La Paz. We were finally going to La Paz. It had been almost an entire week, and we hadn't had so much as a glimpse of the main, basin of a metropolis. We had been sent with orders to acquire certain goods for friends state-side and while the day trip was pushed further and further back, our mission was facing serious obstacles. - And Vic had thus far missed the pleasure of being pelted by stones taking vendors' pictures. The boarding call wasn't too early, so the bus windows weren't still frosted over, but it did still seem excessively cold. It had snowed again the night before and dusted everything with white. Vic kept pointing south at the horizon at where we sould be able to see (were it not for the clouds) the mountain Illiani. He had even boasted hopes to someday climb it with our guide, Ivan. This, naturally frightens me, since we're already at 13,000 feet. Illiani summits at close to 22,000. The bus driver was nice enough to stop regularly for folks to get non-blurred landscape pictures. We weren't too interested, having seen all of these sights already. That is until we encountered the rim of La Paz. Sure enough, the city was carved in a deep crevice in the mountain thousands of feet deep, while still in the shaddow of the enormous mountain, Illiani beside it. The view was breathtaking in awe of it's scale, but these were the cheap seats in the nosebleed section. Apparantly, since the oxygen to the brain is considdered more valuable than the view, the prime real estate sits at the bottom of the bowl. Only the poor, Aimara stay up in this higher altitude. I have heard a story that circulates astronomy circles about a man helping in construction of the Maunekea observatory on the island of Hawaii. Struggling with the same construction problem for hours, the man barks at a co-worker, "Darn it! I've cut this board 3 times and it's still too short". I can personally account for experiencing this kind of thinking while 'up there'. We have been passed now, by hundreds of small white minivans packed tightly with people. As we descend, their monotone cadence becomes louder, coming from everywhere, like locusts in the summer heat.
Our bus is parked in the middle of the downtown area and after 2 hours on a bumpy road, we're all glad to exit. First steps across the street seemed paralizingly frightening. So much for quiet, slow, country life; they may as well have dumped us in the middle of New York City. Admittedly, holding hands may have been a little extreem, but I know that several in the party would have easily agreed. Then, we step into the suddenly quiet and still offices of Crillion Tours, our travel company in Bolivia to find Eli sitting quietly at the doorwaiting for his ride - namely us.
The group had now dispersed and with only a meeting time and place we were again, left to our own devices to fend for ourselves. Vic escorted me to the market area he remembered, passing sights one would only expect in a third world country. An old man who had no eyes, or patches to cover them, staggared across the street following a strange escort. His clothes were shredded and rank, had no shoes or teeth and carried a tarnished metal cup and a cane. Speeding cars hurried us along with more white vans and more young boys dangling from the open windows chanting thier destinations. I was quite relieved that Vic knew his way around the town, as the roads turned and winded in cobblestone up and around tiny storefronts. Sidewalk vendors ruled the neighborhood here. We stopped and quickly bought some 'fancy' jewelry with silver earrings priced at $3 and my neclace at $8. I pulled out the grocery list of things to collect. We only had 3 hours before we
were all to meet back at the hotel. Correct change seemed to be a big concern as I repeatedly watched vendors drop their lunch bowls on the ground, and kick them under furniture, to run next door and break our bills. Why under the furniture, I don't know. Either food was in that shorter supply than the goods filling their stands, or people from stepping in food on the ground. I found the thought of what could be living in the tiny crevice on the ground waiting for the food to be much more disturbing an image.
The riddle of the brilliant colors was solved, passing a die vendor. She had a small covered wooden cart and twelve soup-cans full of fine powders in different shades. I saw a hanging balance un-tucked from the cart to measure for a sale. "Avas!" I exclaimed. A girlfriend I had back home was from Bolivia and insisted I try some Avas. I leaned down to the wrinkled, aged woman crouching behind her bags of grain. "Avas?" I asked. She asked for "cooking or toasted?" "Toasted, I think" They were one boliviano a kilo. I asked for four kilos and gave her a US dollar. She held the bill up to the light turned it and frowned. I reminded her that one dollar was FIVE bolivianos and it was good. She reluctantly rubbed the bill on her sleve and folded it for her pocket. "Do you have Qenoa? I asked. "no" she said. "Do you know where?" She pointed up the road and began to trow half the Spanish dictionary at me. I gathered enough to know we had to go this way toward the Plaza. "I know where" says Vic and we aimed uphill.
The witchdoctor burough was quite interesting. I saw bottles with oily preserved vegitation, good luck carvings, herbs and most importantly, the varying sizes of hanging dried llama embreos. There must be a big market for these, since they were everywhere. There were more dried llamas than foodstuffs. "We'd never get that through customs." I said as I caught Vic gawking, scratching his chin. We bought a few charms for luck and two little bottles I think were for good dreams - or to make you sleepy, I'm not sure.
I wanted a recording of music. So in between getting virtually mugged by the fossil pushers in shiney, eelskin shoes for twenty or more times, I bobbed in and out of perhaps ten shops all filled wall to wall with bamboo flutes, siku's and zamponas. Fortunately I had already purchased my token zampona back in the villiage from Don Jose de la Macha or I'd be in a serious quandry about what variety to buy. But alas, the letters C and D are still universal language for recoded music and I found my music to take home. Should I have been less elated about the find, I might have read the label under the dust in the shop to see that it was actually recorded in California.
