Yearning for Bolivia; Yarning about La Paz

Yearning for Bolivia; Yarning about La Paz

Arriving into La Paz at 5am was unexpected after expecting a 9am arrival. Either we'd misunderstood (not unreasonable) or it's true what they say about Bolivian driving being manic. Both were possible. And with Molly's account, too afraid to sleep, of how we were ''flying'' through the mountains, probably a combination of the two.

The time meant we were unable to check in to Wildrover, the first of our stays in the Irish-run hostel trio. Our heavy desire to sleep was at least alleviated a little by the discovery of the powerful, hot showers available - the holy grail of hostel living.

Deeply cleansed and completely thawed, we retreated to the bar where breakfast was being served two hours later: a selection of fresh, warm bread rolls with jam and tea. If that wasn't touch of home enough, there was English news playing on TV screens, suspended on the dark oak walls.

Once we were all checked in, we set out to explore La Paz in the best way we know how: a free walking tour. Allison taught us a multitude of weird but wonderful facts about the place, beginning with the reasoning behind the backwards clock on the Bolivian Congress building in the Plaza Murillo.

The unconventionally oriented face and hands, we were told, is a symbol of the indigenous peoples' philosophy - viewing the past as in front of them, and the future as behind. They believed historically that they should always reflect to learn and create better prospects for their future with their awareness. You cannot see the future, and you cannot predict it, so you may as well focus your energy on harnessing its potential by understanding yourself and the world through your past. 

The Bolivian human spirit was further apparent by the ''casa rita'' market tradition. Searching for a juice drink, we headed to the area of market space catering for exactly that need (all places selling similar items are located together for your convenience). Once you've chosen your seller, as a mark of loyalty, you're locked into always buying your juice from that particular casa rita.

Presented with a choice of about ten women all selling juice - which as far as we could see without knowing their trade, were the same - and with a feeling that we would be disappointing nine other casa rita's whoever we chose, it made it difficult to do so. Fortunately Allison has her own casa rita, so we didn't have to.

The same is true for all trades men and women across any product - choose your seller and stick with it. Competition is fierce, hence the casa rita culture, but that makes for a strong relationship builder across their entire community. A really socially connected way to live, kind of like how I imagine England would've been back in the pre-supermarket days.. And I liked that a lot.

That same vein of community is strengthened by the human zebras patrolling the streets marshalling traffic. Dressed in the mascot suits are children from disadvantaged backgrounds, as part of a government inclusion scheme - the idea being that the role gives them a sense of purpose, and of accountability for their contribution. Their presence across the city is so fondly received by travellers and locals alike, creating fun out of something potentially mundane as traffic control. (And it's reassuring given their attitudes of redundancy towards the function of traffic lights).

Passing through the streets of La Paz to San Pedro prison, through yet another market and many more women in traditional dress, we learned about hat positioning: a visual communication of marital status. Which, if worn honestly (in the middle if married, or to either side if single or widowed) seemed like a reliable system rid of potential confusion or even embarrassment...

Allegedly though, the hats were initially worn as a fashion statement. They were sent over for wear by English workmen on the railways in the 1800s, but upon arrival found unwearable; they didn't fit. Someone got the measurements wrong. So instead of letting thousands of hats go to waste (just the thought of it tugs at my heartstrings), they adopted a tale of the 'latest must have' from overseas. Needless to say the rest is history - humans will be humans. 

At the infamous San Pedro prison, though visitors can no longer enter, there isn't much in the way of security. To accommodate family members living with the inmates, movement in and out is relatively liberal. For many prisoners residing there, the walls of San Pedro provide a greater premise of a life for them and their families than the outside ever could, so the incentive to reoffend is high. And the higher status you have in the prison, the better your ''cell'' - a mere snippet into the world of San Pedro, which Rusty Young's Marching Powder will shed much more light on for you.

Personally, my adoration for most cities lies in the details, but La Paz felt particularly intrinsic to the little quirks. Even the bare red-bricked houses towering the hills tell a story: left unfinished because rendered homes necessitate government payments, whereas ''incomplete'' ones, do not. A mish-mash appearance that makes the sometimes bland, typical city-landscape canvas of elsewhere, look a lot more interesting there.

While I was a huge fan of this Bolivian city for its community, the number of people involved in the process of purchasing a pen, was astounding. My trusty journal-jotter had run out of ink, so I headed out so rectify the issue in what I wrongly assumed would be a simple task.. You choose your pen from the first guy, pay a different guy, collect a receipt from another guy, before taking your receipt back to the original guy, to collect your pen (which you could only previously view through a glass cabinet) and complete the purchase. Now I'm not talking state of the art pens, I'm talking your standard biro. And I am all for job creation.. Maybe not so much in the pen-buying capacity though I realise.

