After last night’s Peña, I feel fully engulfed in Bolivian culture…and very hungover. We danced and drank until dawn and made friends with a big group of friendly Bolivians, including a 26-year-old cop I talked to in Spanish for hours. He wants me to go on a doube-date with him and a couple women he knows on Tuesday night, which should be fun.
Dan Keane, the Associated Press reporter that I’m living with for the week (in a swank apartment overlooking Plaza Avaroa in the Sopacachi district of La Paz), led a group of seven of us (mostly American travelers) to Peña Ojo de Aqua, where we drank cervezas and pitchers of fruity, yummy Jungeños (named for a mandarin orange grown in the nearby Jungos) and learned various Bolivian cultural dances. It was like a rave with local folk music from different regions, complete with late night noching and Dan and I talking journalism and politics as the sky got light over the snow-covered Illimani, a 21,000-foot peak near 12,000-foot La Paz. Que fantastico, pero estoy cansado ahora.
La Paz is a city ringed by steep ridges, including seedy yet politically energized El Alto, where the airport is. When I arrived late Friday night, the cab driverr navigated steep switchback roads past mangy looking dogs and obviously very poor indigious Bolivians, talking to me in Spanish about the need to get past the recent political turmoil — with regular road blockades and strikes — and build a stronger economy. But the situation here is infinitely complicated. President Evo Morales remains popular, but he struggles with holding the country together as the wealthy districts like Santa Cruz threaten to essentially secede over the Morales government’s land reforms and new constitution, which the people will vote on in the coming months. I’ll have more to write later about the political situation here — for now, I’m just taking in the culture, including the important cultural icon that is Evo.
Tomorrow, Dan and I and maybe others from last night are going to the stadium for a big soccer game between Evo’s team (in the room where I write now, there’s a great photo of Morales in his soccer shorts, cleats, and trademark Alpaca sweater, soccer ball between his feet, taken by AP photographer Dada Galdia) and the team of legendary Argentinian soccer star Maradona. And next weekend, I’ll see Evo speak in Plaza Avaroa during a festival honoring Eduardo Avaroa’s doomed military stand against the Chileans, where Bolivia lost its access to the ocean during the War of the Pacific around 1880. Dan says it’s a great festival that includes a military procession bringing Avaroa’s remains from a nearby church to a place of honor in the plaza.
All the Bolivians I’ve met have been friendly, curious, and welcoming, with the exception of a young woman we passed on the street last night who told us, “Go home.” Dan says that’s very rare, and while Bolivians can be wary of outsiders (after all, most locals will never leave this isolated and poor country), they are warm and kind and truly good people. Most of the commerce here takes place in the cobbled steep streets, which are filled for miles with vendors selling everything from clothing and appliances to every imaginable kind of food and coca leaves (which I’ve been chewing regularly and rather enjoying). I strolled the streets and Plaza San Francisco (the main gathering spot for political demonstrations) for several hours yesterday with my gracious and knowledgable hosts Juliette Beck (a longtime Global Exchange activist from San Francisco) and her partner Nick Buxton (whose great blog Open Veins has a link from mine — check in out).
Today is a much needed day of down time after going strong since even before I left San Francisco on Tuesday and packing lots of fun and adventure into my Lima stay (including beach treks and an amazing tour of some Inca ruins in the center of Miraflores). But later this week I plan to visit the bullet-ridden Presidential Palace and Legislature in Plaza Pedro Murillo and some museums and to take one of the epid local mountain bike rides, probably he 4,000-foot drop from Chacaltaya to La Paz. And then next week I’ll take the bus to Cochabamba and spend up to a week there before continuing on to Lake Titicaca and back into Peru for a stay in Cuzco and trek up to Machu Pichu. Check back in a few days from another post.