude making its steep streets hard to climb. Despite familiar things like banks and cars, it really is another world over here and, consequently, a totally invigorating place. La Paz is incredibly poor, even more so than the Peruvian towns we saw, such as Juliaca. Night-time sees dozens of people opening up and sifting through rubbish bags left on the street while feral dogs roam the streets. I remember sitting in a gorgeously rundown bar, Sol y Luna, and, every now and again, I‟d glance out of the window. Each time, different people would be rooting through an enormous pile of rubbish bags. I think they were collecting cans perhaps for aluminium plants to melt down or maybe they were searching for food. Despite this extreme poverty, La Paz has a great deal of charm; from its old world cafes to its many hidden courtyards, great bars and, particularly in the administrative centre around the Plaza Murillo, beautiful colonial buildings. The pace of life is frenetic, with crazy drivers, furious markets and men of all ages urinating in the street in broad daylight! It‟s exactly the kind of place that you look for when travelling; it‟s so far removed from London in every respect that it‟s a tonic. We spent hours just wandering the streets and soaking up the bustle. The centre of La Paz is built around a major road, Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz, which was similar to the bottom of a valley, with the city being built on the steep slopes on both sides of this road. We found ourselves a „local‟, a café called Angelo Colonial on Linares just off the famed Witches‟ Market; a place with great coffee, superb soups and salads and quirkily decorated with armour, rifles and huge candlesticks. The Witches‟ Market itself, just off Sagarnaga, was mainly geared towards tourists, with „interesting‟ t-shirts (Che Guevara slogans spliced with The Simpsons) and folksy mementos. It was here that I first began to love the pipe music so deeply associated with the Bolivian and Peruvian highlands. It‟s wistful and restorative, melodic and mournful; it goes with Bolivia like bowler hats and cigars.
Following the Rough Guide, Grant and I went in search of an authentic Bolivian experience and hunted for „whiskerias‟, which are Bolivian drinking dens serving only hard liquor and beer. The Guide suggests that these places are men dominated and are not recommended for women. We kept asking people where the whiskerias were and their directions took us further and further off the beaten track. Some people looked at us like we were deviants (we later found out that people thought we were asking for hostess-type strip bars). So when we finally found a whiskeria, an opening without a door and steps leading to a grotty basement, we were a bit apprehensive about how we‟d be received. There was a bit of a Wild West saloon moment when we first walked in; the bow-tied waiters gave us an appraising look but, as soon as we ordered big whiskeys and beers to chase with, it was all fine. We ordered “Dos whiskeys por favor Senor!” with appropriate levels of expressive and passionate intonation, of course! To be fair, we probably looked a bit like plums with me wearing a tight, bright, purple t-shirt and Grant wearing similarly tight clothes in a place where style came a firm second to functionality. Our waiter must have thought we were just complete pussies because he brought us small coca-colas to mix with our whiskeys; which of course we declined! “No Senor! No coca-cola gracias!”
We only drink it neat of course! To our mock surprise and puzzlement, a woman came in and plonked herself down with a group of guys but, apart from a few initial glances, the whiskeria got back to the serious business of drinking and chatting. We tried to make conversation with some of the guys in there but our lack of Spanish was becoming increasingly frustrating. As travellers, we wanted to get involved with local people all the way along our trip; unfortunately, there was a lesson learned for the next trip: get to grips with the language before going. We got pretty hammered in there and it was great fun. We rounded off the night dancing to a local pipe band in a random bar. The Bolivians have their priorities right.