Saturday, December 20, 2008

Our Lady of Peace

With my Iphone church bells ringing our morning alarm, and after hitting the snooze button three or four times, we woke from our cushy beds in Jemmy and Tommy’s guest room in Nuestra Senora de La Paz (Our Lady of Peace).

When I made it to their guest shower, I was extra-super-duper pleased to find that the shower head hung about seven feet from the ground, and this morning I would be banging my head against neither the ceiling nor the spout, which is probably because Tommy, being a German of about six feet tall, had his own South American misadventures in the past.

Unfortunately, before I got out of the shower, Tommy had already left to attend to his piloting schedule that would take him all across South America over the next few days. With our plan being to leave La Paz for Cochabamba by Sunday morning, I won’t have had the chance to thank him for his hospitality and great conversation.

Arriving at the breakfast table, I found that it was not only set with the typical German compliments, such as bread, cheese, meat and an assortment of spreads, but also some tropical Bolivian favourites, as well, including papaya, honey dew melon, pineapple and a delicious fruit smoothie.

Virginia and I decided to use our day to visit the city and its very large and colourful market, which required us to use another taxi, which I was fearful of after yesterday’s experience with the defunct cab full of exhaust fumes that made me want to vomit all over my shoes.

As it turns out, this morning’s taxi was in far better shape, which is not to suggest great shape.

The street market was bustling with action. Everyone was under threat of being run down by cars and buses, as people darted in and out of traffic, off and on the skinny sidewalks. And of course, horns a blazin’ in the exhaust-filled air.

Automobiles rule here, and even if you’re in a marked crosswalk (not many of these around), or walking near the edge of the sidewalk, you better beware.

Indigenous Bolivian women covered in their colourful shawls, wearing sweaters and layered skirts (despite the afternoon sun) and bowler hats, were offering their wares, carrying giant sized packages on their backs, and some few, along with their children, begging for change. Many of the men were also carrying the large packs on their backs, bent far forward to manage the weight. The men, however, tended to wear plain clothing adopted from foreign markets.

Our first mission was to find a few choice items - a light sweater coat for V and a couple of day bags to help us fit in with the crowd. We’ve heard or read from a few sources that pickpockets and other thieves are alive and well around the market areas, and if there’s a way to make our camera, with its long lens, look inconspicuous, then it’s probably a good idea.

Along the way we stopped at a tour company and got the word on a good trip to the jungle. So far as today, we’re planning to take a boat tour along a jungle river in the Amazon, which reaches into Bolivia’s eastern low lands.

After that bit of research, we were back to the hunt for a day bag, but the morning produced no goods for us, so we decided to break for lunch, which was at a little restaurant specializing in small but delicious meat pastries called salteƱas. According to V, the recipes for these little treats are closely guarded family secrets and are handed down from generation to generation, and some restaurants serve nothing else, which are supposedly the best ones to go to.

After lunch we made our way to the Museo de Coca – a small, old building telling all about the misunderstood coca plant. Cocaine is what will come to mind for many, but the coca plant has been used by Bolivia’s indigenous peoples for at least a couple thousand years for a number of different reasons.

For example, upon arriving in La Paz, a city sitting about 4000 metres above sea level, I quickly became acquainted with coca tea. I become fatigued and dizzy after just a short walk, as breathing becomes difficult. It turns out that the coca leaf, if chewed or drank as a tea, works against these symptoms.

I had the espresso you see to the left in the Museo de Coca's upstairs cafe, and it included a shot of their special coca elixir.

The day was turning to night, and we had to make our way to a dinner appointment with two of V’s great aunts, Edith and Yola, and Edith’s daughter Ximena, her husband Louis and their daughter Fernanda.

Dinner was at Ximana’s apartment on the ninth floor overlooking the city, and most of the night was full of conversation in Spanish, which is to say I didn’t understand much of it, but did surprise myself the few times I was able to figure out the topic and follow along.

It was a very special meeting for me, as Edith is in her nineties and Yola just turned 88 two days ago, so there’s a chance I will not meet either of them again. Both were a pleasure to be with despite the language barrier.

My exhaust fuelled headache was not a pleasure, however, and I only found some relief after our return home, where I was able to down an aspirin.

I’m starting to feel La Paz is not the city for me, because I can’t get past the fumes from all the older vehicles here. The majority of taxi’s and buses, and there are many extra duper lots of them, seem to blow black smoke directly into my face.

Don’t get me wrong. La Paz is very intriguing city, with a romantic and rich culture to explore, but I’m a wimp from Vancouver who doesn’t function well without clean air. I’m hoping our next destination, Cochabamba, will be different.

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