Somehow cars were managing to squeek down the alley-sized roads, themselves full to the hilt of produce and bundles. I swear I saw a funny toy station wagon with ten huge county-fair pumpkin-sized fruits only green and flatter filling its cargo compartment. The vendors had very well learned to ignore the suicidal vehicles, but all the pedestrians would bunch closely together, bumping each other, stands and presumably into pick-pockets' hands. We kept our money stashed in belts inside our clothes just for this purpose. I saw a VW beetle and just like my kids, shouted "Bug-Slug" and popped Vic in the shoulder. "What?!" "You can't bug-slug in another country!" "Sure I can!" I exclaimed, being on the upper end of the bug-slug. So, naturally when he spotted another several minutes later he turned with fist raised only to find me a good 5 paces behind him intermingled with strangers. "Hey!" he shouted, pointing at the Volkswagon, shaking his fist in the air. I nodded, bowed my head, and caught up to him, bending my arm over for him to bump with his fist. You want to talk about some "Crazy American Tourist" looks we got from the locals. These were the best we'd recieved so far.
We spotted a food section that would qualify for the word plaza, so we pushed passed the small mob blocking entry. Now this was strange. A small courtyard of sorts surrounded by buildings like a widened alleyway was strung side to side with translucent orange and yellow awnings. A surreal light surrounded the women here selling nothing but fruit. The colors of the beautiful guavas, kiwi and tangerines reflected in the overhead awnings overpowered the even the sweet, sticky citrus smell. I noticed one Indian woman had two children with her in her spot. One was half tucked under her shirt while she arranged the nectarines and the other sleeping in a pint-sized cardboard box at her feet. Someone got wise to the overpowering smell of the citrus and set up a fish stand just outside the entry. This explained the mob we passed. Twenty plus folks were lined up for that venomous smelling day old trout he was cutting.
Still no qenoa, we aimed further uphill. The road opened up into a culdesac and pushcarts now littered the area making the road all but impassable. Vendors here seemed to have a different variety of goods than we'd seen before. No leather belts hung in the hundreds; no silver trinkets here. Now we were seing shoes and Aimara dresses hung from the windows. "It's Walmart! We'll find qenoa here." The only small detail about trying to buy here was that since this was not a tourist market, the vendors were much less friendly at selling you things, much less giving directions. One woman pointed us to the door of a church. I found the door to the church, boarded over with no vendors around it. I had, by now, questioned the real need to get the qenoa. But we had an ill friend in need and we WOULD get the qenoa. We wandered down the road, dodging cars until we spotted the produce aisle. Open wagons of foodstuffs lined both sides of the street here, on the far side of an abandoned church. The woman at the first stand was helping a customer, so I scanned her stacks and began to wander past. "Sweetie?" I heard looking back. Vic had the attention of the clerk, with no idea what to ask. "Qenoa." I said, waiting for the shaking head and finger pointing in a new direction. "Tres y media" was the reply. "What? she has some!" Before we knew it, she had dissappeared into the building behind her, where the real 'goods' were kept. "Two, please". I said before she got out of earshot. This must be some serious soup thickener to be kept hiding under lock and key, hidden in the back room. "Ouch. That's high." I said, realizing that we were paying more than fifteen times the price of the toasted avas per pound. "Ahhhhh" mission accomplished. Now, we could return stateside in pride and glory. "Great, but we're late." Says Vic. How, I don't know since our regular watch broke back in Mimai. "Do you remember the way back?" We both scanned the surroundings and the sky. "It can't be too hard it's in the middle of town". So we dashed across traffic to the nearest street heading down.
"Wait!" I shouted. "Now what?" He said, turning and jumping in off the street. Except he didn't finish the jump. Seems that an animal had already beaten him to this spot on the sidewalk and he hesitated stepping here. The car waiting to take his place on the road didn't hesitate. "OUummph!" I heard. Vic had been hit. "Are you ok?!" Vic frowned rubbing his hip and said, "Oh, I'm fine. He just bumped me. They do this to me every time... and I think they're keeping score!" "You're sure?" "Yeah, what did you find?" he said looking up.
Hats! Our atttention returned to the small table stacked high with traditional Bolivian bowlers in every shade. My sister collects hats and this would be the best prize. "How much?" I ask. "Thirty five Bolivianos." she said. Too tired to haggle and secure that any left-over Bolivianos would collect dust in America, I agreed and reached for my money. "I need a very big one." I said, noticing how tiny they all appeared. "It's very big!" She said, rolling the hat over on her fingertips and sliding it down over her brow like a vaudeville dancer. I realized that I didn't have thirty five in Bolivianos. "How many dollars?" I asked, still fishing. I had a five, no ones, some twenties, two Boliviano coins and some centavos. "Aiiyy, Aiiyy" she whined, waving across the street saying something about her sister. Soon a second lady was in on the debate as I began by turning over the five first. "OK, you need twelve more." "Twelve? Dollars? No." "Five Bolivianos is one dollar." I said. This we all agreed on and perhaps it had been repeated twelve times. So, we were now deeply trenched in a back and forth exchange rate negotiation when I noticed another bill in my pocket. Ten bolivianos. "Here." I said, passing it to the older hat selling sister. "Now twelve more." the other said. "No, No, No." I repeated calmly. "Thirty five Bolivianos minus ten is twenty five bolivianos." I said pointing to exhibit A in sisters' hand. "and five dollars is the other twenty five bolivianos." I continued, pointing to exhibit B. "That's thirty five." I said, closing my arguement. The two continued their slow nods after I stopped, staring at each other and continuing until the nods sped to an agreeable smile. "Yes." "Thank you!" I said. Vic and I turned and hurried downhill. "What was that all about?" he asked. Waiving the hat in the air, skipping along like an American leprecaun, I shouted "I got it! I won!"