The next day Death Road beckoned. Short on courage 4,900m up, coerced into the bike ride by myself and not convinced enough by Allison either, was an extremely anxious Molly. I come from a family where cycling is religion and I don't think they would've welcomed me home without its completion. So I didn't see that I had a choice. Molly however, was pulled along by that all too familiar ''what if'' feeling of regret pending. Which, I was all for, if it meant I wasn't going it solo.

We sat side by side in body perched on a rock, but absent in mind - the most telling sign being how quiet we were, a rarity for those of you who know the chatter that comes from the pair of us when we're together. Eating yet more bread and jam, we tried to embrace an aura of calm from the tranquil lake we overlooked in the moment while drinking camomile tea (or at least what we thought was camomile tea.. the word that looked most like camomile, wasn't).

Once we were on the road, and just when we were wondering why there was so much hype surrounding the ride at that point, for what seemed like ordinary road biking in the mountains, we veered off the road to much narrower, rockier terrain and stopped for a snack. There, we were told that that had been a little taster of what to expect on the real thing, and all the bikes were loaded back onto the minibuses so we could drive to the beginning of actual Death Road. We'd gone from innocently nervous, to arrogantly competent, to hyperventilation in the space of an hour.

Starting together, I felt the biggest weight of responsibility I have ever felt: Molly was only there because I was. That, and peering over the edge to see the sheer drop that was only a few feet between us and the slightest wrong turn meant it no longer felt ''all fun and games''.

Although very capable of riding a bike, Molly had never been subjected to as much cycling in childhood as I was, and this was.. different from your leisurely ride. Having been used to my Mama riding behind me when I was little, it was my turn to be at the back as the more ''experienced'' of the two us, whether I was ready for the responsibility or not. It was mine. 

A couple of hours into our descent, wrists sore from the constant bracing and bounding over rocks, the steepness of the decline was slowly levelling off and it was becoming easier to maintain control. Somewhere in our concentration though we'd become separated and as I reached the bottom I started to panic as everyone came through but Molly. It was probably only about 20 minutes, but under the circumstances, that felt like a lifetime.. Until she glided in with one of the instructors she'd befriended, chatting away without an ounce of nerves any longer traceable on her face.

Four hours later, we survived! (As do, you should know, hundreds of people everyday). It isn't so dangerous for bikes, more for cars because of it's narrow width.. Molly would still beg to differ though - one of those ''done it but never again'' things. An unsupported claim by the footage captured on her GoPro I would argue however.. Which because of the slow speed makes it look like the most twee bike ride with a ''nice'' backdrop ever. But nonetheless, massive hats off to her for completing it despite her fears (which she absolutely absorbed and deflected onto me) - I was very grateful for the company.

We ended with beers and food to celebrate our survival with - the incentive from the get-go, we'll be honest. And yes, we got the T-shirt. The hotel we had lunch in at the end had a pool so we laid by that to relax, although it was anything but relaxing... Apparently sand-flies love me. Ten minutes poolside with my only exposed skin being at the bottom of my leggings was enough time to acquire thirty bites, on each ankle. But the three Irish guys in our group made for a lot of laughs on the journey back to La Paz, so I was distracted from the incessant need to scratch.

Returning for dinner, riding on the claim that it was hard to choose to be healthy at our hostel for the lack of cooking facilities available, we weren't holding back in ordering four meals for the three of us to ''sample the menu'' (despite having plans to also stay at the other two sister Wildrover's, with identical menus). Our greed did lead to our gain though - a talking point with fellow guests descending on the bar, also beginning their Christmas themed night (a natural celebration to mark the halfway point to and from the 25th December), toasted with the native Bolivian New Year drink.

A final day to explore the witch market, buy some juice of our own accord from our very own casa rita before we left, and head up the renowned yellow cable car line. At the witch market we bought miniature Pachamama (Mother Nature) ornaments for each other because of our belief in their representation - which, as our Latin American story continues, you'll understand became a major source of stress for myself and Molly, right up until the literal End..

We hailed a bus (as you do in Bolivia - they're all minibuses jazzed-up inside) to the bottom of the yellow cable cars where we had a custard doughnut before going up - quickly becoming our view spot thing after Rio...

Then we were on our way to Lake Titicaca.

Yearning for Bolivia; Yarning about Salar de Uyuni

Yearning for Bolivia; Yarning about Salar de Uyuni